HBO, 2016ce, 117mins.
Director; Irene Taylor Brodsky. Broadcast 23 January 2017.
(Art by Joe Coleman)
There is a concept in the consideration of supposedly ‘non-fictional’ presentations, a vital one in these times of ‘fake news’, called Gell-Mann Amnesia. The term comes from a comment made by the late science fiction author Michael Crichton, creator of the original Westworld, in his 2002 essay “Why Speculate?”. He describes it thus:
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behaviour is amnesia.
This is not a concept I wanted to have to consider in the first full-length documentary about the Slenderman phenomenon.
Irene Taylor Brodsky’s HBO documentary has been heavily publicised, some reviews suggesting that it could become ‘the new obsession’ for true-crime fans of recent explorations of the genre in the podcast Serial, among others. The focus of the documentary is, inevitably, upon the 30 May 2014 knife attack in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where two twelve year old girls named Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier lured a classmate, Peyton ‘Bella’ Lautner, into the nearby park, knifed her 19 times and left her to die, in attempt to gain the attention of Slenderman and become his ‘proxies’ - mind-controlled servants.
Brodsky’s previous documentaries have focussed on parent/child relationships, often in relation to trauma, and personal struggles with harsh circumstances and disaster: she clearly has a rapport with parents in trying times. The film has an unprecedented level of access to the parents of Geyser and Weier (understandably, Lautner’s parents were not involved: the only appearance of ‘Bella’ is a video of her giving a school presentation). The majority of the film is made of court footage, home movies, police video of the assailant’s post-arrest interrogations and lengthy interviews of the parents from as early as two months after the incident, showing their struggle to both support their incarcerated children and attempt to get on with their lives: there are many heart-wrenching scenes of the parents (mostly Geyser’s mother and Weier’s father - a late appearance of Geyser’s father is significant).
It isn’t until about 25 minutes in that the film focusses, after several tantalising hints and pieces of spooky footage, on the origin of Slenderman itself, employing a series of Skype interviews with people associated, if sometimes tangentially, with the phenomena (including a surprisingly good section with Richard Dawkins explaining meme transmission theory and how it relates to the fast spread of Slendy’s influence).
It is here that everything, for me, goes very wrong.
The early origin story is told by Brad Kim, an editor at Know Your Meme. He briefly talks about the original 10 June 2009 Something Awful ‘make a supernatural monster’ photoshop thread where Slenderman was created by Eric Knudsen aka ‘Victor Surge’. But then he goes on to say that Slenderman’s spread to the wider internet came first via the games associated with him - the Slender first-person horror game and the Minecraft Enderman character, and from there to YouTube videos and blogs. This is, to be blunt, completely inaccurate.
The first Slenderman mythos YouTube video, Episode One of Marble Hornets, aired on 20 June 2009, only ten days after the original Surge post on Something Awful. Minecraft was not published until November of 2011 and the Slender game did not appear until June of 2012. (My own interest in the phenomenon occurred during its first year of life, directly as a result of hearing about Marble Hornets.)
At no point in the filming and editing process was this fundamental error caught and corrected. Its presence implies the film-makers simply did not do their homework. The fact that Dr. Shira Chess, an acknowledged expert on the phenomenon and author of a fine book on the subject, is credited as ‘Research Consultant’ makes this all the more puzzling.
The time devoted to the actual Slenderman phenomenon itself is mostly video clips, with the occasional piece of commentary (the best of which comes from digital folklorist Trevor J. Blank). Vital and relevant parts of the mythos’ development are simply not mentioned - for example, the tendency for many blogs and video series to be told in a factual-seeming form from the point of view of Slenderman proxies themselves (and the resulting, highly connected set of linked blogs grouped together under the heading of Core Theory): something you would think was worthy of note when the core of the case is that the assailants believed Slenderman was real. The film actually devotes less time to the known origins of Slenderman than it does to a retelling of the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
And, shockingly, the word Tulpa does not appear once.
The lack of any discussion of tulpas - the concept that Slenderman is a ‘thought-form’ created by the belief of his enthusiasts, which has been core to the mythos since the very same day Marble Hornets first aired - is especially interesting, considering the focus of the latter half of the film; in fact, it may have been deliberately left out.
A great deal of time is devoted in the latter half of the film to Morgan Geyser’s court-supervised schizophrenia diagnosis, including a moving Act 4 revelation that her father also had schizophrenia. By focussing on this aspect and avoiding any mention of tulpas (even merely as an influential-if-fictional aspect of the mythos), the emphasis on Geyser’s illness - she reported being pinched by ghosts’ and talking to an entity she called The Man from as early as 3 years old, as well as her belief that she communicated with other fictional entities, such as Severus Snape - makes a clear statement: this was all just a schizophrenic kid getting another child in a folie à deux, leading to tragedy. Those damn kids and their internets.
