Morgan and Anissa would later tell police that they were trying to murder Payton, whom they had known since childhood, for Slenderman.
Slenderman is an internet myth, a fictional figure given the glean of realism by the quantity and depth of material about him online. He is a faceless, lean, lanky child abductor. He wears a suit and, in later iterations, has tentacles growing out of his back. He can read minds. He can teleport. He is a blank screen onto which a creative young person could project any number of nightmares. He is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. (As Morgan told police, “You just see him when no one else does.”) In the pictures of reported Slenderman sightings that circulate online, he is often portrayed lingering in the vicinity of oblivious children, or he is taking a child’s hand, leading them to some unknown place. But while his capacity for violence is fearsome, he also seems to be, in some of the lore, a protector: Anissa and Morgan were trying to kill Payton, they said, to become Slenderman’s proxies. After the murder, they would live with him in his mansion in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, forever.
Though Morgan and Anissa got a lot of things wrong — Payton survived the attempted murder, for one — they got the “forever” part right. Charged with attempted murder in the first degree, the girls will be tried as adults, per Wisconsin law. Their lawyers have tried to convince the court to try the girls as juveniles, to no avail. Morgan, who has since been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and Anissa face up to 65 years in prison.
Before the Slenderman stabbing took place, documentary filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky was working on a project “on how children might differentiate reality with this 24/7 connectivity,” she said by phone. “As we know, there’s a lot of fantasy and mythology and things that are just patently untrue that develop on the internet. We were wondering how children are perceiving it: How they are understanding what they see and watch and read online.”
As Brodsky was “square in the middle” of developing that film — not yet pegged to any particular internet phenomena and still lacking any central characters—the Slenderman news broke. She read a story about the attempted murder in the New York Times, “and I just felt this chill. I just thought: This is the film I’ve been developing.”
“I was really primed to jump right into this film because when I read about the case, it was immediately obvious that this was a way to talk about a lot of these questions that I had,” Brodsky said.
“The first thing I had to do was figure out, who was Slenderman?”
So Brodsky slipped into the Slenderverse, the online galaxy of Slenderman lore: Youtube videos and imagery, fan fiction and 4chan posts, creepypastas — internet horror stories, essentially — and comments. She also spoke with neuroscientists, mythology experts, and internet whizzes about the nature of meme virality and the allure of folklore figures like Slenderman; she also got in touch with Morgan and Anissa’s parents (Payton’s family declined to participate). All this material comprises Beware the Slenderman, which premiered on HBO on Monday night.
Brodsky spoke with ThinkProgress about the making of her film, what it means to include the perpetrators but not the victim of this crime in her documentary, and how “fake news” can spark real violence.
It sounds like your Slenderman research and your filming were happening at the same time. What was that like?
It was all happening concurrently. And I think what’s interesting about that is, I think I was learning about Slenderman around the same time Anissa and Morgan’s parents were learning about Slenderman.
The portrayals of Morgan and Anissa’s parents are very sympathetic. They seem like they were pretty involved in their daughters’ lives, and like — save for Morgan’s diagnosis, which is a big exception — they didn’t have any reason to expect their children were capable of something like this.
I can say confidently that both parents were completely shocked. They had seen Slenderman, but they had no idea that their daughters were completely — that they believed he was a real entity.
I would go to Wisconsin every time there was a court proceeding. I didn’t start talking with the families until several months after the incident occurred. they were, understandably, very hesitant to get involved with someone they didn’t know on something like this. But once they did, I’d look at the court dates coming up, and that would be the time I would go with my three-person crew to Wisconsin for five days or so, and we would just spend time with the parents.
I’m assuming you tried to contact Payton’s family, although she and her parents are not interviewed in the film. What happened there?
I tried, a number of times, to reach out to them. I sent all three families my films, and I just said, “I’d very much love to talk to you because I am making a film about this case and your daughters and Slenderman, and here are films I’ve made in the past, and if you’re inclined to watch them and think this is a good approach, here’s my number and email.” And I heard from the perpetrators, but not the victim.
[Payton’s parents] weren’t interested, and I understand. But I think the film took a life of its own, once I accepted that there would be no victim perspective — it wouldn’t be a whodunnit but a whydunnit — and I realized it was an opportunity, albeit a dark opportunity, to really go deep into the minds of a perpetrator and the minds of a very unusual perpetrator, an adolescent girl, of this kind of crime.
In your opinion, did Morgan and Anissa really believe in Slenderman? Because in a big New York magazine feature that came out in August 2015, I read that Anissa told the detective who questioned her that she believed in Slenderman “beforehand.” But “now I know it’s just teenagers who really like scaring people and making them believe false things.” The day of the stabbing, she told police, “He does not exist. He is a work of fiction.”
