Considering our ongoing and understandable collective obsession with Slenderman, it's not a surprise that HBO cashed in on the phenomenon with the documentary Beware the Slenderman. It's a story that fits neatly into a true crime doc: the mythical meme origins, the credence given to parents' worst fears about the depths of the internet, the horror around two children repeatedly stabbing another child, and the debate about how to prosecute 12-year-olds who may not have fully understood what they were doing—and whether they should be tried as juveniles or adults. What's notable about Beware the Slenderman is that it doesn't turn into exploitative, sensational fare, instead presenting the facts in such a calm, simplistic way that the end result mirrors a chilling horror film.
The doc, which premiered on HBO last night, doesn't aim to find the culprits. We already know who they are, after all: On May 31, 2014, two friends, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, stabbed another friend, Payton "Bella" Leutner, 19 times in the woods of Waukesha, Wisconsin. The attackers fled, while Bella crawled her way to the side of the road to survival. If the attempted murder wasn't fucked up enough, the reasoning behind it certainly was: Anissa and Morgan tried to kill Bella because of a meme.
"I didn't want to do this," Anissa says on her crime; when pressed as to why she did, she responds, "I was afraid of what would happen if I didn't." The two girls thought they had to kill to prove Slenderman was real—to stop him from killing their "families and loved ones" so they could live in Slender Mansion, where the rest of the Creepypastas live. Slenderman is arguably the most popular of the Creepypasta stories; first originating in 2009 as part of a Photoshop contest on Something Awful, he's often described as a tall, thin, faceless figure in a suit, with tentacles that strangle his victims. Slenderman took off in the way all the best memes do: It grew, adapted, persisted, and popped up in mainstream media and television shows—this case even resulted in a Law and Order: SVU episode featuring a fictional version called "Glasgowman."
Skillfully directed by documentarian Irene Taylor Brodsky, Beware the Slenderman doesn't need to get into the "whodunnit," so it instead deeply focuses on the why. To do so, Brodsky first goes back to the origins of the Creepypasta creature—as well as a general 101 course on memes—with help from digital archivists, KnowYourMeme.com, and, yes, Richard Dawkins. Brodsky slowly builds the creepy world of Slenderman while also slowly building the world of the young girls through home videos, family interviews, police-interrogation videos, and eventually courtroom footage (the only time the girls' faces are hidden). These worlds—the online meme world, the real murderous world—combine in ways that are utterly disturbing, especially at a time where we all basically have unhealthy relationships with the internet.
Of course, as adults, we can (mostly) separate fact from fiction, and internet from real life. For Anissa and Morgan, it's a little trickier. But the documentary isn't as interested in demonizing the internet as it is about how the internet interacts with young children, people who are easily persuaded, and those who suffer from mental illness. Rather than demonize Anissa and Morgan, the doc tries to get inside of their brains to find any explanations. In one interview, Morgan's mother recalls her daughter watching Bambi, and how surprising it was that Morgan wasn't at all sad when the mother died, apparently signifying an early lack of empathy. Eventually, we learn that Morgan's father suffers from schizophrenia, and that she likely does, too.
In another especially unsettling segment, the film goes through Anissa's YouTube history: rabbits eating berries and a faulty toaster lead to "Are you a psychopath?" quizzes, dead baby jokes, and a cat killing a mouse. Anissa's father tries to talk out his technological concerns—one daughter is incarcerated because of her allegiance to the internet, while his son happily plays on an iPad—but it's clear that neither he nor the documentary has answers.
But the most disturbing and chilling aspects of Beware the Slenderman all take place during the interrogations. Morgan and Anissa responses are plain, distanced, matter-of-fact—and seemingly without remorse. Their insistence on why they had to stab their friend—for Slenderman!—is persistent throughout. They casually talk about their original plan (to commit the murder at a sleepover), the tips they learned from the internet (it's easier to kill someone when they are sleeping, so you don't have to see their eyes), and how they lured Bella into the woods (a hiding game, naturally). At one point, one of the girls wants to know how far she walked before picked up by the cops, because she's not normally an athletic person. These scenes depict a disquieting contrast between how they reacted and how we perceive a child's reaction should be. This contrast is even hammered home in the courtroom proceedings: The camera lingers on their animal-print socks, their childish Mary Jane shoes, their youthful inability to sit still.
Beware the Slenderman doesn't leave viewers with easy explanations or a hard ending—the trial is still ongoing—but instead leaves us with an overall feeling of unease and a haunting view of the internet that will be hard to shake.
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