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Sobering Facts Collide with Creepy Fiction in HBO’s Beware the Slenderman (Review)

Sobering Facts Collide with Creepy Fiction in HBO’s Beware the Slenderman (Review)

In May of 2014, two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls led a friend into the woods, stabbed her repeatedly, and left her for dead. (Fortunately the victim was located in time, and recovered after a long hospital stay.) When interviewed by police, the girls–Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier–claimed that they’d committed the crime to gain favor with “Slenderman,” which is sort of a contemporary boogeyman whose popularity has grown thanks to countless creepy photos and scary stories on the internet. It’s a piece of pop culture that has periodically crept into headlines over the past few years, so it was only a matter of time before some documentary filmmakers decided to tackle the story.

Fortunately those filmmakers are working for HBO, an outfit very well-known for its high-quality non-fiction films. With Beware the Slenderman, director Irene Taylor Brodsky seems fully intent on not only digging into why whys and the hows of this tragic story, but also on offering an honest, unflinching look at the girls’ behavior, families, and possible motivations for the attack. And this is why documentaries are so important: read a brief news story about Morgan and Anissa and you’re likely to dismiss them as inhuman monsters who were raised by ignorant fools–but after learning a bit about each family, you begin to realize that not everything is so black and white.

It’s easy to cast people as simple villains, and it certainly feels good to do so after something terrible happens, but Ms. Brodsky takes great pains to illustrate that, while Morgan and Anissa did commit a horrific crime, perhaps there were extenuating circumstances that made the two girls so deluded, confused, and angry.

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Alienated, lonely adolescents can sometimes take refuge in the darkest of places, and that seems to be what happened here. Firmly convinced that the Slenderman legend was real, these two emotionally unstable girls went and stabbed their friend 19 times–but why? The film makes the case that Morgan and Anissa were more outcasts than bullies, that they had very few friends besides each other, and that perhaps one (or both) of them are suffering from severe mental issues, each one feeding of the other’s neediness.

Beware the Slenderman also makes the (very clear) case that there are some deep, dark, scary things to be found on the internet, and that parents should pay attention to what their kids are up to online. The fact that one of the girls seems to suffer deeply from true schizophrenia just makes the story all the more tragic; Morgan seems to believe that she and her victim are still friends.

Of course the film spends some time dissecting the origin and the impact of the relatively new Slenderman phenomenon, but for the most part we’re focused on the crime, the court case, and the confused parents who are trying to discern how they could have prevented the attack. It’s natural to want to choose “easy villains” when you hear a story like this, but Beware the Slenderman does an impressive job of covering the issues from every angle. It could be that Morgan and Anissa were simply “born bad” (which is highly unlikely) or perhaps they’re victims in their own right. Emotionally unstable kids can do some terrible things, especially when provoked by terrifying ideas, but hopefully frank, honest films like Beware the Slenderman will help make us all a little more attentive to these things in the future.

4 non-slender burritos out of 5

4-burritos

Images: HBO

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