On May 31, 2014, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, 12-year-old friends Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier dragged their classmate, Payton “Bella” Leutner, also 12, into a wooded area, where they stabbed her 19 times.
Geyser and Weier acted in what they believed was a tribute to “Slenderman,” a spooky online meme image that had become the subject of fan fiction and, obviously, at least one case of severely misguided devotion.
After a jogger discovered the stabbing victim, Leutner made it to a hospital in a condition “one centimeter from certain death.” Fortunately, she survived. When asked who stabbed her, the wounded child said, “My best friend.”
The girls reportedly stabbed Leutner in hope that murdering their peer would “impress”Slenderman and that he’d then make them his “proxies.”
Again: Slenderman is not a living, sentient being.
Slenderman is actually a 2009 Photoshop creation from the website Something Awful. It has subsequently inspired Internet users to write and share stories, resulting in a “creepypasta” — i.e., a horror-themed object that gets copy-and-pasted around social media. The character is depicted as a tall, faceless figure with tentacles on his back who hides in the woods and stalks children.
The girls who got homicidally caught up in Slenderman’s mythology are presently waiting to be tried — as adults — in Wisconsin.
Each suspect initially blamed the other for concocting the plan, and each has subsequently pleaded insanity. A ruling is expected next month to determine the exact course of the suspects’ two separate trials.
The Slenderman stabbing went on to alert the world not just to the unsettling specifics of the character and the digital outposts from which it emerged, but to raise larger questions regarding the impact and influence of unregulated “screen time” on tech-savvy minors today.
Acclaimed filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky’s new documentary, Beware the Slenderman, premieres Monday, January 23, on HBO. The most jolting footage in Beware may be that of detectives interviewing Geyser and Weier after their attempt to kill Leutiner. Geyser comes off blank, while Weier collapses into sadness and fear, except when describing the murder plot, saying, “We were going to be like lionesses chasing down a zebra.”
Among the documentary’s other sad and shocking highlights are the suspects’ journal entries, drawings, and other communications, and the revelation that Geyser is thought to have been enduring a lifelong struggle with undiagnosed schizophrenia.
Beware the Slenderman offers an appropriately spooky take on the case while also plunging into a wealth of provocative prospects about what this tragedy tells us about the immediate past, our present, and our increasingly unpredictable future.