NEW YORK (AP) — The Slender Man craze swept the younger digerati while their unwitting elders occupied themselves online with Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Only in May 2014 did the general public hear of Slender Man when news erupted that two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls had lured a friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times.
Three years after the attack, the girls are set to be tried as adults for attempted murder.
Why did they do it? Turns out, to appease and curry favor with this Slender Man character.
Slender Man, it turned out, was all the rage for youngsters worldwide. "He" was born with an online post in June 2009 as a mysterious specter photo-shopped into everyday images of children at play. From that tantalizing start, Slender Man (also known as Slenderman or just Slender) exploded as a crowdsourced canon of belief and fantasy.
Slender Man was typically depicted as a spidery figure in a black suit with a featureless white face. He was regarded by his devotees as alternately a sinister force and an avenging angel. He flourished as a communal boogeyman and, at the same time, an abiding savior who found global expression in fan fiction, artwork and videos.
Trevor J. Blank, a digital folklorist, declares in the film, "If there's one thing the cult of Slender Man is about, it's about making it all believable, especially by remaining unverifiable. And that's really how folk belief works. Because you can't prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Slender Man is fake or real."
A film that explores the Slender Man effect, for both better and worse, would have been valuable for all non-initiates and, especially, parents.
HBO's "Beware the Slenderman" isn't that film. Airing Monday at 10 p.m. EST, it promises to examine "how an urban myth could take root in impressionable young minds, leading to an unspeakable act." But its would-be murderers are not your everyday impressionable youths. One, Anissa Weier, is found to have a delusional disorder. The other, Morgan Geyser, is diagnosed with early childhood schizophrenia.
As such, the case of Morgan and Anissa hardly seems representative of anything beyond a pair of already troubled young people who spun out tragically. For them, Slender Man just seems to have been the last straw.
The film boasts of its access to these girls, their families and abundant home video, as well as courtroom testimony and interrogation footage, all of which grinds on for the film's two bloated hours.
So sharply focused on the perpetrators is the film that it scarcely even acknowledges the victim, Payton Leutner, Morgan's friend since kindergarten, who, apart from her role as attackee, seems extraneous to the film's intended narrative. (Only late in the film are viewers even tipped to Payton's present-day condition: She did recover — physically, at least. But we learn nothing more about her.)
The film tries, but fails, to put the crime in a cultural context. Experts and other talking heads weigh in on the larger implications of the Slender Man mania. But the film prefers to savor more than probe, as if having fallen under Slender Man's spell. Not satisfied to provide an instructive sample of online Slender Man imagery, it becomes an exercise in macabre excess. Basking in Slender Man visuals and a creepy musical score, the documentary seems out to be its own horror flick.
As for the current status of Slender Man among global youth (has the craze mushroomed further or leveled off — or is it soooo over?) the viewer is told nothing.
Instead, the film festishizes a single ghastly crime for which it seems to hold Slender Man accountable.
Morgan's mother, like the girls' other parents, seeks refuge in her happy recollections. Struggling to see her daughter in the best light possible, she recalls that Morgan "has always marched to the beat of her own drum."
But is it really hers? Or was it Slender Man's? Expect no answers in this dreary documentary.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore