A 2016 HBO documentary film directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky, currently on Sky Crime, Beware the Slenderman is a documentary about the 2014 true-crime story of when two 12-year old girls (Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier) attempted to murder one of their friends, stabbing her 19 times, in an attempt to appease Slenderman, a fictional monster from a horror website. Shot over 18 months, the documentary contains interviews with the families of the two would-be murderers and plunges deep down the rabbit hole of their crime and the effect that the internet can have on society’s most impressionable consumers of media.
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Firstly, I have so much respect for the parents of these two girls accepting to be interviewed. I can’t imagine what they are going through or what is going through their heads, but I think it’s great that they had the courage to share their stories and to speak so frankly.
Too often I watch a documentary and instantly lose trust in the subjects and lack any compassion for them. And rightly so. They’ve committed a horrible crime, so I don’t expect to understand their point of view. So I thought that would be the same for this documentary. From the trailer alone, I couldn’t imagine that I would ever believe that two people killed because they genuinely believed in a Boogeyman. But this documentary is far more than just a horror story.
What this documentary does best of all is that it doesn’t exploit its young subjects. Instead, it offers a sensitive exploration into mental illness and opens up a debate about the impact of the internet on children. In no way do I sympathise with the two girls – they still attempted to kill somebody (who fortunately recovered after six days in the hospital) after all – but the documentary brilliantly highlights how young and naive minds can be manipulated by something much bigger than them.
It’s not something I would often say about a documentary involving murder, but I did relate to the subject of how an unrestricted use of the internet at a young age can shape you as a person. I was an “emo kid” who would sit on the computer all night talking to people I didn’t know on Myspace. I also delved into DeviantArt and loved doodling Pon and Zi cartoons and scribbling quotes and lyrics about heartbreak. Even though I had never felt such an emotion, I really felt like I knew what I was talking about. Therefore, I understand how easily you can be sucked into a world that your brain can’t properly comprehend because of how comforted it makes you feel. When you don’t have friends to bring you back into the real world, either, the documentary brilliantly shows how easy it could have been for these girls to become so invested in something that wasn’t real.
Before the days of social media, as well, stories such as the Slenderman would have felt more real, becoming urban legends rather than memes. A synopsis for the documentary says, “The entrance to the internet can quickly lead us to its dark basement, within just a matter of clicks. How much do we hold children responsible for what they find there?” And that’s what this documentary sets out to do most of all, providing an insight into the dangers that lurk online. And so it should. The internet can be a dangerous place, as this extreme but all the same very real-life crime proves.
Obviously a lot has happened since the release of this documentary, with both perpetrators having since been found not guilty by mental disease or defect and sentenced to long periods in mental health institutions, so there is some reading to be done to get the full story. The documentary also lacks any material from the victim, Payton Leutner, and her family, and neglects to give us any real information about her at all.
But whilst the documentary is very one-sided, looking at the crime from only the perpetrators’ points of view, I don’t think that it tries to excuse their actions, only to provide a bigger picture into mental illness in children and the effect that such websites can have on them. As both a parent in a technology-driven world and as someone who experienced this side of the internet as a youngster (although not to this extreme), it’s definitely a thought-provoking documentary that’s worth a watch.