On May 31, 2014, two 12-year-old girls stabbed a classmate after seeing the viral bogeyman Slenderman in their dreams. The world was baffled at how a known fictional creation could have such an impact on the real world. Director Irene Taylor Brodsky tries to untangle the web of confusion in Beware the Slenderman, which made its debut at South by Southwest earlier this year. HBO continues its dominance in the long-form news documentary with this in-depth look at the attack. But, probably because of the age of the players, Brodsky’s investigation stays respectful, clear and never gives in to the temptations of sensationalism, regardless of how sensational the myth and reality came to be.
The Creepy Pasta urban legend Slenderman made his presence known on this side of reality in a grisly attack in southeastern Wisconsin. After a birthday sleepover, two preteen girls, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, lured their 12-year-old friend Payton Leutner into the woody barrier around David’s Park for a haphazard game of hide-and-go-seek on a Saturday morning. They stabbed her 19 times. According to the forensic reports, one of the 19 stab wounds missed a major artery near Weier’s heart by a millimeter.
Leutner was found by a bicyclist on the side of a road covered in blood. Her assailants had already begun to trek to Nicolet National Forest, where they hoped the sacrifice would earn them entry to a mansion owned by the faceless Slenderman.
The filmmakers go out of their way to show how desolate that area of Wisconsin can be, even if it’s not so far from the city of Milwaukee. Over the course of eighteen months Brodsky’s team of videojournalists talk with detectives, lawyers, psychologists, social media experts and the assailants’ parents to unravel how the impressionable outsiders could take a tall story of a faceless man so seriously. They uncover that the character has crept into the collective subconscience of a whole class of cybernauts.
Slenderman is one of the most famous memes that Creepypasta has perpetuated. The modern mythological creature was created as an art and photography contest entry by Eric Knudsen. It first appeared in 2009 on the Something Awful website. It is a mysterious, possibly supernatural creature with elongated limbs and no face that has given birth to a slew of stories, images, an ever-morphing mythology and has gone on to become a monster in the Minecraft video games.
The stories were shared over peer-to-peer message groups, where the legends grew as artists and fans contributed chapters and verses. Slenderman wears a black suit and likes either eating children or saving them, depending on who is telling the story. When a kid sees Slenderman’s face, they can’t look away and are frozen in place. The first sign that a victim is on the Slenderman menu is that the victims begin to have nightmares about him.
The girls said they learned about Slenderman from Creepypasta Wiki. “Something like this was bound to happen, considering the size of the Creepypasta community,” Creepypasta Wiki said in a statement at the time. “All it takes is one person to do something insane and radical in the name of someone or something. There is a line between fiction and reality, and it is up to you to realize where the line is. We are a literature site, not a crazy satanic cult.”
Slenderman has been called the “Cthulhu of the 21st century.” Cthulhu was created by seminal horror writer H. P. Lovecraft for the short story “The Call of Cthulhu,” that was published in Weird Tales in 1928. The character had a life of its own. Resurrected by Lovecraft for several more stories, a cult of sorts arose around Cthulu, some believing it to be a real ancient cosmic force. Lovecraft’s creation gets as much credit for occult sciences as Aleister Crowley or Eliphas Levi, renowned Left Hand Path scholars.
The documentary likens Slenderman to the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The pied piper was an outsider who saved a town from a plague of rats by playing a mesmerizing tune on his flute and leading them to jump off a cliff to a watery death. When the town fails to pay the piper for his services, his flute whistles a different tune. The adults fall into a stupor while their children follow the leader to a glistening portal in a mountain that swallows them up and closes behind them.
It’s all fun and games until a little girl is left bleeding in the woods. The girls wanted to be swallowed up in a mansion in the tangled trees of Nicolet. They told police they wanted to kill their friend so they could become proxies of Slenderman. The cops say that the girls began planning the attack in December of 2013.
The documentary uses some of the interrogation footage, including an excerpt where Morgan tells the cops she sees Slenderman in her dreams. She told police that the misunderstood mythological man watches her. She believes that Slenderman can read her mind and teleport. They confess their crimes slowly and somewhat evasively, like the kids they are. They are sent to their rooms in a vastly different kind of detention than might have been meted out at Horning Middle School.
Now the parents and their children are separated. They get their weekly visits and the occasional pre-paid phone calls, but each are isolated in their own personal prisons. In one heartbreaking scene, Anissa defines a good day as one where she is not given any trouble. She is so excited by the prison call from her family and friends that she says she is spinning around on the floor with her feet in the air. Her father tells her to “dial it back a notch.”
Anissa’s father blames iPads and the easy access kids have to the uncensored dark corners of the internet. He did his due diligence, watching what his daughter browsed. He thought nothing of the faceless man in the dark suit when he saw it on her screen. All kids love horror stories, right? He loses some points for wearing a Superman t-shirt. You might think that someone who is being interviewed about how his kid might have lost the ability to tell fact from fiction would put on a shirt that didn’t advertise fantasy.
Or is it a lack of empathy? One of the girls’ mothers remembers that her daughter had a hard time feeling the pain of others. Morgan Geyser was always comfortable in her own world. She never tried to fit in and found refuge in play, music and her beloved cat. But her love of animals didn’t translate to the Disney worldview. Geyser didn’t cry when Bambi’s mom died. She was fully invested in the young doe and focused solely on the frantic escape from the hunter’s bullets. Her mother thinks she should have seen that as a warning sign. She will forever beat herself up for it. But what could she really have done differently? And why?
During the interrogations, it is difficult to see where childhood imagination and disassociation separate. Each of the assailants have different reactions to the killings. Anissa is curious to know if their friend was still alive. Morgan is interested in how far she traveled on her way to the national park, because she is not a very athletic child. She repeats the most surface details of Slenderman’s doing as proof that he could do them and why she would do what she did. The girls were both reluctant to stab their friend, and had to psyche themselves into the actual deed. Anissa leaned in very close to her friend to whisper she was sorry before she got “stab, stab, stabby” on her. Morgan strayed to a safe distance before giving the order to attack. The two admit but don’t see the conspiracy, the admission and the separation they level.
The documentary also posits about how an internet meme might become real to a person suffering from schizophrenia. Without giving too much away, it runs in one of the girls’ families. The dad is heartbroken at relaying his own struggles. He doesn’t bother to fight back tears as he empathizes with his child and wonders if the things he’s seen out of the corners of his eyes aren’t the same things that slip into his daughter’s peripheral vision.
The two girls are ultimately charged as adults in Waukesha County Circuit Court, with first-degree attempted homicide. If convicted, both girls face up to 60 years in prison.
Beware the Slenderman is in-depth and raises as many questions as it answers. As internet memes move into a virtual future and people have their most intimate communications in isolation, it is hard to say which minds will slip into madness of modern mythology.