I was always the biggest scaredy cat out of all my friends growing up.
I routinely ruined sleepovers with my intense fear of scary movies. "Come on, Secret Window isn't that scary and it's really good, Morgan," I distinctly remember one friend begging at her birthday sleepover in middle school. (This is a very real scenario; I now know it's neither scary nor good.)
I also refused to sleep near any windows or doors, vehemently despised all of the spooky "light as a feather, stiff as a board" preteen voodoo shit, and hated being the last one to go to sleep.
Basically, from the age of seven to (if I'm being honest) 16, I was petrified of being terrified.
So you can imagine why the Slenderman true crime case surrounding Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier so deeply baffled me. On May 31, 2014, the two girls attempted to murder their friend and classmate, "Bella," a.k.a Payton Leutner, one afternoon in the woods near Geyser's home. Geyser and Weier told police that they stabbed their friend 19 times to protect themselves and their family from "Slenderman," a fictional creature that came to life on the internet. The girls were all 12 at the time.
Now, their story is now being retold — and sort of explained — in a new documentary, Beware The Slenderman, which premieres Monday January 23 on HBO. The poster used to promote the doc promises to tell "the true story of what drove them to do it." Unfortunately, the film does not get to the bottom of what made the girls commit this heinous act. It explores the idea of two girls intoxicated by the story of an ominous man, and their willingness to fall down a deep, dark rabbit hole on the internet.
The idea of young kids believing spooky stories is nothing new. Tall tales and fireside ghost stories are a part of growing up. I hate being scared, but I definitely had friends who thrived on it. We had Goosebumps — today's youth has Creepypasta. The site, dedicated to internet horror stories, is where Weier claims to have first read the tale of Slenderman in 2013, via her iPad (which her parents bring up time and time again, seemingly hinting that Apple's piece of technology is to blame for this entire tragedy).
So, what's different about Slenderman? Why did children of the '90s only have nightmares about the bogeyman hiding under their bed, while Geyser and Weier, less than 20 years later, stole knives from a kitchen and lured their friend into being sacrificed to him? That's the question I hoped this documentary would answer. Thinking back to other true crime stories of the past two years ("Serial", Making A Murderer, San Antonio Four), I expected to watch the documentary and be appalled by the crime, sympathetic for the victim (who thankfully survived in this case), and, by the end, skeptical of the imprisoned's guilt — or at least, get some kind of plausible and rational explanation for why they did what they did.
But that didn't happen.
Instead, I just kept getting more and more confused. How had these young girls come to the mind-boggling conclusion that they had to kill their friend (they had all had a sleepover the night before for Geyser's birthday — that's why they were at the park together) to protect themselves from a sinister figure they learned about on the internet? I truly could not accept that as the sole reason for the crime.
In videos of interrogations following their arrest, Geyser and Weier express little remorse over what they have done, nor do they panic about being charged with attempted murder. Geyser calls herself a kitty cat. Weier awkwardly tangles herself into a ball shape as she tells the story of how she came to meet, fear, and respect Slenderman. (She's the one who introduced the character to Geyser, but they planned the attack together.)
The two girls are calm, well spoken, and polite. Their attack on Bella was both methodical and premeditated, and they never blame each other. To the audience. they do not seem like disturbed psychopaths; in fact, are found to not show sociopathic behavior according to psychologists in court hearings. (The only additional finding on Geyser's part was that her father has schizophrenia and that his daughter may share the diagnosis.) Throughout, both girls continue to express full belief that it was worth it to harm their friend.
Their sincerity chilled me to the core, maybe because they are so invested in something that is not real.
It's doesn't seem fair, or complete, to lay the blame on cyberspace (or iPads, or horror stories, for that matter), but there is something incredibly "millennial" about the crime as a whole. For two introverted young girls, the internet provided a safe space for them to explore their imagination and creativity. It just so happened that their explorations led them somewhere dark, disturbed, and unexpected.
The girls are now incarcerated and may be charged as adults for the attempted murder. While trying to sacrifice their friend for the Slenderman, they also ended up sacrificing their own youth. Two girls wrapped up in a fake world, only to have their real one taken away. That's the power of the bogeyman.
A little more than a year after the premiere of HBO's "Beware The Slenderman," both Weier and Geyser have been sentenced for their crimes. In December of 2017, Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Bohren sentenced Weier to be hospitalized for 25 years, starting from the date of the stabbing. In February, Geyser was sentenced to 40 years in a mental institution — the maximum sentence for the crime. Leutner is back in school. Her spokesperson stated via letter that "the horrific premeditated attempted murder will stay with her forever, and stay with the family forever."
Beware The Slenderman is now available on HBOGo.