Under Investigation – Phoebe Locke
In this Under Investigation piece, Phoebe Locke talks through the origins of her gripping, unsettling debut thriller THE TALL MAN.
Posted on April 15, 2019 in Guest Author, Under investigation
It was the end of August 2015, and I was stuck. I was stuck on my manuscript, which, after a promising start, had stalled. I had my characters: a father and a daughter, a mother recently returned. I knew that the mother was afraid, that the daughter might be too, but I still couldn’t find that central thing which haunted them both. And I was also stuck on an extremely delayed train without a book to read. I was scrolling through Twitter on my phone for the millionth time when my eye caught on a link someone had tweeted – an article from New York Magazine, entitled ‘Slender Man is watching’. Suitably creeped out, I clicked it and began to read.
At that time, I’d never heard of Slender Man, nor of the two girls who were the subject of the article. Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier had by then been in juvenile detention for fourteen months, awaiting trial for the attempted murder of their classmate and friend, Payton Leutner. All three girls had been twelve years old at the time.
The attack had happened the day after Morgan’s birthday sleepover. After a morning spent playing in the park near her house, Geyser and Weier had led Payton, who was usually known as Bella, into the woods and stabbed her nineteen times with a kitchen knife. Having left her bleeding out on the ground, they’d headed north with the granola bars, water and family photos they’d packed specially. Picked up by police several hours later, they’d explained that they had tried to kill Bella for Slender Man and that they were on their way to Wisconsin’s Nicolet national forest – almost 200 miles away – where he lived.
The legend of Slender Man had begun with an online post by Eric Knudsen in 2009, as part of a thread on internet forum, Something Awful. The thread was a Photoshop challenge, where users digitally edited photos to make them appear paranormal, and Knudsen, who went by the username Victor Surge, took two black and white images of children and added a tall, spectral figure in a black suit. Quickly adopted by other members of the site, Slender Man became a viral character, the subject of fan art, fiction and creepypasta – scary stories posted online in short, shareable bursts of images, video or text. His methods and motives vary, and his appearance can differ from user to user (notably, many give him tentacles) but there is a core mythology which tends to remain consistent – the suit, his height, his white, featureless face, the association with woods and forests. While many early creepypasta stories describe him targeting children, a later web series introduced the idea of ‘proxies’ – young people who fall under his murderous influence.
When questioned by police, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier – who had spent months devouring all of this material – said that they were afraid that if they didn’t kill Bella, Slender Man might hurt their families. But they also told investigators that they thought the murder would allow them to become his proxies; that it would earn them his protection and possibly some powers of their own. I found that combination of fear and desire hugely compelling and disturbing. It was obvious even at that stage – when assessments of both girls’ mental health were still ongoing (Geyser was later diagnosed with early-onset schizophrenia, a condition her father also suffers from) – that it was the girls’ obsessive friendship which had allowed them to inhabit this shared delusion. They told each other that they saw ‘Slendie’, trading stories and theories. They were scared of him, of course – but they also wanted him to be real, they wanted to believe. And so they did.
It was extremely powerful for me, this terrible example of the things we can convince ourselves – and our friends – are real, especially at that cusp of adolescence. While Slender Man himself makes for pretty terrifying reading, it was that idea which stayed with me, which drove me back to that stalled manuscript.
It’s funny – I grew up on a diet of Stephen King and Point Horror and yet there are only two books that have ever given me nightmares: Gordon Burn’s Happy Like Murderers and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Happy Like Murderers – Burn’s biography of Fred and Rose West – in particular stayed with me for weeks afterwards, still makes me feel ill when I think of it. But when I was reading it, I gulped it down. It fascinated and yet repulsed me, in an irresistible way, because I couldn’t stop reminding myself: This actually happened. In the coldest, darkest months of 2015, I took to walking the three miles home from work because I liked wrapping a scarf up round my face, putting my head down, and marching along listening to episodes of Serial. Somehow I had to be walking to give it my full attention – listening on the bus meant I drifted off or looked out the window and with Serial, I didn’t want that. I wanted to make sure I took in every tiny detail of the evidence being disputed, listened to every nuance of every interviewee’s answers; what they said, the way they said it, how it changed or confirmed everything we had learned before. It was not the same experience I have when reading even the most intricate of fictional mysteries, just as Making A Murderer, which I binge-watched in a couple of days in the same way I did with each season of Line of Duty or 24, was not entertaining in the way that they were. It was compulsive, it was rubbernecking, it was needing to know and being afraid that I might never be sure of the truth.
I knew I didn’t want to do something like that with Slender Man and with Geyser and Weier’s trial. Reading about the case had given me the electric jolt of inspiration I needed, but I was enjoying the freedom of creating my own mythology for the Tall Man, of exploring Sadie’s relationship with him as both a child and an adult, and how that might impact Amber, her daughter. But I did want to explore our – my – fascination with true crime too. And so, in those cold, dark months of 2015, the characters of documentary-maker Federica and assistant Greta began to take shape too. It was a new way of writing for me, because it meant approaching the murder that Amber eventually commits from opposite directions: events unfolding for Amber and Sadie in the past, whilst Greta tries to piece things back together for the documentary in the present day.
In an unexpected way, it forced me to think about the act of storytelling (which is, honestly, not ideal when you’re trying to lose yourself in the plot of a new project and let it flow); I was constantly having to ask myself where the story was and how Federica or Greta might try to shape it as filmmakers, where they would lay most importance, which moments of Amber and Sadie’s narratives would be given most airtime by them – and which by me. The truth about what happened in the woods exists in both versions of the story. But are either of them the full truth?
The true crime element proved most interesting to me when it came to writing Amber herself. She’s essential to the documentary team; their whole project hinges around getting her to behave herself in the way they want, to give them all the material they need to make a successful film about the terrible things that have happened to her and that she has done. But Amber is a difficult character to pin down. She’s treasured by her father, feared by her mother, loathed and worshipped by her friends. By the time Greta meets her in 2018, she has been vilified and obsessed over in the media (it’ll probably come as no surprise to anyone who reads the novel that Amanda Knox’s trial had a huge influence on me). The aim of the documentary (and, in many ways, the novel) is to get the truth about Amber, but the reality is that the team are trying to impose their own on her – Greta wants to see the victim in her, while cameraman Tom looks for confirmation of her badness; Federica, as producer, just wants her to perform. The only one of those versions of herself Amber knows how to be is the performer; she’s managed to shape a career out of it, out of giving people the Amber Banner of the tabloids and the frenzied internet forum theories. All of this means that as the subject of a documentary, she’s a nightmare – but it made her a dream to write. Just like me on those wintery walks home, Greta is afraid she’ll never get the answers she needs about the Banner women and the Tall Man. But maybe she should be scared that she will.