When Troy Wagner and Joseph Delage first uploaded Entry #1 onto their Youtube Channel back in June of 2009, they couldn’t possibly have imagined the impact that their no-budget Slender-Man inspired web-series would have on internet culture. Now, nearly four years after a fulfilling yet bittersweet finale that left many fans in shock, not to mention a couple of less-than-satisfying spiritual successors, Troy has announced a follow-up comic-book series that might finally appease fans of the legendary Marble Hornets. With a studio-backed Slender-Man film also on the horizon, I figured that maybe it’s time for us to look back and reflect on the web-series which helped popularize Alternate Reality Games and the internet’s favorite monster.
After years of parodies and over-exposure, Slender-Man might seem like a hokey digital bogeyman, but he used to terrify internet users back when he was a lesser-known online folk tale mostly relegated to underground image forums. While the faceless character was created by Eric Knudsen (also known as Victor Surge) for a photoshop contest on the Something Awful Forums, the story soon spread to every corner of the internet, and the so-called “mythology” behind Slender-Man has been expanding ever since.
The flexibility of the source material combined with the believability of this internet legend made Slender-Man a prime target for online storytellers like Wagner and Delage. Drawing inspiration from The Blair Witch Project and even Mark Danielewski’s excellent House of Leaves, the group that would eventually become known as the now-defunct THAC (Troy Has a Camera) produced a complex and interwoven online narrative that is now remembered as one of the best ARGs that the internet has to offer.
Focusing on a young man named Jay (played by Troy Wagner), the story revolved around his investigation of a failed student film directed by his friend Alex Kralie (Joseph DeLage), who entrusts Jay with a collection of tapes from the unfinished production before disappearing. As Jay reviews the tapes, he soon finds himself entangled in a supernatural conspiracy involving an otherworldly entity known only as the Operator, and turns to Youtube in order to record his horrific experiences.
The series was roughly organized into three seasons over the span of 5 years, plus a plethora of complimentary videos that antagonized our main characters while also providing clever puzzles for fans to unravel in order to further the plot. As the story progressed, Jay’s search for the truth eventually turned into a mind-boggling fight for survival, with encounters with the faceless Operator and his minions (known as Proxies) growing more frequent and even more dangerous.
Combining pertinent online fears with clever storytelling gimmicks and solid direction, Marble Hornets provided us with some of the best Found-Footage moments since the original Blair Witch, with each season improving upon the last. However, while the story and scares were delightfully well-crafted, immersion and realism were the series’ greatest strengths. You honestly felt like you were a part of some vast conspiracy while watching these videos and following the complementary social media accounts, despite the low production quality. At their best, characters usually felt like real people reaching out for help online instead of just actors playing a part, making this one of the most dramatic (and human) examples of found-footage. An abundance of copycat series would eventually emerge, but most of them lacked this crucial element of believability that made Marble Hornets stand out in the first place.
Of course, the low budget nature of the show resulted in quite a bit of criticism, as some of the series’ most memorable moments are undermined by amateurish performances and less-than-stellar special effects. The storyline also stumbles with its own obtuseness at times, though much of this can be attributed to the interactive nature of the plot. Ultimately, having the audience try to work together with the protagonists in order to figure out what the hell was really going on was both a blessing and a curse. Nevertheless, considering the independent nature of the production, most of these missteps are forgivable, though they are still a blemish on an otherwise admirable show.
Roughly a year after the series ended, a spin-off film entitled Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story was quietly released, facing criticism from both fans and general moviegoers alike. While marketed as an adaptation of the web series, the film was, in fact, a self-contained story that took place in the same universe, though it didn’t do much with the extensive mythology that the series had accumulated by that point. Overall, most people found the film to be yet another unimpressive found-footage flick, without any of the scares, charm or plausibility that made the original series such a success.
More recently, we’ve seen the rise and fall of Clear Lakes 44 and ECKVA, which were meant to be spiritual successors to the original show. Nevertheless, the disbanding of the THAC team and lack of viewer interest resulted in the canceling of Clear Lakes, and ECKVA is still miles away from achieving the notoriety of the original show. While neither of these shows were outright failures, they weren’t exactly on the same level as Marble Hornets.
While the choice of format is questionable, hopefully, the new comics will be able to connect with fans in a way that other spin-offs haven’t, capturing that elusive urban legend feel while still having relatable main characters and a complex plot, though it’s a bit early to make any meaningful predictions. It wasn’t necessarily Slender-Man that made Marble Hornets popular, but the engaging narrative and the simple yet effective filmmaking behind it. Viewers were left thinking that this insane tale looked and felt just real enough that it could be true, which is something that both the copycats and spin-offs lacked. There’s a reason why some of Marble Hornets’ early entries went viral as internet goers began sharing the videos as real-life footage of Slender-Man.
In the end, the whole point of both found-footage and ARGs, in general, is to bring the viewer closer to the media they’re consuming, providing certain stories with a greater impact than they might have had if presented in any other way. The legend of Slender-Man is a natural fit for this kind of storytelling, as the entity is nothing more than a terrifying representation of meme culture (which is something that I really hope is addressed by Sylvain White’s new film). However, the same principle can apply to any scary story attempting to connect with viewers on a more intimate level, especially on the internet.
We may yet see a new found-footage influenced phenomenon that takes the internet by storm, inspiring memes and online urban legends, but Marble Hornets will forever be remembered as a landmark in online entertainment, and proof that great ideas can often overcome a lack of budget or even experience. It may have its flaws, but this is one chilling online adventure that I’d recommend to any horror fan. After all the Operator is always just a few short clicks away.