Beware the Slenderman
Last night I finally got around to watching Beware the Slenderman, an HBO documentary about the shocking case of two 12-year-old girls who lured their “best friend” into the woods and stabbed her multiple times (she survived thanks to a random cyclist who spotted her crawling along a dirt road). The bespectacled baby perps, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, claimed they did it to appease the internet urban legend Slenderman. They were walking along a highway heading for Slender’s magic mansion located deep within the forest when they were picked up by police after the incident.
The shocking nature of any crime committed by children especially bodes the question why? What could cause two kids from seemingly stable middle-class homes to do something so heinous? Struggling for answers, Morgan’s mom (sad, and somewhat in denial) gives an example of her daughter’s early lack of empathy relating how she failed to cry watching Bambi; when Bambi’s mother is shot most kids cry, but little Morgan cheered: “Run, Bambi Run! Save yourself!” (I admit I giggled at this absurd revelation) Anissa Weier is equally disturbed. Routinely bullied at school (her bad haircut and unflattering glasses probably didn’t help) Anissa is filled with just enough unconscious rage and self-loathing to want to kill the person (victim Peyton “Bella” Leutner, mostly absent from the doc) coming between her and her BFF, Morgan–apparently her only friend. “I was surprised, but also excited” she drones flatly when asked by police what she felt about their murderous plan.
Folie à deux
The shared psychosis of folie à deux appears in many shocking cases of killer couples: Leopold and Loeb, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme (Heavenly Creatures), Rachel Shoaf and Shelia Eddy (Skylar Neese murder), Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns (triple murder of Rafay’s entire family). In these scenarios there is typically one prominent leader (usually a psychopath/sociopath) and one dependent personality so emotionally needy they go along with a plan they’d probably never enact themselves. Both personalities (generally isolated from other society) feed into the other’s psychopathy, resulting in hysterical (at times sexual) obsession at best and at worst, cold-blooded acts of violence.
The motives are varied, but the victims, except in the Leopold and Loeb case where the child/victim was chosen at random, are usually people close to them–a best friend, a parent. In the Rafay/Burns case, Sebastian Burns (a handsome and arrogant rich kid caught in flagrant delicate in the arms of his female defense attorney in jail) murdered nerdy Rafay’s parents and autistic sister–bludgeoning them with a baseball bat while nude as Rafay looked on. Ironically, he played the Leopold role in a high school production of Hitchcock’s Rope, which may have given him the idea. The two promising Seattle schoolboys escaped to Canada and fell prey to a fascinating Mounted Police sting operation–Burns bragged about the crime on hidden camera to whom he thought were gangsters while Rafay giggled on the sidelines. At their sentencing Rafay expressed remorse, while debate captain Burns delivered a self-aggrandizing two-hour pre-sentencing statement on his innocence before the gavel came down for life without parole (both skirted the death penalty due to Canadian extradition policies).
Equally fascinating is the Shoaf/Eddy coupling. Two West Virginia teenagers who seemed to live their lives through their Twitter feeds, lured “best friend” Skylar Neese into the woods and took turns stabbing her to death. Shoaf’s impassive explanation that they wanted to get the job done before she was due to arrive at church camp eerily echoes Anissa Weier’s bizarre admittance that her only hesitation about killing her friend was her fear of seeing a dead body and that she can’t tolerate the sound of screaming. After convincing their victim to play hide and seek in the woods, the two “lionesses chasing a zebra” attacked, psycho Morgan letting lose with the knife while cowardly loser Anissa spurred her on.
The Slenderman Myth
A portion of the documentary examines the cultural phenomenon of the internet meme. Several experts from psychiatrists to digital folklorists (didn’t know there was such a thing–cool!) weigh in on how Slenderman began as a Creepypasta horror story before branching out into the internet canon of urban legends on sites like Deviant Art and Youtube. These “viruses of the mind” occupy their own universe in many consciousnesses “without having to understand cultural context.” Some die a natural death from loss of interest (planking anyone?) and some survive. Slenderman, especially in light of this shocking crime, seems destined to retain his boogyman status.
The film makes an apt comparison of Slenderman to the Pied Piper of the brother’s Grimm story. He’s always watching, an ever-present, and bizarrely comforting dark guardian of children whose stressed-out parents can’t keep up with their emotional needs.
Blame the iPad
The documentary’s weakest moment puts forth the idea that the social isolation of internet immersion during adolescence can be dangerous. While that may be true on some level, that door is open and won’t be closed. Maybe it’s just my sick mind and love of horror, but the kids playing the Slenderman game, although terrified, seem to be having great fun. Horror provides a catharsis for the fears we all have within us, a healthy and entertaining way to confront our fears. Crazy people will do crazy things regardless of their exposures.
The fates of both would be killers hangs in the balance–both have been retained in adult custody pending trial. Although the judge’s caution regarding protecting society from these two little monsters is understandable, they were certainly not adults at the time of the crime. So what should be done with them? Morgan is certifiably schizophrenic, a serious genetic disease (her father has it) where victims are simply not able to distinguish fantasy from reality, which bodes the question of her responsibility. The documentary leaves off with Morgan in a state hospital taking her meds and becoming more isolated in a world of fantasy. Anissa, not special enough to be mentally ill, cools her heels in the county jail. Too often absent from these true-crime stories is the victim, whose physical and emotional trauma can only be imagined.
The film’s final haunting image shows artworks depicting the girls transforming into their own internet meme while Slenderman hovers over them, as if he held the cards along.