NET OF THE LIVING DEAD
The week of October 26, 2014

Behind the no-budget YouTube series that changed the face of horror

By Aaron Sankin

It starts unassumingly enough: a car driving down a nondescript exurban highway. There is no scary music, just the diegetic noise of the wind whipping through an open window. Text appears, setting the scene.

As the story goes, the better part of a decade ago, Alex Kralie started making a student film called Marble Hornets. From the footage that remains, it seems to be that perfect mix of pretentious and poorly made cinema that only student films are ever able to achieve.

Midway through, Alex cancelled the project due to what he called “unworkable conditions” on the set. Alex wanted to burn the tapes. His friend Jay, who had also worked on the movie, convinced Alex to give them to him instead—on one condition: Jay could never mention the words “Marble Hornets” in his presence ever again. Alex soon moved away, and Jay lost touch with him.

Jay forgot about the tapes until a few years later, when he decided to watch them and upload anything interesting he found to a YouTube account also called Marble Hornets.

That’s all there is to the first episode of what might be the scariest thing in the history of the Internet. No monsters jump out from dark corners; no menacing strings amp up the tension. There is only looming, existential dread.

Marble Hornets is a black hole that pulls you into the obsessive five-year project, one that involves the “Slender Man,” the Internet bogeyman blamed for a string of stabbings earlier this year. It’s the Internet era’s defining piece of horror.

Brace yourself.

The Marble Hornet tapes are jumbled up and all out of order. Each of the clips is short, lasting only a few minutes. The tapes may be random, but they’re presented in a way that makes sense. What transpires is rarely confusing, except, of course, when it wants to be.

Marble Hornets is a black hole that pulls you into the obsessive five-year project

Slender Man appears almost immediately. In the very first video after the introduction, Jay notes he looked through a few tapes and one in particular caught his eye. For one thing, it wasn’t filmed at the movie set. Instead, the footage was taken at Alex’s home. Jay picks out the important part—Alex looking through cracked curtains at a tall, white-faced man wearing a black suit standing in his front yard.

There is no sound or context. The camera is shaky; Alex clearly doesn’t want whoever is standing in the yard to see him looking. He seems afraid.

In the next video, presumably taken immediately prior, Alex is driving. He recounts seeing the same man standing completely motionless under a streetlight and being profoundly creeped out. He goes back to the spot where he saw the man, but his subject is now gone.

• • •

What follows is a quartet of simultaneous cat-and-mouse games: one between Alex and the Slender Man and another between Jay and and Alex’s tapes. Kralie is being hunted by the Slender Man and starts filming everything that happens in his life as a way to document his tormentor.

At the same time, Jay is digging through the tapes, hunting for a glimpse of whatever had Alex so spooked. As Jay uploads these clips, we start hunting for the Slender Man in the background of every scene. Just as Slender Man is hunting Alex, we’re hunting Slender Man.

In a series of short clips simulating the act of spending countless hours of research punctuated by momentary gasps of discovery, Marble Hornets quickly evolves, on a budget of essentially nothing, into a genre previously unseen—a work of investigative horror effortlessly and endlessly folding in on itself.

As the tapes go on, Alex’s mental state starts to deteriorate, and he starts to take out stress on the cast of his movie. When Slender Man sneaks his way into Alex’s bedroom, leaving the filmmaker to awaken beaten and bloodied, Jay decides to take a more active role and find out what happened to his friend.

• • •

We are now at episode 14. The series went on continuously for five more years; there are 73 more episodes to go. A few months ago, the team behind Marble Hornets finally put an ending, albeit a deeply unsettling one, onto the production.

In the remaining videos, Jay gets sucked into the same nightmare world that enveloped Alex, similarly videotaping everything he does. This constant self-surveillance is both out of a born filmmaker’s compulsive need to document and out of self-preservation, reviewing the tapes to ensure that nothing was missed. It’s physical proof that, no matter how outlandish it seemed, he really is being followed around by a faceless monster in a three-piece suit.

But even videos themselves are unreliable—they distort and skip around whenever Slender Man is around. This distortion in the videos is matched by distortions of the characters’ psyches. Jay loses long periods of time. He’ll encounter Slender Man, black out, and wake up hours, days, or even months later with no recollection of what happened.

“It was really its own enigmatic thing.” —Troy Wagner

The tapes show him going out and doing things that he has no recollection of doing.

His memory is distorted—just like how the image and sound on the camera distorts when in the presence of something supernatural. We like to complement our memories with recorded images, but Marble Hornets argues we can’t be sure of either—even when we use them in tandem.

• • •

In the summer of 2009, Troy Wagner was bored. He was supposed to get a job during a break between semesters in film school at University of Alabama, but that didn’t happen. Instead, he spent the summer browsing the forums on Something Awful.

Launched in 1999, Something Awful was a comedy website that eventually sprouted forums where users could post images and interact with each other. One of the threads there called on users to use Photoshop to create paranormal images—pictures of ghosts and monsters lurking in the background.

