Slenderverse: Marble Hornets

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If you’ve been active on the Internet for longer than twenty minutes, you’ve likely come across Slenderman by now. A creation of Victor Surge, Slenderman has spread rapidly through the Internet like wildfire.

For the uninitiated, Slenderman is a monster. A Lovecraftian horror, Slenderman (or Slendy, as fans have been known to call him– but NEVER call him “Slender,” or the nerds will find you) takes the basic shape of a very tall, very thin humanoid. Varying adaptations depict him with some differences– for instance, some include tentacles, some don’t– but two things are always the same. First, he has no face– where one would be, there is just a white blank void. Second, he wears a suit. Or, as some say, it looks like a suit, but is actually his skin? It’s not really certain. It doesn’t matter, because Slenderman is freakin’ horrifying.

What makes him scary isn’t what he does; it’s what he doesn’t do. Most of the adaptations depict Slenderman as a stalking presence. He follows you. You look behind you, he’s there– watching. Eternal, unknowable, Slendy follows his chosen victims for years before doing anything– if he does anything at all. Sometimes his prey will eventually lose their sanity. Sometimes that will drive them to suicide. Sometimes, in some of the stories, Slendy will kill them himself, though it’s not really clear how he accomplishes this.

Anyway, the Internet took this character and has basically run with it. Adaptations of Slenderman are innumerable. Seriously, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a Slenderverse (as it is collectively known) blog or vlog.

But Marble Hornets was the first. Less than two weeks after Victor Surge made the first post about Slenderman, the very first video on the Marble Hornets Youtube channel was uploaded.

And man, did people have no idea what they were getting into.

The basic plot is this:

The story’s protagonist, Jay, had a friend in college named Alex. Alex was working on a big project (I assumed it was something akin to his thesis), a movie he had named “Marble Hornets.” Halfway through production, Alex, agitated for reasons unknown, decided to quit. Jay, who had helped with the project, didn’t want to see all of the work the two of them had done go to waste, convinced Alex to hand over the tapes, with the intent to finish what they had started. Jay promptly forgot all about the tapes, and moved on his with his life.

Three years later (2009), Jay came across the bag of tapes. On a whim, he decided to go through them and upload the contents to YouTube “to keep as a permanent record.” The tapes were unnumbered and undated, so it was slow going and difficult to determine where each scene was supposed to go. But Jay decided to give it a shot anyway, and started pushing through them. It wasn’t long before he noticed something odd.

After finding this snippet, Jay finds others. One after another, he finds video evidence of this strange, faceless man. Eventually, he finds footage of Alex, clearly paranoid and beginning to fray at the edges of his psyche. He had begun filming himself, complaining of memory gaps. Jay begins experiencing memory loss as well, and starts recording himself too. When he reaches the end of the tapes Alex had originally given him, Jay becomes determined to find his old friend and figure out what happened to him. Soon enough, another YouTube channel shows up, named ToTheArk, which begins posting videos clearly directed toward Jay, offering both clues and threats. Jay, undaunted, chronicles his investigation through the Marble Hornets channel, and continues his search for answers.

Review:

You cannot talk about Slenderverse series without mentioning Marble Hornets, which is why I’m covering this series first. The fact of the matter is that most of the mythos got their ideas– the found footage format with competing YouTube channels to the powers and abilities of Slenderman himself (which include teleportation, memory wiping and electronic interference)– from Marble Hornets. In essence, without Marble Hornets, there might not be a Slenderverse today.

Warning: There will be some spoilers in this review. I try to keep it as clean as possible, and I won’t reveal details, but there might be some plot spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

Good:

There is a lot of good things about the series itself in terms of story. It nails what is likely the most important thing for most stories: the characters. First, we have Jay, our intrepid lead protagonist. This strange young man grows on you, and quickly at that, because he is truly an everyman. He starts as just a dude looking for his friend, and looking for answers. He makes horrible decisions from time to time– at one point, he investigates an abandoned house in the middle of the night, leading to one of the best jump scares I’ve ever seen– but that’s one of the things I love about Jay: he won’t be stopped, not even by his own mistakes. Time and time again, he makes boneheaded moves that make the viewer cringe, but he picks himself up and keeps on going.

