[The following contains spoilers.]
Marble Hornets is often viewed as a continuation of the Slender Man mythos, but Slender Man was only ever the starting point for Marble Hornets. The Youtube horror series, which was launched by Troy Wagner in 2009, did not build significantly upon the foundations of the user-generated Slender Man legend. Marble Hornets showed little interest in the monster’s blurred backstories and sketchy physical attributes, and, if anything, it made him more featureless. Not only were the tentacles dispensed with: when renaming Slender Man “the Operator,” the series symbolically replaced a description of him with a role (incidentally, Slender Man’s “creator” Eric Knudsen did not claim copyright over the name until 2010). Marble Hornets had taken custody of the same old muddled bogeyman, but what is so innovative about this series remains the telling rather than the tale.
It here becomes difficult for a reviewer who is wading into his thirties. The whole point of Marble Hornets is that it exploits Youtube in order to get around the infrastructure of film classification and deliver horror to small children. I can remember what it was like being nine years old and I can imagine finding the Operator terrifying at that age. But as an adult he is one of the least frightening things about the series.
He is frightening when he comes with a boo, but he is not frightening in himself. He floats passively on the screen, without any indication of having mental awareness. He seems to be something purely automatic, like a cruise missile. It is startling when you are allowed to glimpse him in detail: his head could be made of papier-mâché and his arms spires of toilet rolls. In entries such as #72 (when he is literally standing in a field) his scarecrow immovability is exposed mercilessly. One supposes that the teenaged filmmakers have borrowed his suit from an uncle in the city and that there will be bad blood when it is returned stretched out of all human shape.
In entry #2 Alex refers to seeing a “really tall guy standing in the middle of the street” and in #12 the cast of Alex’s film actually address him (Alex: Hey Buddy. Sarah: What is he doing?). But these characters otherwise refer rarely to the Operator and they seem to be somehow incapable of discussing him directly. We may even begin to doubt that they are interacting with the same entity that we are watching in their footage. They obsessively film their circumstances to capture some memento of his existence, but on the screen he has no face. If I am proposing that the Operator is a real person who can protect himself from being filmed, by replacing his on-screen image with some kind of avatar, then I am not sure that I am convinced by my own argument. But the lack of any confirmation of what we can see in the footage plunges us into the same sense of isolation felt by the “hallucinating” Tim. When in #26, Amy screams “what is that?,” the “that” could merely encompass an overwhelming sense of dread. In #60, Jay reports that everything he felt during the appearance of the Operator was “a complete blur.” In #66 Tim refers to him as “that person in the background or whatever it was.”
Babies are programmed to recognise faces as soon as they have vision, and our horror of the Operator can be traced back to the anxiety with which babies scan unfamiliar faces. Yet the best horror invariably emerges from specific phobias: the choking claustrophobia of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales is at some level linked to the tuberculosis which killed his wife; MR James’ fear of spiders was manifested in the ghastly climax of “The Ash-Tree”; HP Lovecraft’s zombies convey his terror of other races. When Alexandra Heller-Nicholas describes the Operator’s “long and diverse range of historical predecessors,” including “the Proprietor” from Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and the figures from René Magritte’s The Lovers (1928) (whilst comically omitting the bogeyman found in almost every culture) it is significant that neither of her examples derive from horror.
The Operator is only frightening if you find him frightening, but Marble Hornets does not make this unknown quantity crucial to the formula. The success of the series is instead based upon the craftsmanship of its suspense. The viewer soon adjusts themselves to the rhythm of a horror film; they know when the frights are due and when the climax is imminent. The freedoms of the format in Marble Hornets, with the entries varying from under a minute to fourteen minutes in length, leave the viewer disoriented and the action entirely unpredictable.
The early entries are sustained by the dynamic behind the Freudian uncanny, “something long known to us, once very familiar.” Snippets from behind the scenes of a film usually constitute “bloopers”; here the mistaken images on the screen do not provoke collective chortling and back-slapping, but personal anguish. Some of the later entries, such as #19, #26 and #40, rely upon the traditional boo factor. Others, such as Jay’s deeply creepy walk in the woods with Alex in #38, plumb a paranoia about another character’s motives. #31 offers one of the most frightening moments in the series – a figure with his back turned who is planted frozen in a forest path – and it remains unsettling even once it has been discounted as a decoy.
The skill of Marble Hornets can be observed in #60, when Jay returns to a ruined psychiatric hospital which is alone in the woods for miles around. He is eerily compelled to delve into the hospital’s pitch-black cellars and then, suddenly, there are footsteps issuing from the floor above. The ruined hospital in the woods and the footsteps overhead are ancient scenarios from urban legends, but in Marble Hornets their deployment is so nimble that one almost fails to recognise them. The makers of Marble Hornets know that suspense requires patience and long periods in which little happens. Rather than being transported immediately to the hospital we walk towards it and bumble around it with authentic deliberateness. A conventional horror movie would not have built up this scene with five minutes of mysterious searching, until the viewer’s senses were strained to the brink. The horror is amplified by the oppressive silence; the entry is practically a mime, with a single character and no dialogue.
The series as a whole is structured like a computer game, with successive levels. There is a level set in suburbia and one in a hotel and one in the woods and another in a ruined hospital and the last unfolding in an abandoned university. These settings are always depopulated and obscurely apocalyptic; perhaps the masses have abandoned the real world and they are away watching Marble Hornets on the internet. Universities and hospitals are here as forlorn as the lonely, artificial reality of computer games, and we get this sinking feeling in #75 when Jay despairs that his life before encountering the Operator had involved “living in a crappy apartment by myself doing nothing.”
Previously Jay and Alex had been the random generic characters who feature in urban legends; they did not have personalities or histories, merely functions. It is hard to care whether Jay lives or dies when his character is as blank as that of the Operator. I think that Wade Sheeler is acting the goat when complaining that Marble Hornets dissolves amidst “some very high school style acting and too many false moments that mire the project in a film school “earnestness.”” The series was always built around suspense rather than character, and its failure was that it could not be concluded in an original way, without succumbing to the climactic slaughter of horror convention. The dissipation of tension in Series 3 was really a loss of the freedom which was so critical to the project’s success.
What purports to be the final “entry” was posted last month but the story will be somehow resumed in a forthcoming independent film. The power of amateur “DIY” innovation to turn the world upside down is here neatly encapsulated: Marble Hornets begins with an investigation into a failed student film called “Marble Hornets” and it will be succeeded by a finished professional movie called “Marble Hornets.”
In fact, the Marble Hornets movie is ominously detained in post-production, with no trailer released even though filming was concluded last year. In June a pair of twelve-year-old girls from Wisconsin, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, stabbed one of their friends as part of a conspiracy to “please” Slender Man. They told the police that if they had got away with it (thankfully, their victim sustained no lasting injuries), they would have fled to Slender Man’s “mansion” in Wisconsin’s Nicolet National Forest. Marble Hornets had had a lucky escape – the girls were reported to be inspired by the rival website Creepypasta – but the feature film seems to have been postponed to avoid being splashed with this blood. If Alex’s original Marble Hornets film had been sabotaged by the Operator, the real-life movie was disrupted when this bogeyman once again acquired a sort of reality.