“The only reason that Slenderman stuck in Morgan’s head was because she’d seen him before. One of Morgan’s more terrifying hallucinations appeared to her in the mirror when she was about five; whenever Morgan looked at her reflection, she saw this thing standing behind her — a tall, lanky, shadow shaped like a man. The figure in the mirror eventually went away. But Morgan never forgot it, and she dreaded the prospect of it ever returning.”
It was a sensational 2014 story with a Waukesha, Wis., dateline. Two 12-year-old girls — Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier — tried to kill their friend, abandoning her while she was bleeding from 19 stab wounds.
Their victim, Payton Isabella Leutner, with whom they’d had a sleepover the night before, managed to crawl out of the woods and was rushed to the hospital.
After the attack, Morgan and Anissa ran toward the woods where they thought they would be welcomed to the mansion of Slenderman, a tall, faceless internet monster with tentacles growing out of his back. The mentally disturbed girls thought he would only accept them if their victim was someone Morgan loved. And Morgan had loved Payton, known as Bella, since they were children.
Morgan and Anissa were caught and charged as adults. It would take seven years for their cases to be adjudicated, and much of that time they were locked up, either in the county jail or the Winnebago Mental Health Institute, 70 miles north of Waukesha. Morgan was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia that had caused her to have hallucinations since she was a toddler. But it took until December 2015 for her to be given antipsychotics.
The girls’ lawyers tried every avenue to get them remanded to juvenile court, but the judge kept refusing the request.
Kathleen Hale heard about this horrifying story the way everyone did — via the media. She was living in California with her husband and two small children, but she’d grown up in two small towns 20 minutes north of Milwaukee and knew the area well.
“The story was all over the news,” Hale recalled in a phone interview from her Los Angeles home. “But nobody was asking or answering the obvious question I had — why were 12-year-olds being tried as adults? ”
Hale has answered her own question in her new book, “Slenderman: Online Obsession, Mental Illness, and the Violent Crime of two Midwestern Girls” (Grove Press, $27). This first in-depth investigation into the tangled lives of Morgan, Anissa and Bella earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
Hale’s research reveals that Morgan’s father, her primary caregiver, also had schizophrenia. By the time Morgan attacked her friend, she had been losing touch with reality for years but the adults in her life ignored her behavior. Her partner, Anissa, had difficulties processing information.
Hale began her research when her daughter was 4 months old, moving to Milwaukee for three months. “Being a new mom impacted my relationship to the story,” she said.
Wisconsinites, she points out, are wary of outsiders and she was asking questions in one of the most conservative sections of the state. Almost no one involved in the case would talk to her; not the police, the judge, the parents of Anissa and Bella, the girls’ teachers, or administrators at the county jail and Winnebago.
So Hale had to piece together this twisty story using court documents, police interviews, television interviews, social media postings, and public statements made by the girls’ friends, family and teachers. She also attended court hearings.
Only Morgan and her parents let Hale into their lives; she had many conversations with Morgan.
“I never expected to meet Morgan and hear her story from her,” Hale said. “I was horrified to hear what had happened to these girls, horrified that a 12-year-old child with severe mental illness was taken from her family and denied medication.”
Hale traces the girls’ lives from the night before the stabbing, when they celebrated Morgan’s 12th birthday, through years of expensive litigation. She uses dialogue, flashbacks, explanations of the lawyers’ complicated filings, and the girls’ thoughts based on her research and interviews with Morgan.
Diving deeply into her subject, the author provides heartbreaking little details, such as Bella bringing her American Girl doll to the party, never dreaming her friends would turn on her. Describing the way some Wisconsin residents look in their long, padded winter coats, she likens them to cocoons.
Hale discovered that some people wanted to go beyond trying the girls as adults. They wanted them to get the death penalty.
“When I looked at Morgan, I saw a child,” she writes. “I didn’t realize how controversial that angle on the story would be: that both Morgan and her co-conspirator (Anissa) were children at the time of their crime. The United States sometimes adjudicates children as adults so casually that people have become desensitized to that kind of abuse, and I quickly discovered that my lens into the story was not only unique but potentially divisive. In Wisconsin children as young as 10 can be prosecuted in adult court, and nobody is interested in changing these laws. I was blown away by that.”
Morgan had been best friends most of her life with Bella, who acted as Morgan’s caretaker, keeping her from acting on impulses such as turning on the school fire alarm. But when Anissa arrived and got close to Morgan, they fed on one another’s fantasies and delusions.
It was Anissa who introduced Morgan to Creepypasta, an internet site for paranormal stories and horror writing where they discovered Slenderman.
Bella didn’t like the dark website and pulled away from Morgan when her friend began to send emails about and pictures of the imaginary creature.
Anissa told police Slenderman was “a work of fiction.” She didn’t tell them that in her heart she believed he existed. Morgan was so out of touch with reality by this time she told the officers that stabbing Bella “didn’t feel like anything.”
Hale sees Slenderman as only the entry point to the girls’ crime.
“The one thing I could never get to the bottom of was whose idea it was to pick Bella,” Hale said. “It was one of the only things the girls disagreed over. Each blamed the other. The girls had decided the person they sacrificed had to be someone Morgan loved. It was heartbreaking that Morgan did not do this because she was mad at Bella, or that Bella was an easy target. She did it because she loved Bella so much. The only thing she came to believe was that an enormous personal sacrifice was the only thing that would save her and her family from Slenderman.”
Hale also believes that the emphasis on Slenderman in the media has little to do with what happened.
“In a very bad way it has taken the focus off the true mental health issues here that need to be seen and talked about if we are ever going to move away from where we are now,” she writes. “The idea that Slenderman caused Morgan’s crime implies that she was obsessed — it demonizes mental illness, something America has been doing for centuries dating back to the witch burnings.”
Hale points out that Morgan was lonely, confused and depressed. But if Slenderman hadn’t been in her head, “the girls would have dreamed up some different explanation for the creeping sense of horror they both felt, like cases in other child violence — detective shows, TV shows, video games,” she says. “But I don’t think this could have happened without the two of them coming together. Each on their own would not have done something like this.”
While Morgan and Anissa were locked up, their victim Bella was slowly and painfully recovering physically and mentally from the stab wounds inflicted by Morgan. Alissa never touched the knife, telling Morgan she had to do the killing.
Some readers have complained that Hale is too sympathetic to Morgan and doesn’t write enough about Bella’s trauma after she nearly died from Morgan’s attack. Bella’s family did not want to be interviewed by Hale.
We do know that Bella was well enough to attend her high school prom and her graduation ceremony in 2020, and that she was headed to college on a scholarship.
Hale also shows the web of misogyny Morgan and Anissa were caught in.
“Anyone who has been a 12-year-old girl knows this is the most surreal and in some ways hardest part of a person’s life,” she says. “You are going through extreme hormonal and physical changes, trying to make friends, without the brain development to make good decisions.”
Or, as one kid told the author, “Middle school sucks.”
Hale wonders if the emphasis on Morgan and Anissa’s internet activity springs from gendered assumptions about girls, who are, statistically speaking, rarely violent, and expected by society to never be.
“I’ve read media accounts of violent crimes by men that describe their violence through the lens of mental illnesses,” she writes. “Men are allowed to be crazy. But little girls who commit serious violent crimes are considered inherently evil. In keeping with American tradition, dating back centuries, women who hear voices are decreed ‘witches’ and witches must be burned.”
A timeline in the book shows Anissa being released in July 2021. Morgan asked to stay at Winnebago, the mental health institute. She said she liked it there and felt she was in control of her destiny.
(This article includes a few quotes from Hale’s interview with her publisher, used with permission).