If you are a true-crime freak like me, you’ll devour HBO’s Beware the Slenderman. But you probably won’t remember it. That’s because Irene Taylor Brodsky’s documentary—which examines the case of two Wisconsin 12-year-olds, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, who attempted to murder one of their classmates in 2014 as an apparent sacrifice to an invented internet character—falls into a familiar trap by failing to adequately address the victim of the central crime, making for a one-sided viewing experience.
There’s nothing new about true crime stories that erase the victims: Aside from writers like Ann Rule, who always tried to give voice to the victims in her books, the genre’s historic blind spot carries over to its newest offerings, from a forthcoming dramatization of the life of the Green River Killer that promises to turn a tragedy that affected only women into a story about two men, to last year’s The People v. O.J. Simpson, which never seemed interested in portraying Nicole Brown Simpson as a person who’d once been alive, to The Killing Season, Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills’s meandering mess of an A&E series that examined the still-at-large Long Island Serial Killer, eventually coming to the decidedly un-groundbreaking conclusion that sex workers are at greater risk for being targeted by killers, and maybe they shouldn’t be?
To her credit, Taylor Brodsky did try to contact the victim in the Slenderman case, and her interviews with the perpetrators’ parents are humanizing and nuanced. Her documentary also does useful work in revealing how uniquely unqualified the criminal justice system is to handle people suffering from untreated mental illness, like Geyser’s schizophrenia. It also helpfully explains that the Slenderman is a Jack Skellington look-alike who Geyser and Weier had trouble understanding wasn’t real. But by the end of Slenderman, I was left with one pervading, depressing impression: While it’s not up for debate that Geyser and Weier did a terrible thing for a stupid reason, sending them to prison will do nothing to address the conditions that led them to do it.