2016 Milwaukee Film Festival – Day Four – BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN
Day Four of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival took me to a movie with local roots, BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN. On May 31, 2014, Payton “Bella” Leutner was stabbed 19 times by her best friend Morgan Geiser, assisted by Anissa Weier, in a park in Waukesha, Wisconsin and left for dead. Morgan Geiser and Anissa Weier were apparently motivated to this brutal act by the fictional character of the Slenderman, an internet myth that has gained a lot of traction. All three of the girls involved were 12 at the time.
This horrific crime has been an international news sensation. There’s not much doubt why as the story combines true crime, the internet, modern folklore, the criminal justice system, kids, the effect of media on children, mental illness, and courtroom drama. It’s ready made for a documentary and the folklore also allows the filmmakers the opportunity to throw in some horror movie flourishes. HBO and director Irene Taylor Brodsky are first out of the gate with BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN.
The result is a thorough, non-sensationalistic look at what happened. It helps that not many of the facts are in dispute. Because the girls have been scheduled for trial as adults, controversial as that may be, it means that the filmmakers were allowed access to a ton of material under open records law. What’s more, the girls freely admit what was done and their taped interviews by police have been released. Because of that access, this is a really comprehensive look, as much as it can be, and certainly deepened my understanding of the case and even changed my perceptions of what was really going on.
Of course, what was really going on in the heads of Anissa Weier and Morgan Geiser while the crime was being committed may forever be a mystery. It’s come out in the news, and is discussed in detail in the documentary, that Morgan Geiser’s father suffers from schizophrenia and Morgan Geiser has been diagnosed with that mental illness too. How her parents missed the signs will forever be a mystery, although to be fair it doesn’t seem like Morgan’s teachers or classmates noticed either. We’re told that schizophrenia can be brought on by stress and we’re only casually introduced to what those stresses were, lack of friends and possible bullying being among them. Still, the facts and causes of what was going on with Morgan Geisler seem clear cut.
Anissa Weier remains something of a mystery though. Anissa was going through her own issues, her parents were separating, she had few friends, perhaps she was bullied, and somehow she had become aware of the Slenderman meme and thought it was real. Does this rise to the level of mental illness? Was she just jealous of the friendship between Morgan and Payton? Was there a feedback loop between her Slenderman beliefs and Morgan’s schizophrenia? Those questions remain unanswered.
The documentary, which was in early germination as a film on the relationship between children and the always connected world of the internet before the crime made international headlines, openly wonders if there was no internet would the crime even have been conceived of? There’s always been folklore, so it’s impossible to say, but certainly the volume of stories, videos, and photos related to the Slenderman folklore is much more than I would have had access to as a child. Anissa’s father says that he monitored his children, but other than sitting in a room with them, how can you possibly stop them from watching 2-minute videos or browsing photos when you’re cooking dinner, cleaning, or looking after your other children? Anissa’s father notes, with some ruefulness, that his 5th grade son is going to be sent home with an Ipad from school for the purposes of education which leaves him in the position of struggling between his son’s education and controlling the dangers of the internet. Then again, the documentary perhaps doesn’t take a critical position on its own thesis. Comic books were blamed for juvenile delinquency in the 1950s and Dungeons and Dragons came under similar media hysteria in the 1980s, is this case fundamentally different?
The big hole in the documentary is the absence of Payton Leitner and her family. Understandably, they declined to be included while the case is still pending and the physical, mental, and emotional wounds are still fresh. The filmmakers do their best to remind the audience of the horrific nature of the crime and that Payton was the innocent victim, but the very nature of access tilts the focus in the direction of Anissa and Morgan. It’s perhaps an unavoidable flaw, but it’s a flaw nonetheless.
Still, although flawed, BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN is a gripping documentary. Given the subject matter, how could it not be? Children, their mental health, the juvenile justice system, and the internet are bound to be all tied together in the future, so I doubt that the issues raised by this documentary are going away any time soon. For that reason alone, it’s a documentary that will likely prove to be prescient. It’s well worth seeking out, either at a festival screening or when it comes to HBO in January.
The last opportunity to see BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN is Wednesday, October 5th at 4 pm at the Times Cinema. Tickets to BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN and a host of other films can be purchased at Milwaukee Film’s website.