I want you to go back in time for a moment and try to remember when you were twelve. You would have been in the fifth or sixth grade then, and if your childhood was anything like mine, you'd remember that middle school was a pretty brutal time. It's when hormones start flooding our systems and muddling our brains. Popularity is more important than it ever has been before, especially for girls, and sometimes we'd do anything just to fit in and be accepted.
Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, two twelve year old girls from Waukesha, Wisconsin, felt the burdens of loneliness and unpopularity keenly. For them, the only escape was the internet. When they found friendship in each other through a common interest in the online fable of Slenderman, their parents were relieved. Little did they know, the combination of loneliness, mental illness, and the general susceptibility of children would have violent consequences.
HBO's newest documentary, Beware the Slenderman, takes us through the chilling case of these two girls who stabbed their best friend in order to gain the acceptance of the fictional Slenderman. The documentary gives insight into their motives as well as a deeper look into the home lives of each girl. It begins with media clips that describe the horrific events that took place on May 31, 2014. The pace of the documentary is slow, with lots of shots around Waukesha, leaving the audience with plenty of time to think and absorb the facts presented via heart wrenching interviews with family members of Morgan and Anissa. Perhaps the most chilling of all is the footage of the interviews with the two girls shortly after they were found.
I can’t even imagine what it must be like for the parents of these two girls. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the victim, Payton “Bella” Leutner, who had to go through being stabbed 19 times by her best friend Morgan while Anissa watched. Bella, fortunately, survived the incident, but to go through something like that at such a young and impressionable age must have done irreparable damage to her ability to trust and make solid friendships.
Who is Slenderman? And why would these girls have believed in him in the first place?
Digital folklorist Trevor J. Blank, Ph.D. is interviewed to discuss the origin of the viral meme, which began as part of a photoshop contest in 2009. He’s an inhumanly tall male figure, dressed in a black suit with a featureless white face. His appearance in the background of photographs of children is disturbing to see, but many kids latched on to him as a sort of guardian type figure, spawning fan fiction, fan art, video games, and videos all over the internet. Dr. Blank even discusses how the simultaneous revulsion and appeal can be linked to the same universal fears that spawned stories by The Brothers Grimm and legends such as The Pied Piper.
Anissa and Morgan were drawn to the figure of the Slenderman because of this protective quality that he seemed to exude. He’s the perfect guardian of lonely and unpopular children. He’s scary enough to scare off the bullies and the adults that don’t understand.
One of the main stories about Slenderman involves killing in order to become proxies of his, and the proxies were to live with him in his mansion in the middle of a nearby state park. Anissa and Morgan were desperate to belong to something, and after stabbing Bella to fulfill the requirement for becoming proxies, the two girls started walking towards where they believed the fabled mansion existed—and that’s where they were found by the police. They believed in Slenderman without a shadow of a doubt.
Though the case is still ongoing—with many pre-trial hearings taking place—the girls aren’t due for trial until later this year. The initial interviews by police were somewhat controversial because the parents weren’t allowed to be in the room with the girls, and it’s unclear whether or not, at twelve years old, the two of them could understand what Miranda rights are and what it means to waive them.
Beware the Slenderman focuses almost exclusively on the pre-trial hearing that determined whether or not the girls would be tried as adults or not. And with things ramping up as the trial gets closer, this is the perfect introduction to the case and all of the factors involved. Look for it on HBO at 10:00pm ET/PT on January 23rd as well as streaming on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, and affiliate portals.
Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.