Recently, HBO aired a documentary on the “Slenderman” case, in which two 12-year-old girls, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, stabbed a friend 19 times as a sacrifice to a fictional Internet character. The girls had planned it for nearly half a year. Once they determined the time and place, they made their move. And while it wasn’t quite as easy as it had seemed in the planning, they still went through with it.
Katherine Ramsland Ph.D. is a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, where she also teaches criminal justice. She holds a master's in forensic psychology from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a master's in clinical psychology from Duquesne University, a master's in criminal justice from DeSales University, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Rutgers.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Geyser and Weier had used code words like “camping trip” to refer to what they were going to do. This helped to solidify their secret—and their friendship. Only they knew what was meant. They were special. Once they succeeded, they planned to leave their families to become Slenderman’s “proxies” together.
On Friday, May 30, 2014, the girls and their target, Payton Leutner, met at Geyser’s house for a sleepover. The next day, Geyser and Weier took Leutner to a park. Geyser gave Weier the knife she’d grabbed from the kitchen, but Weier commanded Geyser to do it herself. When asked later why she’d agreed, Geyser said, “I didn’t want to make Anissa mad. It’s hard enough to make friends. I don’t want to lose them over something like this.”
Oddly, Geyser had been close friends with Leutner before she met and bonded with Weier. Yet, she was still willing to sacrifice Leutner. This act was not just about doing something with or for a friend; her statement suggests that something more was at stake.
Some research shows that friendships made during adolescence, when children are growing more independent and exploratory, are stronger than those made during childhood, especially if the friends spend a lot of time together and have a significant overlap of interests. Weier introduced Geyser to Slenderman, according to their confessions, and the girls subsequently spent a lot of time together.
Did Geyser respond to something in Weier that shifted her sense of right and wrong, and even her sense of friendship? Geyser’s parents insist that she was not raised this way. Yet a friendship that provides a shared sense of camaraderie can chip away at family ideals, and kids often cannot spot mental illness. Even if the child knows that an act suggested by a friend is wrong, some feel such a compelling need to preserve the relationship that they yield. Better to adopt a justification than to lose the friend.
In part, they’re becoming more autonomous, but in part, they might be deficient in the skill of resisting: They don’t know how to form an exit strategy. And they often cannot see how they're evolving toward a warped perspective. It's usually gradual: Friendships that become so addictive that a person is willing to do the unthinkable offer something essential to that individual, something that his or her other relationships fail to provide.
A strong emotional bond, it seems, can overcome moral reasoning, giving loyalty more weight: We’re in this together, we’ll hang together. Yet, it appears to be more about a particular chemistry. I wrote in an earlier post about how former FBI profiler Gregg McCrary coined the term 'Mur-dar’ (like Gaydar) to describe how certain people can hone in on vulnerability in others and elicit bad behavior. “It’s like when normal people meet," he said. "You decide whether you’re going to get along, but with these couples it takes a dark turn. They sense the excitement of a kindred spirit.”
Former prison psychologist Al Carlisle says, “The relationship between a killer and his subservient follower is characterized by strong inter-dependence. The dominant person needs the follower's total loyalty in order to validate himself. The subservient follower needs the power and authority of the dominant person, so he or she attempts to become that person’s shadow and to mirror the dominant person's beliefs and ethics.”
But sometimes complicity is just about loyalty. Steve Robard was 38 when he suffered from cardiac arrest. He’d experienced stomach cramps during the evening of February 18, 1993, and within hours, he was dead. The coroner decided it was natural. It wasn’t. Robard's sixteen-year-old daughter, Marie, who’d resented living in his cramped apartment, had poisoned him. Marie confided in her closest friend, Stacey, and begged Stacey to keep the secret. Stacey tried, but soon had nightmares. Finally, she told, although only after she had stayed loyal for months, out of friendship.
The emotional tone of a relationship is generally set from the start. In relationships that devolve into partnerships for murder, a dominant or controlling person is usually central. In the late 1970s in Australia, Christopher Worrell had James Miller pick up girls for him for sex and murder. Then he'd make Miller bury or dump the bodies. Seven women died, and one was buried alive, before a car accident took Worrell’s life. Under arrest, Miller admitted his part, but said he’d only done it because he'd loved Worrell.
Then there are friends who are indifferent about those outside their circle. In 2001, Katherine Inglis and Michael Pfohl gave a ride to Kyle Hulbert. Inglis later admitted that they had an idea of what he wanted to do when they arrived at the destination: The delusional Hulbert had decided to rescue 20-year-old Clara Schwartz from a father she claimed had abused her. He took a sword into her father’s house and killed the man. When Hulbert got back in the car, he told his friends he’d done it. They didn’t panic. They didn’t call the police. Instead, they formed a protective circle and created an alibi.
The traits generally associated with compliant accomplices are youth, low IQ, deficient education, insecurity, and mental instability. Sometimes these individuals have already crossed a line by committing petty crimes. If they need something that the person bent on aggression provides, they surrender to moral compromise.
So, how can parents protect their kids from such unthinkable peer pressure? Experts urge them to guide kids toward positive peers—guide, not forbid or control; to nurture their self-esteem; and to assist them with envisioning an exit strategy should they sense something wrong. Watch for exclusivity and secrecy when kids become overly attached to a friend, and help them to critically analyze situations for better decision-making.
It's difficult to intervene once such friendships take root, so early watchfulness, communication, and intervention are key. Kids who are comfortable with adults might signal their doubts before they plunge in too deep.