A modern day boogie man. This is how Slenderman is described in the new documentary BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN that aired earlier this week on HBO. Before I get into this review I'll say that going into this documentary I knew next to nothing about Slenderman; who he was, or what his motives may be. Of course, I had heard about the "legend" and was aware that he was an internet meme cooked up to spook young kids, I had heard about the near-fatal stabbing that occurred a few years ago but I didn't know much more than that. I don't know anyone in my age range who does, to be honest, and it seems like that is what HBO was looking to change with it's brand new film, BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN.
First off, I went into this film expecting a documentary on the mythos and story of how Slenderman came to be. This is not at all what this film is. This film tells the story of Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, a pair of twelve year old girls who attempted to "sacrifice" their best friend to Slenderman (or Slender, as they affectionately call him), in an attempt to get into his good graces. Just let that sink in for a moment: two little girls stabbed their best friend nineteen times in the name of an internet meme. Holy shit. This documentary is much more of a true crime documentary, than it is a documentary on stories and fabled boogie-men. It showcases the girl's confessions, the impact that it's had on their parents and loved ones as well as why they would be driven to commit such a heinous act. What would make them believe so wholly in a fantastical character spawned from the bowels of the internet?
As the film opens, we are introduced to Morgan and Anissa with an introductory focus on Morgan. Her mother tells us stories of what a sweet, albeit aloof, child that she was. She sang songs, played with her kitten and loved playing in piles of leaves. Pretty normal for a little girl, except for the fact that she showed almost a complete lack of empathy. Her mother tells us of the time in which she showed Morgan the film BAMBI for the first time, and instead of mourning the loss of Bambi's mother, she simply shouted at the titular deer to run and "save yourself". According to Mrs. Geyser, this is one of many examples in which she would react in a way that you would not expect a little girl to react in certain situations.
We are then introduced to Anissa's father, who goes on to tell us about his sweet and loving daughter, and how he could not have been more attentive or present in his daughter's life. The running narrative at this point is that we have two sets of parents who are in complete shock that their children could have committed such a crime. Can you blame them? I don't have children, so I am in no place to judge (and neither is anybody else, children or not). All that I can do is attempt to place myself in the position of these parents who are left to deal with the aftermath of what this ordeal with "Slender" has caused. And it's not pretty, or fun. The film goes on to take a look at the mythical Slenderman, and they begin to examine why two children would not only have such a firm belief in him, but as to why they would feel that they would need to kill for him.
In the girl's confession videos we see them deliver a cold and rather clinical confession describing the details of their crimes. They tell detectives that they feared for the lives of their families and that they needed to kill someone so that Slenderman would spare them and their families. They discuss a variety of plans that they had concocted, each failing until they decided to simply "wing it". We see these girls talk about how they stabbed their friend, and in the end described getting blood on their clothes as more of an inconvenience than the crime itself. While the film opens showcasing Morgan's lack of empathy, we soon see that Anissa has next to none herself. She may have shed a tear or two in the opening moments of her confession video, but watching her describe the stabbing is like watching a child talk about the events of an ordinary day at school. At a later point in the film, we watch a phone call take place in which an incarcerated Anissa speaks to her family and an old friend. Her chipper and upbeat demeanor are chilling. I found myself wondering how one can go back to leading such a cheery and happy existence after doing something like that. Yet, while we hear from Anissa, we hear nothing from Morgan. While the film started leading you to believe that perhaps Morgan was the emotionless driving force behind the crime, it becomes apparent that this not the case. At one point, Anissa admits that she wanted to kill Bella and find Slenderman in attempt to prove the skeptics wrong.
As I already mentioned, I knew next to nothing about Slenderman before watching this film (and I still don't), but now I know enough to be able to see that in a day and age where bullied kids can so easily escape from the banality of daily life in a tablet or laptop, Slenderman provides a safety blanket to protect them from the pain of their everyday lives. A meme that was bred out of a contest to photoshop the scariest, most realistic photo turned into a sensation in which thousands of kids are creating their own versions of Slender, each injecting their own experiences and fears into their own iteration. Slenderman became a savior to these kids, taking them away from abusive homes or abusive schoolyards, and giving them a home in "Slender Mansion". Is it so hard to see why two lonely, impressionable and bullied children would find sanctuary in a story like this? Unfortunately, according to the creepypasta, the price to enter Slender Mansion is paid in blood, and their best friend Bella was picked to pay their way.
At a certain point, I began to fear that this particular documentary was going to begin to point a finger at the internet and violent media as the scapegoat for this heinous crime. It was a relief to see that the filmmakers did not go this route, rather taking a look at the true root cause: mental illness. The final act of the film takes an in depth look at how Morgan's mental health played a major factor in persuading her that the Slender legend was in fact very real, and the toll that it has taken on her family and her well being. It becomes a harrowing look at how serious these issues can become if they go untreated, and yet, we are left with the realization that this entire situation was imply a perfect storm, one that almost seemed unavoidable. There is nothing to point a finger at, nothing to blame. It simply happened and no explanation can ever take the hurt away. It's heartbreaking, and it's destroyed the lives of three families who were simply happy that their beautiful young daughters had finally found friends who accepted them for who they are.
The film ends with a slew of fanart flashing across the screen, depicting Morgan and Anissa standing in the comforting embrace of Slenderman, but there is no happy ending here. Morgan and Anissa will be standing trial at a later date this year, and stand to be sentenced to 65 years in prison. In the end, what is the take-away here? How do we avoid something like this in the future? Ban your children from the internet and any media perceived as violent or "evil"? Unfortunately I don't think there is one, and that may be the scariest thing about this film.
Keep it spooky,
BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN is now available to stream on HBO Go.