Then we have our other protagonist: Tim. Tim is in the background of the first “season” of Marble Hornets (from the Introduction to Entry #26), more of his backstory is revealed in season two (Entry #27 to Entry #52), and he takes on full-protagonist status in season three. Tim is a far more complex character than Jay, for a lot of reasons: he is the LEAST reliable narrator I’ve ever seen or heard about. He withholds information from Jay (and, by extension, us) for the entirety of the series and he even straight up lies about his past. To make matters even worse, he has been exposed to the Operator (that’s Slenderman; Marble Hornets is careful to never actually say “Slenderman” in the entire series, likely to avoid potential copyright issues) and therefore suffers from severe memory loss. There are gaps in his recollection that are massive— and we can’t even be sure that he’s telling the truth about not remembering. At the end of the series, the question of whether or not Tim is trustworthy is still lingering, and I friggin’ love it. 

And then there’s Alex, the whole reason Jay is wrapped up in things. Alex is something of a mystery for most of the series. In seasons one and two, we have very little idea as to what he is doing. Remember, he’s missing for season one, and Jay still doesn’t know where he is at the start of season two. The only information we had available at the time was years old at first, and months old after that. As the story progresses, however, and as ToTheArk (more on him later) gets more and more specific with his veiled references, a clearer, more sinister image of Alex comes into focus. I cannot go into more detail without spoiling quite literally the entire series, so instead I’ll ask you to just trust me; there is a hell of a lot more to Alex Kralie than meets the eye.

The last of the human characters I’ll bring up is Hoody. Why is he called Hoody? Because you don’t know who he is. Seriously, you don’t. He’s just a guy in a hoody and ski mask for the vast majority of the series. Hoody’s identity is one of the last things to be revealed. So what do we know about him until then? Hardly anything. His motives are unclear and vaguely sinister. He follows Jay around even more often than the Operator does, he steals Tim’s medication (albeit because they seem to reduce the effects of the Operator and not because they produce a nice, mellow high), and generally manipulates the events around him towards his own ends. Sometimes it seems like he’s helping Jay and Tim out; he even returns Jay’s missing camera to him. Other times (like when he wails on Tim with a wrench) it’s pretty clear that he’s not interested in making friends. Hoody is a complex and manic character of clear insanity, and every time he appeared on camera, I wondered what he was going to do next, to whom he would do it, and how it would end up benefiting him. Honestly, he might be the best part of the series.

Finally, there’s the Operator himself. You know when I said that Hoody had unclear motives? That Alex was something of a mystery? Forget I said all of that. Forget all of it. The Operator is the one who is actually Unknowable. He is a Lovecraftian Eldritch Horror, and trying to comprehend such a being is impossible. You don’t know what he wants. You don’t know what he’s doing. You don’t know where he came from. The only thing that you know is that he’s there, and at any moment he can blink you out of existence. He shows up when you least expect it– remember, he can teleport– and wipes your memory. Not just of a few minutes, either– he can (and does) remove months of your life. He can transport you to a freakin’ netherworld, where everything is weird and gray and distorted. People begin to cough up blood when they’re around him for too long. But again, that’s not what makes him scary. He’s scary because you have no clue what he’ll do next. Or, sometimes, what he did before. Half of the scenes in Marble Hornets are scary because you think the Operator might be around the corner. He’s a permanent fixture in the series, and is defined, more often than not, by his absence.

There are other characters in the series, but these are the most significant ones. I can probably go on for another ten pages about these characters, but I’d be entering spoiler territory.

You know what else is important for a horror series? Setting and atmosphere, and man did the creators manage to do that well. Season One has an abandoned two-story house, which Jay traverses at night multiple times. The house isn’t overly large, and doesn’t have creepy fixtures or gargoyles. You know what it does have? Overturned furniture. Quiet, innocuous neglect. Bloodstains in the sink. Blankets and a bottle of water in a small closet on the first floor, so it looks like a little nest– for what or who is left unclear. The lights don’t work, and so Jay searches the place with a tiny flashlight. Unknown antagonists could lurk anywhere, just out of sight, and– what’s that? Did I hear some scuffling off-camera? Jesus-get-me-out-of-here! The house is perfect, because the whole time Jay is there, you are begging him to leave. Just, you know– just go. Turn around and walk out. The door isn’t locked! You opened it to get in. Go.

