One of the most common complaints that documentaries suffer is the accusation that they exploit their human subjects for artistic (and financial) gain. It’d be difficult to argue against that accusation in regards to the recent HBO Docs release Beware the Slenderman, which turns the real-life stabbing of a twelve year old girl into a midnight movie creepshow & a jumping point for internet age fear mongering. Although I could comfortably call Beware the Slenderman exploitative, it’s exploitation cinema done exceedingly well. The first hour of the documentary is highly effective as bone-chilling horror, opening with a Blair Witch-style dramatization of the titular “creepy pasta” the Slenderman in a heavily pixelated version of the woods. As the film tracks the legend of the Slenderman from online fiction to amateur video games to Tumblr fan art to YouTube mainstay, it makes some really interesting and genuinely unnerving points about the evolution of memes as a collective “virus of the mind” and the function of online folklore as “digital fairy tales.” It’s when the film instead focuses on the 2014 stabbing of a young Wisconsin girl that it veers into the more exploitative True Crime territory and loses track of its Candyman-esque fascination with the nature of urban legends. I definitely found one side of that divide far more satisfying than the other, but watching Beware the Slenderman navigate this confusing tonal clash and gleefully cross some ethical lines to get its point across made for a unique documentary experience.
Two twelve year old girls are taken into custody and tried as adults for stabbing their friend 19 times in the woods of Wisconsin suburbia. As there has been no decision made in their first-degree attempted murder trial to this date, a charge that could possibly earn them each 65 years in prison, the two girls’ story has, by design, no conclusion. All we know upfront about the stabbing is that the victim thankfully survived and that the accused have made no attempt to hide the fact that they are guilty. The crime is introduced in-film through media coverage montage and long-form interviews with the accused’s parents, which tells their entire life story to a backdrop of home video footage. The parents describe mostly normal childhoods outside stray sociopathic reactions to pop culture media (specifically the infamously devastating scene from the beginning of Bambi) and a gothy tinge to their daughters’ online activity. There’s a lot of frustration and empathy in those interviews as the parents struggle to make sense of children they thought they knew, an internet culture they completely underestimated, and the earliest signs of mental illness in otherwise normal-seeming childhoods. The problem is that they aren’t the only interviews the documentary is structured around. In a much sleazier line of inquiry, Beware the Slenderman integrates long stretches of the two girls’ confessions/police interrogations from mere hours after the stabbing. Watching two children describe the stabbing of a third child in cold-blooded terms is just about the most exploitative thing I’ve ever seen in True Crime media, but it serves the material well, especially in the way it deepens the creepiness of the film’s titular monster, the Slenderman.
Originally penned as a creepy pasta, but earning a full-blown urban legend status through online folklore, the Slenderman is a tall, lanky being with long arms, claws, and retractable tendrils. He is faceless, always wears a suit & tie, and is naturally drawn to young children. Adults see his attraction to children as a threat of harm, but children (especially bullied outsiders) see it as welcoming & protective. As one interviewee puts it, “Often in the adult world, we can forget how much it sucks to be a kid.” This modernized version of the Boogeyman or the Pied Piper offers alienated children the promise of protection & community. The scary part is that some kids truly believe he’s real, real enough for them to stab a friend 19 times to “prove themselves worthy” and to “prove the skeptics wrong.” By their logic they had no choice but to slay a human sacrifice for the Slenderman, explaining, “I didn’t want to do this, but I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t.” Richard Dawkins is brought in as an evolution expert on the way memes spread & adapt. Brothers Grimm scholars attempt to contextualize the phenomenon in the tradition of fairy tale folklore. None of the talking heads are nearly as effective as seeing for yourself how the Slenderman is represented in online multimedia art and hearing what the fictional character’s devotees are willing to do “for him” in the real world. It may be a question of my general genre preferences with all media, but I think this documentary works best when it pursues this type of urban legend horror aesthetic instead of playing with the ethics of True Crime narratives.
I’ll admit that as an audience, my biggest hurdle with Beware the Slenderman was its length, not its ethical dilemmas. At two full hours, the film outwears its welcome a bit by the concluding 30min stretch, which started to feel as pedestrian as an episode of Dateline NBC. I’m always advocating for my horror cinema to limit its runtime, though, and it’s that genre distinction that allowed me to enjoy the documentary despite its occasionally objectionable sense of morality. Using the near-murder of a young girl by her peers for shock value or an audience hook is certainly questionable, especially if the ultimate purpose of your works to creep adults out with technophobic warnings about what children are getting into online. That’s not even to mention that the film liberally appropriates artwork from those same children for its imagery without pay or credit. I expect that kind of unethical alarmism in my horror media, though, and I really like the way Beware the Slenderman tried to make phenomena like the Ice Bucket Challenge, planking, and YouTube reaction videos into just as sinister of a force as CandyCrush is in #horror and Skype is in Unfriended. Before the easy fact checking days of the internet, people used to believe films like The Blair Witch Project, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Cannibal Holocaust were genuine documentaries, real life recordings of actual incidents. Beware the Slenderman works best as a continuation of that horror tradition by actually filling that role as a document of a real-life event. It’s a little overlong, a tad sensationalist, and mundanely sleazy in some of its True Crime touches, but it’s also a great horror film, especially for a documentary.