Beware the Slenderman, a 2016 documentary now available on HBO, is a horror story in every sense. It’s about the two 12-year-old girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin, who nearly succeeded in their plot to kill a playmate to appease an internet character known as Slender Man. The horror starts here, with Morgan Geyser stabbing young “Bella” 19 times as Anissa Weier urges her on, then deepens as the two-hour documentary unspools.
“I didn’t want to do this,” Morgan tells authorities after the May 2014 attack, which followed a sleepover for her 12th birthday. “I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t.” Or, in Anissa’s words, “It was necessary.”
There is horror in the casualness of the crime, steeped in childish fears. There is horror in the meme of Slender Man, whom experts, including the philosopher Richard Dawkins, are summoned in the documentary to explain. He is a “modern-day bogeyman” whose shadowy presence can signal both menace and protection. He is as real as the Santa Claus that Geyser believed in until she was 11. Try to keep your heart from breaking as Morgan’s mom, explaining why she allowed the child to keep believing, laments, “Who’s in a hurry for their child to grow up?”
The girls’ parents are not noticeably bad. They experience horror in its purest form after their daughters’ actions are revealed. Morgan, it emerges, is seriously mentally ill, diagnosed with schizophrenia. From age 3 she saw things that weren’t there, as did her dad, who suffers from mental illness. When her mom asks what she plans to watch at night on TV, Morgan replies, “That depends on whose turn it is to decide.” Morgan lives in a room by herself.
And Anissa, poor Anissa, is horror in a glass jar held up to the light. A lonely girl made fun of by others, she was drawn to Morgan and her fantasies. She blames herself: None of it would have happened, she says, if she had not turned Morgan on to Slender Man.
There is horror, finally, in what the film reveals about the justice system in Wisconsin. How the cops connived to interview the girls without their parents present, then betrayed them at every turn. How Waukesha County Judge Michael Bohren, backed by a pliant appellate court, rejected pleas to treat these girls as juveniles. Slender Man is not the only monster in this film.
The two girls are scheduled to be tried separately, as adults, sometime this spring.