But he won’t. Because he’s Jay. So instead you have to watch, your teeth on edge, the hair on the back of your neck sticking up, certain– certain– that the Operator is standing just out of frame. But he makes it, and he’s fine, except for a bit of a coughing fit. Until, you know, this is uploaded onto ToTheArk’s Channel.

That means that yes, you were right to think that someone was there with him.

The implications of this– basically, straight video evidence that Jay is being followed, and clearly by something sinister– resonate throughout the rest of the series. Every new location carries this thought in the back of your head after this: “what is happening off-camera?”

That is one of the strengths of the found footage series: the camera exists in-universe. That means that there must be a justification for the camera to be there. While it limits what can be done visually, it also means that the viewer must take into account what isn’t directly in front of them.

Season two gives us a much deeper look into an area visited only a couple of times in the first season: Rosswood Park. Basically, Jay traipses around in the woods a whole lot. Half of the time he’s there during the day, which, you know, isn’t all that scary in and of itself. It manages to keep the creepy in effect through dialogue between Jay and… well, no spoilers here. Basically, Jay follows someone into the woods he really shouldn’t. And you know he shouldn’t. The two of them are isolated, and the woods are pretty much completely silent. You hear their footsteps, and then one of them tells a weirdly out of place story for no apparent reason other than being creepy. The whole time they’re walking, again, you’re waiting for the Operator to make an appearance and scare the hell out of you. And Jay keeps going back there. He’s certain that he’s going to find answers, and his dogged search takes him to…

The tunnel. Oh, God, the freakin’ tunnel. 

It’s this weird water pipe just smack dab in the middle of the woods and nothing good happens there. It’s creepy, it’s ominous, it’s dark, and you’re pretty damn sure that whatever Jay is looking for is on the other side of it. Jay follows his quarry to this place, and the Operator makes one of its most memorable appearances there. It’s where suspicions are confirmed, and it’s where you can be certain Jay will have to return. And he does. Multiple times.

In season three, Jay’s quest for answers takes him to an abandoned hospital. I’m pretty sure that the creators weren’t allowed to film there (I seem to recall an out-of-game remark about cops showing up during a shoot from one of them), but dang was it worth it. Most of the shots there took place during the day, which was a nice change of pace– there’s only so many pitch-black investigations that I can possibly believe Jay would go on. Some of the uploads concerning the hospital are actually recovered video footage from tapes Jay found of the original film shoot– you know, the one that started everything. They provide some much-needed answers as to what actually happened during that period. But don’t think it’s just about answers, because there are some really good scares that take place there too.

That’s one of the things that makes this series so good: you’re never safe. There is no place that you can hide from all of the antagonists, who seem to show up wherever and whenever they feel like it. One of them is a supernatural stalking eldritch horror that can teleport and apparently bend time– what on earth would make you think you could hide from that?

That’s what I mean by “atmosphere.” The settings and locations almost don’t matter– don’t get me wrong, a good place to shoot is always important for a visual medium. The point is that anywhere that feels isolated would have been fine, because the atmosphere is what sells the creep factor. Everywhere the protagonists go, they are pursued. Any place they might hide, they can be found.

That is what makes Jay’s character seem more logical: he’s figured that out. He’s realized that the only way out is to charge farther in, and nothing is going to stop him from that.

Mixed:

Okay, so there is a lot of really good stuff in this series. Some of it is kind of a mixed bag.

First, there are the special effects. These are what make the ToTheArk channel so effectively creepy. Every video– and they’re short ones, too– is a distorted pile of nightmare fuel. From weird, stretched and modulated audio (some of it playing backwards), to codes hidden in frames of distortion, to absolutely terrifying visual bending. There are even a few examples of stop-motion effects that are just wonderful. (I’m talking about that baby. That creepy baby doll. Good God, that thing gave me nightmares. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch the series). I don’t recall a single ToTheArk upload that didn’t make me want to turn on the lights for the rest of the night.

The Operator is… less consistent. I mean that literally; the creators added him to entries using different methods. In Season One, he was always played by a man in a suit (they haven’t revealed exactly how they made him look so tall and Slenderman-like, but I bet you stilts are involved). The Operator moved around while onscreen, and was even seen walking. After Season Two, I don’t recall any specific instance that included the Operator moving at all– he just stands there. Which is fine, because that can be scary too. But some of the Operator appearances pretty obviously didn’t include an actor. They appeared to have been edited in in post-production– though some of those shots couldn’t have been done by an actor or stand-in, because the timing would be impossible. That’s fine– as long as the Operator still looks like the Operator. There are a couple of scenes that wound up just looking too weird for me to take really seriously.

