The Slenderman mythos is undeniably seductive. The change from urban legends being passed on through word of mouth to coming alive on the internet also changed the scares they could create. Where once on the playground tales like Bloody Mary were escapable by simply not carrying out the appropriate ritual, online horror requires you to hunt it down and opt-in. Lovecraftian creatures and tales of terror spread through chain mails, and have come to be collected and showcased on Creepypasta.
Beware the Slenderman follows the aftermath of two twelve year old girls stabbing a friend and classmate. When questioned by authorities they place the blame at the feet of Slenderman, who had threatened their friends and family should they not follow his command. The documentary follows the families of the two girls over a period of 18 months, starting with the day of the stabbing.
As interesting as the Slenderman character is, that is not and should not be the focal point of the documentary, yet there is a considerable amount of time spent showing off numerous representations of the fictional monster. Fanart, videos, and computer games about him are shown, none of which are credited by the film makers. It seems the documentary itself becomes intoxicated by how alluring the mythology is, excited to share with the viewer this modern legend.
This jars with the real hurt caused by two girls because of their obsession. Both were given medical examinations, with one diagnosed with extreme schizophrenia for such a young age. The sheer amount of information about Slenderman is not necessary for the apparent heart of the documentary – what the girls did – which leads to the whole thing feeling like a moral panic.
Viewed by older audiences, and those unfamiliar with the internet, there might be lots to learn here. But, when we view one of the girls’ Youtube history and the comments she had made, none of them seem out of character for a young misfit. The internet has its edgy and quirky sides that have been cultivated by entertaining those who do not fit in, and that is in itself not inherently a bad thing. It may lead to an overload of media consumption, but from a young age people are bombarded with information that is good, bad, and neutral. It is overwhelming, and it is part of our development in learning what our relationship with these influences is going to be. Certain subcultures are drawn to the dark and macabre parts of life, but find a comfort and source of healthy expression in them. During these scenes, the documentary feels like an older person tutting and muttering “kids these days.”
The family of the victim chose not to be involved, and their privacy is for the most part respected, but it does leave you wanting to know what the victim thinks now. Was she aware of their fascination with Slenderman? Does she think they need medical help? Is she in contact with the families of her attackers? This was outside of the documentary’s control, and so not so much a failing on the film maker’s behalf as unanswered questions a viewer is certain to want to know. Similarly, HBO documentaries having a two hour runtime really hurts Beware the Slenderman – it could lose a half hour – but this also seems out of the control of those involved in its creation.
It ends with musings on mental health, particularly schizophrenia, which one of the girls appears to have inherited from her dad. This is a huge issue: as society slowly begins to understand and appreciate how mental health issues function, the balance between recognising potential harm while also trying to remove stigmas is a tricky one. As is pointed out, schizophrenics are not dangerous, but without being able to separate her delusions from reality, schizophrenia in this individual was a potentially lethal presence.
Countless people have engaged with, enjoyed, and been spooked by the Slenderman mythology. Marble Hornets is a genuinely captivating and inventive horror series based around the figure. Fanart has led to numerous interpretations of the origin story, resulting in some great work. He has spread like memes do – bizarrely explained in this documentary by Richard Dawkins. To blame this creation for what happened is to blame Marilyn Manson for Columbine.
And yet, this overlong and oddly distracted documentary feels as clueless as everyone else in the film. If the mental health of the young girls was the problem, how do we equip people with the ability to make sense of what they read? If their social situation was to blame, is this a case of two loners egging each other on? Did their parents fail in not teaching their kids the very real horrors of the internet?
Beware the Slenderman does not even begin to try and frame what happened. It leads to a confusing watch, one that is fascinated by the titular monster, dumbfounded by what happened, and more open-ended than it ought to be. It presents the opportunity to act as judge, which feels particularly cold and pointless in this instance. A tragic news story all round, but not one that is given the proper thought and analysis it deserves here.