Beware The Slenderman Is A Peek At The Dark Side Of Girl World
Your editors discuss HBO's latest true crime documentary.
Tara, had you heard anything about the titular case of Beware The Slenderman before you watched it? I'm sorry to say I was first made aware of it by a Law & Order: SVU episode -- which, I should note, did a decent job folding it together with the Cropsey legend -- but then I promptly disappeared down a Wiki-hole, because here's the thing. On the one hand, it's hard to believe that two tween girls got so caught up in the online-urban-legend world of a fictional character that they tried to kill a third girl in order to prove themselves to "Slender." But on the other hand, for this veteran of pre-adolescent Girl World, it isn't hard to believe at all. Shit can go sideways like you wouldn't believe.
I had vaguely heard of the case pre-SVU, but I didn't know the particulars, other than that it was tailor-made for a documentary like this, from the age and sex of the perpetrators to the spooooooky motivation. (I can say, slightly off-topic, that when I first read something online about the "legend" of Slenderman -- more of an internet experiment, original -- I IMed a link to our esteemed colleague Joe Reid and scared the hell out of him. Those pictures of Slenderman at playgrounds and picnics are fake but they're still creepy!)
They're so creepy! But of course they aren't what make the documentary compelling, aside the relationship to phenomena like The Blair Witch Project and whatever it is that draws many of us to the horror genre, which is above my exegetical pay grade. What fascinates us, I think, is this idea of the bad seed -- and in this case, the fact that the girl you'd think to blame first, Morgan, probably isn't the one most responsible. Unless you thought Anissa was the more prone of the two.
I was much more reminded of Heavenly Creatures than The Blair Witch Project -- though I get that comparison too -- and as in HC (also the story of a real crime), it felt to me like neither girl was really more responsible than the other, but their specific chemistry is what led to the attack. Like Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet in HC), Morgan had a kind of exciting, nihilistic charisma; like Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), Anissa was drawn to it.
Yeah, I was surprised the film didn't make that comparison explicit; maybe director Irene Taylor Brodsky (director of, among others, One Last Hug: Three Days At Grief Camp, which I liked) felt it wasn't necessary. Another parallel I drew mentally, though I doubt anyone else would except maybe you, was to Leah Remini's journey to expose Scientology. I've read a lot on that subject, as I know you have, and it never ceases to amaze me how loyal its adherents are despite the hilariously Smurfy terminology -- but one of the talking-heads in Slenderman talked about the social benefits of belief. Which one could interpret all sorts of ways, including how cliques function.
Yes, the question of what makes people join antisocial communities whose aims run counter to their own interests has been on my mind lately FOR SOME REASON. And those skeins of Beyond The Slenderman were fascinating to me -- not just what attracted Morgan and Anissa to the Slenderman mythology, but how the fundamental nature of the internet made it so easy for malleable minds to become obsessed with it. You said yourself above that you fell into a rabbit hole: there's always a rabbit hole.
And that this rabbit hole generated such volume and creativity, in so many languages! Brodsky is really good at conveying the appeal of the Slender-verse even to me, an old who works on the internet. I can only imagine the blandishments for an alienated 11-year-old who struggles to bond with her IRL peers. There's something enormously appealing about another world that you can escape to, particularly one that rewards smarts or code-cracking.
And while the idea of an impossibly tall, faceless usher bringing children to Slender Mansion in Nicolet National Forest is...new, stories of children leaving their families is a wish fulfillment fantasy that animates every story about orphans or the orphan-adjacent, from the Narnia books to The Facts Of Life.
Yeah, the day I learned that "Pippi Longstocking" is not a job you can train for was a sad one. ...Overall, I think the movie's a solid sit, and I was impressed with Brodsky's access to the parents, but some of it, like the Skype interviews, felt a bit budge. I wonder how much it worked for me because of the subject matter, versus the filmmaking.
I agree: I think the more lurid elements of the case will draw viewers in, but the surprising access to Morgan's and Anissa's families save it from being distastefully sensationalistic.
You know what maybe shouldn't draw viewers in? The state of Wisconsin, which between this, Making A Murderer, and Paul Ryan seems like a pretty scary place. No offense, Wisconsin. I liked visiting you! But you should think about talking to someone.