Beware the Slenderman
The news horrified the world: Two 12-year-old American girls lured a friend into the Wisconsin woods and stabbed her 19 times in an effort to appease a faceless mythical entity known online as Slenderman. But there’s more to the story than the dark headlines it generated. Delving deep into this shocking crime, the sobering documentary Beware the Slenderman examines how an urban myth could take root in impressionable young minds, leading to an unspeakable act.
Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky (HBO’s Oscar-nominated The Final Inch), the documentary covers all sides of this unusual ongoing case, drawing on an eerie array of Slenderman-inspired art, games and self-produced video, all culled from the Internet, along with heart-wrenching, unprecedented access to the two girls’ families, courtroom testimony and interrogation-room footage.
On May 31, 2014, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a 911 call reported a chilling crime. A girl had been stabbed and was found by the side of the road near the woods. The national news media quickly picked up on the story: Victim Payton (“Bella”) Leutner had been brutally stabbed and left for dead. The suspects were her friends Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier. All three were 12 years old.
In separate interrogation rooms, Morgan and Anissa both explained to detectives that they were compelled to kill their friend in order to become proxies of Slenderman, a fictional Internet character they believed was real.
Morgan and Anissa discovered Slenderman on the Internet and came to believe he would hurt their families unless they killed Bella to appease him. Usually depicted as a tall man in a black suit with a featureless white face, Slenderman first appeared on the Internet as part of a 2009 Photoshop contest, lurking behind children in two black-and-white photos. Seen as both a malevolent figure and a guardian angel, Slenderman soon spread to all platforms of the Internet, spawning fan fiction, artwork, games and videos around the world.
Critically, experts testified during a hearing that Anissa has characteristics of a delusional disorder (the inability to distinguish real from not real) and psychiatrists diagnosed Morgan with early childhood schizophrenia, a mental illness also afflicting Morgan’s father. However, citing the premeditated nature of the crime, the judge ruled the girls were to be tried as adults. Having spent more than two years incarcerated and with their trial date still pending, Morgan and Anissa’s saga has now become part of the Slenderman Internet myth.
Ultimately, the film reveals how adolescent isolation, mental health issues and the nebulous reality of the Internet created a chilling mandate for two young girls, with life-altering consequences.
Beware the Slenderman features interviews with experts who help put the girls’ mental state and the Slenderman myth in context, including: digital folklorist Trevor J. Blank, Ph.D.; Brad Kim, editor-in-chief, KnowYourMeme.com; evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Ph.D.; literary critic Jack Zipes, Ph.D.; neurodevelopmental psychologist Abigail Baird, Ph.D.; and psychologist Jacqueline Woolley, Ph.D.
The film was directed and produced by Irene Taylor Brodsky; produced by Sophie Harris; director of photography, Nick Midwig; edited by Gladys Mae Murphy; original score, Benoit Charest. For HBO: senior producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.