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HBO's Beware the Slenderman uses a disturbing true crime to show how the internet can warp reality

In 2014, two girls stabbed a classmate over an urban legend. This new documentary goes deep on why.

Morgan Geyser (left) and Anissa Weier (right), shown in May 2014, the night before the crime took place.
HBO

Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier were each 12 years old in the summer of 2014, when they lured their friend, fellow sixth-grader Payton “Bella” Leutner, into the woods near their Waukesha, Wisconsin, suburb.

What happened next became international news and launched a piece of internet lore into real-world conversation: Geyser and Weier stabbed Leutner 19 times, then left her to die, in hopes that her death would make them worthy of becoming servants to a dark urban legend known as the Slender Man.

Their crime is now the subject of a new HBO documentary, Beware the Slenderman, that goes deeper than a typical true crime doc in fascinating ways. Through a broad lens encompassing everything from mental illness to internet culture and the impact it can have on kids steeped in an online fantasy world, director Irene Taylor Brodsky explores the two people and the myth behind the case. In so doing, she raises a number of unexpectedly timely questions about the role of the internet in shaping systems of belief.

Rating


3.5

The story of Slender Man is a famous internet urban legend

Slender Man — often written Slenderman, or even Slendy, as he is known to his masses of fans — is a fictional character. He was created in 2009 on the web forum Something Awful by a user known as Victor Surge, real name Eric Knudsen.

Knudsen, who was participating in a paranormal Photoshop contest on the forum, posted two now-famous images of a very tall, eerily thin figure with tentacled arms looming over groups of children. In the first, the figure seems to be corralling the kids toward something ominous; it is part Pied Piper, part Blair Witch. In the second, the figure stands in the background of a playground with a group of little girls playing in his shadow.

One of Knudsen’s two original “photos” of Slender Man, seen in the background (left) beside a group of children.
Eric Knudsen / DeviantART

The caption Knudsen used beneath one of the photos presented the images as if they had surfaced after a mysterious fire corresponding to the disappearance of several children:

One of two recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as "The Slender Man". Deformities cited as film defects by officials. Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence.

Beneath the other photo, he included a “quote” from the fictional photographer:

"We didn't want to go, we didn't want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time..."

These two little snippets of text seemed to immediately inspire many of the people who read them. On the Something Awful thread, others began expanding the concept of Slender Man, using him in their own stories and making more artwork. From there, the character spread to several online forums dedicated to urban legends and horror writing — always appearing as an eerie, terrifying figure who often came for, or was only seen by, children who disappeared with him into the woods.

Thus, the myth of Slender Man was born, featuring both a strange connection to childhood and a weird mix of comfort and terror. The Creepypasta Wiki, for example, claims that he “preys on children ... almost exclusively” — and it was there that Anissa Weier first learned about the Slender Man.

Weier and Geyser spent weeks planning their crime

Beware the Slenderman uses extensive footage of the girls’ interrogation sessions with police, taped after their arrests, in which they describe their crime and the events leading up to it freely and in detail. Weier reveals that she became obsessed with the Slender Man legend, and that when she told Geyser about it, Geyser was convinced she had been seeing the Slender Man all her life.

The two hatched a plan to become “proxies,” or servants, of the Slender Man by proving themselves worthy through a brutal act: murdering Geyser’s best friend, Leutner. They planned to then walk together into the wilds of Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, where they believed the Slender Man lived in a mansion and would be waiting to welcome them.

Geyser and Weier discussed the crime for months before committing it. They planned a sleepover with Leutner at Geyser’s house on May 31, 2014 — just two weeks after Geyser’s 12th birthday — but ultimately decided against their original idea to kill Leutner while she slept; according to both girls, Geyser wanted to give her one last night to be alive.

The next morning, all three went to a local park, where Weier described hitting Leutner’s head against a bathroom wall. Leutner then still went with them into a wooded area nearby, where Weier told Geyser, after debating which of them should use the knife, to “go ballistic.” Geyser did, stabbing Leutner 19 times. One wound, according to the original police report, was a millimeter away from slashing a major artery near Leutner’s heart. Afterward, Weier and Geyser claimed they told Leutner they were going to call for help. Instead, they abandoned her. Leutner crawled to the road, where a passing cyclist found her pleading for help and called 911; she ultimately survived.

Police later found Geyser and Weier several miles away. The girls were on their way to meet Slender Man.

Beware the Slenderman tackles the daunting task of putting a unique crime within a larger cultural framework

Beware the Slenderman is primarily a true crime documentary, but it has more ground to cover than most of its ilk, simply by virtue of its crime being so unique. Its structure and trajectory start out somewhat predictable: The film opens with a brief rundown of the crime, then conducts interviews with Weier and Geyser’s parents as they struggle to understand what happened to their kids and intercuts them with footage of Geyser and Weier’s taped police sessions.

But from there, it explores meme culture — meme expert Richard Dawkins briefly appears to explain how viral myths like Slendy spread — and considers Slender Man’s history as an internet urban legend, as well as the story’s use of classic folklore tropes like the Pied Piper. Finally, it touches briefly on the issue of bullying in the digital age and the oversaturation of technology in society.

The contradictions and paradoxes these overlapping factors produce are fascinating and often sobering. In particular, the role of the internet in the story of Weier and Geyser’s lives seems to be both a complication and a stumbling block. Weier’s YouTube history prior to the crime, for example, reveals her as someone who could like and comment on a morbid video of a cat torturing a mouse to death, just as she might on a video of cute bunny rabbits.

