Beware the Slenderman

Irene Taylor Brodsky (Director) Sophie Harns (Producer) Gladys Mae Murphy (Editor)
Released January 23, 2017

On May 31, 2014 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, two twelve year old girls, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, attempted to murder their friend (also twelve) by stabbing her to death. Luckily, Payton Leutner survived after she crawled to safety and was found by a passing biker. While the attack was horrifying on its own, the case became truly infamous when it was discovered that Weier and Geyser planned the murder as a way to impress Slenderman. Irene Taylor Brodsky’s documentary Beware the Slenderman is a thoughtful and compassionate analysis of the crime and the people involved.

For those who don’t know, Slenderman is a creepypasta character created in 2009 during a Photoshop contest to create a believable supernatural character. In the years following, Slenderman has moved beyond his origins, appearing in art, video, web forums, and video games. Fans know he’s fictional, but the way he is presented allows for a seed of doubt that he is real. I was aware of Slenderman before the attack. My sister and I used to watch a YouTube mockumentary series about him. It scared us so bad we’d look at the screen from between our fingers.

Beware the Slenderman is over a year old, and I believe it needs a second look. The sentencing for Weier has recently occurred, with Geyser’s to follow in February. Weier, now sixteen, has been sentenced to twenty-five years in a mental institution. Due to the laws in Wisconsin, both girls were charged and went through the legal system as adults. The film doesn’t make any overt statements on whether Brodsky agrees or disagrees with the decision. I do think that this documentary is sympathetic to the girls and their families. It doesn’t flinch away from showing the pressure the crime put on Weier and Geyser’s parents and siblings. The film has personal confessions from their parents, including moments of private grief.

Beware the Slenderman’s failing is that the victim, Payton Leutner, doesn’t get screen time other than some photos and home videos. Her parents are never interviewed. Although I personally believe she deserves privacy to recover from her trauma, I can’t help but wonder if Leutner and her family dislike the documentary for giving a balanced view of her attackers. Those who want to learn more will have to look her up on her own.

The crimes of Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier are gut wrenchingly horrifying, but watching the film I felt a strong empathy towards them. As someone who was also bullied and socially isolated at their age, I understand the loneliness and pain they experienced. I too found comfort in fictional worlds and immersive games with the few friends I did have. Their families repeatedly state that Geyser and Weier were best friends with a strong bond. We see pictures of them together during happier times. I have fond memories of those intense girlhood friendships and I’m sure other viewers can relate.

It’s impossible to review Beware the Slenderman without talking about mental illness. The film doesn’t immediately say that both Geyser and Weier are mentally ill. Instead the documentary gradually leads the viewer to the reveal that the girls are sick. This allows the viewer to form their own opinions on Geyser and Weier before we are told what’s wrong. I think doing that is a little manipulative. But it allows the viewer a chance to digest their own initial reactions before learning more.

The film is explicit in informing the viewer that Geyser suffers from severe childhood onset schizophrenia. Many forms of media might use that diagnosis as a way to villainize Geyser, it’s refreshing to see that Beware the Slenderman does no such thing. Geyser may have been the perpetrator of a violent act, but she is a victim of her illness. The film interviews Geyser’s father, who also has schizophrenia. He is shown to manage his schizophrenia and his daughter’s crisis notwithstanding, has a good life.

The documentary’s structure works to its benefit. Along with being an introduction to the Slenderman character, it sets up the crime and its immediate aftermath during the first act. The second act goes into the Slenderman mythos and how people interact with it. Brodsky interviews people from a variety of backgrounds about relevant history, science, and psychology giving the film more depth than just a run of the mill true crime recap. I love true crime, but you’ll actually learn stuff here. My favorite person interviewed was Trevor J. Blank, a digital folklorist. I didn’t know that’s a thing until I watched Beware the Slenderman.

There’s no narrator here. Instead, the film relies on title cards to relay expeditionary information and interviewees sharing their thoughts to provide topic and organization. We don’t hear Brodsky talk on camera, giving the documentary an isolated vibe, a fitting one for its subject matter. As for the camerawork, the cinematographer was in love with overhead drone shots, giving the viewer many (maybe too many) opportunities to enjoy the landscape of Wisconsin.

My biggest criticism of the style is that it’s a little too similar to a horror film. We have eerie music and rapid cuts that are supposed to remind you of jump scares. During the dénouement, we see several examples of fan art made of Geyser and Weier during and after the assault, and with Slenderman. Yes, we are watching a documentary about an attempted murder involving children, but it comes across as a little exploitative.

All in all, I enjoyed Beware the Slenderman and think both as a documentary and character study it’s a valuable film. Even days after I watched it, I still think about the girls involved: victim and perpetrator alike. Some might not approve of its neutral stance on the issues brought up, and I liked that it lets viewers form their own opinions. This doesn’t bear on the quality of the film, but it was directed, produced, and edited by women. Not many documentaries can boast that. Especially now that a Slenderman movie is being made by a major studio, Beware the Slenderman will continue to be a talking point.