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Smile, Slenderman, and the Big Sad
A descent into madness
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***NOTE: This piece contains spoilers for Parker Finn’s movie Smile and Kathleen Hale’s book Slenderman.***
If you took my phone from me and scrolled up through my text message history with my wife, you would see an exchange from a couple of weeks ago that I’m not necessarily proud of, one that left me more exposed than I meant it to. It started with me innocently sending her a meme, one that—at the time—I just thought was funny. It was one of those Cain-and-Abel memes—well, here, I’ll just show it to you:
“Ouch,” my wife responded. “Try some coffee?”
Leave it to my wife to figure out that my funny meme was actually a cry for help, even before I had.
What was truly embarrassing was that I had no excuse for being depressed out of my head. I had finished writing the book I’d been working on the day before, and I was planning to take the day off, finish the book I’d been reading, maybe go to the movies. I had zero problems, zero worries—but maybe that was why I was depressed, as stupid as that is. Sometimes your brain sees you’ve got nothing going on and just switches the endorphins off. “You won’t be needing these, lol,” it says, and who are you to argue? There’s no appeals process.
Our brains aren’t trapped in here with us. We’re trapped in here with them.
So I read, and afterwards I went to the movies.
But I keep making terrible choices on which books to read and which movies to watch. At least if I want to get rid of the Big Sad, anyway.
Unfortunately, I keep letting my brain choose the books and the movies, and I’m increasingly convinced it doesn’t have my best interests at heart.
The book I’ve been reading, the one I finished after sending the Cain-and-Abel meme, was Slenderman: Online Obsession, Mental Illness, and the Violent Crime of Two Midwestern Girls by Kathleen Hale. It’s the story of the so-called “Slenderman stabbing,” the one that took place in 2014 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, about an hour east of where I now live. Two twelve-year-old girls, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, stabbed a third, Payton Leutner, nineteen times, thinking they were doing so at the behest of Slenderman, the fictional character born from creepypasta.
If they didn’t kill Leutner, they thought, Slenderman would kill them and everyone they loved.
When the crime first made headlines, it started a minor sensation on the internet. Slenderman, the internet hive mind’s own creation, had burst forth into the real world. The hive mind put on a face of horror, but even as it did, it was subtly proud that its baby had grown up. Beyond all the childish giggling and moralistic preening that characterizes the internet’s quintessentially adolescent response to everything, though, was a genuinely tragic story of undiagnosed mental illness. Both girls were eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity, with Geyser being diagnosed with early-onset schizophrenia, a heritable and physiological disorder.
Weier, though? She was diagnosed with folie à deux, also known as “the madness of two” or “shared psychotic disorder.” Geyser’s psychosis had rubbed off on her, just by proximity. Mental illness can be just as contagious as anything else.
We’re all trapped in our brains. But sometimes those brains are trapped by other brains.
When I was a kid, I had a friend who was a pathological liar. One of those people who just lies for fun, or to see who he can fool, or for no reason at all.
I would sleep over at his house sometimes, and we would stay up late into the night in his unfinished basement, staring into the dark and listening to the moan of the plumbing, and he’d tell me about all the drugs he’d done, all the famous rock stars he was BFFs with, all the girls with giant boobs he had made out with. It wasn’t until twenty-odd years later that I realized it was all bullshit. In retrospect, in the light of day, it was obvious—but at the time there was no light of day. There was just the darkness, the smell of damp concrete, the sound of the rusty pipes, and his voice. His basement was Plato’s cave, and I was chained to the wall.
It’s not wrong to say that reality is socially constructed. The world around us is a crashing cacophony, and the only tool we have to make sense of it is our brains, which, in turn, tend to take cues from the brains around them—about what’s real and what’s not, what’s important and what’s not, what’s connected and what’s separate. If you don’t believe in witches, it’s only because you live in a world where no one else does; if you were in seventeenth-century Salem, you’d be carrying a pitchfork and screaming for blood along with everyone else. Claiming otherwise is just self-flattery.
