HBO’s documentary Beware The Slenderman doesn’t offer easy answers about the attempted murder of Payton “Bella” Luetner by two 12 year-old girls, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier. They believed that by sacrificing their friend, they could save their families from a monster named Slenderman, who has appeared in countless games and internet short stories. While we may never understand what drove them to their violent crime, the documentary gives us insight into the true power of memetic thought.
I don’t remember when or how I first heard about Slenderman. While I love spooky stuff, creepypasta (scary short stories written by anonymous authors) wasn’t my forte. But suddenly, early into my college years, I was aware of Slenderman’s presence in popular culture all at once. He was a new folktale—an impossibly tall and lean man with no face who would follow you through the woods and kill you. At the comic book and anime conventions I attended, Slenderman cosplayers would linger near doorways, hoping to freak out the passersby.
As an adult this all seems silly, but within the documentary, Geyser and Weier talk about him with a sense of real fear. Part of the appeal of creepypastas is the idea that they feel real, or come from an ambiguous enough source that they could have actually happened. Another popular creepypasta, Lavender Town, begins with a Pokémon cartridge that narrator found at a garage sale. Occasionally, Beware the Slenderman will scroll through Weier’s liked videos and YouTube comments on her Google+ page, showcasing videos with titles like, “Slenderman is REAL!!!!”
As told by the documentary, Slenderman wasn’t the only factor in the crime committed by Geyser and Weier. During the trial, Geyser was diagnosed with early onset schizophrenia, and Weier with delusional disorder schizotypy. The documentary mentions that they were also isolated at school, so their parents overjoyed when they met and found each other. These children weren’t particularly secretive, nor had they fallen into some kind of dangerous cult. Weier’s father monitored her usage of iPad, and had an open door policy in their home. But Slenderman occupied their interior lives to such a degree that they admitted to the police that they intended to kill Luetner because of him.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explains in the documentary that Slenderman is, “the definition of a good meme.” He continues, “People are captivated by Slenderman, and wish to pass on images or modify images of him. This horrifying story of two young girls who thought it was their duty to Slenderman to go and kill someone, that’s what I call power.”
It sounds like something out of Metal Gear Solid 2, but the power of memetic thought is demonstrated in our every day. Beware the Slenderman points to the Ice Bucket Challenge and planking as examples of widely propagated memes—one brought awareness and funding to a debilitating disease, and another was a fun joke. Memetics aren’t necessarily bad. How many times have you seen Richard Spencer getting punched in the past few days? Spencer himself was afraid that that the image of him being punched in the face would turn into a meme he would be unable to control.
It’s the idea of who controls a meme that allows room for the ways that memes could warp Geyser and Weier’s minds. No one controls memes—they evolve seemingly on their own, through the people that participate in them. The story of Slenderman was one already drenched in death and despair. Geyser and Weier played their tragic, horrific part in manipulating that story and passing it along.
While all of Beware the Slenderman highlights art of the titular monster, by the end of the documentary, that fanart has a subtle difference. Geyser and Weier told the police that after their attempted murder they intended to flee to Nicolet National Forest to join Slenderman as his servants. In a perverse way, through the power of memetics, they have.