Everything You Need to Know Before Watching HBO's Slenderman Documentary

beware the slenderman on hbo

When Beware the Slenderman debuts on HBO tonight, viewers will see a nightmare spring to life. Irene Taylor Brodsky's documentary details how a spooky corner of the web warped a pair of impressionable minds, inspiring a chilling crime that shocked a Milwaukee suburb. If you're unfamiliar with 2014's Slender Man stabbing, consult the following dossier as a companion guide to the movie. You might want the company.

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What's the documentary about?
Beware the Slenderman chronicles the true-crime case of two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls who attempted to kill a schoolmate to gain the favor of a malevolent being known as the Slender Man. 

Wait, who is the Slender Man again?
The Slender Man -- sometimes spelled as one word and occasionally referred to as "Slender" -- is a towering, faceless humanoid who dresses in a suit and stalks lonely children. Entirely fictional, he was created in 2009, when a user of the internet forum Something Awful submitted a doctored photo for a paranormal image contest. The character quickly exploded in popularity and became a fixture of horror sites (namely Creepypasta), inspiring countless videos and pieces of fan fiction.

OK, so what happened?
In May 2014, Morgan Geyser invited Anissa Weier and Payton Leutner to sleep at her house to celebrate her 12th birthday. The next morning, Morgan and Anissa took Payton to a nearby wooded area in the Waukesha suburb of Milwaukee and stabbed her 19 times with a kitchen knife, leaving her to die.

What motivated them to do that?
The previous December, Morgan and Anissa had met to discuss the prospect of becoming the Slender Man's "proxies," essentially puppets who receive protection and powers from the ghoul by acting in his stead. The girls believed they needed to offer the Slender Man a blood sacrifice to attain proxy status. If they didn't, they thought both of them and their families would be in danger.

slenderman documentary

Did they succeed?
Fortunately, a passing bicyclist discovered Payton near the edge of the woods. Despite sustaining a wound to her "cardiac box" -- which includes the lungs and major arteries -- and requiring multiple surgeries, she survived. Morgan and Anissa were arrested soon after the attack. Authorities found them walking near Interstate 94 en route to Nicolet National Forest, where the duo believed the Slender Man lived.

How are the three girls doing today?
Morgan and Anissa have been the subjects of nationally publicized court hearings since 2014. The girls -- now 14 and 15, respectively -- are being charged as adults with attempted first-degree intentional homicide. Their separate trials are slated to start this summer at the earliest, and both will plead not guilty on grounds of mental illness. The girls remain in custody while their lawyers fight to have their confessions thrown out. Payton maintains a low profile, but multiple reports, including an ABC 20/20 special from 2014, say she's doing well on her road to physical and psychological recovery. Her family declined to participate in Brodsky's project.

How much of the case is covered in the documentary?
The doc ends 16 months after the stabbing. It'll feel like half of the roughly two-hour movie is devoted to recounting the case, as Brodsky complements the story by providing Slender Man background; sharing the defendants' home movies and interrogation tapes; and interviewing the defendants' families and a wide range of experts, including folklorists and psychologists.

slenderman documentary

This movie's title sounds kind of misleading then. What is it actually about?
In a way, Beware the Slenderman has less to do with its titular character and more to do with the psychological and legal aspects of the Waukesha incident. Since Brodsky couldn't interview the Leutners, she spent a lot of time with Morgan and Anissa's families, humanizing their end of the story in a way that's insightful and sensitive. The movie doesn't just touch on what happened, but also why, and, in a cautionary sense, what the stabbing could mean for other families. In fact, Brodsky hints at big moral questions about brain development, internet access, and whether children should be held accountable for adult crimes.

What should I know to better understand that aspect of the movie?
A few things:

  • Under Wisconsin state law, all murder and attempted-murder cases for children older than 10 must start in adult court.
  • A state psychiatrist has diagnosed Morgan with early onset schizophrenia.
  • Experts have testified that Anissa has a delusional disorder and schizotypy, a diminished ability to distinguish fact from fiction.
  • Courts have ruled that both girls can understand the charges against them and aid in their own defense.

Why is all of that important?
The court in which the girls are tried, along with how they are tried, ultimately affects their sentences. If convicted in criminal court, the girls could serve up to 65 years in prison. If moved to juvenile court, they would likely regain their freedom upon turning 18. Some argue the stabbing plot was so vicious and calculated it warrants an adult punishment; others, including the defendants' parents, contend that Wisconsin's laws for trying minors as adults are outdated and have not advanced alongside modern understandings of child brain development and rehabilitation.

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Sean Fitz-Gerald is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. Find him on Twitter @srkfitzgerald.