In 2014, two twelve year old girls lured their friend to the woods in their small Wisconsin town and stabbed her 19 times, leaving her for dead. They told their friend they were going to get help but never returned. Their motive? Impress an internet boogeyman and join his legion. This set up invokes images of precocious pre-teen psychopaths, the kind of kids that unblinkingly murdered in Children of the Corn or would go onto the be the bored teenage terrors of Funny Games. It’s only in HBO’s new documentary Beware the Slender Man (2016) does the chilling crime and adolescent criminals get fully realized as the perfect storm of internet culture, impressionable young minds and mental illness.
The film takes great care to set up the pre-teen culprits, Anissa and Morgan, as normal girls. They had trouble fitting in at school, but who didn’t at 12? Their interests ran a little nerdy (Morgan proudly holds up a Star Trek game, Anissa was in choir). Their respective parents are loving and attentive and involved in their lives. For the most part, they don’t seem like murderers in training, but the future is looming. Scenes of their distraught parents reminiscing on a simple childhood are spliced together with police footage of the confessions: Anissa, scared and sobbing, and Morgan, quiet and detached.
The Slender Man plays a pivotal role in the case, despite being a fictional character. The awkward, outcast girls spent a lot of time where most outcasts hang out: the internet. Anissa in particular spent time on CreepyPasta, and introduced it to Morgan. It was there, on the collaborative horror fiction site, that they first came across the Slender Man. The meme first originated in 2009 as part of a Photoshop contest and has since gained a life of his own – despite having concretely fictional origins, the Slender Man is treated as 100% real in many corners online. The tall, faceless creature appears in YouTube videos, video games, movies, message boards – everywhere an internet savvy teen might look. The highly gullible girls bought into the myth, and started to believe Slender Man would kill them and their families. They slowly came up with a plan to appease him and become a “proxy,” who live in his mythical murder mansion. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
Beware the Slender Man doesn’t blame the internet, but does pose interesting questions about how susceptible kids are to what they see online, and when it gets too far. Morgan’s mother new about Slender Man, but thought it was no different to her reading Stephen King novels when she was 12. Anissa’s dad also knew about Slender Man, but since she only had allotted time on her iPad, he didn’t think she was doing anything worrisome. Should they have banned scary stories from their daughters? Anissa’s YouTube history showed everything from cute bunnies to dead baby jokes – is this any different from any other pre-teen in a “2 edgy 4 u” phase?
Mental illness is also at play here. While in police custody, both girls meet with psychologists and Morgan is diagnosed with schizophrenia, which runs in her family. It seems her delusions and visions began to incorporate the Slender Man, introduced to her by an easily frightened and easily convinced Anissa. It’s a tragic crime that was so easily prevented – if the girls were a little older, a little more mature. If Morgan had been diagnosed earlier. If they had spoken to more people, at school or at home, and their obsession could have been caught quicker. If they didn’t feel they had to go along with each other (each girl admitting to not wanting to do it, but neither wanted to let the other down).
Chillingly, Anissa and Morgan have become part of the Slender Man myth themselves. The same forums and sites they once frequented now have fan pages, drawings and tributes to the girls, often portraying them as the coldhearted psychos embraced by Slender Man that the documentary shows they’re not.
Throughout everything, Morgan and Anissa remain pre-teen girls. On a phone call from her juvenile facility, Anissa gets excited talking a mile a minute to an old friend, sounding like every thirteen year old girl you’ve ever met. Morgan shows up in court wearing a Batman t-shirt and a hoodie with cartoon cats on it.
Regardless, the film ends with the judge’s decision to try them as adults.
Beware the Slenderman will air on HBO later this year.