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New Slender Man documentary gets to the heart of the internet boogeyman

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What happens when a work of fiction crosses over into reality?

On Dec. 21, 2017, a Wisconsin judge sentenced 15-year-old Anissa Weier to 25 years in a mental institution for the crime of stabbing her friend 19 times in the chest. Weier was only 12 years old when she attempted the murder. Her motivation for the crime had a name: Slender Man.

Weier spent the months leading up to the attack poking around Creepypasta, the hub for paranormal stories and user-generated legends. There she discovered stories of the faceless, tentacled entity known as “Slender Man,” known for luring children into the forest. According to Melissa Westendorf, the psychologist appointed by the court to evaluate the defendant, Weier and and her friend Morgan Geyser, also convicted for the crime, soaked up the Slender Man mythos like sponges, and lost their grasp on what was and wasn’t real. Fearing that creature could come for their families, the girls led a third girl from their class into the woods in order to end her life in ritualistic fashion.

Westendorf’s testimony suggested that Weier knew that her mind was succumbing to delusion. Early on in her Creepypasta diet, she wondered aloud to her father:

“How can my brain let me do this?”

Dan Schoenbrun’s startling, new archival documentary A Self-Induced Hallucination confronts the murder case, the subsequent trial, and the cultural shadow of Slender Man. But it’s not a true-crime investigation or even a history of the character’s story (if you’re looking for that, HBO has you covered with the 2017 film Beware the Slenderman). Instead, using clips culled from the depths of YouTube, Hallucination dissects a collective consciousness born from primitive internet use that warped — with the helped of a modern horror icon — into something akin to religion.

“At first I considered the film to be a work of media criticism. And it is,” writes Schoenbrun in his director’s statement. “But I’ve since come to understand the film best as a work of theological inquiry. I’ve always thought of art as a form of secular worship, and this was a film made during a crisis of faith.”

The clips included in A Self-Induced Hallucination range from news broadcasts to Slender Man explainers to myth-debunking rants to whispered confessionals, where the yarn-spinning tactics of Creepypasta shroud themselves in YouTube’s most potent genre to become miniature Blair Witch videos. There’s a bloody-nosed kid pretending to suffer from “Slender sickness.” There’s a paranormal investigator who knows Slender Man is an internet creation, yet still believes there’s something out there in the woods to find. There’s a couple whose relationship is withering away, and Slender Man videos may be the poison. They’re all staged — but it’s unclear if they’re all fiction, as Schoenbrun makes clear in an anecdote from his making-of essay.

I recall a typo-laden forum post I came across one night written in the first-person by a young girl haunted by the Slenderman, in which she detailed her habit of stealing pills from her parents’ medicine cabinet to cope with her parents’ divorce. Was this a complete fabrication or a genuine cry for help?

In A Self-Induced Hallucination, a YouTube talking head broaches the subject of the tulpa, the mystical Buddhist concept of one’s ability to manifest a physical being or object through concentrated thought. With wary eyes, the fragile young man from a conservative Christian family details the creation of his own spiritual, telekinetic companion, who he says saved his life during a suicide attempt. The idea is that maybe, despite being the product of a Something Awful Photoshop contest, one or more internet persons brought the fabricated Slender Man to life as a tulpa, or to use the translated Tibetan Book of the Dead’s term, a thoughtform. After being not real, it could be real now.

Schoenbrun, through the juxtaposition of mixed media, proves the theory. Slender Man is real, a digital tulpa who has burrowed his way into the psychology of a certain sect of internet users, and achieved a level of godliness that can provoke violence in the real world. The same way a harmless comic character like Pepe the Frog can become radicalized into the emblem of an alt-right movement through aggressive memeification, so too can the ghastly force of a forum ghost story be summoned like Candyman through the repeated utterance of his name. Slender Man is a viral demon that the human brain is prone to perpetuate.

Schoenbrun sifted through hundreds of videos to construct A Self-Induced Hallucination. The result skims the surface of what’s out there — but what he’s found will send a shiver down your spine.