Aleks Krotoski, Bloody Mary, Eric Knudsen, Found Footage, Horror, Marble Hornets, Opinion, Professor Tom Pettitt, Slender Man, Television Review, The Operator, Troy Wagner, TV Review, Twin Peaks, Urban Legends, Youtube
The Youtube horror soap-opera Marble Hornets was created in 2009 by some graduates from Pelham High School in Alabama. Despite having no previous filmmaking experience and an initial budget of less than £300, their series proceeded to enlist over 300,000 subscribers and millions of viewers. If this seems to perfect what the punks had termed “the DIY ethic,” it is a pleasant coincidence that the Operator, the villain of the piece, dresses like a corporate businessman. The human characters Jay, Alex and Tim wear jeans and hoodies, and the arrival of the besuited Operator always makes them panic like slackers when the boss is coming.
Arising in the mid-1970s, the punk movement rebelled against prescribed mass culture and it politicised the amateur. The punks wanted a culture which was more authentic and adventurous and they knew that they had to make it for themselves. Naturally the establishment was stacked against them, but then one day the internet appeared out of the blue and you might think that the punks’ utopia was unexpectedly complete. A small club of record labels and film studios no longer held a monopoly over the dissemination of mass culture.
Except that commercial mass culture is still with us, with its products mostly redistributed rather than replaced by the internet. There has not been a detectible leap in the quality of popular culture since it became more democratised. If you wanted to identify the great musicians and artists and writers of Web 2.0, it is unclear where you would begin. The popularity of Marble Hornets is bound to cheer up anybody who is disillusioned with DIY, but our concern here is the art and whether it measures up to the entire internet’s potential.
Marble Hornets represents a continuation of existing trends within “found footage” contemporary horror. The found footage depicted in the Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity franchises has apparently surfaced in our own world, in the guise of real artefacts, but its eeriness often derives from the fact that it is so oddly unrealistic. Found footage concurs with Sigmund Freud’s 1919 description of “the uncanny” as “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” Within found footage, the usual triviality of home videos has been warped into something ghastly: the fixated desperation to capture every moment.
Marble Hornets departs from previous usages of found footage in securing unprecedented freedoms. Rather than having the footage encased into a movie format, the format is now just as “found” as the footage. The viewer is meant to come across Marble Hornets on Youtube and follow the series as it is updated, suspended, and even hacked, all in real time.
But we will stop short if trying to define this series by its format. The cult loyalty which Marble Hornets inspires in its fans, coupled with its yawning originality, sometimes makes it seem as momentous as Mark Frost and David Lynch’s 1990s television series Twin Peaks. This statement might appear melodramatic, and maybe it is, but both series still possess the same unique, standalone aura. Marble Hornets will conceivably exert a comparable influence over subsequent generations of filmmakers to that which Twin Peaks exerts today.
At last week’s ConnectiCon 2014 convention, the Marble Hornets creators admitted that, “We were big fans of Twin Peaks” and that they were conscious of the similarities between the two series. Some of these similarities are not, upon inspection, immaterial: the Operator and Bob, the series’ respective monsters, both invade their victims’ psyches and cause them to murder; the protagonists are teleported to unearthly localities; and there is the common backdrop of vast, spooky forests. Marble Hornets is, however, conspicuously lacking in dreamy jazz basslines and girls who pout like Audrey Horne.
For some have-a-go teenaged filmmakers to create a new Twin Peaks may affirm that the DIY ethic is now unstoppable. Where this idealism becomes silly is in the predominantly academic assumption that Marble Hornets reflects the ascendance of popular culture to a more interactive or democratic plane. The Operator submits a reinterpretation of the online horror meme Slender Man: a figure who had made a spate of appearances in photoshopped images and amateur short fiction in June 2009. Marble Hornets was launched by Troy Wagner ten days after the user “Victor Surge” (Eric Knudsen) had posted the first photographs of Slender Man on the Something Awful forums. Wagner’s series purports to share the very first footage of him. Yet despite these user-generated credentials, it is important to establish from the get-go that the Operator did not emerge from some sort of pseudo online folk revival.
In an essay about Marble Hornets, the producer and director Wade Sheeler compares chroniclers of Slender Man to “ancient storytellers huddled around the fire, spinning yarns of the supernatural.” Catherine Eaton, a reviewer for The Stake, agrees that, “The videos, blogs and tumblrs changing and rearranging the Slender Man mythos are closer to a primitive time of storytelling, when stories were told around the campfire and passed on in an oral tradition.” For the journalist Aleks Krotoski, Slender Man is no less than “the first great myth of the web” (this quote is generally attributed to her, but she is actually paraphrasing the hobgoblin’s supposed “creator,” Eric Knudsen). Krotoski cites Professor Tom Pettitt’s theory that Slender Man attests to the return of cultural practices which have been suppressed for centuries. Literacy, Pettitt argues, was only a “parenthesis” (to be precise, the “Gutenberg Parenthesis”) and meaning is no longer fixed in print, but it is now a fluid, liberated resource which is shared and reshaped online.
