[The following contains spoilers.]
A young woman is putting swatches of make-up on to the body of her pet, Alan. She calls Alan a “monster,” but there is in truth no word in the English language that comes near to adequately describing him. “Monster” is a non-starter – these days, it sounds far too fun or fanciful. The first time that you see Alan he looks like a crude papier-mâché puppet, but this impression soon perishes. After a second or so in Alan’s company, he is immensely, and quite horribly, realistic.
He looks like a victim from a burns unit; one who has lost all of his arms and legs, as well as his hair and nose and eyelids, in the fire. With his basin jaws and snaggled teeth, his closest anatomical equivalent is probably the humpback anglerfish (a clumsily jiggling creature with a frozen head that also strongly resembles a papier-mâché puppet). Alan’s skin is covered in pustules or carbuncles that look convincingly painful. He is supposed to be blind, though, since he cannot ever say what he can see, his blindness is all but invisible to us.
The thrust of this Youtube vlog, which began last July, is that Daisy Brown is neither wholly master nor servant to Alan. The story sprawls within the ambiguity in between. In the video that I am currently detailing – “Makeup Swatches with Alan the Monster!!!!” – various, judicious ironies are in play.
We are never allowed to see Daisy’s face but her voice provides constant commentary, whereas her camera lingers over the face of Alan, who is correspondingly wordless. Their two beings are thus conjoined on the screen, into an omniperson with a single voice and face. Despite this audio-visual fusion, they remain worlds apart. Alan is in obvious distress – he is gasping like a landed fish – and yet Daisy is absorbed in applying make-up samples to his sickly skin. Since Alan was rustled up by Daisy’s father in a lab, like a kind of newly invented genetic cocktail, it might well be that his untried skin is agonisingly sensitive. But this has not occurred to Daisy.
Normally, putting make-up on a puppet, alongside the original paint, would run the risk of drawing attention to the puppet’s artificiality. Here, the realism of the scenario is so fulsome and intense that the artificiality is strangely eclipsed, even as the camera continues to pour over it.
Vlogging and “found footage” and YouTube are today the only habitable territory that is left for screen horror. Movie studios and all of their CGI don’t seem to come with any real kick anymore. Just like the anglerfish, our horror is now required to be camouflaged against an ordinary backdrop, before the familiar jaws come slicing out. The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007) were early cinematic excursions that had shown what could be done on a very low budget. With the YouTube series Marble Hornets (2009), “found footage” had found the ideal format. The format is still the most original side of Daisy Brown but there is now a far more confident exploitation of vlogging’s interactivity. Comments had been disabled throughout Marble Hornets, to prevent spoilsport viewers from alluding to its fakery, but Daisy openly encourages comments, on YouTube and Twitter, and she sometimes replies to them. The result is the opening up of a small, wondrous pocket of alternative reality.
So you watch one of Daisy’s videos and then you read the comments underneath. Many of them regale Daisy with sympathy and helpful suggestions; they often sound knowingly naïve, but it is likely that a considerable proportion of them are written by children. Marble Hornets had been scrupulous in omitting gore, swearing, and sexual content, so that, in the absence of any sophisticated age classification system on YouTube, the series had been able to serve up horror straight to younger viewers. Daisy Brown largely sticks to this method, though YouTube has become no doubt more sensitive as of late. Two videos that refer to off-screen domestic violence – “Alan pulled my hair out” and “im outside” – are both age restricted. As the series becomes ever darker, it will be interesting to see whether it can feasibly remain child friendly.
Marble Hornets might have got shot of cinema but, as Tychy has previously argued, it could never achieve a complete independence from the influence of David Lynch. Daisy Brown is likewise in debt to this big bank of all modern horror. In common with Lynch’s heroines, Daisy is “a girl in trouble.” Alan is the very spit of the baby in Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977): both are limbless and covered in pustules. And as with Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), Daisy Brown proves fecund in its supply of aimless clues. We are invited to hunt down a page in a Gabriel García Márquez novel and to identify lines of poetry that flash up in the subtitles. In accordance with Lynchian convention, however, the function of these references is chiefly aesthetic rather than being of any help in resolving the plot.
For example, as Daisy Brown’s viewers had eventually grasped, the subtitles contain disembodied messages, annotations, and apparent extracts from conversations. Sometimes these lines might refer to Daisy, sometimes they are attributable to Alan, and sometimes they encompass dialogue between her parents or between Daisy and her father. If you never turn these subtitles on, they will be like inaudible steganography. They might shine piercing beams of light into the story, but the intended effect is ultimately, I think, atmospheric. The messages cut across Daisy’s normal speech like those voices that taunt sufferers of schizophrenia. Maybe these messages will in time replace Daisy’s dialogue, so that both her face and voice end up fading from her own story.
