The Creepiest Series On YouTube
The making of “Marble Hornets,” a horror series with over 80 million views
It was a muggy June evening in 2009 and Troy Wagner was bored as hell. The twenty-one-year old film student was home from the University of Alabama for the summer, and he spent much of it trawling the forums of Something Awful from his childhood bedroom. Wagner’s mother implored her son to get a job, but nothing had turned up. Instead, he found himself engrossed by a thread dedicated to creepy Photoshop work on the then-popular comedy site.
Wagner noticed that one particular post from a user named Victor Surge was getting a lot of attention. It featured two black-and-white photographs, each depicting a tall, faceless figure in a suit, its distended, tentacle-like arms resting on the shoulders of children who seemed unaware of his presence. “We didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time,” one of the captions read, citing the photographer as “unknown, presumed dead.”
Wagner’s engagement on this thread would indeed get him a job, albeit a fairly nontraditional one as far as summer jobs go. Within weeks, Wagner would found a film studio to distribute a web series he and a childhood friend created, which quickly and unexpectedly garnered a cult following. Before long it would be well on its way to becoming one of the most successful — not to mention creepy — YouTube series of all time.
What Wagner witnessed on Something Awful that June evening was the birth of Slender Man, the internet horror icon. Today, Slender Man is a regular fixture on Creepypasta and other horror sites, the subject of innumerable fan fiction spinoffs and a feature-length film, and even inspired a few Milwaukee tweens to attempt a brutal murder in 2014. But in 2009, Slender Man’s existence was unknown outside of a small community of web users who took delight in crafting the legend behind this faceless beanstalk of an entity.
As the legend ballooned via text, image, and sound contributions from Something Awful users in the days following Surge’s initial post, Wagner saw an opportunity to put his knowledge of film into practice. So he called his friend and fellow film student Joseph DeLage, whom he had known since sixth grade, and who was also unlikely to be doing anything all that important over the summer.
DeLage came over that same evening and the two aspiring filmmakers whittled away the night by writing scenes they thought would be fun to shoot on a stack of notecards. There was little coherent plot to their ideas, and the only real guiding principle was the outline of the Slender Man myth being sketched in real time on the web. By the end of the night, they had a season’s worth of loosely related material and spent the next few days filming.
On June 20, just ten days after Victor Surge’s original post, Wagner and DeLage uploaded an introduction to their project on YouTube — and “Marble Hornets” was born.
“Marble Hornets” follows the story of Jay (played by Wagner), a twenty-something who has come into possession of a large collection of videotapes previously belonging to his friend Alex Kralie (played by DeLage). Three years prior, Alex had abandoned his student film project Marble Hornets for unknown reasons. He became increasingly reclusive, and before he totally disappeared, Alex gave his tapes to Jay and instructed him to never discuss their content with him.
As Jay begins working his way through Alex’s tapes in an attempt to discover what made his friend abandon his pretentious film project, he starts uploading the footage to YouTube as the short entries that compose “Marble Hornets.” It quickly becomes clear that Alex’s project was being interrupted by an entity known as the Operator — the series’ take on the Slender Man. As Jay probes deeper into Alex’s tapes, the Operator begins haunting Jay, prompting him to set up cameras in his house and uploading this footage as “Marble Hornets” entries as well.
Jay’s YouTube activity eventually draws the attention of totheark, a user who posts cryptic and often threatening responses to Jay’s “Marble Hornets” entries. Totheark functions as both a character in the story and the bridge between “Marble Hornets” as a film and an alternate reality game: each of totheark’s video posts contains a hidden message teasing a forthcoming episode in the series. By the close of the first season of “Marble Hornets,” totheark’s stalking behavior intensifies to the point where he makes an attempt on Jay’s life, Jay has his first run-in with the Operator and Wagner offers his 36,000 subscribers far more questions than answers.
“In the first season there isn’t a whole lot of organization going,” explained Wagner. “[DeLage and I] thought it would be this little thing that maybe a dozen people would see, but once we got to season two we were like ‘Oh crap, we actually have to make a story’ because too many people were watching it.”
By the time “Marble Hornets” concluded in 2014, five years to the day after Wagner and DeLage uploaded their original intro video to YouTube, the series had amassed some 80 million views over 92 episodes, tens of thousands of additional followers, a lively subreddit, and its own feature-length film. The series’ appeal is obvious: it’s a stellar example of the found-footage genre of horror popularized by The Blair Witch Project well over a decade earlier, and builds upon it by adding elements of dream logic and bizarro horror more typical of a Lynch or Cronenberg film.
Even after several viewings, “Marble Hornets” is difficult to watch alone in the dark, a welcome reminder in the age of cheap scares that horror films don’t have to suck. The truly amazing thing about the film is that it was all done on a budget that Wagner estimates to have been about “zero dollars,” which often required the cast and crew to get creative with their special effects, especially when it came to scenes which involved things like lighting a house on fire.
“Joseph [DeLage] and Tim [Sutton, a cast member] were actually living in that house at the time,” recalled Wagner. “It was a real fire and we were very safe about it — or at least as safe as you can be without hiring a pyrotechnic person. We were only going to do one shot with it and use whatever we got.”
The guerilla approach to filming exemplified in this scene largely defines the overall aesthetic of “Marble Hornets,” in which many of the scenes were shot in abandoned buildings without permission and the vast majority of the dialogue is improvised. But this fast and loose approach doesn’t detract from the overall horror of the project — if anything, it adds to it by unintentionally creating vacancies. “People fear the unknown and if you leave a blank for people, they’ll fill it in with the thing that makes them the most uncomfortable or the most scared,” said Wagner. “You will never be able to scare 100 percent of the people with one thing because what’s scary to people is usually pretty subjective. You’ll never be able to make something that is scarier than what is in someone’s head.”