Nothing weird to see here. Move along.
(It must also be noted that there is far less discussion of Anissa Weier’s mental health: especially as Geyser was transferred to a hospital facility while Weier, who, though she was first to discover Slenderman online did not perform the actual stabbing, is still in juvenile detention.)
The film itself is strikingly beautiful: the combination of Benoit Charets’s score and the cinematography of Nick Midwig providing a haunting, but not too spooky-cliché, atmosphere.
If anything, I would say the film is too beautiful for its own good: there is probably a tighter and more compelling 90 minute version of the film to be had simply from losing 90% of the drone aerial footage of the Waukesha area. And even then, knowing that key elements of the story are simply incorrect, the overall film in any form must be taken with a large pinch of salt.
(It should also be noted that the many clips from YouTube videos and other artworks were used in the film without credit or payment. A Reddit discussion started by one of the creators includes the form reply HBO sent them regarding ‘Fair Use’. The various interviewees are credited; The Pied Piper animated footage is credited. The actual creators of the Slenderman mythos, from Knudsen onwards, are not. Whatever the legal position, choosing not to thank the creators who make the mythos so interesting and powerful is, at least, unkind.)
Style over substance; alternating shallowness in some areas with intimate depth in others; dealing with a story full of supernatural overtones by reducing it to a tale of tragic mental illness and online enthusiasm - Beware The Slenderman is, accidentally, a near-perfect summation of our modern relationship with fact and truth.
The essay below is taken from the new anthology Spirits of Place, which features the likes of Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Gazelle Amber Valentine, Maria J. Pérez Cuervo, Iain Sinclair and many others taking us on a tour of places where they themselves have encountered, or even consulted with, 'spirits of place' - " the echoes of people, of events, of ideas which have become imprinted upon a location, for better or for worse."
More information, and links for ordering Kindle, paperback and hardcover editions, can be found at the Spirits of Place website.
The Palace Built Over a Hellmouth
Only a king or a queen has the power to move the capital of their kingdom to their preferred location. For King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598), this place was at the very centre of the Iberian Peninsula, not far from the city of Madrid, in an area called El Escorial on the southern slopes of Mount Abantos. Here he vowed to build his life’s plan: a royal residence that would also be a pantheon, a monastery, a library, a museum and a centre of studies. To bring it to life, he hired a group of architects, experienced masons and theologists, who evaluated the terrain positively but, given the monarch’s interest in esotericism and alchemy, probably warned him of an ancient legend: that the Devil himself had lived in a cave at the foot of the mountain, after he was expelled from Heaven and before he opened up seven doors to enter his new abode in the Underworld. The location of one of these doors was El Escorial.
The locals whispered stories of monsters, visions and curses, of frequent electrical storms with lightning constantly hitting the area. Nevertheless, on the 30th of November 1561, the king’s experts travelled to El Escorial to make a final decision. Their official chronicler, Father Sigüenza, describes how the group was stricken by a gale that “didn’t allow them to reach their destination”, which the friar interpreted as the Devil trying to dissuade them from erecting a religious complex over what was rumoured to be a Hellmouth. But the king dismissed the ominous signs in a letter to his men, noting that there had also been a tempest in Madrid. And so the works started a year later, after the court was moved to Madrid, and lasted for over two decades. The complex remains the best-known symbol of Spanish royalty, with its rows of kings and queens resting in the Pantheon. But, in spite of Philip II’s Catholic fervour, it seems as though the chthonic currents managed to seep through the soil and leak into the rich marble and gold, into the silver crosses, statues of saints and reliquaries, playing with the senses of the palace’s inhabitants, driving them to madness and perdition.
To me, the centre of the Peninsula has always felt suffocating. I grew up on the south coast, in a luminous, heavily-built Mediterranean city where my dad was also born. My mum came from a small village in the north, all high mountains, coalmines and fog. They met in Madrid, almost exactly halfway, when Franco was still alive, and moved to the south after they got married. In the summers, my dad would drive us to the north in his rumbling Renault 14. It was a long journey, and it helped to think of it in two halves: before and after Madrid. In those days there was no seat belt to be worn, so I wriggled in the back seat, kneeling and twisting to catch the best sights on the way. One of the most intriguing was an enormous cross on the horizon, silhouetted and looming over its surroundings: the so-called “Valley of the Fallen”. Once I said I’d like to see it up close, and my dad frowned: “That’s where Franco and his pals are buried. We’re not going there.” I didn’t know much about the Civil War then, but I knew enough to find the sight disturbing, like a monstrous shadow of the past creeping over us, triumphant. Perhaps on the same trip, or on a different one, I was also told about the most powerful king Spain ever had, who built a huge palace-monastery, not far from that cross, many centuries before the bones of the Fallen had been buried in that soil.
