Initiated in 2009, the YouTube series Marble Hornets (dir. Troy Wagner) is perhaps the most enthralling iteration of the so-called “found footage” horror subgenre. Unlike previous films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity (2007) and Cloverfield (2008), Wagner’s continuing web series is remarkable for its brazen rejection of slick presentation and lucidity in favour of an amateurish, sub-lo-fi approach. Set in and around Birmingham, Alabama, the story begins with the discovery of a series of unexplained videos shot during the production of the eponymous student film. The narrator explains the film project was aborted, and that its director Alex mysteriously disappeared. Posted sporadically and in semi-random order, the videos gradually convey that Alex was being followed by Slenderman (aka “the Operator”), an unnaturally tall man in an undertaker’s black suit with distended limbs and no discernible facial features. The epitome of the uncanny; a signifier without a signified.
More interesting than the fragmentary plot is the aesthetic that sustains our interest in the recordings through a tactic of partial reveals. To the film-makers’ great credit, Marble Hornets generates desire by refusing satisfaction, anchoring our investment in a scratchy, noise-infused half-visibility. The result is a paradoxical combination of highly formalised plot obfuscation and gritty naturalism, creating an aura that is part Twin Peaks, part Guided By Voices, but at all times a game of “I Spy” in which we endlessly look for something we do not want to see.
At various points in the series, the Operator’s sudden appearance on screen produces discernible distortion on the video and audio track. These glitch-inducing “boo” moments can be understood as a haunting of the digital present by its analogue past, a fact that is underscored by the markedly old-school theatrical make-up effects that define the Operator: a white cotton mask, a proper suit, wooden arm extenders, and possibly a set of stilts. At the level of production, this is an ancient creature, at odds with the culture of CGI and gaming in which he was spawned. Indeed, the omnipresent digital technology that makes Alex’s student film (as well as Wagner’s web series) possible seems at once antithetical and hypersensitive to the Operator’s presence. In this sense, the imperfections we see and hear can be understood as the coughing of digital media – an involuntary allergic response to the musty inertia of an analogue mode of production that refuses to desist.