Brodsky: Beware the Slenderman (2017)
Irene Brodksy’s Beware the Slenderman is, as the title might suggest, an examination of the cult of Slenderman, the creepypasta character created in 2009, and its role in the Slenderman stabbings of 2014. For those who followed the events of this bizarre and haunting incident as they played out, the film doesn’t have all that much more to add in the way of facts, as we’re taken through the story of Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, a pair of twelve year old girls who lured their friend Payton Leutner into the woods outside Waukesha, Wisconsin, and then proceeded to stab her almost twenty times. According to Weier and Geyser, neither of them wanted to commit the crime, or harm their best friend but felt compelled to on behalf of Slenderman. Not only did they feel that the murder would appease Slenderman and prove to themselves and the world that he existed, but it would allow them to actually enter into his “mansion,” which they believed was located at the heart of Nicolet National Park, five hours drive from Waukesha, where, Morgan claims, all the other creepypastas lived as well. Accordingly, when they were picked up by a police officer, shortly after the stabbing occurred, they were en route to Nicolet on foot, and it’s clear from everything that followed that they never really shed their belief in this mythical horizon, but that in many ways it only became stronger as they were incarcerated and tried.
While the film that follows recalls the great swathe of recent true crime dramas – Making a Murderer, The Jinx, Serial –it’s also different in certain key respects as well. First, and perhaps most importantly, there’s no real debate about agency here, since all the facts of the case are more or less watertight, and the two girls admitted to the crime from the very outset. That immediately removes the obsession with spatial and temporal consistency that has preoccupied so much recent crime drama, and the incitement to discourse that goes with it, especially the incitement to online discourse to meticulously recreate timelines and maps in order to challenge or confirm the official record. Just as importantly, however, there is no real question about motivation – at least in a strictly legal or forensic way – since it’s fairly clear, from the outset, that the two girls genuinely believed in the Slenderman mythos, and indeed continued to do so at the time that the film was being put together. Finally, there’s no really pressing question about procedure either, since while Brodsky may try to hang the film around the issue of whether or not the girls should be tried as adults or as children – they are initially tried as adults, according to Wisconsin state law – it doesn’t feel all that dramatic when the decision to treat them as adults is upheld, just because their state of mind makes it pretty clear from the opening that this is going to be a matter of psychiatric and institutional care, albeit long-term, high-security care, rather than the case of wrongful imprisonment, and undue process, so critical to Serial and Making a Murderer.
For the first part of the film, that leaves the status of the film itself in a bit of an unusual space, and leads Brosky to try a number of different approaches. On the one hand, there are interviews with the parents of the two girls, but these quickly feel as if they’ve been fairly heavily “prepped,” as moving and disturbing as they are. In the later stages of the film, these start to expand out into a more general discussion of mental health, following Morgan’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, producing some very powerful interviews with her father, who also happens to be schizophrenic, about the ways he has handled and managed his condition over his life. Still, while these sequences are illuminating, they don’t feel commensurate, somehow, to the eeriness and strangeness of the crime at hand. To that end, Brodsky supplements them with a series of courtroom sequences, but, given that she’s not allowed to film the faces of any of the girls during these moments, they’re inevitably a bit limited in terms of what they can bring to the film too. Finally, there are a series of interviews with specialists from a variety of fields about the Slenderman cult itself, but these are, for the most part, fairly broad and often a bit platitudinous, moving from Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes (Dawkins himself is in the film) to the genealogy of fairy tales (especially The Pied Piper of Hamelin) but never quite getting to the heart of what it is that makes creepypastas so unique, and the Slenderman creepypasta so popular and resonant.
