I want to start this discussion with a question. When can children distinguish reality from fiction? A number of neuropsychologists suggested that perhaps they cannot until 9 years of age or later. I find this interesting as we forget students turn 9 in the FOURTH GRADE. And if a student has any kind of cognitive or developmental delay, they can be as old as 15-16 before crossing this cognitive milestone. Since I work in elementary, I feel it is extra important we understand this. We work with kids that may not know My Little Pony and Sesame Street are fake. They might think X-men and Wolverine exist. They might think Slenderman and Jeff the Killer are out there. They might think there IS a Minecraft world. And that is okay. It is developmentally appropriate. We need to help them understand that make-believe is super fun but isn’t real. That is our job. We need to help our children and students know what is true and what is make believe early on as they might not actually be able to discern the difference for themselves.
An Educational Aside
So, I was speaking with a parent of an autistic student and they suggested I write a post about the conversations I have with students because I do not shy away from difficult or uncomfortable topics. I thought about what she said a lot and I realized I am unique among a lot of teachers because I am willing to talk about things like puberty, sexual orientation, CreepyPasta, depression, or suicide with students so long as the situation and conversation are appropriate. And I do it with a nonplussed expression that gives the students a sense of calm, or at least a perception that I am in control and not surprised by their questions (this video shows two great police interrogators doing exactly this).
I feel this is an overlooked yet important role for a teacher. Anytime I see students starting down a tough path I want to intervene before they go so far they reject outside help. In hindsight, I worry how some situations would have turn out had I not taken the time to help the students get a grasp on their own thoughts and feelings.
This is part 2 of a 3 part series on crucial conversations. See the first part here for a description of my approach and rationale for taking on these conversations.
Slenderman, Creepypasta, and General Deviancy
I have already written a post on the CreepyPasta, but it bears repeating in the era of 13 Reasons Why. In the current digital age, it can be hard to distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy, especially for students that often gravitate towards fantasy as an escape from their tough life.
In this post, I am focusing on my experiences in dealing with these topics and remember that I’m in Utah. Sadly, most parents I speak with know nothing about CreepyPasta and are clueless that their child is obsessed with it. Parents also ardently deny their students have had access to YouTube and unsupervised internet time to access these images and stories. In every case except one, the parents were wrong and clueless.
In Utah, we have our own CreepyPasta that is not Slenderman or Jeff the Killer. A Utahan came up with a fiction concerning a caving experience. It was set up as an Angelfire website in 2001 (it is still up, click here), and more recently has been made into a horror movie. Utahans are really obsessed with these dark topics.
Also, Utahans love to be scared. At Halloween, Haunted Houses and cornfields abound and you cannot turn around without someone making a practical joke to scare everyone. It is just part of the culture here. We have international horror film festivals, literary conventions like the World Horror Convention, and just general spooky festivals. When it comes to dealing with the paranormal and seeking out information that provides a shock or a fright, Utahans are first in line to be there. Regardless their age.
One can be forgiven for seeing these CreepyPastas as innocuous ghost stories…
At least that was until in 2014 a report came up on the news. Two 12-year old girls had brutally stabbed their best friend 19 times in a forest in Wisconsin because they needed to prove themselves to Slenderman. The wanted to be proxies and believed if they did not kill their friends both they and their families would be murdered. They fled the scene to find Slenderman’s mansion, which they believed to be in the national forest nearby their city.
I am not going to discuss this case here, but I will refer you to a HBO documentary called Beware the Slenderman. It discusses the medical, mental health, and competency issues regarding 12-year-olds attempting murder to appease a believed but nonexistent entity.
Another discussion in that documentary was how prevalent and viral internet folk stories like CreepyPasta are. They pass down like campground stories and thus take on a life of their own. Also, since they are unverifiable but usually contain references to lost materials that prove the story to be true, they are particularly difficult to disprove. So children that do not understand these literary devices are particularly susceptible to belief.
