This is the sixth part of a journey through Marble Hornets, a YouTube-based horror mystery series. You can find the introductory post here.
Last time, we wrapped up season one, followed Jay into the red tower, the abandoned house and the mysterious basement, and discovered that Alex is alive — or was, two weeks ago. This week, I’m going to take a look at season one as a whole.
We must first concede that Marble Hornets changed enormously over the course of the first season. The difference between the first and twenty-sixth entries is enormous, in almost every way: style, ambition, production values, writing, performance. What began as a series of simple jump-scares evolved into a complicated tale of corruption, paranoia and mystery. That was a brave decision; the series had already attracted some favorable attention (and I don’t mean from the Operator) and no-one would have blamed them for maintaining the tight, claustrophobic tone that they’d established so beautifully from the very first entry. The first turning point was Entry #5, which relaxed the dark atmosphere of the earlier scenes; the second was the emergence of ToTheArk, which layered in a new narrative voice and cryptic complexity; the third was Entry #15 and Tim’s interview, which shifted the focus from Alex to Jay; the fourth is Entry #25, when Jay’s apartment is burned and the consequences — whether direct or indirect — of the Operator’s influence become more apparent in the real world. Each transition turned the story into something more ambitious, and raised the emotional stakes for the viewer; we care about Alex’s story, sure, but those events were already three years in the past, and we know that he survives to give the tapes to Jay. When Jay steps up as our protagonist, we’re already on his side; more importantly, we don’t know what’s going to happen next; then, when his apartment is burned and his life turned inside-out, we feel the real consequences of this investigation. It’s great storytelling, and while I have no idea how much of it was planned in advance, it all hangs together beautifully.
Now that we’ve reached the end of season one, and we’re looking forward to seven months without an update from Jay, it might be a good idea to arrange our entries into a rough chronology. This is by no means definitive, and there are many alternative theories, but here goes:
2006 (The Marble Hornets film era)
Jay and Alex are location scouting for Marble Hornets. There’s no real reason that this should be our first entry, other than the fact that it acts as an effective introduction to several of the locations we’ll see later, as well as Jay and Alex’s friendship. As I noted above, Entry #5 is the first tonal shift in the series, and our first introduction to the broader world of Marble Hornets; for that reason as much as any other, it works as an excellent starting point.
Jay, Alex and Tim are filming while the Operator lurks outside the window; the effects of the Operator’s presence are subtle, and Alex seems entirely unaffected. Placing this entry so early in the chronology is a fairly controversial decision on my part, but we’ve seen that prolonged exposure to the Operator leads to certain symptoms that Tim exhibits in Entry #20, and to a lesser degree in #17. Alex, meanwhile, shows none of the paranoia or irritability that will later lead to the end of the Marble Hornets production. This does suggest, of course, that Tim may have been haunted by the Operator before Alex became involved; I’ll talk a little about the deeper ramifications of that thought in due course.
Jay, Alex and Tim are filming behind-the-scenes material at Brian’s house. Tim’s condition has worsened since Entry #17, presumably because of the Operator’s influence. As in #17, Alex seems unaffected; he is, if anything, more charming and avuncular in this entry than in any other.
The Marble Hornets crew are blocking a shot while the Operator watches. Is this Alex’s first encounter with the Operator? Possibly; if it is, then it’s strange that he doesn’t mention the similarity of the tall man he saw in the park when he goes in search of a similar figure in Entry #2. If it isn’t, then it’s strange that he doesn’t seem at least a little disturbed by the second appearance of this tall figure. It’s also debatable whether anyone else can see the Operator during this video. I’m inclined to believe — particularly when we consider ToTheArk’s observation that “THERE WAS MORE” in the subsequent Impurity video — that this was first contact between Alex and the Operator.
