Tag Archives: Wisconsin

The Slender Man, Fakelore, and Moral Panic

I recently wrote a guest post for the Wild Hunt, looking at the reporting on a horrific teen crime in Wisconsin and its supposed connections to a fictional Internet figure known as Slender Man. Click in through to see the whole thing, but here’s a taste:

Such approaches to the attack suggest that the Internet in general, and the Slender Man story in particular, are to blame. Put another way, they imply that without Creepypasta’s wiki, the girls never would have stabbed their classmate. Even the mainstream press has done everything it can to connect the Milwaukee stabbing with the Slender Man story in readers’ minds: most are referring to it as the “Slenderman stabbing” now. In other places, headlines have made clear what they want readers to think: “Fantasy ‘Slender Man’ Meme Inspires Horrific Wisconsin Stabbing,” “Demonic Creature ‘Slender Man’ Motive For Waukesha Teen Stabbing?” “Could a fictional Internet character drive kids to kill?”

Top 10 backward messages of 2012

James Holmes: Six months later, do we know why he did it?

We’re coming to the end of Backward Messages’ second year, and what a year it was. We had some immense tragedies, including mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado; Madison, Wisconsin; and Newtown, Connecticut. Goths around the world also took a major hit, with attacks in Iraq and Britain, but a goth singer in the United States surprised everyone. The word “Satan” was tossed around, as it always is, describing everything from Lady Gaga to the Hunger Games.

Last year we looked back at the blog’s top 5 posts, but I wanted to go a little broader. Here’s what drew people most in 2012:

1. Let’s play “imagine the Aurora killer’s motivations!” After James Holmes killed a dozen people in a movie theater, the press had a field day trying to answer one deceptively small question: why?

2. Young opera singer proves goth culture can nurture: Although he didn’t last long on “America’s Got Talent,” Andrew De Leon surprised his audience by (gasp!) not sounding like a monster. Go figure.

3. New Yorker cartoon: the pagan version of blackface: Why are Wiccans still depicted like ugly old hags?

4. Are “The Hunger Games” sacrifices Satanic? I can’t believe I even had to ask that question.

5. Goth, metalhead beaten in separate UK attacks: In the UK, being different remains an unfortunate liability.

6. It’s time to listen to the moms of violent young men: After Newtown, how long will it be before we help young men struggling with violent thoughts — and support their families?

7. Bloody bath lands Lady Gaga in hot water: This wasn’t the first or last time Gaga was called “Satanic” this year, but it was one of the more creative. She was also banned from several countries, on the grounds that her stage show is Satanic.

8. “The New Satanism” in heavy metal: Speaking of Satanic, heavy metal persists in not being as Satanic as its reputation makes it out to be, but there are a handful of musicians keeping the faith.

9. Ohio shooting: What’s “goth” got to do with it? After Columbine, the press has found ways to link almost every youth-committed mass shooting with goth culture. And every time, reporters have been wrong.

10. Iraqi youth stoned to death after leaders link emo culture to Satanism, homosexuality: One of the most heartbreaking stories of the year.

Happy new year, everyone. See you in 2013!

Violent video games, Satan, and murder (again)

Did video games make Peter Charles John Jensen, left, shoot his wife? Did Satan make Christopher Roalson, right, stab an elderly woman to death? If not, why are police, prosecutors, and the press mentioning it?

On Sept. 25, police in Jacksonville, Florida, charged Peter Charles John Jensen with murder. Allegedly, he apparently was “playing violent video games under the influence of some type of drug,” police said, before he got into an argument with his wife, Karina, and shot her. A witness — who was playing video games with Jensen — reported the shooting, and fled when Jensen pointed the gun at him. Karina was dead when police arrived and found her.

A few days earlier, a Hayward, Wisconsin, jury found Christopher Roalson guilty of first-degree murder. Roalson, along with accomplice Austin Davis, broke into 93-year-old Irena Roszak’s Radisson house and stabbed her to death in 2009. They have called it a “thrill kill,” and Davis told the court that he heard screaming and someone saying “Hail Satan” coming from Roszak’s bedroom the night of the murder. Roalson also reportedly claimed he was “Satan’s son” as he and Davis left the house that night.

As you can see, the headline in the Jensen case is:
Man killed wife in Julington Creek shooting Saturday, police say
Police: He played video games and took drugs before the slaying.

