There is nothing particularly amazing about Waukesha, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. One would never imagine that this unexceptional place would strike fear into the hearts of parents after May 31, 2014, when the news broke that a near fatal stabbing of 12-year-old Payton Lautener had taken place in a woods nearby. What was even more incredible was that the attack was not committed by a sexual predator or drug crazed maniac. The tween was stabbed by a friend whom she knew since fourth grade and who was present with an accomplice, another friend Payton, also known as Bella, had gotten to know more recently. It is these jarring details that perplex when watching the documentary Beware The Slenderman, a true account of why two 12-year-old girls would be inspired to plot and nearly succeed at killing a close friend.
Director Irene Taylor Brodsky uses graphic renderings, Internet photographs, and predominately the taped testimony of the questioning of Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weir by Detective Tom Casey and Detective Michelle Trussoni at police headquarters. With these clips, she adds clips of some of the court proceedings, clips of interviews with parents, and includes a general survey of the tweens’ rooms. Parents discuss Morgan’s and Anissa’s childhood and, in the case of Anissa, a parent discusses the unfair criticism and accusations that he had been uninvolved in his daughter’s life to let such an event take place. From all of this footage and more, Brodsky cobbles together the story of why Anissa Weir would serve as accomplice and encourage Morgan to “Go ballistic, go crazy,” and stab Bella 19 times, injuring her with puncture wounds in the stomach, liver, and pancreas, twice barely missing major arteries.
Pointing out that both young girls came from divorced homes and that they lived in subsidized housing with parents of modest means, we deduce that those factors may or may not contribute as much as if the youngsters came from parents with means. The divorced parents of Geyser and Weir give very few clues about their daughters in interviews conducted by Brodsky, in which we are shown childhood pictures of sweet looking innocents. There are a few clues. One is that both were into their computers and the Internet, though Anissa’s father insisted that he did not allow his daughter to go overboard, and she always kept her door open so he was aware of what she was doing.
A more telling clue is from parent Angie Geyser who mentions that Morgan demonstrated flattened affect when as a child she watched the film Bambi and Bambi’s mother is killed by hunters. Angie was concerned her daughter would be upset because the scene of Bambi’s mother dying is usually a traumatic event that sends children into fits of emotional devastation and tears. Morgan, on the other hand didn’t cry, but spoke out, encouraging Bambi to run and escape, something which Angie thought was unusual. To her mind Morgan demonstrated a complete lack of empathy. This clue is emphasized for a reason. As one watches the taped testimony of both girls confessing to the attack, Morgan is matter-of-fact and unemotional, revealing a lack of identification with and empathy for Bella’s suffering. On the other hand Anissa weeps and shows remorse throughout most of her confession to Detective Trussoni, and she appears to be relieved when she is told that Bella will live.
Was lack of empathy at the heart of why Morgan would stab her best friend or was resentment, jealousy, or envy what prompted her to behave with violence? At the heart of this documentary is what the girls claim to be the motive of their compulsion to kill Bella. Their rationale is chilling, albeit surreal. And even if we find it to be apparently ridiculous, because there is no good explanation why one attempts pre-meditated murder, on the other hand, the filmmaker takes their explanations respectfully and seriously.
She identifies that their 12-year-old minds are impressionable and as much as they are persuaded by their own imaginations and each other’s provocation, during the course of the investigation into the attack, it is brought out that one of them had a severe psychological disorder. Distinguishing between fantasy and reality, dream-nightmares and truth sometimes is a slippery slope, especially when fear, a primordial emotion that can plague any of us if it engages on a profound, personal and deep seated level, breaks out and we allow it to run rampant impacting our behavior and relationships.
It is intense fear that prompted the girls to behave insidiously. Though the filmmaker attempts to convey the frightening aspect of “Slenderman,” a fantastic creation given life on the Internet via stories, communal accounts, and even a full-bodied characterization in a video game, just how the tweens immersed themselves to believe that Slenderman had omnipotent, telepathic powers, was watching them even in their dreams, and would reach out to them threatening to kidnap them using the tentacles that grew out of his back seems the stuff of fairy tales. And then we remember that fairy tales are incredibly gruesome and terrifying. But would we kill if an embodied fairy tale monster instructed us to kill?
The answer is elusive because Slenderman’s embodiment, however it appeared to Morgan and Anissa, evoked a personal terror that is difficult to rationally convey so that others might understand and identify. The filmmaker falters in this conveyance. As the tape unspools and the girls in different segments discuss how Slenderman influenced them to kill, we understand that he didn’t command them by word or deed. They did not have auditory hallucinations. It was in their imaginations. His presence so obsessed them that to perhaps alleviate it and to give themselves over to him completely, they independently and cooperatively agreed to sacrifice someone, their friend, to protect their families, protect themselves, and satisfy the terror and longing of this creature without a face that haunted their waking moments and distressed their peaceful sleep.
The filmmaker adheres to the straight documentary style on the ground revealed in the various clips. She intercuts the fantastic images of Slenderman in renderings and photographs. The interviews with parents are straightforward and demonstrate the mundane, heartfelt lives of individuals who are forced to cope with a fantastic and unbelievable act that may put their children away for 65 years if they are tried as adults. No answers are given; only the tweens answer that they attempted murder to satisfy Slenderman who lurked in the shadows and never directly appeared to them in a living, breathing form. He remained in the unconscious dark of their own imaginings and death impulses. And then there is the possibility that Morgan’s schizophrenia prompted her to kill, a disease manifestation she may have inherited from her father. But that doesn’t answer to the act of violence itself.
There are no quick and dirty answers. Fear is, after all, highly personal and individual. Thus, it is difficult to understand and identify with the girls’ fear of such an Internet meme. As a “scary creation” Slenderman is anticlimactic. Whether this is because the filmmaker never actively immerses and makes us feel the palpable threat and terror of the cultural, communal stream of Slenderman stories or whether it is because of the filmmaker’s choices to depict him the way she does to attempt to define what “he” is…regardless, the Slenderman segments remain elusive and unconvincing.
This leaves a gaping hole in the examination of an important subject and theme. For it is indeed vital to realize that cultural frightcons like Slenderman grow and develop a life of their own. Whether they are grasped and embraced to help carry youngsters through the difficult development from childhood to adulthood, or whether it is an individual’s penchant to take the morbid and gruesome into one’s being and breathe life into it as a sickness of the mind, here is an event that happened and we are no closer to understanding it than understanding that fear, any kind of fear that oppresses is the real danger, no matter the stimulus. In revealing the theme of fear’s power to destroy life, Beware the Slenderman is a film worth seeing.