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[The following contains spoilers.]

Daisy Brown and Ash Vlogs are two experimental YouTube channels. If you experience them passively then they are only fictional vlogs, but if you take a more active approach then you can claim to be participating in an “Alternative Reality Game” (ARG). By this August, both of their stories had ostensibly concluded, though Ash Vlogs has recently given signs of getting going again.

Nobody could mistake Daisy Brown for being a real vlog. The young protagonist lives in a secluded house, without any family or apparent income, and with no company aside from a “monster” called Alan. Curtis, Daisy’s missing father and a crusading geneticist, is generally held responsible for unleashing Alan upon the world. Within the story, Alan is initially an infant who is mute, helpless, and encrusted with gruesome sores. Over on our side of the screen, it is clear to us that he is a handheld papier-mâché puppet, the sort of device that you are more used to seeing in operation on children’s television.

The horror roosts in the gap between the warmth and fun that we normally expect from this puppetry and the bitter psychological realism of Daisy’s story. The monster grows up into a functioning humanoid and he acquires a snarling voice that plagues Daisy with recriminations. Her faltering self-confidence duly takes a deep drop.

One cannot tell whether this channel is a year-long project that was elaborately mapped out from the get-go; or whether its story has instead come together bit by bit, rather as a bird, with a vague shape in its head, will assemble the perfect structure out of chance twigs. There is a persistent suspicion amongst viewers of Daisy Brown that the surrealist Alan Resneck is the creative force behind this channel. Daisy Brown is studded with references to Resneck’s 2016 short film, This House Has People In It and his earlier YouTube series alantutorial (2011-14). The latter, a parody of popular online tutorial videos, had spiralled increasingly out of control, with its presenter becoming ever more incoherent and distressed. There is an evident affinity between Daisy Brown and alantutorial: Daisy is vexed that her viewers flock to see her monster rather than to watch her contentless content about repotting plants and manufacturing friendship bracelets; the tutorialmaker is oblivious to the reality that his viewers have likewise come to marvel at a freakish monster called Alan and not to consume his useless advice.

One doubts that there are actually two minds in circulation that could have separately devised alantutorial and Daisy Brown. Nevertheless, many viewers are clearly itching to attribute the creation of the second series to the anonymous actress who plays Daisy. Admittedly, alantutorial is doggedly unsentimental whereas there is something tender and therapeutic to Daisy’s recruitment of a growing online support community. Her fans are happy to leave dry land and swim about in the fiction. They offer her advice, sympathy, and votive crayon drawings. I am not convinced that Resneck, a gnarly satirist of modern life, would have been interested in exploring this redemptive side of online culture.

Fortuitously, just as the story of Alan the monster was being told, a wave of similar stories was breaking massively across the day-to-day media about numerous other shadowy and manipulative abusers. Alan was suddenly pertinent – he had become a #MeToo monster. Yet the channel avoids the smallness of point-scoring or of waving a particular coloured flag due to the breadth of its symbolism. Sure, we have the vivid portrait of an abused woman, but #MeToo sounds faintly inaccurate because there has never been another woman in history who has been abused quite as Daisy has. Alan at once resembles a tottering patriarch and a destructive, rampaging child who has turned on his carer. He is rather like all imaginable abuse made incarnate. He is such a figurative and literal muddle of monstrousness that it is impossible for us to tell whether he is uglier inside or out.

In Daisy’s penultimate video “the basement,” her camera rolls over an assortment of unremarkable pots and containers, the kind of items that come to populate any spare household space. This channel thrives on the oddity of Daisy making a fact-finding documentary inside her own home. Maybe all of us should try this: what would we discover about our own lives, about the things that we see every day and yet fail to read and recognise? Daisy finally uncovers a nursery of leftover monsters in her basement. One of them, Lithop, speaks for a whole history of domestic abuse victims and prisoners with her amazement that, “I’ve been living in the basement my whole life. I didn’t even know there was an outside world.”

Lithop is a being of angelic benevolence and her arrival imposes a pleasing equilibrium upon the story. It also raises some uncomfortable questions. Daisy had cared for Alan as a full-time job, doting on him and pouring all of her love into him, and he consequently turned out to be a tyrant. Lithop was abandoned in the basement and starved of attention (she is named after a desert plant), and she is as lovely as Alan is hideous. Is love nothing more than the literal spoiling of its recipients?