Pettitt’s theory accommodates a very obvious point which still manages to elude most of the academic commentary upon Marble Hornets: it is for children! The series is scrupulous in omitting anything which might be deemed unsuitable for children; there is no sex, no nudity, barely any on-screen violence, and absolutely no swearing. For this reason, a seven-year old can sit down in front of Marble Hornets and they are good to go. Another point in Pettitt’s favour is that, notwithstanding the technical influence of “found footage” horror, Marble Hornets has floated directly out of the world of urban legends: the tales from which children who are too young to be allowed to watch horror on the small or big screen get their wee frights.
One of the best and most famous urban legends is that of Bloody Mary: an apparition who is supposed to appear in the bathroom mirror when small children chant her name, by candlelight. The myth usually stipulates that the child has to be alone in the house when evoking Bloody Mary, and this shuddery detail applies equally well to Marble Hornets. You are meant to watch it in the dark, when you are home alone.
Nobody has ever managed to affix a single, definitive motive or backstory to either Bloody Mary or Slender Man, and there are as many elaborately ritualised means of summoning Mary as there are tickets in a lottery. Yet there is a recognisable function behind the Bloody Mary myth and one which shines through all the folk litter of the legends about her. Mary, according to the folklorist Alan Dundes, conveys an exclusive significance for girls:
There are a number of reasons why a menstrual interpretation of the Bloody Mary Ritual makes sense. The ages of the young girls who participate in the ritual run from seven to twelve… The interpretation here proposed would certainly explain why the ritual invariably takes place in a bathroom and why there is such an explicit and repeated emphasis on the sudden appearance of blood.
By the end of the ritual the virgin girl is staring at an older and more extravagantly powerful female in a mirror. Symbolically at least, she is the Virgin Mary and this is the Bloody Mary. When small children spot the Operator in the screen, the ten foot tall humanoid looms over them in formal office wear: a child’s nightmarish caricature of adulthood which is similar to the function assigned to Bloody Mary.
But in the original mythos, Slender Man often seems to be in search of a function. There are promising grounds for him to acquire one: his prenatural tallness and the privacy of his blank face might qualify him as a warning against “stranger danger.” His featureless face has been grafted on to the features of the traditional bogeyman, but he is the ghost of a bogeyman, an entity who has been recycled from bogeyman clichés. In this respect, the claims of Knudsen to be the “creator” of Slender Man, and his assumed responsibility to ensure (through copyright protection) that the monster is used wisely and not to advertise pizza, only work on a literal level. It is otherwise like King Canute trying to command the waves from the bottom of the sea.
The enduring vagueness of Slender Man might not represent a strength, as academics are prone to assert, but the results of authorial deficiency. Far from emerging from fireside tales, Slender Man is possibly the first mythological creature to be built by a committee.
The original thread on the Something Awful forums was begun by “Gerogerigegege” and entitled “Creating Paranormal Images”:
Creating paranormal images has been a hobby of mine for quite some time. Occasionally, I stumble upon odd web sites showcasing strange photos, and I always wondered if it were possible to get one of my own chops in a book, documentary, or web site just by casually leaking it out into the web…
Across the following forty-six pages of this thread, the contributors idly discuss the technicalities of unleashing a plausible paranormal entity upon the public. One urges to “do it very low-key for a while (a year or more) and eventually it’ll creep into the ‘net’s culture, and even have a chance to attract the attention of lazy reporters who don’t fact-check stuff.” If “folk” had originally meant “the common people,” this is a conspiracy against the people. The committee must hold a low opinion of the public’s intelligence, in assuming that those researching Slender Man will somehow not bump straight into the forum where they are discussing how to manufacture him.
When “ce gars” contributes to the forum, fourteen pages in, the tone is nonetheless perfect:
About two or three years ago, a film school friend of mine, Alex, was working on his first “feature length” movie. It was called Marble Hornets and I think it was about a twenty something returning to his childhood home and recalling events that happened there. It was pretty pretentious film student fare…
To secure a “pretentious” title, Troy Wagner sat at the wheel of his car, reeling off words from passing trucks. A construction vehicle supplied the word “Marble” and a pest-control van gave him “Hornets.” Wagner authored ce gars’ message but we are actually reading the words of “Jay,” a character from the series, and we are already, without knowing it, inside his world…