“I believe God is real—for certain definitions of the word ‘real.’”
One of the more thoughtful people I’ve met once said that to me. He’s an atheist (though he isn’t a fan of the word), but he was able to recognize that metaphorical truth matters, sometimes more than literal truth. You can be like Richard Dawkins if you want and shake your fist at the sky, insisting that the world would be better if no one believed in God—but in a broader sense, you’d be missing the point: if no one had ever believed in God, the world as we know it would not exist, including the storied career of one Richard Dawkins, Ph.D. The sky you’re shaking your fist at, empty or not, built the platform you’re standing on.
God transcends existence, Aquinas tells us. And, in a sense, so does Slenderman. Sure, he’s not “real”—but that fact was, no doubt, cold comfort to Payton Leutner when Morgan Geyser’s kitchen knife was inside her.
Over and over.
Nineteen God damned times.
When I put Slenderman down for the last time, it had done nothing about the Big Sad (which, in retrospect, is hardly a reasonable expectation to put on a tragic story that ruined the lives of multiple young women). The book’s ending—which really is no ending at all, since all the involved parties are still with us—finds Geyser in a state mental institution, still struggling to get the help she needs, currently believing herself the newlywed bride of the demon Abaddon.
(Is it real? Sure. To her.)
It’s a downer, and it left me feeling more alone and helpless than before, but I had no doubt a trip to the multiplex would do the trick. I picked a movie based mostly on its Rotten Tomatoes score, grabbed a bucket of greasy popcorn,and settled in for a movie I was sure would lift my spirits.
After all, it was called Smile. How could I go wrong?
“It thrives on trauma,” says one character in Smile.
The movie, if you haven’t seen it, is a lot like It Follows or Drag Me to Hell: a mysterious supernatural entity follows the protagonist around, smiling ghoulishly and occasionally pulling off a pretty inventive jump-scare. Within a week, learns our hero, psychiatrist Rose Cotter, it will crawl inside her mind and spur her to a grisly suicide—thus passing itself on to any witnesses.
It’s a mind-virus, spread by shared trauma.
But then, so is everything.
Rose, we learn, became a psychiatrist mainly because of her mother—who apparently suffered from psychosis and ended her own life by suicide while Rose stood by and refused to help. Psychosis, though, is passed on genetically (Morgan Geyser’s father suffers from schizophrenia as well, for example)—and the harder Rose tries to tell those around her about the smile-demon, the more she gets the same response: She sounds like her mother, just before she went under.
Whether the smile-demon is “real” or not is a question the movie isn’t particularly concerned with, since the entire thing takes place from Rose’s perspective. And in the end, the question has little meaning: in the penultimate shot, Rose, having doused herself in kerosene, strikes a match and self-immolates.
The smile-demon may have been real, or it may have been a symptom of Rose’s crumbling sanity—but it doesn’t matter. She’s just as dead, either way.
I forgot about Smile shortly after it ended—and yet.
When I started turning off the lights for bed that night, I immediately had flashbacks. I couldn’t actually bring myself to put out the lamp on my nightstand.I sat up reading, praying I wouldn’t fall asleep.
The demons that live only in your head are the scariest; to quote the smile-demon, you can’t escape your own mind.
It was one in the morning when my daughter—my beautiful, seven-year-old, short haired, dress-hating tomboy daughter—woke up from her own nightmares, climbed into bed with me, and asked why the light was still on. “I forgot to turn it off,” I lied. “I can turn it off now if you want.”
The darkness surrounded us and we both drifted off.
In my dreams, I’m at therapy with her, but the medical-surgical-industrial complex is there, all of them, piled into the therapist’s chair, leering at her, drooling over her, the same way Joe Camel used to leer and drool at my seven-year-old ass. With an army of dollar signs in their eyes. As a potential customer for life.