Interviews with the girls’ parents reveal their struggle to understand how they could have monitored their children’s internet habits more closely than they already did, even while failing to spot warning signs like a cache of disturbing drawings and dismembered Barbie dolls in Geyser’s bedroom. Weier’s father, Bill Weier, frets onscreen about the fact that his children will soon have school-mandated iPads, as though the technology itself is an insidious encroaching darkness.

The documentary’s most surprising and interesting narrative turn is one it doesn’t spend much time on, but that is crucial to understanding how a crime like this might occur. After highlighting Weier’s isolation throughout her middle school years, and Geyser’s inability to connect emotionally with peers until she became friends with Weier, the film connects bullying and adolescent alienation back to Slender Man’s original mythical status as an eerie guardian angel for young children.

The film reveals that “Was Slenderman bullied?” is a popular internet search phrase, suggesting that people are using the character as both an avatar and an escape from their own suffering. It also offers a glimpse into the cult of Slender Man fandom, panning through page after page of fan art that’s rife with images of children walking willingly into the woods with Slendy, just as they did with the original Pied Piper. That Slender Man also seems evil serves to enhance, rather than lessen, his power over the imagination.

But that power also comes from the belief that Slender Man is real — and it’s in grappling with this troubling issue that the documentary makes its darkest, most complicated point.

Geyser and Weier’s story confronts the troubling aspects of the internet’s power to shape beliefs — and even warp reality itself

Beware the Slenderman only briefly discusses the connection between internet-fueled obsessions and mental illness. It lingers, however, on the revelation that since the girls’ arrests, Geyser has been diagnosed with schizophrenia (which her father also has) and oppositional defiant disorder, and Weier with depression, delusional disorder, and schizotypy — “a diminished ability to determine what is real and what is not real.”

The film lingers on Geyser’s difficulty in separating reality from fantasy and Weier’s delusion that Slender Man is real. Their mutual fantasy of meeting him was fueled by their friendship, in a folie a deux strongly reminiscent of 1954’s Parker-Hulme murder, in which another pair of young girls fell into a shared delusion that ended in violence. But in the case of Weier and Geyser, the pair’s shared delusion was prompted by a collective internet myth that deliberately blurred the line between the real and the fantastic.

Fans of this type of online horror story often create an atmosphere of belief around the tales they read and react to. For example, Reddit’s largest and most popular creepypasta forum, r/NoSleep, has 9.5 million subscribers — and the shared etiquette among all of them is to maintain the illusion at all times that the stories they are reading are real. The cult of Slender Man fandom, through the proliferation of extended stories, additional images, and fake found footage, tries to create the illusion that Slender Man really exists.

It’s the exact sort of situation that can make the web a difficult environment for the fantasy prone, and especially for the young. At one point in Beware the Slenderman, psychologist Jacqueline Woolley points out that “aspects of the internet [affect] whether kids think things on it are real or not real,” allowing kids to form a “believer’s club.”

“I think the concept of what’s real has always been pretty messy,” Woolley states. “Technology is creating these new situations in which it’s becoming even messier.”

Given the current political climate in the US, and the recent attempt by a conspiracy theorist to take violent action to halt “Pizzagate,” a bizarre right-wing conspiracy he believed was real, it’s impossible not to draw connections between Weier and Geyser’s crime and the turbulent national conversation around “fake news.”

During one scene in Beware the Slenderman, Weier tells a police officer that “I wanted to prove all the skeptics wrong” — that is, to prove that Slender Man was real. Weier’s delusion might have compelled her and Geyser to commit a very unique and disturbing act of violence, but it’s easy to see it as part of a much larger, disturbing trend of collective reality creation on the internet.

Geyser and Weier’s story — like the story of Slender Man himself — is still unfolding. It’s chilling to think about where each story could go.

In court proceedings that are still ongoing, a Wisconsin appeals court ruled Weier and Geyser competent to stand trial as adults in July 2016. This decision prompted considerable controversy, with some people arguing that the girls’ brains were simply too underdeveloped at the age of 12 to adequately assess the impact of the choices they were making.

Beware the Slenderman could have benefited from devoting more time to the implications of putting two young girls with serious mental health issues on trial as adults — particularly since the major factor in the court’s decision, according to the court of appeals rulings for each girl, was that each of them would require continued mental health treatment and “adult supervision” beyond their 18th birthdays. The court noted, for example, that Morgan Geyser “does not believe that she is mentally ill, and she refuses to take medication” — which could arguably be taken as a sign that she lacks adult reasoning.

Instead of further examining the court’s decision, however, the documentary seems content to end on that note — which is surprising, since it paces itself largely around court proceedings that feel redundant. At two hours, it contains a bit too much footage of the backs of people’s heads in a courtroom, when it could be delving deeper into other topics related to the girls’ case.

Beware the Slenderman concludes with a predictable, yet disturbing sequence, revealing page after page of online fan art — now not just of Slender Man, but of Geyser and Weier. The implication is that the girls have become a cult phenomenon themselves, serving as a point of ideation and fixation for other members of the online community that worships the fictional character.

Online at least, in these artistic depictions, the two girls have managed to join Slendy at last — but at what cost remains to be seen.

Beware the Slenderman airs January 23 at 10 pm on HBO.

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