Friendship in the Fantastical Realm: The Parker–Hulme Murder Case and the Slender Man Stabbing

written by C.W.S.

When I first read about the Slender Man stabbing, I was reminded immediately of Peter Jackson’s surreal 1994 film Heavenly Creatures and the case that served as its inspiration. The infamous New Zealand Parker–Hulme murder happened in 1954 and left Pauline Parker’s mother dead, and Pauline and her best friend behind bars. The circumstances were different from the Slender Man case, and so were the motives. But in both cases the defendants were a pair of girls under the age of 18, and both pairs demonstrated fantastical imaginations that bolstered their ability to commit, or attempt murder. It was their imaginations combined, their cooperative make-believe that ultimately took possession over them, that gave them reason behind their madness, which of course wasn’t reason at all.

It is not unusual for young people, especially girls, to be swept away in their own invented worlds: their poetry, their art, their romance. It isn’t even unusual for girls to be interested in the morbid, think bloody Mary, séances in the cemetery, a fleeting study of witchcraft. It may scare the more conservative parents, but to claim it indicates an ability to commit violence crime would be without merit. Usually, things turn out fine, but when they don’t we are agape with fascination: how could young girls commit such crimes? Girls are supposed to be innocent, well behaved, safe.

It’s why diaries are so common, as are locked doors, as are close, intimate friendships. A best friend holds your secrets, essentially allowing you to be who you are without judgment. But a best friend can also be an echo chamber in which outlandish ideas, even dangerous ones, are ramped up into action like a miniature version of groupthink. In the Parker-Hulme cases we see teenagers, and in the case of the Slender Man stabbing, pre-teenagers, who are suffering from delusional thinking together. It is unlikely that these cases would have turned out the same if the girls hadn’t each found someone to lend credence to their imagined realities.

Parker–Hulme murder

Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker bonded over their intelligence, both at the top of their class. Juilet was 16, a year older than Pauline, and was originally from England. She was the daughter of a nuclear physicist, and the family lived in one of the most expensive houses in their town of Christchurch, New Zealand. Juliet was tall and attractive, while Pauline was several inches shorter with short hair. Her father worked as the manager of a fish store and her mother ran a boarding house in the city where Pauline lived with her family. Pauline was flattered by Juliet’s friendship, and the pair began what would turn into an infamous relationship.

Their friendship centered on their belief in their own artistic and intellectual abilities. They both wrote multiple novels in 1954, and both considered themselves to be brilliant opera singers. They were obsessed with the opera and movies, as well as with movie stars. They wanted to travel to America together where they believed their novels would be turned into movies, and they would get to have relationships with famous people. They would sneak out at night and pretend to be the characters they wrote about, and Juliet’s mother said that it became increasing difficult to speak with Juliet and not one of her characters. They also shared a growing belief in a fantastical realm that only they, and a few other people in the world, had access to. They named it the Fourth World, and it was a lush and beautiful place, heaven-like. It was first mentioned in Pauline’s diary on April 3rd, 1953:

"Today Juliet and I found the key to the 4th World. We realise now that we have had it in our possession for about 6 months but we only realized it on the day of the death of Christ. We saw a gateway through the clouds. We sat on the edge of the path and looked down the hill out over the bay. The island looked beautiful. The sea was blue. Everything was full of peace and bliss. We then realized we had the key. We now know that we are not genii, as we thought. We have an extra part of our brain which can appreciate the 4th World. Only about 10 people have it. When we die we will go to the 4th World, but meanwhile on two days every year we may use the key and look in to that beautiful world which we have been lucky enough to be allowed to know of, on this Day of Finding the Key to the Way through the Clouds." 

Living in this world were the Saints, which were idealized versions of the movie stars they were fond of including Mario Lanza, James Mason, Mel Ferrar, and Orson Welles. Pauline stated that because of her friendship with Juliet, both girls were able to achieve a kind of spiritual enlightenment. Their parents feared that their relationship was unhealthy and might become sexual, and in the 1950s homosexuality was still considered a serious mental illness.

It was the threat of their separation that sparked the murder plot. Their parents attempted to keep them apart, and thus keep them away from the Fourth World. Juliet’s parents separated and Juliet was to be moved with her father back to England. Pauline told her mother that she was going to go with Juliet to live with her in England, and her mother forbid it. Pauline and Juliet then formed a plan to murder Pauline’s mother and flee to New York City to begin their lives as successful artists. Pauline’s already strong hatred of her mother turned seething after she was bared from the future, friendship, and the world that she considered to be her destiny.

On June 22, 1954 Pauline wrote in her diary simply: "The day of the happy event." Juliet, Pauline, and Pauline’s mother Honorah Parker took a walk in the park that day after having tea together. When they reached a secluded area, Juliet dropped a pink stone she was holding. As Honorah bent down to pick it up, Pauline struck her in the back of the head repeatedly with a brick that had been pushed down inside a stocking. When the stocking broke, the girls held Honorah down by the neck and smashed her face until it became unrecognizable. They then ran, covered in blood, to get help. They said Honorah had fallen and hit her head, but it was clear that that was not the case.

The defense team argued that the girls were delusional and paranoid and suffered from "communicated insanity." This meant that they were only insane when they were together, citing the homosexuality, which both girls had denied. The argument didn’t hold water, and the jury convicted them. Since the girls were too young to be considered for the death penalty, they spent five years in prison. It appears they never had contact again.