Another Slenderman story. Another Jeff the Killer Story. Another sighting. Fear. Misunderstanding. Five Nights at Freddy’s. Proxies…
This has been a fairly common thing I hear walking down the hallways at school. First graders talk about Five Nights at Freddy’s and Slenderman as if they are real. They look for Enderman and Herobrine in dark places. They believe in these things because to them it is not nonsense. It is on YouTube and that is enough evidence for them.
I even had a second grader tell me they follow Marble Hornets on YouTube. They also follow the websites that depict Jeff the Killer and Slenderman in a relationship because it is cute and scary. They love the CreepyPasta tags on DeviantArt. They fancy themselves a true believer. They want to be a proxy etc.
We all like to be scared, but to some, it can become an obsession. I had a student last year notify me that the teacher’s prep areas in the school were where Slenderman lived. That was because they were always dark and children were not allowed there. They also said one time they heard a student got a nosebleed when they walked by the room and that was a sign of Slendy. This student they heard about then went home and never came back. Slenderman took them away. I asked the student if they honestly believed in Slenderman and they looked at me like I was crazy. Why would I ask if they believed in something that was real?
The student and I wandered over into the school psychologist office to have a chat. I wanted backup for this one. This was a student from a great home. That also meant this student had a computer in their room. And it was used, often late at night, by the student to scare themself. I thought this was interesting and asked if they would show me. I turned my phone off WiFi and on to LTE as CreepyPasta stories tend to be on sites that are blocked by school web filters. The student went to CreepyPasta and started showing me the stories. Now, I have to admit I was impressed with this student’s ability to read these posts as they are definitely higher than second-grade reading level, but some of them are truly poorly written (particularly the so-called CrappyPasta). Following the breadcrumbs in these stories can be tough. They are trite. They are clichéd. The student pointed out how Jeff the Killer and all the other CreepyPasta were actually proxy for Slenderman and he was the most powerful force on earth.
We talked for a bit and the student expressed their desire to be a proxy for Slenderman and this is where I had to mentally regroup for a tougher conversation. I say this because the two girls that tried to murder their friend were also trying to be proxies for Slenderman. Saying you are a proxy for Slenderman is another step entirely. It suggests either a huge misconception of the world or else some predisposition for malice or violence (I recommend the HBO documentary, Beware the Slenderman to anyone who wants to better understand this point).
Usually, I am all for talking to kids and letting them come to their own conclusions. Not so much with these idiotic folk tales of Slenderman and other CreepyPasta. They are very viral and very prominent if one looks at Reddit and Tumblr (two sites this student frequents). As such, they can be incredibly powerful and credible to autistic and nonautistic kids alike. To help this student decipher between reality and fiction, I went to the CreepyPasta and SomethingAwful pages for Slenderman that specifically point out that Slenderman is fake and give the history of the hoax. Slenderman was made up in 2009 on the SomethingAwful forum as part of a Photoshop contest. I simply opened the page and let the student read so they could see for themselves on the same website they believed. Didn’t work. I was notified that this was Slendy manipulating websites because he has that power and he can turn off video cameras so he cannot be seen.
We chatted more. I had the student explain everything they knew about Slenderman and the other CreepyPasta characters as well as Minecraft’s Herobrine and Enderman as the student asserted they were all related. The entire time this student was explaining in sometimes graphic detail, I was trying to keep my mind from reeling. It is always hard for me when autistic students are living in entirely different realities than the rest of us. I feel this way because I cannot predict a student’s behaviors if they are in their own fantasy world. What I consider random and out-of-place behavior may be perfectly in context within their own belief system.
Despite an hour or so worth of conversation, the school psychologist and I were unable to make a dent in the student’s armor of stalwart belief in Slenderman. The psychologist and I had to develop a plan. The psychologist went home and watched as many of the Marble Hornets videos as they could. They also went and did a thorough internet search to see if they could find any stories about the people behind Marble Hornets. She did find one here. We met with the student again later that week, as we had scheduled some counseling sessions with them.