Alex saw a tall man while walking his dog, and returns to the spot to investigate. As mentioned above, it’s possible that the event depicted in Entry #2 predates the scene in #12; I think it more likely that Alex’s memories of #12 are incomplete or blurry, if not absent entirely; that incomplete recollection may account for his strange decision to drive out in the middle of the night to look for a tall man.
Alex wanders around a playground, apparently looking for the Operator. It’s possible that event follows on directly from Entry #2, since Alex mentions in #2 that his tape is running out. Perhaps he switched tapes, found the park nearby, and caught a glimpse of the Operator there. It is certainly true that we are in Alex’s curious, investigative phase right now; that will change soon enough.
Jay and Alex are location scouting again, this time at an old, abandoned swimming pool. It seems likely that these events occurred shortly after Alex’s search in #4; he still seems to be curious about the Operator, and seems to be actively searching for him. It’s possible that he knew the Operator would be present at the abandoned swimming pool, although it’s equally possible that he sent Jay back to retrieve the battery without an ulterior motive, and just happened to run into the Operator while Jay was absent.
Jay notes that most of the tapes he received from Alex are not related to Marble Hornets. The footage in Entry #3 is taken from a number of different tapes, so it’s difficult to find an appropriate space in the chronology for them, but there are three main components: Alex filming himself, his papers, and wandering in the forest, which suggests that he is obsessed with the Operator, but not yet terrified of him.
Alex is in the woods at night, catches a glimpse of the Operator, and runs. This is the entry that marks Alex’s transition from curiosity to fear. It has been suggested that this is a continuation of Entry #4, but that doesn’t account for the footage being split across multiple tapes, particularly if we assume that #4 followed on from #2.
Alex, Brian and Sarah are rehearsing a scene in a car, only for the Operator to appear in the adjacent alley. If Entry #10 hasn’t already indicated that Alex is now afraid of the Operator, Entry #7 is definitive. He is clearly unsettled by the appearance of the tall figure. The only reason that I place this entry after Entry #10 is that the Alex we see in the car with Brian — edgy, rattled, clearly aware of the Operator’s presence — would be unlikely to go out into the woods at night.
Where we began; Alex turns out the light, goes downstairs, and peers through the window to see the Operator standing on his porch. By this time, Alex is clearly terrified of the Operator. His curiosity seems to have vanished, and he now seems to be recording more consistently, although the cut at the beginning of the footage suggests that he is not yet filming himself compulsively.
The Operator lurks outside Alex’s house. This seems to be a direct continuation of the events of Entry #1.
Alex is sketching with charcoal. This is the first clear look that we have at his drawings, although it’s possible that he had been drawing during Entry #3. His relationship with the Operator has now transformed entirely; he is consumed by it, seems to be filming himself constantly now, and once again turns out the light to hide.
Alex in bed with the sketches on the wall. He wakes, explores his house, and returns to bed, only for a shadow to pass across the wall. It is possible that this entry is a continuation of Entry #8, but Alex’s compulsive filming suggests that he is under siege for quite some time, so that isn’t necessarily the case. This entry comes after Entry #8 for two narrative reasons: the drawings have already been introduced and are now expanded, and Alex’s fear has already been established, and is now shown to be valid, because the Operator can apparently enter his house at will.
The Operator enters Alex’s room at night. This is a continuation — narratively, if not chronologically — of Entry #8 and Entry #11; it forms a three-beat with the fear of the Operator in Entry #8, a glimpse and a shadow in Entry #11, and now a full view and a perplexing question in Entry #14. We are witnessing Alex’s descent into ever-greater madness and paranoia.
The contentious Marble Hornets shoot at the gazebo. Where this entry falls in the chronology is largely dependent on how well Alex is able to conceal his problems. Given his behavior in Entry #7, he seems unwilling to reveal that there is a problem at all, so the scale of his irritability in this scene seems to indicate that his facade has cracked, and that things are about to fall apart. Also, Seth’s presence in this scene — and conspicuous absence from most of the season — suggests that he was a late-comer to Alex’s film crew.
