There is a tipping point half way through the YouTube film, Marble Hornets, when Jay, the everyman protagonist, transitions from the role of passive observer to active participant. He meets with a college student named Tim and interviews him on video in order to ascertain the reasons why a student film went awry and to discover the fate of its director, Alex Kralie, three years after the events took place.
“Speaking of Alex, he did move away after he ended this production—do you know what might have caused him or even where he might have moved to?” Jay asks Tim.
“I didn’t even know he moved away,” Tim says. He begins to tear the edges of his notebook and fiddle with his pen.
“Did you happen to notice anything out of the ordinary, any people that you saw [during production]? Was there anyone that you wouldn’t assume would be in a place like that, like a guy in a business suit?” Jay asks.
“I don’t remember, it was quite awhile ago.” Tim’s fidgeting increases. “There may have been, but I mean, it was several years ago and you’re asking me about a guy in a business suit.” With that said, Tim ends the interview and leaves. He was clearly lying, and Jay knows it. The Marble Hornets mystery is heightened, and we’re all invited to join Jay as he sets out to unravel it.
The first Marble Hornets video was uploaded onto YouTube in June 2009. It’s an innocuous clip: we see a continuous shot peering out from a moving car’s interior, driving down a rural road; there are factory buildings and metal silos in the background. The only sound is a low, ever-present hum, like the rushing of air past a moving vehicle. As the clip plays, white, sans-serif text appears as an introduction. It reads:
“The following clips are raw-footage excerpts from Alex Kralie, a college friend of mine. In 2006, Alex was in the process of shooting his student film, entitled Marble Hornets. Over the three months that this took place, his film crew complained of his increasing levels of stress and irritability.
“Near the end of shooting, Alex halted production indefinitely and dropped the unfinished project. He told me it was due to ‘unworkable conditions’ on his set, which was less than a mile away from his house.
“I asked what he planned to do with the countless number of tapes he had filled: ‘Burn them.’
“Being a film student myself, I hated to see all of his work go to waste. And after some coercing, he agreed to give them to me—under the condition that I never mention it to him again. Soon after, Alex transferred to another school and I haven’t seen him since. At the time, I was too unnerved to look through the tapes, and eventually forgot about them.
“A few days ago, I found them filed away in the back of my closet. After three years and zero contact with Alex, I have decided to look through them. All the tapes are unnumbered and missing timestamps. Other than taking place in the summer of 2006, it is impossible to determine the exact order or date of each.
“Should I find anything in any of them, I will upload it to keep as a permanent record.”
And thus, Jay’s adventure begins in this “alternative reality” scenario. For all intensive purposes, the clips uploaded onto YouTube are real. Jay is who he claims to be, and his goal is not a hoax. We’ve seen this before: The Blair Witch Project popularized this form of low-budget moviemaking. And, for added affect, the Sci-Fi Channel successfully promoted the film’s realism with its special, Curse of the Blair Witch, which ran repeatedly throughout the summer of 1999 leading up to the film’s theatrical release.
Recently carrying the torch was Paranormal Activity in 2009, which is scheduled to release a sequel in the fall of 2010. And don’t forget about the lesser-known Alien Abduction: Incident at Lake County, a television special that aired on UPN in January 1998. There are three commonalities that relate these movies: they’re low-budget, marketed as fact instead of fiction, and are frightening in their unadorned realism.
Marble Hornets not only pays respectful homage to its predecessors (whether wittingly or not), but it ultimately surpasses them. Over the course of a year, from June 2009 to April 2010, a total of 29 clips have been uploaded onto the YouTube channel entitled “MarbleHornets.” These clips, referred to as “entries,” update Jay’s progress as he makes his way through Alex’s tape collection.
As the monologue states, the namesake of Marble Hornets was to be a harmless student film. But during production, Alex loses his ability to focus on the project. He suffers from mood swings and snaps without a moment’s notice. Paranoia and insomnia take hold. It’s apparent that something is troubling Alex, but the culprit is a mystery. All we ever see is a tall, slim figure dressed in a black suit.
SPOILER DISCLAIMER: From this point foreword, there are potential spoilers for all those who have not first watched the Marble Hornets entries on YouTube.
The first 14 entries uploaded onto Jay’s permanent YouTube record are salvaged from the countless hours of production footage of Alex’s Marble Hornets student film. Buried in the clips are abnormal disturbances: distorted audio, video tearing, and mysterious appearances from an unidentifiable man.
Of these 14 entries, they can be divided into two categories: clips pertaining to the Marble Hornets production and clips that seemingly have nothing to do with the film at all. Of the former, there are several clips that show Alex interacting with his cast, crew, and sets. These are innocent enough—Marble Hornets as a student film is bland and insipid, telling the story of a college student returning home to a town that he has outgrown. But Jay’s interest in the clips is due to certain disturbances. The audio randomly cuts in and out with ear-rending squelches. The video tears and jumps. Is it a problem with the equipment or something else?
As for the videos that appear to have nothing to do with the Marble Hornets film: something is clearly troubling Alex that he wants to document on film. As early as Entry #1, we are shown a 48-second clip: Alex’s shaky camera peers out a window into his dark front yard; there is no audio. And just as the entry is almost over, the camera pans right and reveals a mysterious man standing outside the front door. The camera then drops and cuts to black.
The featureless man in the black suit quickly turns into a central figure in the Marble Hornets saga. Entry #2 documents Alex’s first encounter with him: he was walking his dog at night along the road near one of the exterior sets for his film when he spots the man standing in the middle of the street. The dog was unnerved, making Alex nervous, so he turned around for home. But he couldn’t stay away, and the entry unfolds with him driving back to where the man was. He’s gone, but the idea has been planted.
