A feature by Joey Nolfi
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi
Originally Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Web series “Marble Hornets” has given big-budget gloss a run for its money.
Grainy, amateur video filmed by “real” people under the guise of documenting a “real” event — horrifying subjects ranging from the extraterrestrial to the paranormal — has been taking over since “The Blair Witch Project” first horrified audiences 12 years ago. You know what to expect from these kinds of movies by now, right?
Troy Wagner and Joseph DeLage, creators of the popular and downright terrifying YouTube series are trying to change that.
In 2009, Mr. Wagner and Mr. DeLage began production on “Marble Hornets,” a Web-based horror series that combines the handheld gimmick of “Quarantine” and “Trollhunter” with the same mysterious storytelling techniques that made “Lost” an international hit.
That “Blair Witch” verite style has grown into an overused phenomenon. It was a novelty in 1999. But, the “shaky cam” gimmick was ultimately an expert scare tactic contributing to the film’s freakish effect. It was good at harnessing audience trust in its authenticity but different from the way audiences were used to seeing a narrative unfold.
“The Blair Witch Project” was a massive hit, making back its production budget, a mere $60,000, almost 4,200 times over in worldwide box office receipts. A revitalization of studios distributing smaller independent productions surfaced.
Without the film that exposed the world to infamous snot-and-tears confessionals, a tongue and teeth wrapped in a handkerchief and a grown man standing in a corner, indie-turned-blockbuster hits like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” never may have found studio-backed distribution. And what would the romantic comedy genre be today without its highest grossing picture of all time?
While verite-style films such as “Cloverfield” and “Paranormal Activity” exploded onto screens around the world after “The Blair Witch Project,” two friends set out with a meager budget, a standard recreational camera and a great idea.
“I see this as a giant experiment that got entirely out of hand. At first it was a thing to keep us busy during the summer,” Mr. Wagner said, fumbling for words and looking to Mr. DeLage to describe the series. “It ballooned into this big phenomenon. … Well, it’s not that big … you want to help me out here?”
The project’s complexity baffles even its creators.
The story revolves around a young man, Jay (Mr. Wagner), trying to uncover the circumstances surrounding the mysterious disappearance of his friend Alex (Mr. DeLage), who’d been working on a student film until he abandoned the project for mysterious reasons. Jay posts archived videos from Alex’s collection on the YouTube account “MarbleHornets” (search the username on the site for the channel) as he comes across them. Sometimes he posts on a weekly basis. Other “entries,” as they’re called, have appeared months apart to coincide with events in the narrative. What Jay uncovers, though, is a tangled web of paranormal occurrences, masked antagonists and terrifying appearances from a mythical creature known affectionately by fans as the Slender Man.
Unlike other studio-backed productions, the Alabama duo’s homespun filmmaking style epitomizes true independent spirit.
“Our budget was 100 percent out of pocket when we first started out,” Mr. DeLage said. “We had no advertising revenue, so we had a budget of maybe $500 for the first 26 videos.”
The first video passed the 1 million mark in total viewership, with subsequent entries garnering just as many.
That’s quite an accomplishment for two University of Alabama students who hold down part-time jobs, attend classes, maintain a social life, and produce one of the biggest Internet hits this side of Ray William Johnson. They’ve achieved a fair amount of Internet fame as actors in the series, and they’re recognized at work or in class as being “from the Internet.”
“Marble Hornets” poses thought-provoking storytelling combined with visceral thrills that set it apart from its competition.
But “Marble Hornets” is still very much a product of the digital age. Its creators say the idea was fostered on a message board where users would create myths surrounding various paranormal/mythical creatures. One in particular, the Slender Man, piqued their interest.
“For whatever reason, I can’t explain, everyone on the forum gravitated toward that one character,” Mr. Wagner said. “I decided to build a narrative video of this. I wrote a quick story up and posted the whole introduction all in text on the thread, I called Joseph, and we decided to make a video.”
Aside from the idea of the Slender Man, the project came out of an ease of access to a media outlet that didn’t require studio backing.
“I think things like Netflix and YouTube are definitely the next final frontier,” Mr. Wagner said. “Assuming the Internet doesn’t become so expensive that no one can afford it, it’s very exciting what it could do and what it’s becoming.”
“Until they can digitally imprint shows on your brain, the Internet has changed everything,” Mr. DeLage concurred, “That is the only direction the media can go into. We’re never going to see anything that really challenges something that can provide what Netflix or YouTube can. Everything else just seems like a step backward.”
While “Marble Hornets” has found a faithful YouTube audience (nearly 100,000 subscribers have viewed each of the 46 entries almost 19 million times), its creators say they’ve been approached by production studios interested in the project. But, they say that the series wouldn’t function as well as a 90-minute film.
“Even though once it’s said and done, [“Marble Hornets”] is about the same length as a movie,” Mr. Wagner said. “But it’s like making a comparison between a movie and a TV show. When you watch a movie you kind of have this unspoken rule that if the movie goes over two hours long it has to be good. In a [series] season, once all said and done, it’s 12 hours. You have much more character development and story arc than a movie at the same time. Each entry is to be its own kind of standalone thing.”
While the thought of a television deal is appealing to them, both say that they are content with continuing to please fans online. While television may provide a much bigger platform, their creative control would significantly decrease. With “Marble Hornets,” Mr. Wagner and Mr. DeLage have placed their work on display and allowed the audience to gravitate to them. It’s even gotten the attention of Roger Ebert, who has called the series “remarkably well done.”
“We were in total shock and awe,” Mr. DeLage said. “We couldn’t really accept that a guy who’s that hard to impress was impressed with what we were doing.”
While “Marble Hornets” — in its second season — has maintained a large following, its creators say they foresee its end after a third season. Although the series may come to a close, its creators will work on other projects.
“I couldn’t even tell you how many Google documents full of ideas we’ve come up with,” Mr. DeLage said. “We consider ourselves more comic than formatic, ‘Marble Hornets’ just happens to be our first foray into serious anything. A lot of our proposed projects aren’t thriller mysteries, but they’re not just silliness either.”
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi