How the ‘Slenderman’ Meme Drove Two Teenage Girls to Try to Kill
In 2014, two young girls stabbed a friend in the woods 19 times and left her to die. An HBO documentary examines how mental-health issues and an internet meme drove them to do it.
Particularly online, the boundary between reality and fantasy can be difficult to discern—and as illustrated by Beware the Slenderman, the result of that blurriness can be deadly. Premiering Monday on HBO (after its theatrical debut at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival), Irene Taylor Brodsky’s documentary has, like the cartoonish specter at the center of its tale, multiple malevolent tendrils. An incisive true-crime drama steeped in issues of myth creation, internet-meme phenomenon, and mental illness, it’s a non-fiction nightmare that understands that, when it comes to terror, made-up spooks have nothing on real-life psychopaths.
Beware the Slenderman begins with shaky-cam footage of a person fleeing a faceless ghoul in the pitch-black woods—faux-verité material that deliberately recalls The Blair Witch Project, and serves as an apt opener for a film rooted in the way make-believe can (and strives to) seem real. Brodsky’s focus is a shocking assault perpetrated by two 12-year-old girls—Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier—in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Their target was their good friend Payton “Bella” Leutner, with whom they’d spent the prior evening having a post-birthday party sleepover. On the morning of May 31, 2014, Morgan and Anissa lured Bella out to the nearby woods and stabbed her 19 times, leaving her to die. When they were apprehended soon afterward, they confessed to the deed, as well as to the reason they’d done such an unthinkable thing: They wanted to curry favor with the Slenderman.
Who, you might be asking, is the Slenderman? As Brodsky’s doc details through a wealth of YouTube videos, video games, and online fan art and short stories, he’s a lanky, faceless white phantom in a black suit who has wispy tendrils coming out of his back, and lives in a mansion alongside his “proxies” (i.e., minions). According to legend, Slenderman preys upon children—although why he does so is, like everything else about the character, open to interpretation. This is because the ghoul has no single author; rather, he’s a crowdsourced creation known as a “creepypasta” (i.e., a horror myth conceived online) that began as a figure conceived for a photo contest on the Something Awful forum by Eric Knudsen (using the alias “Victor Surge”) and then spread across the internet like a virus, picking up bits and pieces of backstory and personality traits along the way.