A grotesque recent Midwestern crime underlines the potentially dangerous influence of internet exposure on impressionable young minds.
Parents might monitor their kids’ time online a little more closely after watching “Beware the Slenderman,” the un-heartwarming story of two real-life little girls who nearly stabbed a classmate to death because they thought it would please a fictive bogeyman who’s gained recent traction on the internet. Irene Taylor Brodsky’s documentary is mostly a straightforward, inevitably engrossing true-crime tale. But it does implicitly make the larger point that letting kids spend umpteen hours interacting with the virtual rather than real world can reap results from the mildly antisocial to the homicidally delusional. This HBO production slated for a TBA cable premiere could attract offshore broadcast dates as well. In related news, the “Slenderman” (or Slender Man) mythology itself is, unsurprisingly, being developed by Screen Gems as fodder for a horror feature.
Brodsky cuts to the chase by beginning with a brief “Blair Witch”-style reenactment, cutting to TV news footage relating the grisly events of May 31, 2014, when one preteen girl was found alive after crawling out of a Waukesha, Wis., park’s woods with 19 stab wounds. Asked who did it, she said, “My best friend.” It took very little time for police to apprehend classmates Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, found attempting to walk to Nicolet National Forest (though it was several hours’ drive away). That was where they believed “Slender Man” lived, and where he would now accept them as “proxies” under his protection, having “proven” themselves by killing (or so they thought) Morgan’s bestie since 4th grade. They’d convinced themselves this mysterious figure might harm them and/or they families if they didn’t commit just such an extreme act.
Who was/is Slender Man? Someone who didn’t exist before 2009 (when he was created for an online PhotoShop art competition), and who in an off-line sense never truly existed at all — save in the fevered imaginations of those who subsequently adopted him as an object of deliciously fearful obsession. He’s a tall (purportedly nine to 14 feet), faceless, tentacled being who preys upon children … or protects them, or both, depending on who’s spinning the ever-evolving mythos. (This morbidly romantic figure and its effect on the subjects here can’t help but recall the noirish spectra of celluloid villain Robert Mitchum as he impacted the similarly gullible adolescent girls of Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” and their own murderous real-life inspirations.)
Unlike faddish ‘net-fed trends like ice-bucket challenges or planking, Slenderman shows all signs of entering popular folklore, as demonstrated by the vast quantities of fan fiction, art, videos and “sighting” claims online. He may be a newcomer among such “urban legends,” but as some among the many (mostly psychiatric) experts consulted here suggest, he’s just the latest in a long line of scarily insinuating child-abductor figures dating back at least to the “Pied Piper of Hamelin” fairy tale.
The drawn-out trial (still very much in progress) has the two girls tried as adults, their attempted-murder charges necessitating that status under state law. Attempts to have the case transferred to juvenile court have so far been unsuccessful. Meanwhile the girls (now visibly teens rather than children) remain in lockup. Their victim, hospitalized for a week, recovered — physically, at least.
Much media coverage heightened the notion that these hitherto well-behaved, honor-roll-making products of leafy, comfortable white suburbia were little “monsters” whose families must’ve been asleep at the wheel. Brodsky suggests a different scenario in which it’s harder to point fingers — save at the influence that web content can have on impressionable young minds.
It does emerge that one of the fathers had been diagnosed as a high-functioning schizophrenic. Nothing in that girl’s prior behavior, however, had made it obvious she was developing a more serious degree of schizophrenia, one already making it difficult for her to discern between reality and fantasy. The other girl’s parents knew she was interested in “Slender Man,” but figured it was a harmless, Halloween-y sort of escapism, like reading “Twilight” or “Harry Potter” books. These were loving homes where aberrant behavior could not be explained by past abuse or other domestic discord; the shell-shocked parents are articulate, sympathetic interviewees. Though the filmmakers did not have direct access to the kids involved, we see footage of their police questionings when first apprehended.
The assembly is unfussily well-judged on all levels.