Hot Docs 2016 Review: BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN And The Wisconsin Justice System

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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Hot Docs 2016 Review: BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN And The Wisconsin Justice System

If you have not heard of the Slenderman at this point, trust me that your kids have. He is a tall thin man in a suit usually seen looming in the background of locations where children play or blending into a sparse forest of tall trees, that came about from unconscious desires of the internet to create its own digital folklore.

The opening minutes of Beware The Slenderman promise an experience along the lines of The Blair Witch Project meets Seven. It begs the question on whether HBO contractually mandates swanky opening titles on the various properties they develop for broadcast. The former mock-doc was made famous through savvy use of the internet in building its own mythology, and the latter was a cold thriller featuring sensationally violent murders as the mission statement of warped ideology of a mysterious John Doe.

The actual content of the documentary is far more interesting than what the credit sequence (or poster) pledges. Director Irene Taylor Brodsky goes deep into the specific case of two Wisconsin preteen girls who brutally stabbed one of their friends, nearly 20 times, and left her in the woods to die of her injuries. The victim, Peyton, (somehow) survived, and the perpetrators were were caught in short order. It is one of those stories you might have heard on the news in a couple years ago, registered the shock of it, that they did this due to belief in an internet meme, and then went on about your life. Documentaries like this one serve the place of an increasingly neutered long-form print journalism in that they allow a focused look at the context and consequences, well beyond national headlines.

Featuring extensive courtroom footage, candid interviews with the family members of the accused girls, and the online origins of the crowdsourced boogieman, Beware The Slenderman, plays like bizzaro world version of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills, the superb West Memphis Three doc released by HBO in the 1990s (followed by two sequels). In that film, three teenage boys were convicted of committing gristly murders in Arkansas, and convicted mainly on the grounds that they listened to Metallica and read books by Aleister Crowley (coupled with unreasonable coercion by the police to confess.) The questionable idea that heavy metal music and satanic books could induce impressionable teens to murder was taken seriously to the point of putting blinders on due process.

Here in 2014, via videotaped interrogations which provide the through-line for the film, Morgan and Anissa, separated, both freely admit that their belief of an internet meme made them do it. One of the key, but unspoken messages of Beware The Slenderman is that even in a case where pop culture actually did made the girls do it, the legal system is still utterly broken when it comes to youth. Deeply disturbing to a bleeding-heart-Canadian such as myself, was fact that neither of the accused 12 year olds could have any body contact with their parents during the trial period (now in its second year) and were tried by adults by a tough-on-crime Wisconsin court. No hugs. Morgan's mother has theories, but no answers because she has been prevented from speaking to daughter since the arrest. The girls were not given phone calls. Both fathers spend much of their on-screen interviews in tears. One gives an impassioned, but pragmatic, monologue on technology, parenting, and the punishing stress of trying to move forward with any sense of normalcy. 

We have no idea what kinds of lives our children live inside their heads, and increasingly, the internet allows to magnify and participate the collective imagination, in ways that the brothers Grimm (or Metallica) could never have comprehended. Morgan's mother thinks back to the time where her daughter had no empathic reaction to the mother die while watching Bambi. It is a powerful anecdote, but one wonders if this experiment were conducted formally on hundreds of children, if Morgan's reaction is more common than we intuit. Perhaps from a lack of media comprehension or simply the universal built-in-narcissism of those who are so very young.

A montage of Anissa's youtube history (Beware of Google+) shows a mixture of videos with a wide variety of inquisitive, dark and silly clips. No different that what my son watches. I remember having a conversation with him regards to how everything is logged and made public, but it was more in the vein of privacy than a potentially post-criminal pop-psyche analysis.

Although not mentioned in the doc, I was reminded of the two girls who murdered one of their mothers in the 1950s in New Zealand. This true story was made into a film called Heavenly Creatures by Peter Jackson (who, co-incidentally, did his own West Memphis Three doc a few years ago) and one can see that socially awkward pre-teens can get lost in fantasy worlds. A quick visit to DeviantArt or CreepyPasta, shows that the artwork and storytelling is deeply engaging and alluring material, where 'Slender' is more often portrayed as a melancholy parent figure, a grim reaper with a heart, than a Victorian-era witch or Freddy Krueger. 

Morgan and Anissa, only shown in custody and in photos and videos captured by their parents before the crime, appear to have only wanted to run away into their fantasies, as so many girls their age do. While their crime is profoundly serious -- it is noteworthy that the neither victim nor her family participated in the documentary -- but it is a sad state of affairs they they be tried as adults. The horror of this crime is an extreme outlier of puberty and mental illness. HBO may be happy to hook an audience in on sensationalism, but Beware The Slenderman fortunately delivers a conversation that is more significant and humane.

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More about Beware the Slenderman

Michael LangMay 8, 2016 12:44 PM

"but it is a sad state of affairs they they be tried as adults." You are a clown Kurt. Supporting little murderous POS's is really sad on your part.