As a group, we read the article and talked about it. I specifically asked the student why someone who was making videos about Slenderman (or The Operator in the case of Marble Hornets) would say it was fake and they were just trying to scare kids? The student was not able to answer. I felt bad as I could see their gears grinding trying to figure out what was going on. So we went back and read the SomethingAwful and CreepyPasta forum posts that described that Slenderman was fake. We then went to Wikipedia and a few YouTube videos that showed how the special effects in Marble Hornets were done. Particularly interviews with the creators of Marble Hornets to show the now “dead” people were in fact alive.
The student started crying. I asked why and the student said they did not want Slenderman to be dead, Slendy was their best friend. So I asked why Slenderman had to go away just because he was make-believe? People can have fun being scared about things they know aren’t real. The student was confused as they thought they could only be scared and enjoy being scared if they believed something was real.
I explained how we know Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees are fake, but billion dollar movie franchises exist because people want to be scared. And that is okay. Interestingly and unsurprisingly this student knew who all 3 of these characters were and had watched the movies. We seek out intense emotions. We willingly immerse ourselves in movies and stories while allowing ourselves to be temporarily terrified by them. There are a lot of people obsessed with being scared, haunted houses, creepy things, and celebrate being scared. And that is okay.
The student asked if it would be okay if they still read Slenderman stories and watched the YouTube videos. I said that was up to the student and their parents. I was only concerned that they knew what was real and what was fake. Now that the student showed they could understand the difference with regards to Slenderman I was cool with them scaring themselves.
I then called the parents and we had an hour or so long debrief of this conversation and set up some guidelines for internet usage in the home. I told them what to Google to learn how to set up internet filters and how to lock the computer at specified times of the day so the child could only engage with this alternate reality with a parent there to provide much-needed context.
This is a similar example, but it ran a much more dangerous trajectory before I could get involved. Then it fizzled into nothing as soon as I intervened.
This one started as a suicide scare (covered in the next post). Seems a logical place to start given the subject matter. In this case, it was while I was investigating and interviewing students that I learned of the CreepyPasta connection.
For the sake of you, the reader’s, sanity, I will describe this in a logical order rather than the order in which I found out the information. What had occurred was that two of my students had started a conversation about Slenderman when they walked by my classroom and it was dark because the class was at recess. These two students stopped in the hallway and said that they were scared because they just saw Slenderman through the door in the classroom. When the other student ran back to look they were notified that Slendy had moved because he is not supposed to be seen. But they saw him all the time because they were connected somehow.
Now the two students that started all of this knew that Slenderman and the other CreepyPasta were fake. They were seeking attention and trying to be the cool kids among their group. And oh, it worked. At least for a while-until one of my more creative students became a believer. It was then that all hell broke loose.
These two students spread the knowledge of Slenderman, Jeff the Killer, Five Nights at Freddy’s (even though they thought Freddy was Krueger, not Fazbear), Johnny the Killer Clown, Dr. Murder and other not-at-all-appropriate-for-school topics. All my other students, especially two in particular, were paying close attention. These two that were hanging on every word became believers. They were particularly attracted to Slenderman because he protected kids (kidnapping them from evil parents was their interpretation).
Now it was these newly initiated students’ turn to take over. One of them took to the internet to do some research. Eighty pages into a Google search he found what he wanted to know. He watched every video and looked at every picture regarding Slenderman on the internet. He drank it all in and memorized the stories. He thought Slenderman was benevolent and protected kids. Slendy had a lot of good aspects, he just got bad press. When I eventually talked with this student about Slenderman, he accepted the raw data that Slenderman was fake when shown. He argued with me, but could not argue with data. He then started reading the stories with his dad and started working on his own Slenderman story to submit to the CreepyPasta website-telling me he was going to be famous because his story was going to be so scary someone would literally die of fright.
The other student did not have access to the internet unless his mother was hanging over his shoulder. He did not have anything but books and drawing materials available to him if the family was not present. But he had his imagination…
This is what he first told me:
He took what he learned from his peers and devised his own stories. He had a different view of Slenderman. He saw Slender (or Slendy, Skinny, Thin, Slim, etc. as he called him to avoid the paraeducators’ rancor) as an embodiment of his own frustrations and negative emotions with life. Slender haunted people who deserved it and killed them brutally. He kidnapped kids to eat them or tack them to trees for coyotes to eat. No one was safe.