And for Roalson, the lede in a Duluth newspaper:
A Sawyer County jury on Friday found 30-year-old Christopher Roalson guilty in the murder of 93-year-old Irena Roszak, a case that officials called a “thrill kill” with satanic overtones.

Coverage in both cases has been sketchy and doesn’t point to a clear, legitimate motive. Maybe that’s why everyone has latched onto these sensationalistic but meaningless details. I can point to Jensen’s glazed demeanor and compare it to that of (allegedly schizophrenic) Aurora, Colorado, shooter James Holmes, but that’s guesswork at best. How we can get through an entire trial, in Roalson’s case, and not be clear on why he killed an elderly woman, is beyond me — especially since you have to prove premeditation for first-degree murder, and premeditation suggests a motive.

Instead, we’re left with violent video games, drugs, and Satan: scary things many people don’t understand, but are happy to consider valid motivations for killing — as valid as any other impetus we also might not understand. We’re also left with the impression that these things might make anyone else commit murder. Better take them away before that happens, right?

In Sikh shooting, don’t blame the metalheads

There’s no need for this.

It’s rare, and very sad, to have three mass shootings in the news at the same time. Yesterday in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Wade Michael Page opened fire in a Sikh temple, killing six congregants and wounding others, including a police officer, before police shot and killed him. It comes just as we are still making sense of the movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, two weekends ago, and as Tucson, Arizona shooter Jared Loughner returns to court tomorrow and is expected to change his plea from “insanity” to “guilty.”

One of the problems I’ve seen with the American public’s analysis and understanding of those who commit mass shootings is that we tend to forget the details over time. Right now, as awful as it is, we have the opportunity to look at three suspects — and coverage of them — side by side: Page, Holmes, and Loughner.

Page: His identity was just revealed this morning, and so far the coverage has focused on three things: his military service, his apparent white-supremacy leanings, and the fact that he played in a hardcore band that expressed those leanings. Early on in the reporting cycle, this is typical; we hear about the surface-level stuff, but deeper issues take time for journalists to tease out. Page was also an army veteran. He was never deployed. It’s unlikely he had PTSD, but possible that other mental issues made him unfit for military service. It’s also possible that his political views took him to a rare and extreme place. We won’t know for a while, yet.

Holmes: At first, there was speculation about whether violent movies or video games inspired him to kill 10 people and injure dozens more. Some also questioned whether the Devil — or demonic possession — was involved. We now know Holmes had deep psychological issues that worried his doctors, and that he was dropping out of grad school — often a sign of worsening mental illness.

Loughner: Again, early reports were way off. Reporters pegged Loughner as a metal fan and an occultist, when in reality it looks like he was deeply disturbed. He has spent the better part of the last year and a half in a psychiatric unit. Now, doctors think they have restored him to a level of competency that would allow him to stand trial. The question remains: was he mentally sound when he fired into that Tucson crowd?

Frequently, psychological issues are core to these men’s struggles. I’m not saying all mentally ill folks are time bombs ready to go off. It isn’t like that. Most people with mental-health struggles, just like most video-game fans, most occultists, most Satanists, most goths, most metalheads, and so on, are not going to hurt anyone. Ever.

What I am saying is, since we know that mental-health issues are central to many mass shootings, what purpose does it serve to call Page a “metal head” on the front page of a major news site — other than to make it sound like his affiliation with metal somehow sparked the killing (it didn’t)? Or even to suggest that metalheads are somehow more likely to fire guns into churches where people are congregating peacefully (they aren’t).

Sure, I know that reporters are also trying to give readers a picture of who this guy was. But the way we dissect these reports, we’re looking for clues — why did he do it? Every piece of information becomes part of the blame game. And when we look in the wrong places, not only does it reinforce negative, incorrect stereotypes about unrelated groups (such as metal fans), but it keeps us from looking in the right places. And that’s the only thing that will help us prevent such tragedies in the future.

Want to grow a headbanger or a heavy-metal band? This map will show you the best climates.

This map shows concentrations of metal bands per capita around the world. (Click for larger version.)