The subtitles significantly deepen the mystery. Daisy is home educated and her writing is scarcely above the standard of a child’s (E.g. “i hate allan now. im nto goingg to bpretend like nothings wrong.”) But perhaps the mismatch between her subtitles and the rest of her writing is just an inconsistency that is tolerated for aesthetic effect. Her misspelt prose is wildly creepy and it might trigger the same primal anxiety with which you react to those spam emails with perilous links.
What Daisy Brown means is only a corner of the overall experience. You can reel off the possible interpretations on your fingertips. Alan might be Daisy’s son. Or her brother. Or her familiar. Or he might be some inept clone of her father, like a cutting from a plant that has not taken very well.
Alternatively, Daisy might be delusional and simply playing with a puppet. In other words, Alan’s vicious abuse could be instead a disguised form of self-harm and a plea for our pity. The last interpretation was once an active possibility, as is evinced in the video “Full Face Alan Makeup Look!” Daisy here labours awkwardly to explain why one of her hands is always concealed behind Alan (“I prefer to hold him like that… I don’t like just sitting him up because… I don’t know how strong his neck is”). By the time of “unexpected growth,” however, Alan has the command of a rudimentary voice, à la the Enfield Poltergeist, and he is moving unaided. As in the famous rule that was set down by M.R. James, the unreliable narrator “loophole” has grown “so narrow as not to be quite practicable.”
There are still sheerer tones in the palette. Repeated references to “Lynk’s disease” are like a secret trapdoor that will lead off the premises and spring you, via a Google search, plumb into the middle of Alan Resnick’s very scary short film This House Has People In It (2016). Lynk’s is a fictional illness that is endemic to Resnik’s film; one sufferer begins to sink face down through a kitchen floor. That Daisy’s monster is named “Alan” and that she has a dream (in “friendship bracelet”) in which a woman disappears through a floor, have convinced some viewers that Daisy Brown is either made outright by Resnick or else a loaded tribute to him.
I can see just as much of an homage to Poppy. There is no open horror to this YouTube channel, which was created in 2011, and whose creator Titanic Sinclair is rather like an Andy Warhol who has gravitated towards videoclips instead of silkscreen prints. Yet it chews constantly upon the cud of everyday internet content. The series is basically an endlessly proliferating selfie, in which anodyne statements and questions issue nonstop from the hologram heroine, without any overarching plot or story development. The parasitic Poppy invades, becomes, and surpasses the thing that she is nominally satirising. Daisy is a would-be spiritual sister to Poppy in her channel’s euphoric, all-too-perfect banality. She shares videos about pot-plants and hash brown recipes and friendship bracelets. Without Alan, her channel would be a surface so bare that it would be impossible to cling on to it.
One might be lulled by this series’ papier-mâché amateurishness into failing to notice the pains that are taken in sequencing its videos. Clips that feature Alan will typically accrue hundreds of thousands of views, whilst “Plant Update!!” and “Zoo video #2” have received just ten thousand apiece. Despite this, Alan is deployed only sparingly and, when he does appear, the payoff has been usually a long time coming. Both “Artistic video” and “unexpected growth” are powerfully shocking and they have huge ratings.
There is nevertheless a firm horror to the videos in which Alan is missing. In the ominous sequence that runs from “Meet Strawberry!!!” to “strawberry is gone,” all of Alan’s actions are off-screen. Part of the horror of Alan’s nonappearances is that we have no means of understanding how he can commit the acts of violence that are ascribed to him. How can a limbless and handless creature pull out “all” of Daisy’s hair? How can this slithering cardboard crust ever catch a cat? The horror emerges from this baffling, dreamlike illogicality.
Elsewhere, there is an unexpectedly sharp horror to the two zoo videos. The camera pans around and settles upon blurred and agitated figures. There is yelling in the background. The paranoia is here picked out with tremendous precision, like a single hair from the bare surface.
But the direst horror of all is humdrum and human. It is the horror of Daisy’s loneliness, the fact that she is trapped in a house with no friends or parents and with only an abuser to love. Such horror is presented in the videos and it is confirmed in the many piteous messages that multiply below them. Those who take a step into this alternative reality soon feel compelled to befriend Daisy and to offer her any support that they can. The keenness of Daisy’s misery tempers the potentially mischievous humour that might have been derived, had the series been produced differently, from the death of Strawberry. The horror of her loneliness is the real monster and, by contrast, Alan’s evil is, in fact, like a small, flapping cardboard toy.
[The YouTuber ReignBot has also profiled Daisy Brown.]