Final Video,” supposedly the last in the series, might not end with Alan being dead enough for our liking. His head is not cut off and impaled on a stick. His body is not burned. He has spurted out a torrent of blue-green paint – probably the nearest that he has to inner beauty – but this might not entail the anatomical equivalent of human death. Daisy runs away from the empty house presumably out of a fear that the monster will recover. Whether she is at last free of the past, or merely homeless, will depend on where you judge the balance to lie.

I can picture her in years to come, living in a gypsy caravan and showing off Lithop to visitors if they cross her palm with silver. Occasionally, truanting, saucer-eyed children from some nearby village will gather around her campfire to hear the story of how she had once used to live with a bogeyman. Her tale will culminate thrillingly with that blow and the splattering of teal blood. Uneasily, the children will shiver and laugh with relief. As I picture it, this story is somehow not told on screens.

***

Ash Vlogs is an Australian channel that was launched in the April of this year. It is less obviously fictional than Daisy Brown but it is still fairly fantastical. YouTube is basically television for ugly people and I think that even today the beautiful model who fronts Ash Vlogs would be employed in cinema or television before resorting to a vlog. The weakness for a pretty girl is this channel’s ultimate giveaway.

Ash is a girl-next-door and she is living out a life of invincible normality. She has a boring job in telemarketing whilst drawing cartoons and making music in her spare time. She has friends who she hangs out with. Ash’s life, at least as it is carefully exhibited in her vlog, is cheery and unreally sterile, like a kitchen interior in a bleach advertisement. Her Barbie doll personality has been modernised a little, with a knowledge of indie music and some constantly running self-depreciation added to make her more relatable. She is always remarking nervously about how unoriginal her content is (e.g. “What the internet really needs is more unboxing videos….”) Meanwhile, the sinister gradually encroaches.

A man is sitting outside Ash’s apartment in a car in the middle of the night, watching her for hours. Unlisted videos below Ash’s regular entries provide little glimpses from the eyes of this stalker. And our own window into Ash’s bedroom is reflected in the presence of a neighbour who can hear her every movement through the tenement’s “toilet paper thin” walls. Ash is thus surrounded by eyes and ears. Finally, the stalker swoops and Ash is bundled chaotically off our screens.

Ash Vlogs can be interpreted as a speculative enhancing of the extraordinary phenomena that were experienced by the YouTuber Marina Joyce in 2016. A nineteen-year-old from North London, Joyce was an earlier and slightly stiffer model of the YouTubing Barbie doll, except that she was a real person. She ran the typical zero-content, six-hundred-thousand-subscribers channel, which had proffered the same advice about cosmetics, dating, and teen life that you could procure from any alert young woman. Yet in accordance with the postulation “horror vacui,” or “Nature abhors nothingness,” Marina’s army of viewers had begun to stir restlessly.

A strange, largely inaudible voice could be heard muttering “help me” in one of her videos and a gun could be seen in the background of another. Beady-eyed viewers also spotted ominous bruises on one of her arms. These inconsequential grounds for suspicion would quickly morph and balloon into something near to mass hysteria. Proliferating users of Twitter and Reddit were soon swapping theories about whether Marina was being held captive or mixed up in drugs. The hysteria culminated in police officers visiting her house to check up on her.

Ironically, these videos were meant to be a format in which the beauty vlogger was always in perfect control, but they had instead unravelled into escalating interpretive mayhem. The horror of losing control of a setting in which you supposedly operate every switch and button is the very same power source that lies behind Daisy Brown and Ash Vlogs.

Both channels place an irreconcilable paradox before us. They purport to be an individual’s intimate diary and at the same time they are being curated by an external controlling intelligence. Logically, somebody other than Daisy must be programming secret messages into her subtitles, but we simply factor this out of her story in order to make it function. Another submerged agent must be dropping unlisted videos on Ash Vlogs and judiciously selecting a John Cooper Clark poem as the soundtrack for the panicky climax.

The unsettling implication is that the users of YouTube are never in control, even when their home is the studio and they are in complete command of the recording equipment. In these two channels, the normal paranoia of social media users that they are being exploited by advertisers and data-mining bots has received expression in an anthropomorphised and openly sinister curatorial force.

