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Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier

Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier

Heavenly Creatures Movie

Heavenly Creatures Movie

Mass shootings have become so tragically commonplace in our culture that the “What could have been done to prevent this horror?” exercise has become routine. But two pretty 12-year-old girls trying to stab a third girl to death after a sleepover? It’s almost beyond the mind to contemplate.

According to the complaint, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier of Waukesha, Wisconsin – their names were released because they are being charged as adults for attempted first-degree murder – took part in a sleepover with a third girl. The next morning, they allegedly lured her into a wooded park for a game of hide and seek, then stabbed her 19 times and left her for dead.

How could this have happened?

The simple answer is that we really don’t know. But the crime is so horrifying in both its facts and implications that we are forced to look for answers.

The motivation, according to reports, was the desire by both alleged perpetrators to impress a fictional, faceless Internet character known as Slenderman, who likes to kill children and apparently requires a murder for a devotee to climb into the upper reaches of his favor. The stab wounds, miraculously, avoided the victim’s heart and arteries and she was able to crawl out of the woods, where she was found by a bicyclist. A police officer said that had the knife struck just one millimeter to the side, she would have been dead.

These are the basic facts, but they bring up more questions than answers.

First, our circle of experts on developmental psychology assures us that by the time girls and boys are twelve, they certainly understand right from wrong and can distinguish fantasy from reality. And while it is true that the prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain that mediates executive functions such as impulse control – is not fully matured until around age 25, this was not an impulsive act. The two girls, allegedly, were planning to kill their friend for months.

So we have to ask: During this time, did these two girls actually think about what would happen afterward? Did they think they would kill another 12-year-old and no one would notice? Did they think people would notice but they would outsmart the police and wouldn’t be caught? Did they think they would just go about normal life? Did they not realize that from this moment forward, the entire course of all three lives would be unalterably changed?

By the time they reach school age, kids pretty much understand basic causality. They know that if they violate their curfews or don’t do their homework, they’re going to be punished. And if they understand that, can they not conceive of the punishment for an offense many orders of magnitude greater?

Meg Warren, a psychiatric nurse in London, Ontario, Canada, with whom we frequently consult, points out, “Preteens of that age are often unable to ‘see around corners.’ They can’t predict the consequences of their actions if it’s not something they’ve already experienced. And it is normal for them not to understand how their behavior affects everyone else.”

Meg adds, “Though girls in this age range do know right from wrong, they are easily led.” And this brings up another critical issue: the psychopathology created by the interaction of the two alleged perpetrators. As Nobel laureate Elias Canetti noted in his landmark 1960 book Crowds and Power, any time two or more individuals come together, they form a new collective personality, often a malevolent personality. This is often behind crowd crimes like gang bangs, riots and lootings.

In cases where there are two perpetrators, one tends to be dominant and the other compliant and empowered by the first. This was certainly the case in the 1999 school massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, carried out by the dominant Eric Harris and the compliant Dylan Klebold. But Harris and Klebold were playing an obvious endgame at Columbine. They did not expect to come out of their crime alive. Geyser and Weier obviously did.

When we were young, the message, “Parents, do you know where your children are?” was frequently broadcast on television and radio. But unlike our childhoods, youngsters no longer have to leave the house to get in trouble. What they are doing in their own Internet-connected bedrooms can prove deadly. So the argument in the coming days is sure to shift to Internet and video game influence, just as serial killer Ted Bundy blamed his murderous predation on the influence of pornography.

Yes, pornography fueled Bundy’s homicidal fantasies, but did not create them. It didn’t make him a killer. With him, it went back to free will and choice. And we have to wonder if this is not also the case with Misses Geyser and Weier. Further, we have to wonder why the mythical Slenderman had such a compelling appeal to these girls.

They each made a choice – not an intelligent or empathic choice, but certainly a considered choice – and now they will have to live with the consequences of that choice, whether they saw around that particular corner or not.

We do not yet know much about either girl’s background or home life, though more is likely to come out in the weeks and months ahead. But as Meg Warren states, “If they’ve been planning this for months and then carried it out so up close and personal, something is very wrong. Something in the home life has to be amiss, at least with one of them.”

