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Slender Man's Seductive Power for Kids: It's in the Brain

The bogeyman will always play a pivotal role in the normal development of children and adolescents. Neurobiology helps explain it.
A rendering of "Slender Man" by artist Nick Tyrell
A rendering of "Slender Man" by artist Nick TyrellNick Tyrell

The stabbing of a 12-year-old girl in Milwaukee was horrific. But in looking for an explanation for the attempted murder by two other adolescent girls, there have been attempts to vilify Internet memes such as “Slender Man” as putative causes for this kind, or any kind, of violence.

We have to remember that the boogeyman will always play a pivotal role in the normal development of children and adolescents — and neurobiology can help us understand why.

He’s present in the myth of the Golem and the French folk tale “Bluebeard.” Many of the novels of Neil Gaiman ("The Graveyard Book," "Coraline") or Stephen King’s horror tales such as "It" are aimed squarely at either 11-year-olds who feel vulnerable to the dark and terrifying supernatural, or those of us who remember what it was like to be 11. Re-read Ray Bradbury’s “The Halloween Tree.” You’ll remember the fun of a good scare.

The preadolescent’s love for the macabre is tied to a higher-order contemplation of what it means to be frightened in the first place. Those of us who enjoy scary stories and scary movies don’t just enjoy being scared. We enjoy asking ourselves why we’re scared.

In neurobiological terms, this is called a meta-cognition. This means that we experience something, and then we ask ourselves what we think about what we experience.

The attempts to place blame for the attack on the shoulders of phenomena like Slender Man unduly implicates fictional entities for horrific acts. Humans, including 12 year-old kids, are much more complicated than that.

In fact, the characteristics of this particular boogeyman, a faceless character with long, spidery limbs who is able to hypnotize children, are even a tad clichéd. But that’s part of the appeal of the horror genre — the spine-tingling predictability of a good scary story.

Let me tell you about “Thump-Drag.”

Thump-Drag lived in the mythology of my summer camp when I was 11 years old. Campers were told from the first day we arrived to fear a human-like creature that lived in the woods surrounding our cabins. The creature’s name, “Thump-Drag” came from a gross, yet poorly defined abnormality in either his right or his left leg. Because of his bum appendage, he had a distinctive walk that allowed for a predictably rhythmic footfall.

THUMP! Draaaag...THUMP! Draaag.

These two sounds, his healthy foot planting forward and then the deadened limb being dragged along behind him, were of course easily imitated by excited counselors and not a few campers. We would always know, they told us, that Thump-Drag was approaching even before we heard his growls. We would hear his walk.

Oh yeah. Thump-Drag also loved to eat campers.

The real mysteries of life, girls and politics and why our nation seemed always to be at war, these mysteries were just barely present in my pre-adolescent psyche. But I definitely devoted a lot of mental energy to Thump-Drag. However, I did not for one second think that he was real.

Here’s the thing: When I remember these stories, I smile. Why did I enjoy this feeling then, and why do I enjoy it now?

It just so happens that the pre-adolescent brain starts to engage in this kind of meta-cognitive inquiry around ages 10 to 12. That makes sense, if you think about it. When you have your first crush, it behooves you to know not just that you find yourself smitten, but to ask yourself why you are smitten. That kind of self-awareness is essential to negotiating the murky waters of emerging adulthood.

The stakes are pretty low when you ask yourself why you love a movie like “Salem’s Lot.” But the stakes are pretty high when you ask yourself why you love another human being. Some of us, maybe even lots of us, practice these meta-cognitive skills in genres that are soundly separate from real world mysteries.

This brings us back to the bogeyman.

There is, of course, no Slender Man. There was never a Thump-Drag. But the adolescent brain loves to think about why it thinks anything powerfully. In other words, the adolescent brain loves to think about what it feels. The teen brain is essentially an animated and interactive gathering of the gods on Mount Olympus. Jealousy battles power.

It could be the theme of a good horror story.