In this Highsnobiety Commentary piece, we review HBO’s new documentary Beware the Slenderman. To get up to speed, read these five facts you should know about the Slenderman before watching the doc.
Warning: Spoilers follow.
HBO’s recently released Beware the Slenderman documentary starts out as a gripping look at an internet meme taken too far, but ultimately winds up as a nuanced portrait of child mental health and the ramifications of undiagnosed and untreated illnesses. A story so far-fetched it could have easily been exploited for shock value, the filmmakers’ approach is instead humanizing and heartfelt.
In May 2014, two 12-year-old girls from Waukesha, Wisconsin attempted to stab their friend and fellow classmate to death in the name of an internet meme known as Slenderman. After repeatedly being stabbed 19 times with a 5-inch knife, the girl managed to crawl out of the forest and was found on the side of the road by a cyclist, barely alive. The two girls who carried out the attack, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, were found walking near an interstate highway, and were arrested. What followed was an admission of guilt, with mixed levels of remorse, but the most puzzling aspect was why the girls had attempted to murder their friend.
Spurred by an obsession with a fictional internet character-turned-meme known as the Slenderman, the girls not only believed that he was real and would visit them, but that he wanted them to kill their friend otherwise he would harm their families. Obsessed with his mythos – like many on the internet – the girls found themselves both fearful of and desiring his attention.
This is a key aspect of the entire narrative, and one of a few questions that the documentary raises – why would two 12-year-old girls want a bogeyman to be their friend? How could they confuse reality and imagination so much that they would kill for a internet character? And should the girls be tried as adults, considering Wisconsin’s law which states that all attempted murder charges for children older than 10 begin in adult court?
The girls’ parents make up much of the film’s analysis, offering considered and remorseful commentary on the girls’ upbringings. It’s heartbreaking to see, and becomes clear that like most parents, they had no idea of what was really going on in their daughters’ worlds. It’s clear both girls were very alone, ostracized by classmates until they found each other – and strangely their third friend, who they went on to stab – and eventually Slendy, as he’s affectionately called.
Eventually clues are offered which shed light on the case. Morgan Geyser, the girl responsible for the actual stabbing (albeit following Anissa Weier’s instructions) is revealed to have Childhood Onset Schizophrenia, which has been undiagnosed since as early as three years old. This is when my stomach dropped, as this tragic realization made sense of everything. Suffering from hallucinations, Morgan had been in a world of her own for years, having found friends in her head when there were none in real life.
Morgan’s father speaks of his own battle with Schizophrenia and his regret in not realizing his daughter’s diagnosis earlier. It’s one thing for an adult to be aware of what the disease means for them, but a child who has never consciously known anything outside of the illness is hard to take. The line between reality and imagination is non-existent in this case, and to know about Morgan’s lonely childhood, it’s hard not to understand her belief in fictional characters – they’re the only friends she’s ever known.
What Beware the Slenderman lacks in big plot developments, it makes up for by shedding light on the girls’ stories and states of mind. This documentary about a horror meme and a real-life attempted murder could have easily become exploitative, but instead it’s highlighted the growing mental health problems in our modern lives, which sadly don’t only affect adults.
The girls still haven’t gone to trial, but besides gaining some personal insights from them and their families, and Morgan’s initial psychiatric evaluation (Anissa Weier has since been diagnosed with a delusional disorder and schizotypy) no new information is gleaned.
Beware the Slenderman feels a little unfinished, but the girls’ stories are certainly not over yet. Considering the questions raised by film’s end – are the girls responsible for their actions? And who is really to blame here – their school community for neglect, their families and medical professionals for failing to notice signs of atypical behavior? Ultimately it’s no ones, and the most important question going forward is how can we help Morgan Geyser and Anissa Meier and any other children just like them.