An alternative reading of “c2f.exe,” the climatic Ash Vlogs entry, sets Ash at an unexpected tangent. For a long time, the terror has been bearing down on Ash, but it is actually Al, one of Ash’s decorative friends, who is pitched into the centre of the vortex. It is Al’s phone that rings prior to the stalker’s attack and it is Al who ends up being encircled, between the headlights of the invading car and the figure of Ash, who seems almost to be swaying with laughter. There is just a touch of corrosive ambiguity here. Has Ash been all the time luring her friend into a trap – is Ash merely an avatar?

***

The viewers of Daisy Brown can choose their level of immersion in the story and the amount of time that they wish to invest in it. They can simply watch the videos, with that being that, or they can instead puzzle over every unsourced line in the subtitles and chase up Daisy on Twitter. Over at Ash Vlogs, you can similarly pick between layers of the game. Presumably, there was once a microscopic elite of viewers who had originally encountered the vlog in the wild, rather like gold panners enjoying the peace of a valley before the rush arrives. Many more will have hopped clean over Ash Vlogs and watched the twenty-minute precis on the ReignBot horror channel, which cuts out a world of work.

Lately, a new video has appeared on Ash Vlogs. It shows her brother (incidentally, a suspect in her disappearance) being stalked on the subway, whilst the accompanying unlisted video treats us to what looks like the mock execution of a hooded man (the brother is a candidate here as well). A concession is being made with this update that Ash might be rescuable. She has been swallowed by a whale but, like Jonah, she might be stowed safely away inside.

It is unclear whether Ash Vlogs had paused in August or whether its action had been instead transferred to another, far more mainstream YouTube channel called RackaRacka. An outfit that specialises in hugely enjoyable slapstick and wrestling sequences, RackaRacka is the brainchild of Danny and Michael Philippou, twins who are also based in Ash’s city of Adelaide. In a series of videos, the guys get tangled up in Ash Vlogs after their sister appears to be targeted by the same spooky criminals who had stalked Ash. RackaRacka consequently attend a terrifying appointment with somebody who claims to be Ash, in Kuitpo Forest, in the dead of night. In addition, they investigate an abandoned farm and they brush up against the criminals on Skype.

The most frightening thing about RackaRacka’s foray into horror is that one of their videos is sponsored by EduBirdie, an academic fraud service for students who can’t write their own essays (“if you wanna cheat, that’s the way to do it.”) If the increasingly pitiful sponsorship deals on RackaRacka advertise anything, it is the desolation that YouTube now inflicts upon risk-taking channels by stripping them of commercials.

The acting in RackaRacka’s investigation is sub-par and there is a general air of staginess to its handily episodic progress. For all of their eager codebreaking and coordinate-cracking, the twins continue to refer to Ash as if she was a real person, when a quick internet search can bring up the actress’s CV. There is an important element of danger that is missing from RackaRacka’s investigation as well. It is currently up in the air whether Ash is alive or dead because her fictional status makes it feasible for her to be killed. RackaRacka, on the other hand, cannot practicably lose anybody along the way, so their adventure has the blunter edge.

RackaRacka could be voluntarily keeping Ash’s seat warm. Maybe they have discovered and pounced upon Ash’s story as an opportunity to create some fresh content of their own. Even so, a video by Ash about a future “collaboration” with an unspecified YouTuber looks planted and it is rather too coordinated with RackaRacka’s later involvement in the story.

It could be that there is a single consciousness in the background that is herding around all of the story’s components, rather than a spontaneous collaboration amongst different storytellers. But what is so innovative here is the pooling of the story between more than one channel and contributors on other platforms such as Reddit. It is exciting to see where this narrative will pop up next. Is it actually a real game, with it being possible for those who get deep enough into it to locate the whereabouts of the missing girl? And, if so, what means will the story deploy to satisfy our fervour for a solution?

Daisy Brown and Ash Vlogs both feel like they are at a frontier of storytelling. They are small-scale and low-budget without being amateurish; they are far-reaching without possessing the familiar resourcefulness of mainstream television. If we leave aside viral advertising campaigns, then David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) has been no doubt the most widespread ARG, in using codes and multiple media to draw together a community of viewers. As though correcting itself, however, this series appears to satirise codebreaking, with its hilariously infuriating ending and its insistence that the hero Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) seeks the truth intuitively, by throwing rocks at bottles. Will Twin Peaks be the supreme ARG – the most voluminous squirt out of the genre’s bottle – or is there a YouTuber out there who is at this moment hatching something even bigger and more ground-breaking?

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