My notes on the HBO documentary Beware the Slenderman, which screened at the Fantasia Film Festival.
In 2014, three twelve-year-old girls went out for a day trip into woods near Waukesha, Wisconsin. At the end of a game of hide and seek, Morgan Geyser – with at least the connivance and at worst encouragement of Anissa Weier – stabbed the third girl, Payton ‘Bella’ Leutner, nineteen times. Not only did Morgan and Anissa leave their friend to die, they told her to stay still while they went to fetch help and then did something else … haring off on a quest to find the mansion of an internet bogeyman. Bella managed to crawl to a road and was saved. Her two friends – Morgan was her longtime best friend, though Anissa was a newer acquaintance – were picked up by the police and calmly, in fact numbly, owned up to what had happened. Despite the fact that the connection hogged the headlines, there’s a crucial vagueness about the way the crime relates to Slenderman. At times, the girls seem to believe murder was to be an entrée into the Slender Mansion where they would be elevated …at others, it’s suggested Morgan felt she had to kill her friend or else she and her family would be punished.
This documentary feature by Irene Taylor Brodsky picks up on a story which was well-reported and comes at it from several angles. She uses footage of interviewes with the young arrestees and their court appearances – forced to focus on the backs of their heads or their shackled feet because the judge ruled their faces not be filmed until he’d passed a ruling on whether they should be tried as adults or in the juvenile system – to drive a true crime narrative. Initially, the film sketches in the background of the Slenderman modern legend and the growth of internet memes as urban myths, relating the character to the Pied Piper (cue extracts from a creepy Czech cartoon). One of the kids draws Slenderman alongside Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas, but that’s the only nod to more recent pop culture bogeymen like Freddy Krueger or Candyman (and such Slenderman lookalikes as the Babadook and the Silence from Doctor Who). There’s doubtless a film to be made about the rise of exquisite corpse myth figures on sites like Creepypasta, where cryptoparanormal research overlaps with fan fiction (including art and animations) in a crowdsourced internet equivalent of the create-a-ghost experiment. Beware the Slenderman eventually skitters away from that and focuses on the crime in hand. It doesn’t namecheck Constance Kent, Mary Bell, the Heavenly Creatures case or the murderers of Jamie Bulger, but it’s plain Morgan and Anissa are in the line of descent from these killer children – their victim only survived through luck.
Interviews with the families of the accused (though not the victim) show adults struggling to come to terms with their kids’ actions: Anissa’s father worries about the prevalence of i-Pads in school while Morgan’s parents face her diagnosis of schizophrenia (which the girl might have inherited from her father). Because the case is ongoing, Brodsky can’t speculate about what really happened or why. Between the lines, the relationship between the three girls seems much more complicated than anyone cares to admit and there’s a sense (as with Heavenly Creatures) of an ultimately dangerous mix of the different character traits of Morgan and Anissa which lead to violence. There’s a seam throughout of grown-ups who don’t get the kids’ references – not knowing who Snape is, for instance, or ever asking whether Payton named herself Bella after the heroine of Twilight – and a dark look at a side of fandom whereby Morgan appears to identify with Mr Spock because his Vulcan lack of emotion might well be analogous to her incipient mental disorder.
A chilly coda, which takes a while to sink in, looks at Slenderman/Morgan/Anissa fan-art, animations and tribute pages. If anyone I loved was victim of an assault and the perps’ fans made a cute cartoon of the crime I imagine I’d want to turn vigilante. This comes after the film has got away from Slenderman to wrestle with hard-to-gauge truths of the matter, only for the amorphous mememaking corners of the internet to surge up again unhelpfully.