In our view, what these two qualify as are little sociopaths, incapable of putting themselves in anyone else’s emotional reality, unconcerned with what happens to others and uni-directed toward their own satisfaction and wish fulfillment. Undoubtedly, if convicted, they will remain in custody at least until their 21st birthdays; longer if they are given adult sentences. What happens after that is anybody’s guess.

Can they be rehabilitated? That, again, is anybody’s guess, because, in the concept of our friend and forensic psychologist Stanton E. Samenow, we don’t know if they were ever habilitated in the first place.

The case this one most reminds us of is the Parker-Hulme murder in Christ Church, New Zealand, in 1954. Pauline Parker, 16, and Juliet Hulme, 15, were two schoolgirls with an intense friendship that some said bordered on sexual. When Juliet’s parents separated and her father planned to take her to South Africa, Pauline asked to go along. Her mother refused, so the  girls planned to kill her. On the afternoon of June 22, while strolling with Pauline’s mom in Victoria Park, the girls bludgeoned her to death with a brick wrapped in a sock. They were caught almost immediately.

The incident was made into a fine 1994 film called Heavenly Creatures, directed by Peter Jackson, written by Fran Walsh, and starring Kate Winslet as Juliet and Melanie Lynskey as Pauline.

After conviction, Parker and Hulme were kept in detention until their legal maturity, upon which they were released with new names and the restriction that they never see each other again. In this case, neither one got into serious trouble again and both expressed profound remorse for their crime. Juliet Hulme is now the internationally celebrated crime novelist Anne Perry – a fascinating irony that belongs in a separate discussion.

Are there any lessons, precedents or wisdom from Parker-Hulme to be applied to Geyser-Weier? Can they be “rehabilitated”? How much punishment is necessary or appropriate? How much of their alleged crime is attributable to parents, environment, the Internet, societal permissiveness or mass media? Are they simply inherently evil? Will physical maturity bring on emotional perspective, insight and remorse?

At this point, no answers, only questions – all set against the looming and certain knowledge that from the time we can reason, everything each of us does involves a choice.

12 Responses to Hellish Creatures?

  1. Kristin says:

    After the shock and horror abated, my first reaction to this crime was incredulity. Committing a crime in the name of, essentially, an urban legend is the equivalent of someone from my generation taking a knife to their best friend because “Bloody Mary made me do it.”

    As a high school teacher, I was very interested in what my students might say in response to this crime (those who were aware of it wanted, of course, to talk about it) and many of them were able to fill me in a bit more on the Slenderman mythology. Interestingly enough, that mythology (if it can be termed as such) includes nothing at all regarding sacrifices to Slenderman for promises of fortune, fame, or anything else the girls apparently listed as their reasons for stabbing their friend. Slenderman is, like Bloody Mary or the Candyman, a creepy urban legend, not the sort of quasi-religious figure these girls apparently made him in to. According to my students (high school juniors), Slenderman is a fun, creepy story AND, perhaps more importantly, a fun, creepy video game. One of my students actually showed several of the teachers the game … it’s a first person POV walk through shadowy woods trying to avoid Slenderman. In no way, shape, or form are you as the player required to kill anyone or do anything at all to catch Slenderman’s attention. The basis for the game, in fact, is to avoid him entirely. None of my students could tell me where these girls might have even remotely gotten the idea that Slenderman requires a human sacrifice or might offer rewards for one.

    My point is this … these girls took the Slenderman mythology and twisted it for their own perverse purposes, reading something into it that has no basis in reality. Evidently there are much deeper problems with these young ladies than the inability to tell the difference between right and wrong or separate fantasy from reality.

    • Very well said, Kristin, and particularly appreciated from your perspective as a teacher. It was certainly our instinct that these girls must have transformed or interpreted Slenderman for their own psychopathology. The part that still seems most critical to me is that this was not a spontaneous act, but planned for months, meaning they had to sustain their aberrational thinking over a long period of time. Does this relate on any level to anything you’ve seen in your classroom?