For Wagner, this is largely what makes Slender Man such an accessible horror icon — its featureless face is quite literally a blank slate and allows anyone to project their deepest fears onto it. This also accounts for the innumerable permutations of the Slender Man character on the internet, which are often united by only a few core, ‘canonized’ character traits. And much of the Slender Man cannon, such as the entity’s ability to distort audio/visual outputs and induce ‘slender sickness’ in its victims, was created in “Marble Hornets.”
One of the defining features of “Marble Hornets” is its ability to blend the line between fiction and reality — indeed, the Buzzfeed article that first brought attention to the series was headlined: “Marble Hornets: Real or Hoax?” While the fact-or-fiction element certainly added a layer of suspense to the film, when two twelve-year old girls tried to brutally murder their friend in 2014 in an effort to become ‘proxies’ of the Slender Man, Wagner and his co-creators discovered this blade cut in both directions. According to Wagner, the idea of the Slender Man’s proxies — children who come under the entity’s sway to do its bidding — wasn’t started by “Marble Hornets.” Although proxies play a central role in the film, the idea for this Slender Man character trait actually belongs to Tribe Twelve, another Slender Man inspired web series.
“Looking at the girls’ reasoning for [the stabbing], I could tell that they weren’t really familiar with us,” said Wagner. Still, they received a lot of attention in the aftermath. “Our emails were flooded and people were calling us left and right,” said Wagner. “One of the magazines, I think it was People, actually found Joseph’s grandparents’ phone number and called them looking for him. So we immediately adopted a rule that we would not benefit from this in any way.”
Their refusal to profiteer on some fucked-up real-life events didn’t dampen the impact of the series, which had achieved its own escape velocity. By season 2 of “Marble Hornets,” the series was getting so many views that Wagner and DeLage founded a production company and turned it into a full time job. When it came time to produce the third and final season of the series, Wagner and his co-creators launched a Kickstarter in the hopes of raising $8,000 for materials and a DVD pressing. By the time the Kickstarter was finished, they had raised $72,000.
The popularity of the web series inevitably gained the attention of Hollywood: near the end of the third season, Wagner and DeLage were offered a deal for a feature-length film. In essence, the deal was that the film would take place in the “Marble Hornets” reality, but with different characters. Wagner and DeLage would have minimal creative input (although they did manage to convince director James Moran to cast renowned contortionist/sci-fi actor Doug Jones as the Operator), but were still kept in the loop during the film’s development.
The end result was Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story, released in early 2015. Given the success of the series it was based on, the film was surprisingly but universally trashed by critics. Although Wagner didn’t personally hate the film, he does think it veered a little too far from its original premise.
“I felt like [Always Watching] was very loosely based on ‘Marble Hornets,’ which is what we told them when we got the script,” said Wagner. “People liked the pacing of the web series better because it’s able to have this slow build that an hour-and-a-half movie doesn’t have the luxury of. I don’t think ‘Marble Hornets’ could’ve existed as anything other than a web series.”
After the conclusion of the series, Wagner began working on a spinoff called “Clear Lakes 44” which went on hiatus last April after a series of internal disagreements in Wagner’s production company which resulted in many of the original members leaving. Wagner ended the production of “Clear Lakes 44” before it really had time to establish itself as a series and its relationship to the “Marble Hornets” universe remains unclear.
Many “Marble Hornets” fans were bummed that the follow-up series ended before it really had a chance to start and so far there is little indication that more episodes will be produced. But ultimately that’s probably a good thing. As the dismal failure of Always Watching already demonstrated, “Marble Hornets” is a series that defies imitation and reproduction. It’s a relic from a time when the internet was on the cusp of the total takeover of newsfeeds and karma, yet niche forums were still able to foster a sense of community which could inspire passion projects like “Marble Hornets.” The webscape of 2009 seems almost alien today, but the ability of “Marble Hornets” to horrify its audience remains, our goosebumps serving as a testament to the enduring force of its themes in the information age.
The Slender Man in “Marble Hornets” is a cybernetic horror of technical ambiguity and uncertainty. Its blank face is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, its motives are unclear, its influence is total, and its presence is only discernable in audio static and video distortion — the breakdown of technical function. Like everyone online, Slender Man straddles the analog/digital divide, at once a product of both cyberspace and material culture.
Perhaps this is why Slender Man is such an accessible horror icon. In a time defined by fear and uncertainty about increasingly sophisticated internet technologies like self-driving vehicles, the failure of digital technologies can indeed be deadly. We are driven to digitally record and disseminate the minutiae of our daily lives on Snapchat, as if some coherent explanation for what is happening around us might emerge from the pixels; and in post-Snowden world, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that someone is always watching.
The persistent question in “Marble Hornets” — whether the Operator actually exists — also haunts our day-to-day existence. We are left to wonder whether it is more horrifying to find ourselves at the mercy of a faceless, omnipresent entity who remotely controls every aspect of our lives, or to discover that there is no driver at the wheel to blame for our actions. Ultimately “Marble Hornets” leaves this question for the viewer to resolve, but Wagner and his co-creators seem keenly aware that the only satisfactory response is to just keep telling yourself that everything is fine.
Daniel Oberhaus is from Phoenix, Arizona, which isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. You can find him on Twitter.