One Of The Most Disturbing HBO Documentaries Is An Urban Legend Nightmare
The HBO documentary Beware the Slenderman makes for a truly horrifying viewing experience. It chronicles a story of innocence lost and showcases the very real dangers of fan culture and unchecked mental health concerns. The case profiled within the documentary shatters the collective notion that children are simply incapable of brutal acts of violence and reminds us that we live in unprecedented times where the world isn’t as idyllic as we might like to think. The idea that two 12-year-old children could be so severely detached from reality and resort to such vicious behavior toward a friend is both eye-opening and terrifying.
Beware the Slenderman chronicles the attempted murder of Payton Leutner at the hands of her 12-year-old friends, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser. Geyser and Weier lured Payton into the woods of Waukesha, Wisconsin and stabbed her a total of 19 times to appease the fictional character, Slenderman. Both perpetrators believed if they didn’t commit an act of violence, the Slenderman would come for them and those they loved. After the attempt on Payton’s life, Weier and Geyser intended to walk roughly 200 miles to Nicolet National Forest where they believed the Slenderman’s mansion was located.
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The most frightening thing about this case is the way the aggressors appear so severely detached from reality. The manner in which Geyser and Weier talk about Slenderman in their interviews with law enforcement is deeply unsettling. They don’t speak about the character like he’s a work of fiction. Instead, both very much describe the creepypasta creation as if he is as real as you or I. They seem to vacillate between fearing him and desperately wanting to win his favor. Yet they have no awareness of the barriers between the real world and make-believe. The perpetrators’ inability to discern fantasy from reality is explored at great length in Beware the Slenderman. And Irene Taylor Brodsky does a commendable job of digging into the mental health concerns at play, rather than solely focusing on the sensational aspects of the crime.
Though I fully recognize that the young women are responsible for their actions, there is a lot of nuance to this case. And on that basis, it’s difficult not to have a certain level of empathy for them. Both were experiencing severe bouts of mental illness leading up to the attempt on Payton’s life. And that is clearly evidenced when a detective asks Morgan why she stabbed her friend and she simply responds: “It was necessary.”
As strange as that response sounds, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier believed with every fiber of their beings that they had to make a blood sacrifice to appease Slenderman, or their lives and the lives of their loved ones would be in danger. Now, that doesn’t justify their actions. And it doesn’t make what they did ok. But it does provide a level of insight into their state of mind and gives us some perspective on how sick each of these girls was when they plotted their friend’s murder.
Setting aside the mental state of the perpetrators, the single most horrifying aspect of this case is that Payton Leutner had her innocence robbed at a tender age and will likely live the rest of her life struggling to trust people as a result. How does one come back from that? It’s miraculous that she survived the attack and she is very lucky to be alive. But the thought of having to process something that major at such a young age is incomprehensible. Payton and her family don’t appear in the film. And I very much respect that decision. With that said, it might have been compelling to hear more of her perspective to get context on the ramifications of the inciting act.
While we don’t get a great deal of insight into the experience of the victim and her loved ones, the doc does a commendable job of giving the parents of the perpetrators a platform to tell their side of the story. They were quickly labeled as monsters by members of their community and strangers on the Internet, alike. But the film avoids making a rush to judgment and shows the parents of the aggressors in their natural habitat and allows them to speak to the accusations that have been lobbed against them.
After seeing their input, it’s hard to cast all the blame on them. Anissa’s parents, in particular, kept very close watch on her and monitored her comings and goings online, as well as in person. With that said, the film should serve as a warning to parents to closely monitor the mental health of their children and learn to recognize the associated signs.
Ultimately, Beware the Slenderman is a tough watch. It reminds us what a scary place the world is. But the film also shines the spotlight on the importance of seeking treatment for mental health. There should be no shame in admitting you aren’t ok. Millions, if not billions, of people experience mental health struggles, and seeking aid is a brave investment in your well-being. If you need support, you can find resources right here.
If you are curious check the doc out for yourself, you can stream it on HBO Max.