  2. Rainsong says:

    This isn’t a simple matter of bad parenting, knowing right from wrong or non-functioning impulse control. It’s a matter of physiology–the brain has not yet fully developed the frontal lobe connections. Without those complete connections, the brain simply cannot comprehend consequences. We now know those connections won’t be complete until a person reaches their mid-twenties.

    Sure, a kid knows if they do something wrong they will probably be punished in some manner but comparing attempted murder–and its consequences–with failure to do homework is disingenuous.

    While I agree these girls must face the consequences of their actions, I don’t believe they should be jailed. I think they should be given the opportunity to learn from their poor decisions, to be taught the proper way to interact with others and the time to fully realize why what they chose to do was wrong.

    My mom used to say, “You can’t put an old head on young shoulders.” Evidently she was a lot smarter than the ten-year-old me thought.

  3. watson says:

    Hi Mark, Hi John,
    ‘Hellish Creatures’ ….two 12 year old girls?
    1.) How could this have happened?….Bad Parenting.
    2.) We know from studies and many years that….abuse and neglect and even torture from parents will… or may cause such behavior.
    3.) This parental, family abuse… ‘builds’ them into sociopaths.
    4.) I would investigate the parents (parent) and prosecute them too.
    5.) 12 year old girls in my opinion should be treated as ‘juveniles’.

  4. Josephine says:

    Hi Mark,
    I’ve been reading a lot recently on the Parker/Hulme case. It’s a really fascinating one. Such a violent crime and yet both of the girls have gone on to live ‘normal’ lives. This case is also shocking because of the ages of the girls and the premeditation of the act. Parker/Hulme pushes a lot of my buttons because of the shocking death of the mother. They may have never offended again but I still feel sickened by their callous act. How ghastly for the mother of Pauline to die with her daughter and friend beating her head in. These girls also appear to have drifted into a fantasy land with their Slenderman character but I imagine it’s a matter of waiting to find out more. I do notice that the girls in my daughter’s school all seem to be acting a lot meaner than I remember girls acting in my school days. I do think that excessive computer use does have an impact on their developing brain and affects empathy. I’ve no scientific research to back that up here, but it’s just my instinct.

  5. Cornerstone says:

    I loved “Heavenly Creatures” and empathized with the path of the motivation up to a point. I feel this is something different.

    For so many children/teens online interaction is a bigger portion of their life and more real to them than their daily physical lives, and preferable in many ways. They can present themselves however they want and encounter fantasy people who also portray someone other than who they are and who are attractive to them and interact, unlike their dream boy at school. I think it’s especially true with chronic gamers. I don’t mean the people who play a game a couple of times a week in between skate-boarding and sports or playing in a garage band but the people who totally immerse in and spend more time talking to other players than they do to actual real-life friends and tend to talk more about the characters than their actual lives.

    Every day on the advice/relationship boards, I see those guys coming on there trying to figure out how to make the transition from only being interested in games to the real world so they can get laid. Sadly, what they want is a girl who will sit there with them and game and then — you know. And that’s it. They don’t see why that’s too much to ask. Of course, they will mostly end up porn addicts.

    Internet is an altered environment where killing is not only accepted but necessary and often the road to success. If no one is bothering to bring them down to earth and get their heads out of their iPhones and laptops long enough to get them dried out from fantasy, they can really begin to just live in this other realm, whether it be online dating or gaming. Someone has to keep connected to them long enough to make them deal with reality and to explain to them and make them believe what is right and what is wrong, what is fantasy and what is reality and, god forbid, take games and media away from them that basically promote reward for violence. It is no mystery to me how this can become their primary reality. The consequences of their actions, in their mind, is gain, not prison, because the most interesting part of their life, and that is how it has always been.

  6. No matter how involved parents try to be in their children’s lives, who you are on the playground after school is more impacting on your character than anything a parent or teacher can do. Children live in a different dimension. Kids are cruel, sexually obsessed, resort first to violence, curse readily, and have a pecking order that cannot be circumvented by accolades from the adult community. If you are a goody-goody who tells your parents everything, you are shunned by your peers. If you want friends you learn not to squeal and learn to talk as the other kids talk when you’re with the kids. Secrecy is the byword of childhood.

    We all know this because we were all kids. How is it we forget it?