“Are you comfortable in your own body?” they ask. Over and over again. Waiting for the right answer. Waiting for the slot machine to pay out.
We are, all of us, trapped by our mind-demons.
And those mind-demons are contagious.
As I wake up, I’m walking out of the theater, blinking into the gray sunlight, texting my wife, “Welp, that movie was a downer.” Still fresh in my mind, burned into my retinas, is the final image of the film, of Rose, consumed in flames, reflected in the glasses of the only character who ever believed her: a cop named Joel. The horrified expression on his face tells us what we already know: he’s next.
Assuming he was real in the first place.
Maybe he was just another figment of Rose’s imagination. Or maybe, if it was all just psychosis, Joel was the victim of folie à deux. If that’s the case, he’s still likely to be next. The smile-demon wasn’t real—until it was.
But in the end, one way or another, the madness will burn.
So will the Big Sad.
And so will everything.
We are, all of us, trapped in our minds.
Until our minds destroy our bodies, and our bodies return the favor.
Hey look here, free books
Hi to any new readers! I’m a horror author and occasional humorist out in Madison, Wisconsin, and these days, I’m working on building my audience here on Substack. So here’s how this works:
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“And just what books are those, Luke???”
Ophelia, Alive: A Ghost Story, my debut novel about ghosts, zombies, Hamlet, and higher-ed angst. Won a few minor awards, might be good.
Murder-Bears, Moonshine, and Mayhem: Strange Stories from the Bible to Leave You Amused, Bemused, and (Hopefully) Informed, an irreverent tour of the weirdest bits of the Christian and Jewish Scriptures. Also won a few minor awards, also might be good.
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Stuff I’ve been enjoying lately
You know, secretly, even if you’re pretending not to, that this thing is nearing exhaustion. There is simply nothing there online. All language has become rote, a halfarsed performance: even the outraged mobs are screaming on autopilot.
This piece by Sam Kriss is the best thing I’ve read all year. As I’ve occasionally been arguing here, Kriss tells us that the internet—or at least social media—is a festering corpse that kills everything it touches. He’s far more eloquent than I am, though, and he’s got the receipts:
On Facebook, the average engagement rate—the number of likes, comments, and shares per follower—fell by 34%, from 0.086 to 0.057. Well, everyone knows that the mushrooms are spreading over Facebook, hundreds of thousands of users liquefying out of its corpse every year. But the same pattern is everywhere. Engagement fell 28% on Instagram and 15% on Twitter. (It’s kept falling since.) Even on TikTok, the terrifying brainhole of tomorrow, the walls are closing in.
The moment I came across this essay, I shut myself in my office so I could read it uninterrupted. As soon as I got to the end, I went back to the beginning and read it again. Then I read it several more times over that weekend.
Somehow, I’d been unaware of Kriss’s work prior to this (though my friend Blake informed me that he and I are only a couple podcast degrees apart—he’s been a guest on Justin E. H. Smith’s show What Is X? and Smith was a guest on my erstwhile show, Changed My Mind)—but the second I knew he existed, I smashed the “subscribe” button on his Substack. If there’s still life on the internet, it’s over there.
Anyone who obsessively reads this blog (and if that’s you…who hurt you?) will be saying, “Wait! I thought you didn’t do carbs!” and that person would be right. I allow myself “cheat days,” though, usually when I have something to celebrate (e.g. finishing the novel I was writing). Most of the time, these cheat days just remind me that cutting carbs was the right call—the rush-crash energy levels that carbs engender almost definitely contribute to depression, at least in me. I’m sure that’s actually a key reason for the Big Sad, but it didn’t really fit in this piece, so that’s why I’m relegating it to a footnote. But you could absolutely argue that the sort of mind-body dualism that haunts our culture leads directly to a lot of our problems, including our terrible diets and the depression epidemic.
If you’re wondering, I was able to leave the lights on because my wife was out of town. If she had been here, I’m not sure what I would have done. Asked her to beat up the smile-demon for me, I suppose.