The Slender Man stabbing

In this case, we have a similar level of disconnection from reality, but Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier’s imagined world was not wholly theirs, and it was not the heavenly place that the Fourth World, and America, was for Pauline and Juliet. According to Morgan and Anissa, who were both 12-years-old at the time of the attempted murder, it was an entity named Slender Man that led them to stab their middle school classmate and Morgan’s other close friend, Payton Leutner, 19 times and leave her for dead.

Slender Man first came to the consciousness of young people on the Internet in 2009. He was essentially a horror character created by Eric Knudsen, who called himself Victor Surge. Slender Man was an impossibly tall, thin, man that had no face, and usually wore a black suit. Surge Photoshopped Slender Man into the backgrounds old photographs of children from the 1980s. He added fake witness testimony about missing children that had been abducted by the character. Slender Man quickly became a viral meme. Fictional horror stories, known as Creepypasta, began spreading about Slender Man, including apparent photos, drawings, testimony, etc. Writers of Creepypasta soon created an entire folklore around Slender Man, including a fictional 16th century character from Germany, Der Grossman from which the idea of Slender Man apparently came. Eventually Slender Man transformed into a being with long tentacle arms that came out of his back, which he would use to abduct children. Slender Man could drive young people insane, or even to commit violent acts on his behalf. It is said that the more paranoid one becomes about Slender Man, the more he takes an interest in that person.

Folklorists have pointed out that Slender Man acts as a modern urban legend, in that stories are spread via the Internet instead of word-of-mouth, and some of those reading the stories take them as fact. For the gullible, Slender Man is the millennial bogeyman, and a few young people have been tricked into believing that the stories are true.

On May 31, 2014, all three girls attended a sleepover at Morgan’s house for her birthday. Investigators say that the girls had been plotting the murder together for five months, and originally planned for the murder to happen at the sleepover. They had planned to put duct tape over Payton’s mouth while she was asleep and stab her in the neck. During questioning Anissa said Morgan had told her that they needed to become “proxies” for Slender Man, which meant killing for him. Morgan said it was Anissa who had convinced her Slender Man was real and that they needed to take action to protect themselves. They both believed that this act would give them access to Slender Man’s mansion in the woods, which they believed was inside Wisconsin's Nicolet National Forest, five miles from Geyer’s home. They also believed that killing their friend would gain them good-favor with Slender Man, who in the words of Anissa could “kill my whole family in three seconds."

A few days before the stabbing, Payton told her mother that Slender Man was real, and that her friends could prove it. She wasn’t sure how, but they had convinced her they could. Her mother comforted her, but didn’t give it much thought: “Fantasy when you are 12 years old is still a very active part of your life,” Payton’s mother said of her daughter’s fears.

The next day, the three girls went to a nearby park. The plan had been to stab her in the park’s bathroom, but they decided it might be too dangerous to do it there. They then led Payton into the woods, where Morgan revealed the knife. She told Anissa “I’m not going to until you tell me,” to which Anissa said “Go ballistic, go crazy.”

Anissa recalls Morgan then saying to Payton: “Don’t be afraid, I’m only a little kitty cat.” And then she stabbed her 19 times, in the arms, legs, and torso.

The girls stood Payton up and then led her deeper into woods, telling her they would go get help. They left her, not to get help, but to head to Slender Man’s mansion. They washed themselves in the nearby Walmart bathroom, and then wandered in the direction of the forest until they were picked up by police. Miraculously, Payton had survived and pulled herself through the woods until she reached a bike path. “I wanted to live,” she said later. She was also able to tell police who had attempted to kill her.

It takes a best friend

The Slender Man girls, now 15, have been charged as adults, and are facing up to 45 years in prison. Both have put in not guilty pleas, by reason of mental disease or defect. Morgan has been diagnosed as having early-onset schizophrenia, and Anissa as having a delusional disorder. The defense is arguing that the girls were not old enough, or mentally competent enough, to know what they were doing when they attempted to kill their friend. They are also concerned that they will not get the ongoing mental health help they will need if in prison.

Not much of the nature of the friendship between Morgan and Anissa’s has been revealed to the media, so some of the comparison remains to be seen. I expect that we will get a more complete picture of the relationship with the January 17, 2017 premiere of the HBO documentary Beware the Slenderman. What I am imagining we will see will not be so different from Pauline and Juliet.

The thing is, there is nothing wrong with the fantastical realms that both sets of girls were living inside of. It is part of growing up, part of finding identity, part of being a creative person, part of the aching for freedom. And both of these girls were looking for just that. In Juliet and Pauline’s case, they wanted the freedom to follow an unconventional path, and in Morgan and Anissa’s case, they wanted the freedom from fear. But these created worlds crowded and eventually pushed out any sense of the reality that existed outside their friendship. It was the fact that their shared delusions were so severe, so out-of-control, that makes these cases so unusual.

“I was excited because I wanted proof that he existed because there were a bunch of skeptics out there saying he didn’t exist,” Anissa told investigators. Morgan and Anissa wanted proof that they were right, that their world was the actual world. It reminds me of Pauline and Juliet, who were also seeking confirmation from outside that their grandeur was authentic. They believed they would find it in America, where they would be lauded for their brilliance, for their skill, and Pauline’s mother was hindering this possibility. For Anissa and Morgan, their beliefs had to be proved in another way. It is clear that mental illness may have played a part in the Slender Man stabbings, and it wouldn’t be outlandish to assume that that may also be the case with the Parker-Hulme murder. Without their other, though, could these crimes have been committed? Or did it take a best friend to approve of the delusions; someone to say “Go crazy.”