You may have read about that, but [in] in the film, there’s a very telling point in the interrogation with Anissa. She says, after they did the act, sometime in the hours before they got picked up, they called out to Slenderman and said, “If you can hear me, let me know, give me a sign.” And nothing happened. And I think that is when Anissa understood not only is this really someone who isn’t real and then, of course, the next thought would be, and what have I done in his name, and what have I done for him?
This is not that different than what children all over the world, and adults all over the world, feel, think, believe, when they talk about their personal god. “If you are there, show me a sign.” And I do not mean to diminish anyone’s faith, but I think anyone who has faith has to understand that…So I think there’s an element of real humanity in that moment in the film, because you understand that these girls — this was a test of faith.
Watching this, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Comet Ping Pong and how a “fake news” story claiming the pizzeria was trafficking children in its (non-existent) basement led to hundreds of death threats and, ultimately, a man in his twenties showing up with a gun to “investigate.” It just made me think that Slenderman, specifically, may be something younger people are more vulnerable to, but the general concept — being made to believe in a false thing because of that thing’s internet presence — can be as powerful to adults as it is to kids.
I couldn’t agree more. And at no time are we more acutely aware of that than now, when people are questioning one of the most important institutions we have in our country, our executive branch. People are questioning the validity of the person who was elected to office, and what role fake news perpetrated by a foreign country had in all that. It’s a very prescient time to be talking about all of this.
I am not trying to diminish the severity of what happened to this victim, but I think that we have to all think about our own culpability and our own fallibility when we see things online, and then I think you have to add to that a variable of mental illness, social isolation, adolescence. Just being an adolescent, period, I think, is a risk factor, for dangerous perceptions of the internet.
Why are we driven to believe in things? And put simply, it’s because we want to be in a network, a community, because communities help us survive. So I think that, when you have two adolescent girls who are very socially isolated and, in fact, bullied, that doesn’t make every person who was bullied go out and kill someone, but all these other factors together.
What was your reaction to the news that these girls would be tried as adults?
First of all, we wouldn’t be having this discussion in the media and I wouldn’t have made this film, probably, if this had happened in the majority of other American states. Because the majority of states would not have laws on the books that immediately put a 12-year-old on the adult track for this crime. There are only a handful of states who do this.
I think we [learned] a lot more about brain development, particularly adolescent brain development, in the last 20 years, and I think we’ve seen a couple of Supreme Court decisions that reflect our evolving understanding of, what is a mature brain capable of judgment and planning and functioning, executive functioning? And I don’t think that the state of Wisconsin is keeping up with that Supreme Court understanding, of what a child is culpable of.
There’s things that we can’t do to child criminals that we can do to adults, that our country has decided is morally okay to do adults, we can’t do to children. So I don’t understand why, in this case, these girls would be put in an adult system, when our country has a juvenile system precisely for this reason. Not to mention, I think, as a society, — if you put the girls’ well-being aside — I think we are better off if these girls get the care and attention and social services they would get in the juvenile system. If they’re in the adult system, particularly if you’re schizophrenic, I don’t have time to talk to you about the hell that is. We are just looking at a very unfortunate case that happened in the wrong state.
Why do you think, of all the characters in all the universes available on the internet, Slenderman is so compelling?
I think Slenderman is a great idea, first and foremost. The fact that he has no face really renders him anyone we need him to be. If we want to believe that he has a certain look about him, if we want to believe that he’s a guardian angel, or a dark murderer, or a kidnapper of children, all of those things can be projected onto that face. And I think the thing that is so fascinating over time that has happened is, the more he goes viral, and the more he gets reiterated in the true sense of the word — that he continues to be reformatted and tweaked with each incarnation — he becomes a crowdsourced nightmare.
The girls did not get to know him right when he came out. They got to know him once he had tentacles, and once there was more mythology out there about him, so the universe felt more saturated with texture. It’s like they could smell it. It was highly developed at that point. And I think that when you look at Anissa’s internet use, there’s a certain degree of just mass media appeal to this. Slenderman made his way into the lingua franca of viral images and videos that get spread around on the internet. So I also think it was this intersection of Slenderman in his life, where he’d been around long enough that he was a very richly defined character, but he was also crowdsourced sufficiently by that point, that there was something in him that felt recognizable to these girls.
Why did you decide to release the film now, instead of waiting to film the conclusion of the trial, which is still ongoing?
The film is clocking in at two hours and there’s plenty to say. This film is really not about whether they did it — and that’s what the trial is going to determine, whether they did it and for how long they will be punished.
I think it’s a much bigger question to determine their culpability rather than whether they did it or not. We have to ask ourselves, how much do we hold children accountable in this case? And by putting them in adult court, we say, they are completely culpable and there are no mitigating factors… and I don’t see how anyone can possibly say that these girls should be tried as adults.
Author: Jessica Goldstein