The feature-length documentary exploring the notorious Waukesha case struggles mightily for new insights but falls short of a revelation.
Beware the Slenderman, a two hour documentary covering the Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier stabbing case from 2014, had three screenings during the Milwaukee Film Festival, including a final one on Wednesday afternoon.
The word “schizophrenia” doesn’t appear until about halfway through Beware the Slenderman. Most of the early minutes are spent probing the implications of the titular character, an internet boogeyman who’s widely popular among children and young adults but almost unknown among older grown-ups. The filmmakers liken the story to the Pied Piper legend where, after luring away the town’s rats, the mysterious piper does the same with the local kids. Director Irene Taylor Brodsky wants to show that Slender Man represents not just heart-quickening terror to children like Morgan and Anissa but also liberation and adventure.
A young woman interviewed over Skype for the film, the administrator of a Facebook page supporting Morgan, explains how when she was 13 years old and fascinated by Slender Man, she had little to no social life and basically her “whole life was on the internet.” During a birthday party, she and the other kids hiked out into the cold woods and spent a couple hours looking for the tall, dark-suited figure with a head like a giant Q-tip. “Back then I believed with every fiber of my body that he was real,” she says.
The movie’s strength is in tugging hard on a number of threads that at least partially explain Morgan and Anissa’s attack: internet culture, childhood mental illness and a certain amount of social isolation. The film’s weakness is in tugging so hard that some of these strings come apart. Slenderman goes as far as plumbing Weier’s publicly available YouTube profile for clues as to her mindset, finding only videos of a bunny eating raspberries and gimmicky are-you-a-psychopath tests (a psychologist later concluded that Anissa, despite the alleged crime, had an extremely low propensity for violence). Somewhat confusingly, these investigations climax with unseen hands typing a variation of “Was slender man bullied” into a search box, and it’s not clear whether Weier or Geyser ever pecked these terms into their own devices.
Unlike Making a Murderer, Slenderman’s attendant courtroom drama is barely mentioned and serves as only a loose framing device. Morgan’s lead lawyer, Anthony Cotton, never appears on the screen. Instead, cameras linger in the homes of both Morgan and Anissa’s families, who describe their normal-seeming lives, and nothing in the tear-stained interviews sounds like a red flag. Geyser’s mother offers up one observation almost as a consolation: As a younger child, Morgan didn’t always react to children’s movies in the expected way. When Bambi’s mother died, for example, Morgan was unfazed and shouted for the fawn to keep running and save herself.
After the stabbing, doctors diagnosed Morgan with childhood-onset schizophrenia and reported that she had experienced disturbing hallucinations since age 3. More doctors concluded that Weier’s mind was, to a lesser degree, also susceptible to delusional thinking, and diagnosed the girl with “shared delusional disorder,” a result of her close relationship with Morgan. As our feature from earlier this year noted, childhood-onset schizophrenia is wildly over-diagnosed given how common it is for young children to have passing delusions and hallucinations, but Morgan’s subsequent response to antipsychotic medication suggests that Wisconsin doctors were right in pointing to the psychotic disorder. It’s one of the most grave as the illness doesn’t typically end in childhood but continues to progress as the person ages.
Morgan’s father also suffers from schizophrenia and during his interview for the film describes seeing geometric patterns and other distortions in the world around him. That stuff is easy to overlook, he says, because it seems plausible that other people could experience something like it. Hallucinations and delusions of greater portent, such as the hallucinated voices of demons, are obviously unreal, he says, and not so easy to ignore. Even recognizing their falsity isn’t enough to dispel the fear they can induce. “I know the devil’s not in the back seat” of the car, the father says, describing a possible scenario, but to the rest of his mind, it’s still true.
Near the end of Beware the Slenderman, one is left concluding that to a large extent, childhood and adolescence are worlds closed off to adults. Anissa’s father asks what more could he have done besides camping out in the corner of her room. One expert suggests that prevention of the attack actually rested with the girls’ peers. Had Morgan and Anissa belonged to a larger group of friends, their murderous plans might have fallen by the wayside or never come together. In relative isolation, the two girls suffering from delusional and psychotic disorders reinforced each other into carrying out a crime that was truly horrible. Slenderman shows that families have limits, and viewers walked out of Wednesday’s screening arguing over where, then, to assign blame.