Just mentioning the name Slender Man sends a chill up the spines of a particular generation. This scary creepypasta began in 2009, and since then, Slender Man lore has grown and mutated thanks to the myth’s crowdsourced origins. One of the most important pieces of Slender Man mythology is Marble Hornets, a documentary - or perhaps a mockumentary - that provides much of the basis for what we know about Slender Man.
Marble Hornets ran as a series of videos on YouTube from 2009 to 2014. It follows the story of Jay, a guy in his mid-20s who comes to possess an extensive collection of videotapes previously owned by his friend Alex. Three years prior, Alex was working on a student film, Marble Hornets, but abandoned the project and began filming himself every hour of the day instead. He then disappeared, and the tapes ended up with Jay. The series follows Jay as he watches the videos and attempts to solve the mystery of why Alex disappeared. When he sees something stirring within the footage, he too begins to film himself.
So what is Marble Hornets? We’ll attempt to explain the series with the history of its creation, and how it's morphed, grown, and taken on new life thanks to its rabid (and terrified) fanbase.
Slender Man's origins lie in a post on the Something Awful forums by Eric Knudsen from 2009. It consisted of two digitally altered pictures of children with a distorted-looking skinny man in a suit in the background. From there, the crowdsourced digital myth began to grow.
It didn't even have a name at the time. It started off as a Photoshop this guy did, and people latched onto it pretty quickly. I saw that other people were taking their own spin on it - new Photoshops, adding audio, stuff like that... I decided to throw my hat in the ring.
Marble Hornets went into production shortly after the original post. Wagner thought the videos would be something to keep him busy during the summer, but then the mysterious footage went viral. When Wagner and friends Joseph DeLage and Tim Sutton released Marble Hornets, Slender Man lacked accepted mythology, so the trio did whatever they wanted with the character they dubbed "The Operator."
Wagner gave The Operator Slender Man's basic physical traits - he's tall, has a blank face, and wears a suit - and added a series of strange powers. The Operator can warp time and distort digital devices, two character traits adopted by the larger Slender Man community.
Marble Hornets uses nonlinear storytelling to play with the audience's perception of what's happening. The videos released out of order and none of the clips last longer than 13 minutes, condensing the story down to its most necessary elements and making the horror more immediate.
Initially, Wagner and his team didn't have a story; they just played around with the Slender Man mythos and made creepy videos. But when they started accumulating more viewers, the production team realized they needed to make the series worth the audience's time. Wagner told The Awl:
In the first season, there isn't a whole lot of organization going. [The team 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.'
The concept of a web series that blurs the lines between fact and fiction wasn't entirely new in 2009. But Marble Hornets features a cinéma vérité style that further muddies the distinction between reality and fantasy. The producers created a new video format through their creative choices, not to mention they lacked money for effects or production value.
The lack of music, meanwhile, made the footage feel authentic, and the lo-fi aesthetic called to mind The Blair Witch Project, but with an immediacy that hooked online viewers. Series co-creator Tim Sutton told The Daily Dot that disabling comments on their YouTube page also served as a key creative decision:
Our initial fanbase was, let’s just say, a little rough around the edges... Even though we weren’t going for a full-on story in season one, we were going for a certain atmosphere, which sounds a little more pretentious than I meant it to. But we didn’t want people to have that messed up for them by reading something in the comments section.
Together, the first two episodes of Marble Hornets ("Introduction" and "Entry #1") last no longer than three minutes. In that brief time, Wagner and his crew tell the audience exactly what's happening, then deliver their first look at "The Operator" - the Slender Man character.
They filmed "Introduction" while driving to the store to pick up supplies for storyboarding the series. That night, they recorded the first "entry," a video that shows The Operator watching a man through his window. The group started uploading the videos the next day.
Wagner credits the lack of story around Slender Man with his group's ability to do something as simple as film their car ride and turn it into part of a horror series. He told The Daily Dot:
It didn't have a lot of attributes or properties at the time. It was really its own enigmatic thing. So we just added our own take on what it was and made it our own.