In lieu of that, the core of the film comes from a pair of interviews conducted with Morgan and Anissa six hours after the stabbing, immediately after they were brought in for questioning. I have no idea how Brodsky was able to get permission to include these sequene, which simply comprise the security footage in each of the interview rooms, but they’re utterly galvanising, partly because of the two girls’ proximity to the crime, but mainly because of their proximity to the Slenderman mythos itself, which clearly takes on a new reality for them with and through the crime. In these interviews, which punctuate the broader rhythm of the film, Anissa and Morgan provide a series of cryptic, fragmented and inchoate insights that exceed anything that the so-called specialists are able to bring to the table here. In doing so, they pave the way for a film in which the majority of insights into the Slenderman mythos come from the fan art made around the mythos, Morgan and Anissa’s included, since the conclusion of the film – a conclusion the film almost arrives at despite itself – is that their attempted murder of Payton was simply another, more extreme, version of this fan art, despite the immediate efforts of the Slenderman fan community to distance themselves from the attempted murder. That’s not to say, of course, that this shocking event was a purely aesthetic phenomenon, but that it increasingly feels incomprehensible outside of the peculiar aesthetics of the Slenderman mythos, and of Slenderman himself.
If the film never feels quite up to the task of directly articulating those aesthetics, that’s partly because they are so inimical to its own, a fact that only – necessarily – emerges gradually and in an oblique and indirect kind of way. You might even say that Beware the Slenderman can’t ever quite enter the world of Slenderman while remaining a film, since the aesthetics of Slenderman, as fan art presents it, are all about resisting the aesthetic unity of cinema and other traditional audiovisual media. For while the film may cycle through an apparently endless array of Slenderman fan art, released on a wide range of social media platforms, they all share one feature – the sense of Slenderman as something that can only be glimpsed, or partially visualised, on the fringes of perception. From his earliest incarnation as a glitch added to the back of stock or archival photographs to be “discovered” by later viewers, to the emergence of fully-formed Slenderman gaming releases, Slenderman himself becomes a synecdoche for the peripheries of social media, and the possibility of a periphery that remains uncontained by social media. Both a personification of and a reprieve from the digital, Slenderman fulfils both the fantasies and fears of teenagers looking for a space “outside” of social media, explaining why he is often presented as strangely and sentimentally paternal or protective as well, with much of the fan art often veering between horror and a more staid “inspiration” social media register.
In that sense, Slenderman is not unlike a digital evolution of the slasher, encapsulating both an elegy for lost paternal assurance, but also an intensified and monstrous assurance, that transforms him into a kind of social media parental figure, or a cipher for everything about social media that both demands and defies parental surveillance. As both a symbol of social media and a reprieve from it, the goal of Slenderman therefore depends on perspective, with some users claiming that he wants to drive his “victims” insane, but others suggesting that his perpetual presence in their peripheral vision is a way of driving them to a new level of awareness, and even introducing them to a new perceptual possibility – the possibility that Morgan and Anissa believe awaits them in his mansion in the heart of the state forest. In that sense, Slenderman often seems to amount to an awareness of peripheral vision itself as something that has to be both accepted and repressed as the motor engine of a digital media economy, a paradox that Morgan condenses into a remarkably eerie formulation: “the moment you know about him, he knows about you – there’s no way to summon him, but no way to get him to go away.” While Slenderman’s features – blank face, spindly limbs, tentacles on his back – clearly draw on older weird fiction, then, they’re also designed to blend him seamlessly into the periphery and backgrounds of found images, and to turn him into a momentary coagulation of the glitchiness inherent in all images beyond a certain age.
That sense of Slenderman as an inchoately and fleetingly glimpsed periperhal something is part of what makes him so indebted to Lovecraft, as many fans have noted. Yet just as the fragmentation of Lovecraft’s universe resists any directly cinematic treatment, so the stylised register of recent true crime documemtaries seems to be aligned with precisely the fantasy of a seamless audiovisual continuum that Slenderman’s presence ruptures and questions. To that end, Brodsky emphasises the high-def “look” so endemic to this kind of crime television in order to accentuate the glitchiness of Slenderman fan art by comparison, opting for symmetrical establishing shots and geometrical drone shots that emphasise the total visability, or the totality of the visual field. So drastically do these shots contain everything in their purview that they enact precisely the aesthetic and lifeworld from which Slenderman emerges as a return of the repressed, elaborating everything in our sight so comprehensively and exhaustively that a Slenderman “sighting” almost feels like a necessary mechanism for preventing the film collapsing under the weight of its own aesthetic self-regard and solipsism. The depiction of foliage, so precious to recent high-def cinema, plays a particular important role here, as Brodsky cuts between shots of woodland that look sculpted and airbrushed for the camera’s benefit, and the very different part played by woodland within the Slenderman mythos, where it represents the half-glimpsed peripheral murk from which Slenderman emerges, and to which he always finally returns.