Alex and Seth investigate the mysterious basement, something takes Seth, and Alex delivers his final farewell to camera. It seems clear that this is the last video from Alex’s time-frame, and the events here seem to support Entry #9’s place so late in the chronology; no matter what “gone” means in the context of Alex’s monologue, it seems unlikely that the film project would continue once members of the crew began to disappear, which suggests that the final phase of these events unfolded rapidly.
2009-2010 (Jay investigates the tapes)
Since assuming that Jay re-ordered the chronology of the second half of the season would require an enormous re-appraisal of his role in the story, let’s accept that events transpired as they were depicted:
Jay interviews Tim.
Jay visits Brian’s house for the first time.
Jay returns to Brian’s house, and is attacked by the masked man.
Jay reveals that he has been recording himself compulsively, that the masked man shows up in his apartment, and that he has disappeared — or been taken — from his bed.
Jay goes over the things that he took from the house in Entry #16.
Jay goes to the red tower and retrieves the tape seen in Entry #22.
Jay returns to the house for the third time, somehow teleports into the mysterious basement from Entry #22, and encounters the Operator.
Jay’s home movies show him (apparently) teleporting through doorways and vanishing from his home for several hours.
Jay films a news report showing his apartment burning down.
Jay receives the mysterious tape, which shows modern-day Alex, his girlfriend Amy, and the return of the Operator.
Phew. So, let’s review: it seems as though Tim was the first to feel the Operator’s influence, although that may be wrong in a number of different ways. We do know that Alex became aware of the Operator, and was first driven by curiosity; later as his attention was reciprocated, he became uneasy and then afraid. He began filming himself compulsively, but it accomplished nothing; the Operator grew ever closer, until we reached some kind of breaking point, and everyone was “gone”. Three years later, Jay reviews the tapes, and attracts the attention both of ToTheArk — who we’ll get to in a moment — and the Operator, who we see with Jay in Return, and who Jay actually encounters in Entry #23. Jay flees, having decided that enough is enough, and his apartment is a fiery full-stop at the end of the story — except that Alex is still alive, and the Operator has found him. Jay has no choice but to find Alex, and discover the truth.
One of the more significant possibilities is that Alex was indeed the first to encounter the Operator, and Tim’s illness is a later symptom of the Operator’s presence. This suggests that the sequence of events we see in the entries is actually significantly compressed; Tim has at least enough time to develop symptoms, see his doctor, get medication, and take it for a period of time before we get to Entry #20. This also suggests either that Alex is capable of disguising the full extent of his paranoia from his friends, or that his paranoia is a later development, one which emerges after he has already been in contact with the Operator — and the Operator has been in contact with the rest of the Marble Hornets crew and cast — for quite some time.
Either of these is possible — and there are a number of other possibilities, which are left as an exercise for the reader — but, for me, the first is more convincing. We know that these events took place over the summer of 2006, and that Marble Hornets was a student film. That suggests that the entire Marble Hornets production was scheduled to take three months. At some point, Alex abandoned it and left it unfinished, which means that we’re really dealing with a time-frame of less than three months, possibly much less. If Tim was already sick when the series began — and if, as we have speculated, his illness really is a consequence of exposure to the Operator — then we don’t need to jam quite so much story into what could conceivably be a six-week period. If everyone is hale and hearty before the series begins, then we have a long way to go from Alex and Jay location scouting, to Tim being sick, to Seth’s disappearance in the mysterious basement, and we have to cover all that ground in a limited period of time.
There’s also the matter of the gazebo scene in Entry #9. Compare it with Entry #20; if #9 comes first, then Alex’s irritability and paranoia (remember the mention of the tapes, which implies constant filming) has completely abated — or is completely disguised — by the time we get to #20. If, on the other hand, #20 comes first, then Tim’s irritability is entirely consistent, Alex’s mood has grown much darker, and the only (peripheral) inconsistency is that Tim doesn’t seem to be sick. Perhaps his medication is effective, perhaps his illness comes and goes, or perhaps its absence indicates that the Operator has switched his attention from Tim to Alex.
