Slender Man, Marble Hornets and The True Horror of Modern Storytelling
The bizarre stabbing of a 12 year old girl by two other classmates in Waukesha, Wisconsin, motivated, claim the alleged offenders, by an attempt to make a sacrifice for the “Slender Man,” has the world and the web in a frenzy, and has focused the spotlight on an enigmatic meme. Slender Man is part of a new paradigm in old world storytelling, and since its benign beginnings as a fictitious creation on the fantasy site Something Awful in 2009, has launched a viral creation that melds urban legend with modern filmmaking, and literally taken on a life of its own.
The Something Awful website was originally created back in 1999 when interactive content and electronic “reach” were in their infancy. Back then it was simply a forum for satire, pranking and critiques of politics, entertainment and journalism. Jump forward 10 years and user Eric Knudsen under the name “Victor Surge” photo-shopped some cryptic images of groups of children with an unnaturally tall, thin spectral “man” in a suit with long arms and a blank, featureless face, and created a fable of this soul stealing character to go along with him. This supernatural entity captured the imagination of fantasy enthusiasts the world over. Fan fiction and group sourced mythology took over, as users continued to create and expand sightings, stories and stills of Slender Man. But the original creator, and most of those who have added to the conversation understood all along that Slender Man was complete fiction.
But not everyone got it.
It’s surprising to realize that the “original” Slender Man, a little viral ad campaign and film that paved the way for cross platform promotion called The Blair Witch Project (1999) happened before these troubled 12 year olds were even born. But it’s important to realize that the stewardship of that campaign was shrewdly handled by a PR and marketing firm. The big question Blair Witch asked, “is this material real ‘found footage’ or is this an ingenious marketing tool,” captured the imagination like no film had yet. Today, however, with technical capabilities in the hands of consumers, such a well-navigated and planned campaign has gone in directions no one could’ve predicted, save for Marshall McLuhan, who said so many years ago; “The medium is the message.”
Since Slender Man’s creation, a group of young filmmakers have taken this web-grown mythology and applied it to a wisely conceived “film series” called Marble Hornets. The concept is simple, the execution problematic, but the viral reach is massive. A young man named “Jay” inherits thousands of hours of video footage from his friend “Alex” who abandons a student film (entitled Marble Hornets) after something causes him to have a nervous breakdown. Jay starts going through the footage and assembles what he’s found into short strings, some as short as 30 seconds, others as long as 10 minutes, each titled as an entry number, and posted on YouTube. In the beginning, Jay discovers images that are unsettlingly similar to the Slender Man, and as Jay continues “curating” the footage, learns that Alex had begun obsessively video taping every moment of his life, hoping to capture this figure on tape. As the story progresses, it’s clear Alex’s soul has been captured by “The Operator” (their name for the Slender Man) and greater science fiction/paranoia and fantasy elements come into play.
The lo-tech series is already beginning its fourth season having released over 90 “entries.” It’s clear that The Blair Witch Project was Marble Hornet’s inspiration, using the POV and found footage angle, combined with introductions and type written explanation throughout to offer up a patchwork narrative.
The results, in the beginning somewhat engaging, soon devolve into nerd-style fantasy explorations, revealing some very high school style acting and too many false moments that mire the project in a film school “earnestness.” Still and all, the ability of the filmmakers to grab hold of this consumer/producer zeitgeist and create a stir beyond their abilities is what makes such a compelling narrative. They’ve become celebrated guests of fan sites, comic-con, and other web spin-offs. They are savvy taste makers, hardly attempting, as the Blair Witch producers did, to try and uphold a level of authenticity. And, as usual, Hollywood has followed in the rear by tapping the filmmakers to produce a feature film, using this mythology as its basis.
But what happens now? The potential for monetization of this series beyond the film is mostly exhausted, and will bring in only a small percentage of the amount that could’ve been initially sourced. Will the entertainment industry ever be able to catch up to this ever morphing and changing model?
Also of note, is the ability of consumers to become effective producers. Much like ancient storytellers huddled around the fire, spinning yarns of the supernatural, the computer age has allowed us again to return to this most primal form of expression. And as we add the disturbing crime perpetrated by these misguided children, is that becoming another element in the narrative? Will this entirely fictional creation take on a layer of gravitas, given these recent developments?
It remains to be seen, for as murky and unpredictable as this saga continues to unfold, how can the “media,” now playing catch-up, ever truly become trailblazing again, when so many elements diffuse the initial concept? Could McLuhan ever have fully conceived how far the medium would meld with the message? How pervasive will the medium influence our behavior? Without any measuring stick, isn’t that the most horrifying development of all?
Watch the Marble Hornets Series