In other words, the “woods” as Morgan and Anissa conceive of them are diametrically opposed to the “woods” as the series conceives of them, a disparity that Brodsky draws out by emphasising the aesthetics of recent true crime television until they almost become the subject of the film in themselves, and speak more eloquently to the significance of Slenderman than any of the specialists that they frame. If recent true crime television has been galvanised by the sense of something that remains unprocessed – and perhaps incapable of being processed – by the digital, then Beware the Slenderman reveals the extent to which this mode of television has promulgated a digital aesthetic to reach that point, finally offering up a world so airbrushed and aestheticised that the presence of Slenderman seems like a foregone conclusion. Within this particular story, that corresponds to Morgan and Anissa’s efforts to envisage Slenderman’s mansion, and the creepypasta itself, as a physical space, and to close the gap between real and virtual space – a threshold that Brodsky also tries to evoke in a myriad of different and eerie ways. Most memorably, perhaps, it involves a sustained montage sequence in which we move through Anissa’s YouTube history, veering vertiginously between cute kitten videos and psychopath tests, along with clips that blend cuteness and horror in the most unsettling ways, ensuring that all the shots of cats that recur throughout the film take on an equally uncanny vibe, harbingers, somehow, of the iPad as a repository of dark forces within the suburban home.
It’s not just these continuous made-for-meme shots of kittens that seek to articulate the threshold spaces of Anissa and Morgan’s Slenderman devotion, hwoever, but a series of montage sequences of Waukesha itself in which “normal” imagery – Christmas, Halloween, Green Bay football insignia – is dissociated and detached from its quotidian overtones, producing odd, dissonant shots that exist somewhere between the everyday world of Wisconsin and the Slenderman topography that the girls graft onto it. It’s the same sense of dissonant spatial planes, and even dissonant versions of the same creepypasta, that drove the first season of Channel Zero, which was also based on a creepypasta – and the aesthetics of the film, as a whole, are remarkably similar to those of the Channel Zero franchise. That all culminates with Morgan’s own Slenderman art, the central spectacle of the film, which is unbelievably eerie and – some would surely argue – the most resonant fan art yet produced around the mythos, a conclusion that the film tries to avoid but can’t help but propagate in its later stages. Not surprisingly, her aestheticisation of Slenderman grows even eerier once she gets into jail, as she starts to inhabit the “sensorily confused zone” of her condition and immerse herself even more in the world of her imagination and interests.
In these last few moments of the film, it becomes clearer than ever that Beware the Slenderman is not – and can’t be – solution-driven in the same way as The Jinx, Making a Murderer or Serial. Nor it is an incitement to discourse in the same way as those three series, recalling The Keepers – although in a very different way – in its evocation of an online, digital discourse that has already been rendered redundant by the time of the film’s own articulation. In place of both those options, we get something like the aesthetics of recent true crime television coming to terms with itself, both as a specifically televisual principle and as a broader aesthetic orientation that has become transmedial, but that is always tied in aestheticising a certain fantasy of audiovisual omniscience – whether in The Jinx’s exquisite tracking-shots or Sarah Koenig’s voiceover – for the sake of uncannily evoking everything that lies outside it. That project was also the parody of American Vandal, and the effects are just as unsettling and uncanny here, as Brodsky presents Slenderman as the ultimate and underlying subject matter of this recent fascination with true crime – a subject matter so pervasive and overwhelming that it can only be glimpsed by the film itself.
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