Beware the Slenderman is a Lukewarm Look at a Chilling Crime
The HBO documentary fails to truly hit its mark despite its scary subject matter.
On May 31, 2014, twelve year-old Payton Leutner was discovered dragging herself out of a nearby forest area in Waukesha, Wisconsin, covered in blood and stab wounds, pleading for help. A cyclist found the girl lying on a sidewalk and immediately called 9–1–1, getting her to the hospital, where she was rushed into surgery. Leutner had been stabbed nineteen times, two times to major organs and with one stab wound, according to later court testimony, missing a major artery by “less than a millimeter.” It was a terrifying discovery and a shocking crime. Who would attack a pre-teen so brutally? The answer, it turned out, was perhaps even more harrowing than the crime itself.
Shortly after the discovery of Leutner, two twelve year-old girls, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, who were picked up on the outskirts of town, walking along Interstate 94, where police discovered them in possession of the knife used in the attack on Leutner. As the girls were brought into police custody, a strange story emerged, one that credited the attack as an attempt to appease the Slender Man, a fictional character popular on the Creepypasta Wiki site. The girls claimed they stabbed their friend to become his minions and were walking along the interstate in an attempt to reach the Nicolet National Forest, where they believed that the Slender Man’s mansion was located. The girls were adamant that Slender Man existed and that the attack was necessary to prove their loyalty and, ultimately, protect their families.
It is here that HBO’s latest documentary, Beware the Slenderman, picks up, exploring the aftermath of the attack through police footage and interviews with the parents of Geyser and Weier, which are centered around a competency hearing which will determine if the two girls should be tried as adults or juveniles for the crime. The documentary, which premiered at South by Southwest in March 2016, was shot over eighteenth months by Irene Taylor Brodsky, an Academy Award-nominated and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker and documentarian. Beyond just the details of the crime itself, the documentary also dives into the origins of the Slender Man character and briefly attempts to understand how an internet phenomenon could warp or impact a developing mind.
But despite asking a compelling question – how could two girls believe an internet character was so real that they attempted murder? – Beware the Slenderman drags more than once over the course of its nearly two hour run time. Although the film uses access to the families in an attempt to understand how this heinous crime occurred, it is also pigeonholed into over relying these interviews, which offers few real answers. The truth is the parents don’t really understand it themselves. Furthermore, as the girls themselves are inaccessible, the police tapes are the only source available where viewers can actually hear them explain their actions. But without access, there is no follow up on their current state of mind two years later. Beyond this, the film closes with the ruling in their competency trial, but the trial itself is set for this year, which could leave viewers with a sense of dissatisfaction. All this begs another question: could Beware the Slenderman have benefitted from filming over a longer period of time?
Ultimately, I think the answer is yes. Beware the Slenderman never feels rushed, certainly quite the opposite, but it does feel incomplete. While crime itself is shocking, it’s also pretty cut and dry. This isn’t so much a question of guilt or innocence, as often is the case with most compelling true crime documentaries after the success of The Thin Blue Line. Instead, the question really is can two twelve year-old girls be tried as adults for a crime rooted in their unshakable belief in a fictional character? Ultimately, this is where the film succeeds but the answer is also given by the court ruling covered at the end of the film. But because Beware the Slenderman ends on this note, without following the consequences of this decision through to trial and beyond, it feels open-ended.
Beyond this, Beware the Slenderman also suffers from the success of the true crime documentaries and series that have preceded it. While The Jinx or Making a Murderer have raised the bar for true crime documentaries, they are also projects that were years in the making. But society’s predilection to binge-watch these long-term efforts in a mere weekend has left a sizeable void, one that Beware the Slenderman attempts to fill as quickly as possible —the film premiered a mere two years after the crime was committed and the girls are set to be tried this year – ultimately to its detriment .
Despite this, Beware the Slenderman succeeds when it dives into the allure of Slender Man, the pale, faceless character in a dark suit that seems to haunt the corners of playgrounds and photoshopped pictures. Although Geyser and Weier feared the enigmatic character, the film unravels the character’s roots, which are influenced by the Grimm Brothers’ tale of the Pied Piper. In Slender Man, lonely or bullied children are able to find their own means of escape with a character who is empathetic to their plight but also imposing to their scare away their enemies. The allure is understandably irresistible. Paired with this and the recitence of Weier’s father to allow her brother to use an iPad, the film suggests that the isolation and stimulation solely derived from the internet could have a detrimental impact on the developing minds of children around the age of Geyser and Weier. But, apart from the crime the two are accused of committing, which is often attributed to untreated mental illness, there is little evidence to support this.
For anyone not actively following the story’s developments in the news, Beware the Slenderman’s biggest bombshell comes with the discovery of Geyser’s family history of schizophrenia, including her own diagnosis following her arrest. To the film’s credit, this is not sensationalized or even offered as a rationale for the attack. Instead, Geyser’s father, who is also schizophrenic, opens up about his struggle with the disease, explaining some of his own visual hallucinations. Geyser is visibly heartbroken by his daughter’s diagnosis, not because he is ashamed but because he was unable to recognize the disease and offer her help. This is one of the moments where Beware the Slenderman excels, but it is a short-lived victory and once again exhibits why tighter editing and a shorter run-time would have made the documentary much stronger.
Overall, Beware the Slenderman will inevitably appeal to true crime fans drawn to the silicious details of the crime but there is little more to offer than a cursory read of Wikipedia. With the girls’ trial set for 2017, a follow up documentary or series seems inevitable and worth waiting for instead.