KurtMay 8, 2016 7:35 PM

I'm not talking about the crime, I'm talking about the justice system. There is no reason 12 year olds should be tried as adults. To a pragmatic Canuck, this is flat out wrong.

What's My Point?May 9, 2016 9:21 AM

I understand your aversion regarding the children being tried as adults, but the nature of the crime probably dictated the court's decision. It is one thing where a child might disengage a parking brake on a vehicle and it rolls down a hill and kills another kid, but these girls planned to murder the other girl. They stabbed her repeatedly and left her to die in the forest. I am not sure grounding them for a week and taking away their cell phones would be a proper response. Children are pushed to grow up quicker these days and access to all types of information online at the touch of a finger only facilitates that. They need to understand that there are serious consequences for committing a serious crime. Granted, they should not be given the death sentence, but trying them as adults is not unreasonable. Also, the issue is not with the justice system. It lies with the parents who allowed two girls to fall into a "fantasy" where they wanted to kill the other girl. The justice system should not have to be deciding whether to try 12 year old girls as adults or juveniles for committing a murder. The parents should be teaching their children not to murder instead of letting them discover moral ambiguities online. Finally, this does look interesting and I will definitely put it on my watch list.

GarthDMay 9, 2016 9:25 AM

"even in a case where pop culture actually did made the girls do it"

Yeah, except that pop culture absolutely, positively, definitively did NOT make the girls do ANYTHING.

They CHOSE to do what they did.

KurtMay 9, 2016 10:01 AM

Agreed. The point I'm making is that even if the extreme case (that sentence above) were the ACTUAL case (which is likely not) they should still be tried as kids. They are kids. Brains are developing, and they shouldn't be punished by society (they'll have guilt/conscience issues for sure that will never go completely away) for the entire lifetimes for mistakes made as a child, no matter how extreme. Mental help rehabilitation and re-integration into society is the humane way to proceed, but FFS, at least let them have physical contact with their parents.

KurtMay 9, 2016 10:18 AM

It has been shown countless times that severity of punishment does not act as deterrence. People do not commit actions with the expectations to get caught. Particularly 12 year olds. And 12 year olds with mental health issues.

All criminal justice systems and policing are still playing catch-up when it comes to mental health.

CHUDMay 9, 2016 11:04 AM

They're children. The reasons we typically try adults and children differently is because they are, in fact, different. Kurt was in no way condoning their actions, and I see no reason to start throwing personal insults around.

CHUDMay 9, 2016 11:17 AM

Were these girls actually diagnosed with mental illness? My fear is that stuff like this might only further alienate, probably, the most discriminated-against groups of people in the world-- the mentally ill. The link below has some helpful facts about the mentally ill, which might help us not jump to judgment too quickly.

KurtMay 9, 2016 11:45 AM

One of the girls certainly was in the initial hearings that are shown in the context of the documentary. Now, I understand the vagueness of the DSM and opinions always vary between psychiatrists, it's a fuzzy science, but still, Morgan's dad has pretty severe schizophrenia (which he has managed to cope with all his life) and it sounds like Morgan has some difficult times distinguishing between 'real' images and 'hallucinations.' But I'd also make the argument that kids of a certain age (certainly 12 and down) have issues with perspective, because their parents are often handling most of the responsible 'big picture' stuff up until that age.

What's My Point?May 9, 2016 3:48 PM

I agree with you on all those points. They should not be locked up and the key thrown away, but being tried as a juvenile or adult would probably bring about the same sentencing in regards to legitimate mental illness. That being said, not everyone who murders someone has mental a mental illness. Some people may say that 12 year old girls murdering people is not normal so they must have a mental illness. Unless they have been diagnosed, and that can be debatable too, then it is just conjecture based on a specific social moral outlook. Yes, they made a mistake and if they are mentally ill, then they will need to be sequestered to receive counseling until determined they will not be tempted to kill more people. If they are not mentally ill, would you want them wandering around free to start planning murders with enough forethought to not be caught in the future just because they are kids? Just some thoughts.

KurtMay 9, 2016 4:05 PM

As horrible a their crime is, you don't throw a 12 year olds life away because of a crime, you give them council-ling and rehabilitation, not punishment. They could get 65 years in prison, which is not only ridiculously expensive, but also allows for no second chances. Look, I'm progressive on this subject, and I'd rather the justice system aim to help people not commit crimes, than simply set an 'example' that no one would follow, because again, and this is super duper important, with a couple centuries of historical data: severity of punishment doesn't correlate with deterrence.

wagnerfilmMay 10, 2016 5:25 PM

There's no reason 12 year olds should be committing premeditated murder either. But when they do, legal consequences should apply to them.

KurtMay 10, 2016 10:12 PM

It is not that simple. Really, it isn't.