If you were like most kids, you would have looked in the mirror and said "Bloody Mary" five times — or at least been too scared to try it.
Urban legends like these — boogeymen, monsters under the bed, and other things that go bump in the night — have terrified children for centuries, passed down from one generation to the next.
As we grew up, we realized that none of these things were true. But the imagination of a child is a powerful thing, so much so that the lines between fact and fiction are easily blurred.
That might be the simplest way to explain the disturbing story out of Wisconsin last week, where two 12-year-old girls were charged with first-degree attempted murder after stabbing a classmate 19 times, and leaving her for dead in the forest. Fortunately, the victim was found by a passing cyclist and is recovering well.
The two girls charged will likely be tried as adults, and are both facing up to 65 years in prison. Two preteens, potentially being put away for life, is a curious story on its own. But the motive behind the attack was what made it completely surreal and unsettling.
The girls told police that they believed murdering their friend would impress the "Slender Man" — a fictional character that they believed to be real, having read about him on Creepypasta, a website dedicated to paranormal myths, populated by user-generated content.
Who is Slender Man? As the legend goes, he is a being that preys on children, normally found in wooded areas close to suburbia. He appears in a black business suit, with limbs of inhuman length and no discernable face. He has tentacles protruding from his back, too.
The two attackers planned to kill their friend to become "proxies" of Slender Man, and live with him at a mansion in the woods. The girls believed Slender Man's home was located somewhere in the nearby Nicolet National Forest. They had packed a bag of belongings and were walking to meet him when police picked them up.
Slender Man, of course, is not real, but the girls were convinced otherwise, telling police they thought he was the "leader" of Creepypasta. One of the suspects also told investigators that she had never seen the mysterious figure herself, but that he could read her mind and teleport, and would kill their families if they didn't go through with the attack on their friend.
What makes Slender Man different from your average boogeyman comes in his origin. Unlike the urban legends we all grew up with, Slender Man is a fairly new creation.
His first appearance came in 2009, the result of a Photoshop contest on the forums of the website Something Awful. Slender Man's creator, Eric Knudsen, depicted his character near groups of children, lurking in the shadows of old pictures.
From there, the legend took off. Other users began filling out Slender Man's backstory, spawning all kinds of fan fiction and art, much of which ended up on Creepypasta, where the attackers found the made-up tales and accepted them as fact.
And these two girls don't seem to be alone in their dedication to this growing legend. A week later, a Cincinnati mother said she was attacked by her knife-wielding 13-year-old daughter, who waited for the mother in the kitchen wearing a hood and mask, and supposedly held the same obsessions with the faceless, fictitious entity.
Digging a little deeper, people's curiousity with Slender Man has exploded in the five short years since he first showed up on the web. There is a very well-executed web series, Marble Hornets, based around the legend that has been adapted into a feature film, slated for release later this year.
The obvious takeaway from this whole story is: Don't believe everything you read online. But even though today's youth are more computer-literate than your average grown-up, adolescents have impressionable minds, and Slender Man has been romanticized on the Internet in such a way that any gullible preteen could struggle to know what's real.
And even for adults, fantasy and reality blending in one's mind can lead to perhaps the most powerful mindset of all — fear. If the girls charged truly believed they were saving their own families with the attack, stupid or not, they acted out of fear.
The reason the girls are being tried as adults, according to prosecutors, is because the attack was premeditated; planned on the school bus over several weeks. But if any adult told police they stabbed a person to impress a fictional creature, would they be considered of sound enough mind to stand trial?
Having been duped by an online hoax does not absolve one from the guilt of an attempted murder, even for children. But to suggest the two girls in custody should tried as adults is as realistic as, well, Slender Man.