This awesome map (sourced mainly from metal-archives.com) has been circulating on the Internet for the past few months, but it wasn’t until recently that someone put it into context. Richard Florida, a writer for the Atlantic and a researcher for Rentfrow, had this to say about the places were metal bands (and fans) might congregate:

Several psychological studies link heavy metal to personality types that are drawn to “intense and rebellious” music (which includes rock and alternative as well as heavy metal). …

My own research with Rentfrow and others shows that intense music preferences (including preferences for heavy metal music) are geographically strongest in the upper plains states of Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska as well as New Mexico, Nevada and Missouri in the United States. The study also found preferences for heavy metal strongest in states with large proportions of white residents.

Although the map doesn’t have a state-by-state breakdown for metal fans (alas), his descriptions of the plains states in particular match closely with other parts of the world with high concentrations of metal bands, particularly Scandinavia. Heck, even Canada has more metal bands than the US, and if any part of North America is most like Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska, it’s Canada.

So, what does this tell us about metal fans that can help us understand why they like the music so much? As mentioned, headbangers tend to be more on the intense side of the personality spectrum — something Jeffrey Jensen Arnett discussed in his groundbreaking book Metalheads. We can also speculate that kids who grow up in parts of the world with extreme weather are probably stuck indoors more — giving them fewer physical outlets for that intense, rebellious feeling. They can channel that energy into any number of things, but listening to metal is one outlet. Making it is another, and as we can see from the maps, the more extreme the weather (in the developed world), the more likely folks are to play this music.

But don’t just take it from me. Recently, a metalhead in Wisconsin (not a plains state, but not far from it) urged people to tune in to heavy metal’s finer qualities. In it, he describes the point of all that screaming so many people find unlistenable — even disturbing — as well as the relentless pace of the music.

Though the origins of screaming have been mostly lost to the ages, it was perhaps popularized by the aptly nicknamed Screamin’ Jay Hawkins of “I Put a Spell on You” fame. Other blues artists adopted the technique both for volume and emotional reasons. These justifications persist today for many bands that use harsh vocals; just as a singer such as Christina Aguilera may use crescendos to emphasize strong emotion and feeling in lyrics, metal vocalists may utilize screaming. This is not true in all cases, as screaming has largely become the norm in aggressive music styles. Still, aside from expressing emotion, screaming has another use: vocal instrumentation.

Screaming, when used as an instrument, reinforces or complicates rhythms in music. Perhaps the vocalist screams to match percussion strikes, bass lines or rhythm guitar playing, or perhaps the vocalist’s cadence further adds to the chaotic cornucopia of rhythms that populate intense, heavy music.

Whatever the application, listeners can think of screaming as a kind of loud poetry.

What do you think, metal fans? Do certain parts of the globe lend themselves more to headbanging? Do certain types of people tend to live in those places, or is it the geography that makes the metalhead?

Girl Scouts oust mom over metal/horror website

Girl Scout leader Stacy Hintz was fired after authorities discovered her support for her husband’s Web site, “Wisconsin Sickness.”

Apparently, in Wisconsin, if you want to pitch in with the Girl Scouts — as Stacy Hintz did, volunteering for years with her daughter’s troop and becoming a leader in the Southeast Wisconsin Girl Scouts — you’re not allowed to do anything the Scouts don’t like. Even if it’s on your own time.

Hintz was sacked after a fellow mom found out Hintz supports her husband’s Web site, Wisconsin Sickness, which features local heavy metal bands and celebrates popular horror fiction. A banner on the site, advertising the “Zombie Porn Star official t-shirt,” prompted one news outlet to proclaim, “Zombie porn and serial killers in Girl Scouts?”


Wisconsin Sickness is all about “bringing the independent, underground Wisconsin scene together,” according to the site. Perfectly acceptable entertainment for adults — and Hintz says she never showed the site to the girls in her troop. In fact, she had such a great record with the organization that shortly before the tattletale mom stepped forward, Hintz had been invited to represent Wisconsin at a national gathering of the Girl Scouts. But other leaders soon changed their tune:

Tracy Wayson, spokesperson for the Southeast Wisconsin Girl Scout branch, told the station that she disagrees, saying that Hintz’s personal life seeped into her duties.

“We didn’t look into her performance at all…That was not the focus of our fact finding mission,” Wayson told WTMJ.

“What we really need to step in on is when those personal activities seep into their role as a Girl Scout volunteer, and in this case, that’s what happened.”

Why would they ask Hintz to represent the state at a national Girl Scouts conference if her involvement with the Web site was “seeping into her role?”