A pair of images was created and posted to the thread by a user going by the handle Victor Surge.

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Surge, whose real name is Eric Knudsen, accompanied the image with the following text:

“we didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time…”

1983, photographer unknown, presumed dead.

One of two recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as “The Slender Man”. Deformities cited as film defects by officials. Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence.

1986, photographer: Mary Thomas, missing since June 13th, 1986.

“It didn’t even have a name at the time. It started off as a Photoshop this guy did and people latched onto it pretty quickly,” recalled Wagner. “I saw that other people were taking their own spin on it—new Photoshops, adding audio, stuff like that. Since I was going to school at the time for video, I decided to throw my hat in the ring.”

Wagner wanted some help executing his idea, so he called up his friends Joseph DeLage and Tim Sutton. After waiting for DeLage to get off from work, they met up and spent the next nine hours storyboarding the initial idea for a found-footage series about Slender Man. While all of them were interested in film, none of had ever made anything even remotely like this before.

Marble Hornets quickly evolves into a genre previously unseen—a work of investigative horror effortlessly and endlessly folding in on itself.

The introductory episode, which exclusively contains footage from a car ride, was shot on the way to the store to pick up notebooks and pens for the planning session. The first true episode of Marble Hornets was shot after they got home that very night. Both went up on YouTube the next day. Another followed about a week after.

“It didn’t have a lot of attributes or properties at the time,” Wagner added. “It was really its own enigmatic thing. So we just added our own take on what it was and made it our own.”

• • •

After a few months of work, the trio had completed over a dozen episodes, the show’s first season.

“It almost felt like it blew up in slow motion overnight,” Wagner said. “Our perspective changed on it so much so quickly. At first it started out as a little thing we were doing for the hell of it and then, within a month or so, we had YouTube coming to us to put ads on the video and make money off it.”

By the end of that first season, the show’s YouTube channel had amassed 36,000 subscribers. It was way more successful than they had ever imagined possible. They expected it might get popular among the other denizens of the Something Awful forums but never to break out into the greater Internet beyond that.

Yet, people started obsessively dissecting the show’s every frame on forums like the alternate reality gaming hub Unfiction and posting their own response videos on YouTube.

The videos show people filming their own reactions while watching the show:

Or they stitched together all of the appearances of the show’s sharply dressed monster into one seamless, context-free stream of increasingly distorted weirdness:

• • •

Considering that Marble Hornets began life as a remix of another piece of Web content, the guys were ecstatic at how their series had created its own rapidly growing community. But the increased interest presented a huge problem: How can something that largely succeeds by cultivating an atmosphere of uneasy mystery survive in a social media–infused world?

Marble Hornets works because it at once seems real and unknowable. The videos seem like they really could just be the work of some random people in suburban Alabama trying to cope with being stalked by a towering presence. Maintaining the necessary atmosphere for it all to work was a balancing act.

The most important thing the creators did was to disable the comments from every video they posted on YouTube.

A meme, let loose into the real world, can do real damage like a vampire or a killer tomato.

“Disabling comments was both a narrative choice and a practical choice,” Sutton explained. “Our initial fanbase was, let’s just say, a little rough around the edges. The Something Awful community isn’t necessarily known for being being particularly nice, and we knew that some of it was going to end up bleeding over to 4chan—there is some user crossover there, as much as they’d hate to admit it. Even though we weren’t going for a full-on story in season one, we were going for a certain atmosphere, which sounds a little more pretentious than I meant it to. But we didn’t want people to have that messed up for them by reading something in the comments section.”

The other key to maintaining an ideal atmosphere surrounding the videos was making sure people found them in the right way. Marble Hornets works best with imperfect information about its origin. Sure, most viewers understand it’s a work of fiction, but knowing that it wasn’t created by a major studio gives it charm, allowing something that’s essentially just a handful of 20-somethings running around public parks and abandoned buildings to be just as scary as big, multimillion-dollar Hollywood productions.

Wagner said that the attitude they took on promotion was to actively not do anything. “We haven’t really done anything to build fan communities,” he explained. “We made a Marble Hornets Twitter account, but that’s it. Everything about the show is something that people have to find on their own. We never ever bought advertising for the show’s YouTube channel. … Everything just sprouted up on its own.”

• • •

The show never forgets its reality.

At one point in the series, Jay’s YouTube account gets hacked and someone (or something) else starts posting their own creepy videos to it. There’s also another account called totheark, possibly controlled by Slender Man himself, which posts disorienting video puzzles incorporating footage from Marble Hornets. The clips are puzzles, and they’re continually referenced in the main series.

Later, Jay tries to get another character to help him, while not being completely honest about his intentions. The other character comes back and says that he did a Google search for “Marble Hornets” and came across years of videos revealing that Jay had been lying to him.

The show never forgets its reality.

• • •

The only real antecedent for Marble Hornets‘ found-footage horror was The Blair Witch Project. “I guess the first Paranormal Activity movie was showing in film festivals, but they hadn’t done a big media blitz for it, and we certainly hadn’t heard about it in Alabama,” said DeLage with a laugh.