That said, the vast majority looked good, and some looked truly gasp-inducing and terrifying.

Finally, in terms of effects, there is the thing that Marble Hornets might be best known for: distortion.

You see, the Operator appears to have an effect on audio and visual devices in his vicinity. Just by being there, cameras and microphones are nearly useless. Within the universe of the series, all of the footage is recorded originally on MiniDV tapes. I used to make movies with my friends all the time, and I used a MiniDV camera.

They are a nightmare to keep perfect. If there is a speck of dust anywhere near the heads, expect visual tears. Some of the cameras I used even had a weird issue where you could actually hear the tape spinning in its deck as you recorded; I had to get a shotgun mic just to avoid that. So in-universe, I know for a fact that the distortion is justified, just by the nature of how the protagonists recorded the footage.

The Operator takes it to a new level of frustration. Instead of a couple of visual tears, how about color desaturation? How about randomly blurring the images? How about recording things that the camera wasn’t even present for? Seriously, some of the footage contains frames from tapes that Jay hadn’t even seen yet, hidden in the visual distortion. It was a really cool device that added a level of creepiness to the series in general, and to a bunch of entries in particular.

The audio distortion yields more mixed results. Maybe it’s because it isn’t something that can be seen, but I found the majority of it to be merely distracting and off-putting. Some of the effects are just the audio track being pitched down, some of them are just modulating and stretching or playing backwards. What drove me nuts were the sudden and unexpected cases of attempted ear-assault. A scene will be going along just fine, and, without warning, there will be a high-pitched screech that cuts right through your ear canal and makes a home in your brain.

It lives there now.

Most of those cases, in my opinion, were to facilitate a relatively cheap jump scare. And I get it! I really do; you can’t have a horror series without jump scares, and with no sound track, they had to come up with another way to cue your hearing. But surely there was another way to make that happen; surely it could have been done without making me partially deaf.

Maybe it’s because I have ears the size of satellite dishes and can’t wear headphones without them actually hurting (and no, ear buds do not work with me; they fall out constantly). But, in all honesty, you can’t really watch this series in the middle of the night with computer speakers. You will wake people up. Headphones you may be able to get away with, but I would warn you that these audio screeches are unexpected, and are somewhat frequent, so be careful.

I probably wouldn’t mind it so much if it wasn’t so out of sync with the rest of the volume of the series. If I turn it up enough to hear the dialogue clearly, the distortion will hit me hard. This will likely be filed under “Personal Preference,” because some people probably like it. I’m not one of them.

Let’s move from effects to plot.

Overall, I love the story. When you watch the entire series straight, it flows really well. When you watched it as it was being produced, though, it caused some serious weirdness. There were sometimes long gaps between entries; some lasted for months. I started watching while they were midway through the second season, somewhere around Entry #45. And let me tell you, some of those wait times were torturous. They were usually pretty good about not leaving cliffhangers, but damn, was it frustrating.

But these are guys who are producing a web series, for free, using virtually no budget, while working regular jobs and going to college. It can be difficult, and mostly the fanbase was understanding.

What upset (SOME) people is how many questions are unanswered.

Season One is pretty clearly shot without much of a grand plan. They wanted to make some cool videos, and they did that. Then, I think, something unexpected happened: it got pretty damn popular. People cared about the story, and they wanted more. When the first season ended and they went on a long hiatus, they hammered out the plan for the rest of the series, which is the right way to do things. Basically, they started taking things seriously.

But, in between the beginning of the project and the details being laid out for the rest of the series, a couple of plot lines were introduced that had to be abandoned. Hell, a couple of characters are practically retconned out of existence. Sarah is basically removed from the series, and I don’t think she’s mentioned after season one. And… well, we can’t forget about the most obvious example: Skully.

Skully is the fanbase’s name for a character in one shot of Entry #26– the final entry of Season One. It appears to be a man wearing a skull mask. He showed up in an entry that was pretty obviously provided by ToTheArk.

