"If you don't know who Slenderman is, you're living under a rock," remarks one of the dozens of teens appearing in YouTube videos that are excerpted in Beware the Slenderman. It's the first hint that the documentary is going to try to do the impossible: explain the internet, and its seedy underbelly, to people who... live under rocks. In other words: primarily offline.
The uncanny disconnect between what feels culturally ubiquitous on the internet and what is truly something everyone in the physical world knows about is central to the argument that many of the documentary's speakers make in one way or another: the internet has a unique ability to blur lines between reality and fantasy in the minds of children, even after the age at which those lines should be crystal clear. It's a fascinating claim, if impossible to prove.
Emmy-winner and Academy Award nominee Irene Taylor Brodsky directs the HBO project, which follows the story of Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser for 18 months, beginning with their arrests in May of 2014. The 12-year-old girls were charged with first-degree attempted murder after they conspired to kill one of their friends, Payton Lautner, in the woods near Geyser's house. Geyser, egged on by Weier, stabbed Lautner 19 times. The pair then left her for dead, wandering off to find the mythical mansion of Slenderman, the nightmarish character from the internet who "told them to do it."
"If you don't know who Slender man is, you're living under a rock."
Even though the origins of the Slenderman character can be traced to the Something Awful forum poster Eric Knudson, he is far from being the owner of the Slenderman canon. The YouTube series Marble Hornets, and the Slenderman-inspired character in Minecraft were much more important in the story's spread and are arguably better known. The thousands of stories, pieces of artwork, and homemade videos that spun off from the original are what give Slenderman his most terrifying quality — seeming omnipresence for those who live life primarily online.
It's for this reason that Slenderman is often taught as a case study in the closing of the "Gutenberg parenthesis," a phenomenon named by Professor Thomas Pettitt of the University of Southern Denmark. The Gutenberg parenthesis opens with the invention of the printing press — the advent of recorded language and discrete knowledge — and closes with the modern version of the internet, which, Pettitt claims, operates in the same manner as oral storytelling. Stories born on the internet change based on who is telling them, the audience they are being told to, and the culture they are told within — they grow, expand, and mutate.
And so telling the story of the Slenderman in a two-hour documentary is a square peg in a round hole. How do you tell one linear story about hundreds of thousands of story snippets that defy cataloging? How do you provide context for something that shapeshifts every time it appears on a new screen? It might be that the internet is something it's just impossible to learn anything about from a movie, especially when there's still such a schism between the generation that treats the web like a volatile foreign country and the generation that treats it like oxygen.
Maybe you just can't learn about the internet from movies
In any case, the internet does have a special power to feed disturbed minds exactly what they're looking for, and in virtually endless quantities, and Brodsky makes this point well. The most savvy scene in Beware the Slenderman is one that is reminiscent of Leo Gabriadze's ingenious Unfriended, a horror film which takes place entirely on the screen of a MacBook. This scene takes place inside Anissa Weier's Google+ account, and traces her winding path between dozens of YouTube videos and comments — from "Bunny Eating Raspberries" to "FEEDING MY SERVAL A LIVE MOUSE" to several "Are you a sociopath?" quizzes to homemade Slenderman videos (some chillingly convincing!) and back to kittens. It's a powerful look into how a young, easily distracted brain will consume basically anything in the middle of the night. Almost anyone who spends significant time on the internet can recall an evening of hitting the bottom of a rabbit hole, with no idea how it happened.
Disappointingly, though, most of the documentary consists of interviews with Morgan and Anissa's parents, who, understandably, aren't that interested in picking apart the societal implications of their family tragedy. They want to know why Morgan and Anissa did it, of course, but they look for answers like schizophrenia, bullying, overactive imaginations, peer pressure, and to a degree — technology. The Weiers, in particular, torture themselves over Anissa's iPad. Anissa's father is horrified that his younger son's elementary school requires them. The iPad is almost all he can talk about — explaining over and over that he didn't let Anissa use hers after 7:30PM, that there were no closed doors in his house, that he couldn't have been more involved unless he sat in the corner of her room all night long, staring at her. "I totally regret the iPad," her mother says. "We never should have bought it." Their perspective humanizes the project, but their limited scope means there's less time spent addressing the bigger question. Whether or not Brodsky agrees with their opinions about the role technology plays in this story doesn't really matter — it's still their hypotheses that the camera spends the most time with.
"I totally regret the iPad."
If the iPad were really the answer, I doubt we'd keep revisiting this story. The first adaptation of the Slenderman case into mainstream culture was, unsurprisingly, an episode of Law & Order: SVU in November, 2014. This documentary comes on the heels of Syfy's announcement that it will produce a series based on another popular creepypasta story, "Candle Cove," and rumors have been spinning online for months that the sixth season of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story will revolve around Slenderman. Perhaps Slenderman will be the next O.J. Simpson trial — a cultural fixation that plays out through multiple, concurrent dramatizations and retellings (and all the think pieces and water cooler conversations those retellings are fuel for).
In interviews and at a panel at SXSW, Brodsky reiterated that viewers of the documentary should hesitate to blame the internet, or even any one other factor, for what the girls did, and suggested that the Slenderman character itself was actually more powerful than most people have been acknowledging. Slenderman is no more and no less than a compelling idea, one that can become whatever a willing imagination makes it.
A folklorist who appears in the documentary points out that Slenderman bears remarkable similarity to the 14th century legend of the Pied Piper. Neither speak, neither has explicit motivations, and both lurk around children with unclear intentions. In other words, they're handy containers for a lot of societal fears and one elemental human fear — the lost child. Brodsky hints throughout the film that Slenderman, in his newfound IRL fame, has become a completely different kind of shorthand. Not for any vague, timeless fear, but for a very specific, modern one — the existential fear of what the internet is and what it might have the power to do to persons who are not yet fully mentally developed.
There is no simple good or evil characterization to be made in the story of the Pied Piper, the story of Slenderman, nor, yet, in the story of the web. But it's a safe bet that we're in store for a lot more attempts to find it.
Beware the Slenderman premieres today on HBO, HBO Go, and HBO Now. This review was originally published at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2016.