The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival.
In 2014, two 12-year-old girls attacked one of their best friends. They stabbed her 19 times – non-fatally, believe it or not – and set off to meet the thing that put them up to it: Slenderman, a freakishly tall, faceless, and impeccably dressed demon that first crept into the zeitgeist in 2009. After obsessing over Slenderman on Internet forums and YouTube videos, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier became convinced that, as online lore foretold, Slenderman would murder both them and their families if they didn’t offer themselves up as “proxies,” servants of his will. A murder was “necessary.” The reward? Entry into Slenderman’s hidden mansion in the Nicolet National Forest, conveniently located just a hop, skip, and a jump down the highway from their hometown.
Irene Taylor Brodsky’s absorbing documentary Beware the Slenderman chronicles the case itself, the legend and online origins of Slenderman, and the court’s decision as to whether or not the girls should be tried as adults or juveniles. Far less sensational than the subject matter might imply, the film eschews simplistic conclusions – “The Internet is not the enemy here,” Brodsky’s said in interviews – for a balanced and graceful examination of youth, mental illness, and mythology as they evolve in the Internet age. Brodsky isn’t condemning the idea of Slenderman in the way that Tipper Gore did with hip-hop or Hillary Clinton did with video games; rather, she’s using Slenderman as a symbol of the web’s influence on a damaged or underdeveloped mind, and how parents are still struggling with how to regulate it for their children when iPads are becoming an essential part of education.
That said, Brodsky devotes ample time to the web’s numerous depictions of Slenderman, from Photoshopped snapshots to elaborate illustrations to devoted web series like Marble Hornets. It’s freaky stuff, but also fascinating in how the various interpretations differ. In one of the film’s most gripping sequences, a panel of web culture experts (including author and philosopher Richard Dawkins) compare Slenderman not to Freddy Krueger, but to the Pied Piper, a mythological figure,who with every retelling transforms from monster to savior to, in some cases, an empathetic freak. And this distinction is necessary when considering the lives and backgrounds of Geyser and Weier, two smart, imaginative kids who, through Slenderman and myriad web forums, were able to forge an online identity separate from the one they reveal to their families and classmates. A particularly unsettling sequence depicts a number of YouTube comments left by Weier that uncomfortably clash with her goofy, amiable public persona.
As the film goes on, Weier and Geyser represent fascinating counterpoints, both of which serve to muddy up the answers provided by either party. The legitimate, hereditary mental illness of Geyser bears deep dissection, including unsetting revelations from the girl’s therapists. And though that serves as a source of understanding for her, Weier resists any and all categorization. Her delusion and capacity for violence has no easy answer. “I think some kids are big believers,” one of her friends says, an answer both fascinating and frustrating in its breadth.
That Brodsky gets no interview time with Geyser and Weier, nor with their victim, is one of the film’s biggest missed opportunities, though that’s not the director’s fault so much as a consequence of its production, as the trial is still in progress. Instead, Brodsky spends a great deal of time with their parents, who plumb their memories for warning signs in between humanizing tales of the girls’ upbringing. This makes sense, as the film’s ultimate message feels aimed directly at a generation of parents who must cope with the fact that any kid with an iPad has unfiltered access to a wealth of images, stories, and information that bear immeasurable power.
But what Beware the Slenderman makes clear is that, as Brodsky has said, the Internet is not the problem, nor is a myth like Slenderman. The answer to an attack like this is, in so many ways, unknowable, a frustrating amalgamation of mental illness, bullying, personal expression, and a cyberspace that’s evolving at a dangerous rate. What is clear is that, like it or not, memes, GIFs, and Reddit forums are the new Brothers Grimm. It’s time for us to adjust accordingly.