    Very few drug addicts start taking drugs at 26. They start experimenting as teenagers. Don’t they know it’s wrong? Don’t they know it’s illegal? Of course they do. That’s WHY it’s exciting. Likewise peeping toms, creepy crawlers, burglaries are sex crimes committed by young boys who have no adequate sexual options OR prefer this type of excitement.

    Ted Bundy was one of the most disingenuous sociopaths ever captured. I don’t for one minute believe that pornography drove his criminal behavior although he did say that on a radio program shortly before his execution. In 1989 I attended a talk about serial killers in New York City. There I met a man who claimed to have gone to junior high with Ted Bundy in Tacoma. According to this man he and Ted were very close friends with a boy whose father owned a local funeral parlor. When a teenage girl was being prepared for her funeral the undertaker’s son invited them all to sneak in and have sex with the corpse. This man told me he had done this at 13-years-old and was revolted by it. Bundy was not. Almost certainly Bundy’s first murder was that of 8-year-old Ann Burr who lived on the same street as Bundy’s uncle in 1961. Bundy was 14-years-old at that time. As you say, “past behavior predicts future behavior.” I believe this man’s story. It makes sense. Bundy’s obsession was in having sex with the dead. That this particular part of his story has been suppressed for 55 years is a testament to the secret world of childhood.

    If the behaviors are not reinforced by success I do think most people grow out of them. I know more than two drug dealers when I was in college who today are indignant that their own children are experimenting with marijuana. The adrenalin rush of childhood is very strong and nearly all bad habits are formed in those years from tobacco use to serial murder. MacDonald’s triad to watch for in potential serial killers: fire starting, bed wetting and cruelty to animals occur in something like 20% of serial killers. In his book, The Evil That Men Do, however Roy Hazelwood points out that nearly 90% of serial killers shoplift, experiment with drugs and alcohol before the age of 13, and assault adults when still children. These behaviors are NOT a triad though because many children who do not become serial killers also share them.

    When very young people commit heinous crimes law enforcement seldom looks at that side of the community at all much less first. The murder of Jonbenet Ramsey in 1996 bears all the earmarks of having been committed by a teenage boy right down to the ridiculous ransom note full of movie quotes. Yet Boulder police still strive to blame the family. Talk about confirmation bias.

    18 years ago today, 6/6/1996, Darlie Routier and her two sons were attacked as they slept in their living room in Rowlett Texas. The two boys sleeping on the floor were stabbed four times. Darlie Routier, sleeping on the couch, had her throat slashed and survived by 2 millimeters. She was convicted of murdering her own children and sentenced to Texas death row where she resides today. The two bloody fingerprints of unknown origin found at the crime scene have never been run through AFIS or any other database.

    Darlie Routier shares NONE of the profile elements of women who kill their children: infant/early childhood sex abuse, childhood use of drugs/alcohol, sexual promiscuity in early teens, early marriage due to pregnancy, inappropriate marriage partner, infidelity in marriage, domestic abuse complaints shortly before murders. None of these apply to Mrs. Routier.

    Everything about the Routier homicides appears to indicate youthful perpetrators. Is Mrs. Routier being sacrificed to avoid scandal in prominent Dallas families? If so, it would not be the first time.

    • ImThinking says:

      Wow. It’s a shame Darlie was so “involved” with her sons, otherwise they would still be alive. Familiarize yourself with the case. All evidence points only to Darlie. Supporting a mother who murdered her children? SMDH

  7. seesthru says:

    It’s not unprecedented. The girls are most certainly aware that murder is wrong. The one thing that might be different for them than your average adult, is that they might be caught up in the fantasy that this Slenderman is real, and perhaps thought he would carry them off and they would not have to face the consequences of their murder. Many girls have fantasies that they will marry their favorite Rock star or actor.. they often believe if that famous person sees them it will be instant love and he will swoop in and carry them away.

    That said, these girls still know murder is wrong. I would not want them loose around other children, or around me for that matter. They are old enough to be most dangerous, and they have proven that they are most dangerous.

    It’s still sad though, that they chose to try and kill another, and that they now will be behind bars. 12 is an awfully young age to throw your life and freedom away.

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