Speculation ran wild. This had changed everything! How many people were involved in ToTheArk? Could it be an organization whose mission it was to defeat the Operator? What was their interest in Jay? Why were they apparently stalking Alex?

Most importantly: who is Skully?!

On the fan forums, Skully was brought up pretty regularly, despite never being mentioned in the series again. People were certain that he would show up and somehow be important to the plot.

They were disappointed.

This is, as I said, a pretty obvious example. There are a lot– I mean a lot— of questions that remain at the conclusion of the series. I don’t want to go into spoilers, but I don’t really have a choice if I want to make this point. Skip the following paragraph if you want to remain unspoiled.

What is the Ark– you know, the one that ToTheArk mentions a whole bunch of times? How was Hoody able to get to so many of the places he went? What are Tim’s pills, and how do they help counteract the Operator’s effects? How did Alex manage to live for years free of the Operator? Why did the Operator seem to attach to Tim in the first place? Why is Rosswood the place where the Operator seems to hang out the most? For that matter, how come Rosswood seems to have some alien geometry effect?

Most of these questions won’t make any sense unless you’ve watched the series; this is a deliberate attempt to keep the review as spoiler-free as possible.

Anyway, these are just some of the questions that I still have at the end of a series I watched for a couple of years.

I don’t mind that. It doesn’t bother me when a series doesn’t spell every little detail out for me. And the fact is that this series was always more mystery than horror– at least, for me– and so of course there are going to be loose ends. Add in the fact that it’s a found footage series, and you have the exact recipe for unanswered questions. We don’t know anything more than Jay– or whoever is holding the camera– does at any given moment. There aren’t any fancy perspective shifts that will show us the villain detailing his plans to his subordinates. There’s just a dude with a camera, pointing it at things and hoping for the best.

That seems to be lost on some people. And I get it! I do. People like answers. They like it when their theories are proven true or false. And some people are going to naturally be disappointed when they don’t have the confirmation they crave.

That is the reason why I placed the plot under “Mixed” and not “Good.” Personally, I think it’s excellent. I have rarely been as entertained by twists and turns as I was when I watched this for the first time. And at the end of it all, I was perfectly satisfied with having some– hell, even most– of my questions remaining. Some will disagree, and will insist that the series should have included a final infodump to wrap up all of the loose ends. I’m not one of those people.

Bad:

I can nitpick some things here. There are some entries that felt rushed. There are some ToTheArk uploads that were lackluster. Some of the acting wasn’t perfect. But, honestly, nothing about this series strikes me as bad.

Except the audio screeches. Screw those audio screeches.

Conclusion:

Marble Hornets is well worth your time. Don’t read about it on TV Tropes, and stay off forums like Unfiction before you watch it. Stay as unspoiled as you can, because some of the reveals are outstanding.

I started watching this series, as I mentioned earlier, about midway through Season Two. I found it while browsing the web for Slenderman stuff, and had never read or seen anything about it.

It was late, and I was working at my old AT&T store. Back then, you basically worked all day on your own. The store didn’t have any customers, and I found this series, and I started to watch it.

And I was terrified. I really can’t express to you how unnerved I was at the time. Maybe it was because it was so dark outside, or maybe because there were a series of dark and empty rooms behind me, but I was unsettled enough that it took me a little while to work up the courage to run to my car when it was time to close (the parking lot didn’t really have streetlights, and it was virtually empty).

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up– with the lights on, thank you very much– watching more of it. I couldn’t help myself. And I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting the Operator to be standing there, watching me. Waiting.

After I was caught up, I stayed with the series through its end. And, really, I can’t give a series a higher compliment than that. I have no trouble giving up on something that doesn’t hold my interest; I have a shelf of unfinished video games I’ll likely never bother to play again. The same with books. Hell, I gave up on “Boardwalk Empire” a couple of seasons ago. But Marble Hornets kept me engaged.

I give the series at least four out of five stars. Watch it! Watch it while you’re alone. While you’re vulnerable. Late at night. And don’t tell your friends or family what you’re doing. Experience it. See if you can find your fear. I know I did.

Here is the link to the Marble Hornets YouTube Page

Here is the link to the ToTheArk Youtube Page

Here is a link to a playlist that combines both channels and has everything in released order

And finally,

This is the link to the creators’ website and store

 

 

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