BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN is an exceptionally well made documentary about two schoolgirls in Wisconsin who tried to stab a school-friend to death in 2014 because they thought this would please a mythic internet creation called The Slender Man. The documentary has amazing access to the girls' parents, their friends, and uses footage of the girls being interviewed by the police and calling home from prison, resulting in an intense and provocative viewing experience.
As one would expect, Irene Taylor Brodsky's documentary spends a lot of time exploring how lonely children with access to the internet can find themselves sucked into online communities where fictional worlds become alarmingly real. But she goes far beyond a simplistic media panic over unsupervised surfing time. Because just as Slender Man - a modern bogeyman - did have a profound hold on the girls, we need to ask why they resorted to violence when thousands of other teens merely liked the youtube videos or read or created fanfic.
The documentary gives us two potential answers. The first, is that the girls are mentally unwell. Morgan's father is dealing with schizophrenia and her parents and lawyers posit that she two suffers from hallucinations. It would be easy to understand how, for such a girl, the boundary between a fictive and real person instructing to prove herself and so become his proxy might be powerfully evocative. And then there's Anissa's mother who suggests that she exhibited a psychopathic lack of empathy as a child, reacting in an abnormal way to watching the death of Bambi's mother. The second answer is that these two girls were unusually isolated - picked on at school - playing almost exclusively with each other - so that there was no-one to counter their obsession with Slender Man or point out that he wasn't real.
The resulting documentary is, then, a meditation on how parents can possibly monitor their children's internet lives, but also on how children, and those with mental illness are treated by the criminal justice system. Because even as I right this, it has not been finally decided if either of the girls is fit to stand trial, or whether they will face an adult or juvenile court. And with that in mind, I was hugely conscious of the fact that it would be in the interests of the parents being interviewed to present their children as infantile and mentally ill. I'm not saying that they were trying to do that, but I like the fact that the documentarian left enough ambiguity and space for the viewer to be allowed that conclusion.
BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN played SXSW in 2016 and was shown on HBO earlier this year. It is available to rent and own. The documentary has a running time of 117 minutes.