Here’s what they said in their dismissal letter:

Following an internal review, we are reaffirming the notice of February 9, 2012 removing you from all of your volunteer positions with Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast. This action is being taken due to violations of policy, including your endorsement, while in a Girl Scout capacity, of a website service that does not live up to the Girl Scout standards and principles.

Hintz says she was devastated to be asked to leave. The Milwaukee AV Club reports that Hintz’s co-leader stepped down and five girls were pulled from the troop after Hintz was booted.

Now, what the Girl Scouts are actually saying, in this instance, is that anyone who enjoys entertainment — horror fiction, zombie play-acting, heavy metal, etc. — that the Scouts find offensive can’t be involved with the Girl Scouts. And that may also mean their daughters can’t be involved, either.

The Girl Scouts “Blue Book” (PDF) provides bylaws, policies, and other information for Scout leaders, including this “promise” and “law”:

On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.

I will do my best to be
honest and fair,
friendly and helpful,
considerate and caring,
courageous and strong, and
responsible for what I say and do,
and to
respect myself and others,
respect authority,
use resources wisely,
make the world a better place, and
be a sister to every Girl Scout.

… they’re not exactly living up to either one, are they?

Authors: our books didn’t fuel “Satanic werewolf” tryst

Why did so many journalists take this book seriously, just because it wad found at a crime scene?

Rebecca Chandler and Raven Larrabee — the duo behind a Milwaukee sexual/cutting incident gone wrong — may be out on bail, but the hysteria over their supposedly occult-fueled tryst still hasn’t died down.

It was only a matter of time before the authors of the books found at the crime scene got wind of the story reporters were spinning. Somehow, the presence of such humor texts as The Werewolf’s Guide to Life, or the high-level occult tome The Necromantic Ritual Book, turned an off-the-beaten-path sexual encounter (one the participants admitted got out of hand) into something “Satanic” (or even Twilight-inspired). If police had found a copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, would they have blamed the bouillabaisse?

Leilah Wendell, author of The Necromantic Ritual Book, was livid about the association of her book with the crime. In a Facebook post, she said:

People seriously need to READ THE BOOKS they are accusing BEFORE looking like ignorant idiots. Two mentally disturbed children and another equally disturbed and obviously lonely individual does NOT a satanic orgy make. Get your facts straight and for the love of whatever you believe in, STOP going for shock value and appeasing the media frenzy and get these people the help they need … NOW!

Ritch Duncan, one of the co-authors of The Werewolf’s Guide to Life, was frightened and baffled by the media frenzy, as he wrote in Salon. “I called my coauthor Bob, and after rereading the article and several others, I was relieved to discover that the victim of the encounter was not dead, would apparently make a full recovery, and did not appear to be pressing charges. … Bob reminded me that our book is shelved in the humor section, and there is nothing in it that encourages violence. Even if one were deluded enough to believe it was true, it’s still 200 pages of instruction on how NOT to hurt yourself or others.”

Now, I’m a reporter by trade, and when I first read the articles mentioning this book, my initial instinct was to look it up on Amazon to see what kind of book it was. This takes roughly 10 seconds. I find it difficult believe that this action didn’t occur to others reporting on the story — and yet somehow, that’s exactly what happened. Lots of journalists took it on faith that the book was meant to be taken seriously, and that it might have had something to do with the attack. Duncan writes:

Even worse than being misrepresented in the media was how lazy it all seemed to be. If the reporters charged with covering this story actually spent five seconds looking up what the book was about (they certainly had the time to do a Google search and steal an image of the cover), they could have mentioned it was filed under the “humor/parody” section. … But as I read more of these stories, I came to the depressing conclusion that it wasn’t laziness to blame, it was tailoring. In story after story, the facts of the case actually seemed less important than the details that appealed to a particular website’s niche. Those that worked were pushed forward, and those that weren’t got held back.

Granted, Web sites and blogs aren’t the same thing as newspaper articles. Still, bloggers are beholden to defamation laws and should behave accordingly. And readers should be very, very careful not to take what they read — in newspapers or online — at simple face value. Look at a writer’s sources. Who are they quoting? What are the facts, and where did that information come from? Think it through. Try to see the real human beings behind the headlines. And don’t support sites that care more about their hit counts than they do about the people they’re exploiting to get those hit counts.