Slenderman won’t kill you, but those who fear him just might. That’s what we learned from the long-awaited HBO documentary on the bizarre 2014 stabbings that introduced the world to this meme-turned-monster. Like Bigfoot or the Lochness monster, the Slender Man myth comes from a smattering of doctored images and online stories that consumed the lives of Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, two vulnerable young believers in Wisconsin who attempted to murder their classmate as a sacrifice. Drawing from diverse interviews, court testimonies and interrogation-room footage, Beware the Slenderman explores the tragic set of circumstances that led two preteens to stab their classmate 19 times with a five-inch blade. While much of the material was taken from the public record – and some had already been aired on 20/20 – director Irene Taylor Brodsky uses it to craft a new narrative, offering a deep look into the young offenders and their families. Here are six things we learned from Beware the Slenderman.
The girls chronicled details of the attack to interrogators just hours after their arrest – and the police taped all of it.
The documentary shows police interrogation footage taken just hours after the girls’ arrest, breaking down the attack in their own words. Weier walks through the the details in jumpy candor, revealing staggering leaps in logic (they intended to walk on foot to the Nicolet Forest, a national park over 300 miles away, where they believed the Slenderman lived in a mansion with other paranormal creatures from the internet) and clear emotional deficits (while describing the stabbing, she covers her ears and says “I don’t like screaming.”) “We were going to be like lionesses chasing down a zebra!” she explains, claiming to have turned around while Geyser did the stabbing. “Then Morgan said, ‘Don’t be afraid. I’m only a little kitty cat,'” she says, describing when Geyser began to stick their 11-year-old victim, Peyton “Bella” Leutner, with a knife.
The answers from Geyser’s interrogation, on the other hand, differ dramatically. Her description of the attack and the reasons behind it are blunt and factual,as opposed to Weier, who at times seems animated. “It was necessary,” Geyser repeats as the detective continues to ask why.
“Is Bella dead?” she asks in monotone after a particularly eerie moment of silence. “I was just wondering.” We see her cavalierly sign away her Miranda rights. “It didn’t feel like anything,” she says dryly, referring to stabbing. “It was like air.”
The stabbing had been planned for months.
Stabbing Leutner was a deliberate part of the girl’s plot to appease Slender Man, and the film sheds light on just how much thought (and premeditation) had gone into the attack. Geyser and Weier, both 12 years old at the time, bonded over a mutual fascination with this faceless, long arm monster. That interest turned to fear as they obsessively began to Google him, reading stories online on the horror forum Creepypasta. The primary motive behind the attack on Leutner, Geyser’s best friend since kindergarten, was to offer Slender Man a sacrifice in exchange for him sparing the lives of their families.
According to Waukesha County Detective Shelly Fisher, whose testimony is shown in the film, Geyser and Weier lured Leutner to Geyser’s home on May 31st, 2014 with an invitation to Morgan’s birthday party, which included a trip to the roller rink followed by a sleepover at the Geysers’. Morgan’s mother, Angie, recalls in an interview the night before the stabbing how all three girls had been “running up and down the stairs, holding hands and giggling.”
Weier admits in her interrogation that the original plan was to stab Leutner in her sleep, cover her up with a blanket, and run away to the Nicolet National Park that night. They pushed the attack to the following morning once Leutner refused to fall asleep before them. The film makes a point to mention that the girls had previously decided that Morgan would do the actual stabbing, because according to Anissa, she “knew all the soft spots.”
Slender Man is a convenient projection of various social issues.
Part of what makes Slender Man such an enticing figure for preteens is that he can be shaped into whatever the reader wants. In the documentary, a panel of internet anthropologists and adolescent psychologists dive into the Slender Man mythos, comparing his appeal to similar fictional characters such as the Pied Piper and the Boogey Man. In the film, bio-evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins, who coined the word “meme” in the 1970s, relates the amalgamation of Slender Man images and videos to the way urban legends grow and change through time and circulation.
There are many Slender Man origin stories, but Brodsky focuses in particular on how fan-fictions suggest that Slender Man was bullied as a child, resulting in a life of hiding in the shadows. “We forget how much it sucks to be a kid,””digital folklorist Trevor J. Blank tells the camera, explaining how it could make sense for people looking for acceptance to see Slenderman not as a villain, but as a fellow misfit.
The film hones in on anti-bullying memes involving Slender Man, and how those struggling socially could see him as an outsider anti-hero. The popular video game series Slender Man: The Arrival is also used as example, where players must piece together “excerpts” from Slenderman’s “journals” that portray him as lonely and misunderstood.
Anissa Weier may have looked to Slender Man to cope with bullying.
The filmmakers speak with one of Weier’s former teachers, who remembers her having a particularly difficult time making friends and crying to him about it on several occasions. Yet a childhood friend tells filmmakers that Anissa “never mentioned that she was being bullied and picked on. She told me she had lots of friends and that lots of guys liked her. But she was constantly picked on and never really fit in. She was a follower.”
Brodsky takes viewers through a string of Youtube clips found in Anissa’s search history, from “psychopath tests,” to litters of kittens, and a snake devouring a live mice. Neurodevelopmental psychologist Abigail Baird posits over Skype that social isolation can flourish online, especially when a person longs for the companionship they lack in real life, explaining that “in the absence of social contact the Internet can sometimes serve as a peer.”
Emotional interviews with the parents explore the the families’ complicated feelings of guilt.
Home videos provided by the assailants’ families are shown throughout the film, offering the viewer a glimpse into their seemingly normal childhoods. Shots of the girls’ empty bedrooms – left the way they were on that May morning in 2014 – portray the reality of life without them. (“Anissa’s her person,” says Weier’s dad, Bill, of the cat sitting on her bed.) While Morgan and Anissa are isolated from the community in juvenile prison – Geyser has since been moved to a psychiatric facility – their families are shown bearing the brunt, as well as the shame.
“You have to be angry at the situation. I’m angry, and my daughter is not the one that spent upwards of seven days in a hospital recovering from this,” says Bill Weier. “If I’m angry about, this other family sure as hell has a right to be angry about it. They could punch me in the face and knock me on my ass and they would probably be justified in doing so.”
Morgan Geyser may have inherited early onset Schizophrenia from her father.
Geyser’s father Matthew hasn’t shied away from discussing his illness as part of his daughter’s defense, but in the film, he goes into heartbreaking detail about what it’s like to live with delusions and hallucinations. In hindsight, Geyser’s mother, Angie, recalls to the camera several moments from her daughter’s childhood that struck her as odd, such as having no emotional reaction to the film Bambi or believing in Santa and the Tooth Fairy longer than normal. Matt Geyser not only reveals his own experience with Schizophrenia, but tears up when discussing how he may have passed a lifelong difficulty of separating frightening delusions from reality down to Morgan.
The documentary also shows several pages from Morgan’s notebooks, including sketches of Slender Man scribbled with messages like “I want to die” and “I will find you.” In her police interrogations, Anissa claims Morgan told her that she’d seen visions of Slender Man all her life. But couldn’t this happen to any young kid with an active imagination? After all, a shadowy figure with long arms and no face isn’t too difficult to imagine in the corner of your eye.
HBO’s chilling new documentary, Beware the Slenderman, sheds light on a terrifying story.