Overview: An internet bogeyman inspires two Wisconsin girls to attempt murder in an effort to earn his approval, as recounted in this documentary that takes a closer look at the case and surrounding phenomenon. HBO; Not Rated; 2016; 114 minutes.

“Some kids are just big believers”: Beware the Slenderman, premiering on HBO this week, is a long-awaited look at the story behind the vicious near-fatal stabbing of a young Wisconsin girl by two of her friends in 2014. The story gained national attention not just for the outlier aspect of its perpetrators—two 12-year old girls—but because of their declared motivation: To appease someone known as Slenderman.

If you’ve been drawn to Slenderman lore on the internet or crave flickering horror movie-style footage of his purported sightings or appearances in still photography, the documentary has a few visceral scares to offer up. The trouble is that in attempting to tell two stories—one of internet culture and one of mental illness—one side gets slighted. Unfortunately, it’s the less sensationalized and more human one: The story how delusion took root in two troubled girls, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser.

Slenderman is an internet-borne phenomenon that first appeared in 2009 when a user on the Something Awful internet forum posted the first known images of the figure as part of a photography contest. The idea was to Photoshop paranormal phenomena so well into normal photographs that it could be mistaken for the real thing. It was. Fitting for a monster of the internet age, Slenderman first appeared in digital form without a creation story. Despite that, the imagery proved so compelling that a whole mythology quickly sprung up around it to fill in the void.

Much of the documentary’s time is focused on understanding the psychological and cultural appeal of Slenderman. We see YouTube clips uploaded by people claiming to have caught his image on film. We see sketchy amateurish drawings as well as professional animation. But what we never see are those things properly attributed—who made them and why. It’s a disorienting decision on the part of the filmmaker because when we don’t know the provenance of these pieces (and they flicker across the screen often), we can’t contextualize them. Were these pieces the girls might have seen? Might have made? Did the filmmakers create them? We’re never told, and that’s a problem. If the implied argument is that these were what Anissa and Morgan saw (and further, that these were so powerful as to compel them to act), then we need to know that so we can judge for ourselves. Here, the documentary suffers from a lack of narrator and too few title cards that could serve as guideposts for the viewer.

“It felt like air”: Director Irene Taylor Brodsky, an Academy Award-nominated documentarian and journalist by training, also devotes a significant amount of screen time to Slenderman-related internet browsing by an unseen typist. The effect is akin to watching over someone’s shoulder as they research an academic paper. It doesn’t make for particularly compelling viewing; subjects and pages you might be interested in flit by, while lingering too long on those that don’t move you. I almost found myself wanting to instinctively reach out to hit the back button to return to a page the camera zipped past. There’s nothing about this point of view that made me understand either Brodsky’s research methodology or the escalation of Geyser and Weier’s obsession. After all, if what’s implied by this process is that what you consume defines you, then all of us watching the film are complicit in a heinous act.

Cultural understanding and fluency are common threads that run through this story. Geyser and Weier were real-world outsiders (for various reasons) who sought solace in an alternate online reality. Much of the film is focused on the internet culture that gave rise to the Slenderman phenomenon. We hear from various experts (interviewed frustratingly often on Skype, with all its attendant glitches, echoey sound quality and unflattering lighting) who attempt to explain internet culture.

Ethologist Richard Dawkins refers to the Slenderman phenomenon as a “virus of the mind” that, when taken in by the sense organs, spreads through “peer-to-peer horizontal transmission.” This is heady stuff and, in one sense, it’s refreshing to see the internet given its due as it’s now such an engrained part of our daily lives. Being able to position oneself both within and outside of internet culture requires a capacity and fluency that Geyser and Weier didn’t possess. A person uploading a Slenderman “sighting” clip to YouTube is in on the act, even if they want to believe. In interrogation footage, we see the two girls earnestly explaining to investigators their desire to be “proxies” to Slenderman and live with him in his mansion in a national forest. These are not savvy internet interpreters and yet to focus on this as indicative of the internet’s power seems to elide what made the two so vulnerable to its pull in the first place.

At its heart, this is the story of the mental illness of two girls—one arguably far more serious than the other. The amount of cooperation Brodsky earned from the families of Geyser and Weier is impressive and in the moments where their parents share memories, fears and hopes, the film is at its most human and moving. If you’re only passingly familiar with the case, you might not be aware that both girls did receive clinical diagnoses (one girl before and one after the arrest). This is hyper-relevant to the story, but isn’t revealed until nearly the final third of the film. It’s a disturbing framing decision that feels more like a gotcha-style reveal rather than an earnest attempt to tell the full story. Without going to into greater detail here, the scenes between Geyser’s parents discussing the mental health issues dogging their family almost make the time spent diving into Slenderman mythology in the first third of the film feel lurid in retrospect.

Overall: While Brodsky sometimes edges close to uncovering a deeper truth about the lives of the two accused girls, Beware the Slenderman‘s story too quickly reverts back to Slenderman folklore and, in doing so, misses its opportunity to tell us something more meaningful about ourselves and our treatment of the most vulnerable among us. We waste our time chasing the signifier when what’s signified by it is far more dangerous.

Grade: D

Featured Image: HBO