At this point, we can’t come to a definitive conclusion. If you disagree with anything I’ve written, please leave your thoughts in the comments!
Moving on. There are a number of mysteries in Marble Hornets, some of which are striking and some of which are subtle. In the first season, however, there are three central mysteries, and now seems as good a time as any to take a look at each of them in turn.
The first of these mysteries is the cryptic and elusive ToTheArk. He plays a fascinating role in the story, acting as a sometime-ally, sometime-antagonist to Jay. His agenda remains shrouded, as does his identity, but his perspective and style offer counterpoints to Jay, and add a great deal of internal tension to a story which already revels in the notion of the unreliable narrator. Is Jay telling the truth? Is ToTheArk? Are they both lying, or both misled? What about Alex, or Tim? Is anyone telling the truth? What has been forgotten? What has been erased?
From a narrative point of view, I think it can be argued that ToTheArk is the most important conceit of the series. One of the reasons that Marble Hornets is as successful as I clearly believe it to be is the depth and ambiguity of the storytelling. There is a real temptation to over-explain when telling stories, and that is a temptation that the film-makers resist at every opportunity. There is an internal tension, of course, when that style of storytelling encompasses Jay. Marble Hornets is both diegetic and mimetic — on one level, we are simply being told a story by Jay, through the medium of YouTube videos and text captions. On a higher level, of course, Jay is as much a part of the fiction as all the other characters, and the film-makers are telling a story without narration, in which much is left ambiguous or obscure. It is strange, therefore, when Jay behaves as though his story is mimetic. We should expect more explanation, more insight, more commentary and tighter editing in his videos, because his purpose is not to tell a story which excites and surprises, but one which clearly explains his findings.
This inconsistency, oddly, works rather well for Marble Hornets. We have layers of nested narrative — at the end of Entry #22, for example, the film-makers show us Jay showing us footage of Alex narrating his experiences. Any or all of those layers could be unreliable, and that depth and ambiguity is a powerful tool when used to create an atmosphere of creeping paranoia. Besides Jay, ToTheArk is arguably the most important of those layers, and almost certainly the most successful.
But let’s get back to the fiction, rather than the metafiction. We know that ToTheArk is currently active in the world, as seen in the footage of Jay’s coughing fit during his visit to the house. ToTheArk either filmed that footage directly, or gained access to the footage after it was shot by someone else — the masked man, perhaps. He also had the footage of the red tower, which may or may not have been taken from the Marble Hornets tapes. We also know that ToTheArk has or had access to the tapes Alex gave to Jay. There are three possibilities: that ToTheArk had access to the tapes while they were still in Alex’s possession, has a full or partial set of copies of the original tapes, or had access to the tapes when they were in Jay’s possession. The masked man’s presence in Jay’s apartment opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities regarding the third option, but the evidence is far from conclusive. It also wouldn’t explain ToTheArk’s access to the missing audio tracks, or the additional footage of Brian in the car.
There is one striking possibility, of course, that would easily explain how ToTheArk had access to the tapes: ToTheArk is Alex. The events of the season are interestingly recast if Alex has been watching Jay’s investigation into his own story, and prompting him to take the next step.
It’s something to think about.
Who is ToTheArk? What does he want? What is the connection between ToTheArk and the masked man? Is ToTheArk under the influence of the Operator? Is he working against the Operator? Did ToTheArk upload Entry ######?
The second of the three primary mysteries of the first season is the Operator symbol.
