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.