This student legitimately did start seeing Slenderman in his dreams. Slender was going on killing rampages in his dreams but sparing him. Not because he was a proxy or anything special, but because, as he put it, “I am so fucked up in my mind and useless that Slenderman refuses to kill me. Leaving me alive is my punishment”.
This student started sharing these stories and revelations with his peers. Needless to say, they freaked. The stories say if you dream of Slenderman he is stalking you. He stalks until you give up and die. But my student was not showing the normal psychological damage of Slenderman stalking him. His peers started fearing him.
He told the friends where Slenderman was in the school. He told them who was next.
Everyone believed him. My paraeducators expressly forbade the use of any names for Slenderman or any other CreepyPasta in class (I would never have agreed to this but the paraeducators did it while I was at a training and the students told me about it later). This student escalated his stories and sightings. He dreamt more about Slenderman. He had more stories to tell. The killings became more gruesome. He started drawing Slenderman pictures and making Slendy out of construction paper and leaving them around the class. And so on.
Then he started talking about suicide. He started encouraging others to join in.
It was only at this point that I was finally notified of the topics students were talking about when I was away. The paraeducators were, unfortunately, engaging in poor behavior management and it wasn’t until suicide was brought up by a student that the rest of the issues were brought to my attention. Because the paraeducators were trying to squash these conversations, students were careful to not let me hear anything inappropriate. Students respected me as a teacher and valued my good opinion of them. They never wanted to disappoint me.
When I was away or not within hearing range, all students in the class started using words like: “Dr. Murder”, “Johnny (as in the Killer Clown)”, “Jeff the Killer”, and “Slender” just loud enough for the paraeducators hear but no one else. The paraeducators then proceeded to yell at the students and punish them. This gets into an aside about proper behavior management in these situations.
I saw this behavior and interpreted the entire situation as students trying to get the goat of the paraeducators. I required the paraeducators to completely ignore any of the above vocabulary and just interact with the students to change the topic of conversation to something more appropriate (i.e., zombies or Minecraft) ). I felt that the students were taking advantage of the situation to get attention. I was right. I started this post talking about the importance of being unreactive and nonplussed, which is the solution to the current example. The students were having fun getting the paraeducators mad by using the CreepyPasta vocabulary.
A week after unbanning the words the use of these words virtually went away. The paraeduators were furious I was not punishing these students for their word choice, but I was looking at a different set of data than they were. I was watching the students get rewarded for being naughty. Punishment is often an inadvertent reward. Definitely getting punished makes you cool among your peers. Especially in 3rd through 5th grades. Much like this post, seeking things that are scary, it is sometimes enjoyable to make adults mad.
As for the student who took the stories of Slenderman too far and talked about suicide, when I sat him down in private, he changed his story entirely. He was only talking about suicide to be cool. He was attention seeking. His social status and belonging was dependent on Slenderman stories. Then the student became mortified I would tell his friends he was making up the Slenderman stories. When I promised I wouldn’t tell his friends, his story changed again.
He did believe in Slenderman and was having graphic dreams about Slenderman, but that was no change for him. He always had nasty nightmares and Slenderman was just replacing Enderman (this student also was obsessed with Minecraft despite never having seen even a YouTube video of it-he just listened to peers and learned). He had always drawn gruesome art and focused on violence and blood as a form of expression and attention seeking. He drew TNT, guns, axes, knives, and violent death to get a rise out of the paraeducators (note, he was telling me all of this). For Slenderman, he saw that the two friends that originally were sharing the stories were making friends with their stories and he wanted friends. He wanted to belong.