The trio’s inspiration for making the 87-episode show, which they did almost entirely themselves on a total budget of less than $1,500, was really just the bits of Slender Man mythos that had promulgated on Something Awful before they started work. As a result, much of their spin on Slender Man has now become as close to “canon” as exists throughout the world of stories, video games, and other cultural detritus that have piled up around the character.

“Disabling comments was both a narrative choice and a practical choice.” —Tim Sutton

The most high-profile example of Marble Hornets‘ interpretation of Slender Man reappearing elsewhere in popular culture is in Doctor Who. A 2011 story arc of the beloved British sci-fi series introduced a villain called the Silence—a race of tall, pale, thin, suit-wearing humanoids whose presence distorts the memory of anyone who sees them.

Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat has said the inspiration for the Silence was Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream,” but the resemblance to Marble Hornets‘ rendering of Slender Man is impossible to ignore. For a show whose primary antagonist is a trash can armed with a toilet plunger, the Silence really stepped up the scare-factor.

“It’s kind of strange: Because that character was born out of a crowdsourced nature to begin with, there are a lot of things that were inspired by it or have appeared to be inspired by it, but, because of the nature of it, haven’t had to attribute where they got the idea from,” Wagner said. “I personally don’t know if the Silence was deliberately based on anything that we did, but it would be really cool if it was.”

One of the enemies in the mind-bogglingly popular video game Minecraft was named after Slender Man (Enderman), and the game’s creator at one point subscribed to the Marble Hornets YouTube channel.

“Now there are Enderman action figures sold at Barnes & Noble,” Wagner noted. “Every once in a while I’ll remember that and go, ‘huh.'”

Marble Hornets may be over, but its creators aren’t done with with world they’ve made.

They’re currently in the process of making another show—one similar in style to Marble Hornets but not a direct continuation of the original storyline.

They’re also making a full-fledged movie version of Marble Hornets starring scary movie mainstay actor Doug Jones. The film is currently in post-production.

• • •

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At the core of Marble Hornets is the idea that a meme can be scary. A meme, let loose into the real world, can do real damage, like a vampire or a killer tomato.

Within the confines of the show, Slender Man is a meme. As knowledge of Slender Man passes on from one person to another, the monster’s presence starts to infect the corners of the characters’ lives, slowly creeping in until there’s almost nothing left but terror and paranoia. Just as memes spread virally online, Slender Man spreads virally in the show’s real world.

Good horror takes the abstract things that scare us in the real world and makes them physical. Zombies are the manifestation of our fear of huge crowds; Godzilla is the manifestation of an unease about humanity spending hundreds of years mucking up the planet.

Good horror takes the abstract things that scare us in the real world and makes them physical.

Marble Hornets is about our fear of the Internet. It’s about our fear of constantly being surveilled and recorded without really ever knowing why. It’s about increasingly relying on electronic tools to make sense of the world for us without really understanding how they work, or even if they work.

Or maybe it’s about something else entirely.

“Nothing is scarier than things people think up on their own,” Wagner said.

• • •

Earlier this year, two tween girls living in Waukesha, Wis., started reading about Slender Man on Creepypasta, a website that hosts user-created scary stories. They became obsessed with Slender Man; they wanted to become his “proxies.”

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of what Slender Man is or what he wants. In the version promoted on Creepypasta, the one the girls took as gospel, the monster would only accept them if they killed someone. This is a different version of the Slender Man in Marble Hornets—the same image, refracted through cyberspace.

The girls selected their victim carefully. It was to be another girl, around the same age, from their school. They planned the deed for several months before luring their victim to a public park. They stabbed her 19 times before leaving her to die. The intended sacrifice crawled out of the woods and was discovered by a passing cyclist. “Please help me,” she said. “I’ve been stabbed.”

After being caught by police, one of the attackers told the authorities she was she was sorry for what she did. But she added a caveat: “It was weird that I didn’t feel remorse.”

“This should be a wake-up call for all parents,” Waukesha Police Chief Russell Jack said in a statement about the stabbing. “The Internet has changed the way we live. It is full of information and wonderful sites that teach and entertain. The Internet can also be full of dark and wicked things.”

A few days later, it happened again.

• • •

Marble Hornets ran for five years. This is an eternity in Internet time. Five years ago, neither Snapchat nor Instagram existed. Five years from now, they may crumble back into digital dust.

The online world moves fast, but so does the offline one. All three of the filmmakers were in college when the show started, but Wagner and Sutton have since graduated. DeLage is still in school—having taken time off to focus on film projects like Marble Hornets.

Similarly, there’s a generation of Web-savvy horror fans who spent years soaking up their work, internalizing its tropes, rhythms, and techniques. Marble Hornets showed them how YouTube can be a medium for producing something truly scary.

“All of the people who grew up watching every episode of Marble Hornets in high school are now in college,” said DeLage. “One of them is in one of my film classes this year.”

• • •

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Illustration by J. Longo