Back in May of 2014, the world was struck with the shocking news that two 12-year-old girls, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, had attempted to murder their friend, Payton “Bella” Leutner. Leutner was stabbed sixteen times by Geyser, who missed a major artery by less than a millimeter.
Morgan and Anissa confessed to their horrific acts under police custody, where they explained that the crime was an attempt to sacrifice Payton to the internet horror icon, Slenderman. This character is a tall and thin man-like figure with white skin and no face that stalks and kidnaps its victims in a series of internet horror stories called “Creepypastas.”
The latest HBO documentary, “Beware the Slenderman,” directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky, attempts to explore this case by spending its nearly two hour runtime mostly looking at the mythology and appeal of the Slenderman character, and secondarily investigating the stories of Morgan and Anissa and their dark obsession. The film hones in on the courtroom case deciding whether or not to try the girls as adults, and teases the results throughout as a plot device.
For a documentary like this, it would’ve been very easy for Brodsky to portray Morgan and Anissa as unforgivable monsters, but she instead tried to humanize them. Not to say that she tries to tone down the horrific nature of their crime. She effectively uses eerie police interview footage of the girls explaining what their plan for the attempted murder was and how they believed what they were doing was “necessary” to sacrifice their friend to a fictional character. But Taylor Brodsky doesn’t forget that these girls are still humans who suffer from mental disorders.
The segments with the parents also provide a unique perspective, as they showcase the hole in their life with their children locked up and the regrets they have about not being aware of how far their obsession with Slenderman went.
The parents reflect how they tried to raise their daughters and how they still try to have a relationship with their children in spite of what they did. The moments with Anissa’s father, Bill, embodies the sad nature of the situation. The scene where he shows Anissa’s bedroom as it was the day she was arrested, how he wants the room to be ready for his daughter for when she get released, which he hopes is soon. It gives the film a bittersweet emotional tone.
However, the narrative starts to lose its momentum. It becomes too distracted explaining the Slenderman mythos, as it felt like the documentary was trying to describe him to a demographic that wouldn’t be interested in this film. It’s clear that Brodsky was trying to show viewers who are unfamiliar with the character the disturbing nature of the mythos and how unsettling it is that these girls were fascinated with the character, but it felt like the documentary lost its focus on the crime in the second act.
There were also plenty of missed opportunities Brodsky could’ve taken that would’ve given the documentary an added strength. The documentary features interviews with several internet culture experts who explain the phenomenon and the appeal, but it would’ve been interesting to hear their reaction to this case and see if they feel some responsibility, as well as their views on the potential danger of the internet’s effect on the development of a growing child.
“Beware the Slenderman” is good enough to entertain fans of true crime documentaries, but didn’t live up to its potential. The documentary gets so distracted with looking into the Slenderman character that it ends up losing track of the more interesting elements. Perhaps this story would’ve been better suited for a short documentary.