I made him tell me everything he knew about Slenderman. He told me Slenderman was basically good and took kids but did not hurt them. He hurt other people. I pushed for more information and there was none. I asked where this student learned about Slenderman and it was entirely from listening to peers. I called this student’s parents and asked about internet usage. They checked all their machines and tablets and there were ZERO searches or even accidental access to Slenderman or any other inappropriate content. The most inappropriate thing he was doing was watching The Amazing World of Gumball and Spongebob. His parents were smart and had a weekly rotation of changing computer and iPad passwords to prevent any of their kids from breaking in. They felt internet security was important as this student of mine would inevitably get into really bad things if left to his own devices on the internet.
What was happening was this student was taking sparse information from friends and using his imagination to one-up them. He was being the better storyteller. He took a folk tale and added his own special sauce. And his special sauce was spicy indeed!
Overall, this student, so far as I could tell, never truly stopped believing that there was some abstract being like Slenderman. He created his own delusion in that one. But, he was able to go to CreepyPasta with his mother and see that the stories are written by adolescents and young adults to scare themselves and others. And they are just stories. As a redirection this mother started buying some novelization of Minecraft for this student and giving him access to the creative mode of Minecraft with an agreement that good behavior would earn access to the modes his peers were using.
What saddens me in this whole thing is that this whole situation could have been nipped in the bud if we had just intervened within the first week or so of the CreepyPasta nonsense starting. I could have met with the adults to explain how to do a planned ignore and covert redirection of inappropriate conversation topics. I could have intervened with the two students that became believers by giving them knowledge up front. I could have guided them. Instead I had to pull them out of a delusional reality and back into actual reality. I hate doing this because I want kids to be able to imagine and play. Just safely.
I will discuss the suicidal ideation in the next post as it was entirely unrelated to Slenderman.
From an earlier post of mine on autism and social interaction in the digital age:
Another example is in conversations my kids have with each other and with the general education kids. Often times, kids talk about scary things because it is fun. They want to feel scared, but they can take solace in the fact that they know it is fake. Heck, they may have even been the one to write the scary story they are talking about. Now, for this, Slenderman is a good example. LOTS of general education kids spend their time-sharing scary stories about Slenderman: where they saw him, how they heard about a friend of a friend of a friend that disappeared in the woods and “Slendy” was responsible.
My students want to have friends, especially friends that are cool kids. So, as all kids do, they join in these games and conversations. And, like all kids, they try to outdo the scary story from their peers. They take it to far. They escalate too fast. As a result, they lose their friends because these kids with autism are viewed as creepy or troubled because their story was too dark. But, it is not because these kids are dark or troubled at all, they just took the game one step further than their peers were comfortable with. Worse, unlike other kids, they are not offered forgiveness for their mistake, but rather get offered ostracism; or worse, compared to Adam Lanza.
My final example is follows directly from the previous example. Sometimes children with autism do not have as rigid a distinction between reality and fantasy worlds. I do not mean this in a bad way, I just mean it as a reality. They also may have a more predominant fear response than their peers and a general inability to read insincerity in others (link 1, link 2). So when their peers start talking about Jeff the Killer or Slenderman (the most popular/common among the various CreepyPasta out there), they become afraid and seek out knowledge to understand. They go to YouTube (Slenderman example videos here). They do Google searches that extend 80-90 pages deep into the search results. Unfortunately, these videos often claim that their fiction is 100% veridical experience, often as “recovered footage from a missing journalist”. And if one does not understand that it is easy to fake YouTube videos, it is easy to be fooled. Then, they become obsessed like a child afraid of a monster in their closet or under their bed. They lose the plot. They have no context. And, as above, we do not counsel them, provide context, explain how/why it is a fiction; but rather we ostracize them, call them troubled, and refuse to provide needed help.
Imagination is a critical and important part of child development. Having an imagination can be psychologically very positive and normal. Believing in fantasies can be a good thing. And it is important to note that children with neurodevelopmental disorders may have significantly altered imaginations, heightened imaginary worlds, or they may see everything as reality. This post is not about what is right or wrong about imagination, fantasy, morality, etc. This post hopefully shows you why it is so important that children feel safe enough to honestly talk with you, even if it is about something scary like Slenderman and CreepyPasta. Just by listening, you can help.