Who is the featureless man in the black suit?
The Slender Man
In February 2006, a user called “Victor Surge” created two eerie photos for the Something Awful forums. The pictures featured a creature called the “Slender Man,” an apparition with the hybrid appearance of the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth and the Strangers from Dark City. The two black-and-white photos feature children, one set in a playground and the other on a hike, and in the background of both looms the Slender Man.
The entity quickly turned into a meme, and a ragtag mythos soon took shape around it. Web lore states that the Slender Man commonly haunts heavily wooded areas, and when he does appear in the open it’s to be interpreted as a forecast of woe. His beginnings are unknown: some claim he’s a ghost while others believe him to be of alien origins. He’s capable of extending his arms like elastic in order to ensnare his victims, and it’s believed that he hides within his suit inspect-like limbs that he can walk on, much like Spider-Man’s octopus-inspired enemy. Some say that he can manipulate time and space as well as distort the minds of his human pawns.
The Slender Man of Marble Hornets borrows from the Internet’s collective imagination while expanding it, too. It seems that the presence of a video camera invokes the Slender Man, as he’s not caught on camera, but rather appears specifically for it. To the best of my knowledge, the Slender Man appears in 11 of the 29 entries, often as a subtle haunt that left me asking myself again and again: “Exactly how do the creators do it?”
The most impressive appearance of the Slender Man is both the most revealing and the easiest to miss. In Entry #25, Jay watches a newscast on a hotel television set of a burning apartment building. In the foreground are a reporter, police cars, and a fire engine. At one point, the camera focuses on the burned-out, third-floor apartment. Our eyes are attracted to the apartment window while the Slender Man freely stalks towards the front entrance of the building, swatting the door off its hinges effortlessly; as the camera zooms out, his figure melts into the shadows of the entrance. It’s a simple, subtle special effect that demonstrates the raw talent possessed by the Marble Hornets creators.
Through their efforts, the Slender Man lives.
Behind the Mask
Three years passed before Jay began cataloguing his permanent record of events. All memories of the Marble Hornets student film have mysteriously faded—including his own. But he’s not deterred, and he begins asking questions. He wanders around abandoned houses, scours old film sets, and attempts to track down all those who were involved with the film. This tipping point shifts Marble Hornets from passivity to activity. It’s no longer a peek-a-boo game with the paranormal, but rather a spooky detective procedural with Jay trying to piece the Slender Man’s puzzle together.
Standing in his way is Totheark (pronounced To-thee-ark), an anonymous man hiding behind a white mask that resembles the face of the gray alien archetype popularized by The X-Files. He first appears to Jay during one of his searches for Alex in his now-abandoned college home. He’s hostile, attacking Jay and knocking him unconscious, only to leave him in his car where he wakes up the next morning.
From this point forward, Totheark becomes an active character in the Marble Hornets reality. He stalks Jay just as the Slender Man stalked Alex. And like Jay, Totheark maintains a YouTube account; he’s been uploading cryptic videos in response to Jay’s own YouTube activities almost as soon as he began—long before Jay met the villain face-to-face. We can only assume Totheark’s motives, but it’s apparent that he’s a proxy for the Slender Man.
The Next Chapter
Marble Hornets was first brought to my attention by a friend who regularly reads the Brian Bendis Jinx World message boards. There he found a thread that discussed the video clips, specifically touting the sheer fear factor of them. It’s true; as I watched the unfolding entries of Marble Hornets, I was reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of surprise versus suspense: When there is a bomb under a table and it goes off, it’s a surprise. When there’s a bomb under a table and it doesn’t go off, it’s suspense. Marble Hornets is packed with a lot of surprises, but it’s packed with even more suspense.
The entire project is a labor of love, because the creators couldn’t have made a profit from it. Yet, they pushed forward. The resulting movie is one of the most coherent, frightening, and imaginative experiences of horror I’ve had in a very long time. The plot is careful and crafty, which is far more than I can say for most of the big-budget Hollywood flicks I’ve seen in recent years. The current remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street is a perfect example.
To demonstrate my point, consider this fact: Jay is just white text imposed on a black background for most of Marble Hornets. These bare messages bookend every entry, and only a few times does Jay break the barrier. How foolish would it have been if Jay was simply a kid talking to the camera? It wouldn’t have worked because no viewer would have taken the clips seriously. Rather, the plain messages used act as a blank canvas for the audience to project its own thoughts and feelings about the unfolding plot while still being guided by a narrator.
But the ultimate triumph of Marble Hornets is its unfiltered content. The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity were both show in movie theaters around the world. Alien Abduction: Incident at Lake County aired on television across the country. But Marble Hornets is purely a phenomenon of YouTube, accessible to anyone who is interested. There’s no marketing campaign behind it. There’s no organized media hype. It’s simply floating around the Web, waiting to be discovered and experienced. If the entirety The Ring film was edited away and all that remained were the contents of the cursed videotape and the urban-legend mythos that accompanied it, that’s what Marble Hornets is—only better. Much better.
Entry #26 was uploaded on 18 April 2010, and it’s been the last one since. It’s also the most shocking and eerie of them all. I won’t say what happens, but it convinces Jay that he must locate Alex and solve the mystery surrounding the Slender Man once and for all. I don’t believe Marble Hornets has finished, but rather a chapter has ended, and another is about to begin. It’s unthinkable that the creators have done everything they want to do. All that stands in their way are the obligations of real life. But I hope they can find the time and resources to begin the next chapter of this saga. This is a tale demanding resolution.
That’s, of course, if the Slender Man will allow it.
This essay originally appeared on Broken Frontier.