It was hard to know how to react to the Slender Man stabbings when they first occurred. Part of me wanted to laugh: by that time, the fictional internet demon had become closer to a joke than a scary tale; Slenderman was basically a campy horror meme, even for those of us who had at one point been thoroughly spooked by the manipulative internet ghost stories. But something was unnerving about this case: had some fictional entitity leaked over from the digital world and into our daily lives?
This tension isn't exactly what Acadameny Award nominated director Irene Taylor Brodsky was going for in her HBO documentary Beware The Slenderman, which tells the real-life story of Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, two 12-year-old girls who stabbed their best friend as a sacrifice to the ghastly web creature. Beware The Slenderman does not aim for laughs or cheap scares, either of which would have been rather easy to do considering the devious creepypasta websites that Slenderman's mythos had originated on.
Instead, the two hour film explores the ramifications of the incident from a handful of lenses and investigates a variety of both very real and somewhat cerebral issues brought up the by the incident: what does the treatment of these girls after their crimes say about how we take care of the mentally ill? How does fiction operate on the Internet, where fact and fantasy are impossible to separate? Is Slender Man just a reinvention of older urban legends and fairy tales — and how did he morph into some kind of messiah for the downtrodden? What are the consequences of raising children with new technologies? What are the philosophical consequences of virality?
Consulting a wide range of experts from psychologists to philosophers (new athiest Richard Dawkins makes an annoyingly didactic appearance to give us a lecture on memes at one point) to members of Anissa and Morgan fansites, Brodsky's film covers a lot of intellectual ground but makes few declarative statements. Intercut between each segment are fan videos from YouTube (ranging from actually rather demented to downright goofy) depicting all of the various incarnations of the eponymous ghoul. But beneath the intellectuality and surreal visuals is a rather sad story of two socially anxious girls navigating the complexities of suburban girlhood. Similarly, the most heartwrenching segments are interviews with the parents of the tween assailants, who are doing their best to not blame themselves (and can't help but fail).
It was probably a smart decision to have a woman direct the movie: with so much careful and intimate attention paid to the awkwardness of female adolescence, it's not hard to imagine a less talented male director taking the film in a much more salacious direction by using jump-scares or playing up the brutal violence. Instead, Brodsky shows us crushing interviews with both girls' parents, who struggle daily with their daughters' crimes and waning mental health. Compounding tragedy on tragedy is the courtroom drama of the story, in which Brodsky underlines the terrible treatment of these clearly sick children by the American justice system, which will try them as adults despite their obvious (and terribly sad) cognitive defects. It might have been interesting to see the gendered aspect of this case unpacked a little bit more, though: would the story even have made headlines if these kids were boys?
A standout scene in the film shows Morgan's dad tearfully admitting that he had fought against his own mental illness his whole life — he sobs as he recounts being haunted by visions that he knew weren't real but couldn't help being terrified of. Is this now what his daughter suffers through every day? How could we — as a society — put this kid in jail and not offer her any kind of help?
The trials of Anissa and Morgan are ongoing. Their lawyers are now attempting to have the girls' confessions (which are also played throughout the documentary) thrown out — their teams are arguing (perhaps righteously) that the kids were coerced or coaxed. It used to be easy to laugh at this whole story, but after Beware The Slenderman, it just seems too sad.
[Photo: Wikimedia Commons]