Kathleen Hale’s Slenderman: Online Obsession, Mental Illness, and the Violent Crimes of Two Midwestern Girls (Grove Atlantic, 2022) is a balanced, well-researched, and thoughtful account of an extremely sensational case and its even more sensational aftermath. What became known as the “Slenderman Stabbings” started with two pre-teen girls and an internet obsession with the horror website Creepypasta and the fictional character that was created there: Slenderman. Morgan Geyser became convinced that if they did not give Slenderman a blood sacrifice, he would kill everyone she loved. What was (shockingly) not recognized at the time was that Morgan was suffering from early-onset childhood schizophrenia. Her relationship with Anissa Weir, who was also suffering some serious emotional upsets, became a perfect storm: Anissa, who was extremely impressionistic, desperately wanted to please Morgan after Morgan told her about the blood sacrifice, even though her fear and panic about following through increased as they got closer and closer to the day. Morgan decided that in order to please Slenderman, they would have to kill someone who Morgan loved. Morgan decided that would be her childhood best friend, Payton “Bella” Leutner. Morgan and Anissa plan to kill Payton, but instead Morgan stabbed her nineteen times, and the two girls left her, alive, to bleed out in the forest. Immediately afterwards, Anissa and Morgan tried to make their way to Slenderman’s “mansion”. Luckily, Payton was discovered by a passerby and survived her injuries after a long stay in the hospital.
In my experience, many true crime books that cover cases that have been explicitly and garishly sensationalized by the media end up contributing further to this infamy. Hale’s text not only avoids this but gives her reader the knowledge that the media avoided because it didn’t fit into a click-bait headline. I not only learned a ton about this case that I didn’t know (even after watching HBO’s recent documentary on the case), but I learned so much about Wisconsin state law, schizophrenia, and the mental health care system in the United States. Hale very carefully depicts how the systems of law and healthcare in many ways work against each other to the great detriment of people who are found not guilty by reasons of insanity (NGRI). She also debunks many misconceptions of being found NGRI: many consider it a “get out of jail free card” when in fact, the sentencing in mental health facilities is usually longer for the offender than it would be if they were found guilty and sent to a prison. I was fascinated by the parts of Hale’s book that discussed these issues and it really sharpened my sense of the case.
Another thing this book does really well is tell the stories of all three girls. Hale extensively discusses Morgan’s mental health, her family, and her terrible mistreatment in both the mental health and justice system; the parts of the book that discussed the debate of whether or not Morgan should have been tried as an adult were enraging as a reader: Morgan was twelve years old when she committed the act. Not only is your brain not done developing at that age (the book does a great job of explaining the science on this), but Morgan was deep in psychosis at the time of the crime and pretty much divorced from reality. The book makes an important argument for why offenders like Morgan should not be tried as adults, and what the far-reaching consequences are when the justice system decides that they will be. This is crucial reading and explicitly explains how horribly Wisconsin state law fails those with serious mental health issues. The book also goes through Anissa’s traumatic path through the justice system, her mental health struggles, and follows Payton through her recuperation. Hale does well by all three girls: she does not shy away from their struggles and tries to get at the heart of each girls’ issues and way forward. These parts of the book are sensitive and thoughtful.
For its detailed research, its careful storytelling, and its powerful arguments, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in this case.
Please add Slenderman to your Goodreads shelf.
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A copy of Slenderman was provided to True Crime Index by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime has been published in Crime Fiction Studies.