RECOMMENDED: "BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN" ON HBO GO/PLUS
On May 31, 2014, two 12-year-old girls in suburban Waukesha, Wisconsin – Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier – allegedly lured a third friend around their same age into some nearby woods, then stabbed her 19 times with a kitchen knife. They later explained to authorities that they committed the crime – attacking but fortunately not killing young Payton "Bella" Leutner – in the hopes of pleasing Slenderman, a long-limbed supernatural creature popularized on YouTube, Tumblr, Creepypasta and online message boards.
Director Irene Taylor Brodsky's new film about the case, which played the SXSW Film Festival before debuting on HBO, looks at it from a variety of perspectives. The movie's primarily a true crime documentary, investigating the details of the stabbing and talking with the girls' families about the lead-up and aftermath. But it's also a look at the mythology of the Slenderman himself, how the meme started to grow and spread virally on the internet and what makes the strange figure without a face, haunting playgrounds in a suit and tie, so compelling to young people. It's also a fair-minded but ultimately sympathetic take on the state of Wisconsin's decision to put the girls on trial as adults.
Plus, there's a fascinating psychological element to the film, digging into Morgan and Anissa's own occasionally difficult backgrounds, and Morgan's family history of mental illness, trying to get at WHY these girls connected so much with what looks like, on the surface, a fairly traditional boogeyman. (One scene notes his physical similarities to the not-particularly-terrifying Jack Skellington from "Nightmare Before Christmas," and Morgan's mom observes that - as a girl - she was harmlessly fixated on Stephen King's "IT.")
There's no concrete answer to the Big Questions posed by the film: Did these girls REALLY believe they were killing their friend on behalf of a faceless, tentacled figure in a dark suit? Would either of them have become killers if they hadn't found one another and become close friends? How much, if any, responsibility does the internet, and heavy internet usage, bear for what happened?
Having said that, these are all fascinating questions, and the film does a very good job of considering them individually, but also presenting the intricate ways that all these factors intersected in Morgan and Anissa's lives. Perhaps, the film seems to say, it was the combination of adolescent loneliness and alienation, a tendency towards schizophrenia, relative independence, access to an iPad and the appealing, malleable grimness of the Slenderman stories that triggered the attack on Payton that day. And perhaps this is the scariest conclusion of all, because it's so complicated and unpredictable. How could you ever see it coming, or prevent it?
Title: "Beware the Slenderman"
Where to Watch: HBO Go/Now
Genre: True Crime
Runtime: 114 minutes