I never liked that central part of the journey – the flat, monotonous roads, the merciless heat, the strange absence of the sea on the horizon, still too far from the fresh green meadows of my mum’s homeland. Travelling to the centre of the Peninsula in the summer was like slowly descending into a pit of burning coal, a journey to the centre of the Earth, from which one could only exit either side.
For many centuries, the Spanish court was itinerant and the capital city changed depending on where the monarch was established. Before Philip II’s decision, the honour fell on Toledo, a centre of tolerance and cooperation between Christians, Jews and Muslims until the establishment of the Inquisition brought turmoil. By the 16th century, the city was the focus of civil revolts against Philip’s father, King Charles I, but it also had one of the most important archdioceses in the Catholic world, second only to Rome. In contrast, Madrid was only a relatively important city, with no ports nearby and no navigable rivers. There was nothing there that could overshadow the king: barely any local aristocrats; no significant religious power. Perhaps he saw this relative isolation as an advantage, as a clean start in the exact centre of the Peninsula, an area with good terrain and benevolent climate.
Philip lived in the shadow of his father, Charles I, powerful warlord, cosmopolitan adventurer, silver-tongued speaker. It must have been a heavy burden to bear, especially because their talents were so different. Philip, the sole male heir, wanted to build a suitable place to bury ... Read More »
Written by John Higgs
Wednesday just gone (18th of January) was the birthday of the late great American agnostic Robert Anton Wilson.
His books (and in particular, the Illuminatus! trilogy he co-wrote with Robert Shea) depict a bewildering world of conspiracies, half-truths, lies, fake news, incompetence and our inability to find anything resembling objective truth. Or to put it another way, it describes the world as it is now, ten years after his death.
Wilson was a leading figure in the counterculture project known as Operation Mindfuck. This was a form of western Zen. Seeding our culture with confusion, contradiction and mischief, it was thought, would jolt people out of their illusions. Operation Mindfuck kicked off in the 1970s and has never really stopped.
Operation Mindfuck, like the Discordian religion which embraced it, was typically politically neutral, or at least clear that the ideologies of both the left and right were equally valid targets. However, the ideas behind Operation Mindfuck have since become a tool for those with a lust for political power, most blatantly Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov, as explained in this short film by Adam Curtis.
It’s stating the obvious, but the vast majority of us are not enjoying this ‘post-truth’ world. It is not so much that the fake news is disturbing. The real gut-kick is when people confidently proclaim that we should return to the pre-post-truth world, and then think about how to do that, and slowly realise that not only is it impossible but that there was no pre-post-truth world in the first place. Think of Hillsborough, or Iraq’s imaginary WMDs. What has actually changed is that it is no longer possible to comfortably fall for our earlier illusions. As the saying goes, if you want to be certain, buy an encyclopaedia. If you want to be uncertain, buy two encyclopaedias. Our culture has bought a second encyclopaedia.
The rise of the Alt-Right, with their use of meme magic, conspiracies and disinformation, led to left-leaning Discordians thinking that Operation Mindfuck had been weaponised against them.
@BogusMagus The Right basically stole Operation Mindfuck from us, weaponised postmodernism. The Discordian response is evolving…
— Citizen Of Hookland (@catvincent) November 16, 2016
You don’t need me to tell you that this is currently grim as all hell. But if you take the long term, pragmatic view, it could be that the use of Operation Mindfuck techniques in this way are, essentially, a trap.
In his books, and most importantly in his autobiography Cosmic Trigger, Robert Anton Wilson talks about the psychological state where you have no way of making sense of what is happening, where all your maps have run out, and where you have no fixed point with which to orient yourself by. He called this place Chapel Perilous. This is where we are now as a culture.
There are only two outcomes from a visit to Chapel Perilous, Wilson tells us: paranoia or agnosticism.
Agnosticism – and here Wilson means not just doubt about God, but doubt about everything - requires an acceptance that you are not the only right-thinking person on the planet, and that it is not true everyone else should agree with you. It requires a ... Read More »