Beware the Slenderman touches with its all-too-real human story overlaid with some creepy imagery of its title character
As a parent, let me tell you that you cannot police your children 24/7. Open doors. Closed doors. Monitored computer access. No computer access. iPhones. iPads. Flip phones. No phones. It doesn’t matter. Children will find a way to do what they want, no matter how much you threaten them. As a parent, you really just hope you’ve instilled in them a sense of right or wrong that is greater than their need to break rules. Or their need to repeatedly stab their best friend. Beware the Slenderman, on the surface, seems preoccupied with exploring the internet-based urban legend of the Slenderman, and, for a while, it does just that. However, the heart of the documentary lies in a touching exploration of modern childhood and mental illness. Beware the Slenderman seems like something that could only happen to someone else, but the facts behind the story are all too universal.
In 2014, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier took their best friend, Peyton Leutner, into the woods of Waukesha, Wisconsin. There, Morgan stabbed Peyton 19 times with a 5-inch knife. Why? She and Anissa wanted to appease the fictitious internet-based creature, Slenderman, bringing Peyton within a millimeter of certain death. Once apprehended, Morgan and Anissa received branding as adults in the court and penal system due to the nature of their crime. That judgment might feel apt until you learn the facts of the case and at least one of the girls’ illness. Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky, Beware the Slenderman explores the myth of the title figure, the events of the crime, and the nature of mental illness.
Slenderman generates a nearly insurmountable sense of outrage as the court system treats these two girls as adults. The documentary illustrates, through available interrogation footage, both girls’ crystal-clear disassociation with reality. Their mental illnesses require treatment, not a prison sentence. You can’t really blame the parents either. Much of the documentary also explores the parents’ complete bewilderment and second-guessing. iPads are vilified significantly, but the most telling reveal falls to Morgan’s father who sobs as he reveals his struggle with schizophrenia.
Beware the Slenderman offers an elegant exploration into the nature of urban legends, and the examples of “found footage” and faked photographs terrify if you’re game. It spends perhaps a little too much time on the phenomenon of Slenderman and the internet rage around it. That’s to be expected, I suppose, given the title of the film. But the scenes detailing the girls’ reaction to the crime – particularly Morgan’s nearly apathetic reaction – coupled with the parents’ grief are the true heart and soul of the film. There’s a chillingly real interview near the close of the film where a father vents. He details the frustrations of a modern parent, trying to keep up in a modern world that’s moving too fast.
The scene reads as heartbreaking and real as anything I’ve seen on television all year. It’s one we, as parents, know all too well but dare not speak its truth. Beware the Slenderman excels on moments like that.
Beware the Slenderman premieres on HBO Monday, January 23, at 10PM ET.