The New Documentary 'Beware the Slenderman' Finds Harsh Reality in the Urban Legend

The New Documentary 'Beware the Slenderman' Finds Harsh Reality in the Urban Legend

Mar 21, 2016

In a Milwaukee suburb in 2014, two twelve year old girls took their friend to the woods and stabbed her multiple times to win the favor of internet boogeyman “Slenderman,” a lanky, faceless giant in a black suit and tie. They were hoping to kill their victim, then walk hundreds of miles to the national park where Slenderman’s mansion of devoted “proxies” could live protected for all eternity. The victim lived (and has since recovered) and the would-be killers were found by police wandering down a highway still carrying the bloodied knife. The event, so appalling in its crime and so baffling in its motivation, made national headlines.

Irene Taylor Brodsky’s documentary Beware the Slenderman is gut-wrenching in its attempt to answer the questions we all have about the case. How did this happen? Why? Could it have been prevented? Didn’t anyone tell these girls Slenderman isn’t real? Brodsky’s film gives a voice to the families of the guilty, the Geysers and the Weiers, and finds them making no easy excuses for their daughters.

Their questions mirror our own. They speak with a refreshing candor, every one accepting of their fate with varying degrees of anger and confusion. There’s no blame game in Beware the Slenderman; only overwhelming sadness over the whole damned thing.

There are asides that draw comparison to 2009’s Cropsey, another documentary about murder accusations and urban legends, and those are the less successful tangents of Beware of Slenderman. Cropsey isn’t nearly as emotional a film, so when it explores the roots of the Cropsey legend with a dash of horror movie flair, it’s successfully creepy. When Slenderman tries for the same, its creepy cutaways are a flat note when compared to the real tears falling from the faces of these girls’ fathers as they struggle to put into words how the stabbing has weighed on them.

It’s especially frustrating to hear pundits and folklorists weigh in on Slenderman’s legend as if it’s a modern day bigfoot, without really acknowledging the traceable digital trail that reveals the spook as the result of a 2009 photo contest on a comedy website. “You can’t prove he doesn’t exist,” is a repeated statement in the film that supports how difficult it was to get the girls to stop believing in Slenderman. 

But Slenderman isn’t some creature who’s been passed down for generations; it’s something a guy with Photoshop made. The pics were creepy enough to inspire fan fiction and DIY YouTube films, but this is still something borne of one person’s imagination. Eric Knudsen, the creator of Slenderman, acknowledged the murders in a perfunctory press statement, but even in that statement didn’t take the time to advise anyone who believes in his character that it’s not real. 

In no way is Knudsen responsible, but if you’re going to explore how an urban legend can spread over the internet, you also have to acknowledge that unlike other folktales, we can trace the root of the meme with precision. Knudsen’s seeming desire to keep Slenderman alive as a modern boogeyman is in conflict with any kind of disclaimer that would talk impressionable preteens into not believing everything they see online.

We digress; the film barely acknowledges Knudsen in its explanation of the Slenderman phenomenon. Brodsky’s real strength as a documentarian is not in these expositional asides, but in the trust and access she has to the Geysers and Weiers. Home movies reveal Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier as good kids, with modest, loving upbringings with only a mutual hunger for fantasy hinting at the crime to come.

Beware the Slenderman stages the psychological evaluation of Geyser and Weier as a bit of a third-act reveal, and that’s also a pity. By relegating the mental health discussion to the end of the movie, it may provide a tidier denouement but abbreviates the conversation about children’s mental health that the movie could have. More important than how kids use the internet to look up creepy stories and videos is the discussion on how parents can detect symptoms of mental illness within their children and how these symptoms can best be treated.

Still, the documentary comes highly recommended, as both a true crime tale and as a vital perspective from the parents of attempted murderers. It’s an unbearably sad film, and the images of these geeky preteens discussing the taking of a human life with unflappable, nonchalant certainty over their motivations will stay with you for a long, long time. Beware the Slenderman doesn’t flinch, doesn’t sensationalize, and doesn’t offer a sense of satisfaction, leaving you in a similar headspace as the parents Morgan and Anissa left behind.

Beware the Slenderman was part of the Documentary Spotlight program at SXSW. It arrives on HBO later this year.

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