It is strange, given how prevalent the Operator symbol has become in Slenderman myth, that the symbol appears only three times in the 2006-era footage: Alex finds it scratched outside the abandoned swimming pool, and we see it on his drawings both as he is working on them, and when they are hanging behind his bed. So what is it, and where did it come from? There are three main ideas about the symbol, one of which is relatively prosaic, and two more which attribute magical or supernatural abilities to it. The former is that it is intended as a warning; the latter two suggest that the symbol either attracts the attention of the Operator, or somehow acts as a ward against him. Of those, the last is the most immediately compelling; inscribe this symbol, and it gives you some measure of defense against the Operator’s influence. This implies a magical aspect to the Operator, and opens up all kinds of links with ritualistic magic, fairies and the occult. Unfortunately, this explanation isn’t well-supported by the story: we see the symbol at the swimming pool, mere moments before the Operator appears; we seen the symbol on Alex’s bedroom wall, mere moments before a shadow (presumably belonging to the Operator) passes over them. Does the symbol attract him, then? Perhaps, although Alex’s drawings seem to be emphatically in favor of staying away from the Operator, rather than drawing him closer.
Or perhaps drawing the symbol is simply a compulsion which afflicts those who fall under the Operator’s influence; it isn’t a direct warning, but its presence indicates that the Operator has been nearby. That suggests interesting and troubling things about the red tower, about the abandoned house, about the tape Jay received in Entry #26, and the mysterious Entry ######, which was presumably uploaded to Jay’s YouTube account by ToTheArk.
A final possibility: perhaps the Operator symbol isn’t really an Operator symbol at all, but could instead be thought of as a ToTheArk symbol — that is, a glyph which is used by those who oppose the Operator, to indicate their presence or their loyalty.
What is the symbol? Is it magical or mundane in nature? Who drew it at the swimming pool, the red tower, the abandoned house? Who appended the “HELP” message — included the symbol — to the end of the Alex tape?
All of which brings us to the largest mystery of the series, the Operator himself.
Some time ago, I wrote about the power of the Slender Man myth. I’m not going to spend too long going over the details of the myth, or the ways in which the Operator is unique, because we simply haven’t been given enough information to speculate. He is clearly interested in Alex, in Jay, and to some extent in the other members of the Marble Hornets crew and cast; his presence causes visual and audio distortion on recording equipment; he seems able to move very swiftly, or perhaps instantly.
What is the Operator’s relationship with cameras? We’ve seen him move with enormous speed; there are several entries in which this is evident, including Alex’s adventure at the abandoned swimming pool. But wait — those movements were implied, certainly, but we’ve never seen him move with anything more than a sinister glide or a disconcerting lurch, as in ToTheArk’s video Return. It has been speculated that cameras constrain the Operator, and force him to behave according to our understanding of physics — that is, no teleporting. I alluded in my last post to collapsed wave functions, the moment when the blur of future probabilities collapse into one definite present. Consider the well-known thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat. Here, we might think of a blurred possibility state, in which the cat is both dead and alive; only when it is observed does that wave function collapse into a single state of being. Do cameras act as quantum observers, and collapse the Operator’s wave function?
Here’s a quietly-disturbing thought: since cameras are mechanical and deterministic, they should no more be able to collapse a wave function than a door or wall or light switch. The role of the observer is generally attributed only to sentient minds — but often, the Operator is constrained by a camera even when no-one in the scene is looking at him, as in Entry #14. Is it possible that the cameras are collapsing the wave function themselves — or is it possible that the wave function is, in fact, being collapsed by a sentient observer: us? Are we, the viewers of Marble Hornets, constraining the Operator? That would suggest a non-temporal connection between the events depicted and our experience watching them, but that is by no means the strangest thing that has been implied by this series.
I admit, I’m half in jest, but it remains a curious and fascinating idea.
There is a related idea that I think has been definitively rejected: some argue that the Operator can only be seen through a camera, but not in person; that is inconsistent with Alex’s behavior in Entry #12, where he can clearly see the Operator without the aid of a camera. Is it possible, then, that Alex is a special case, and that no-one else can see the Operator? It’s possible, particularly when we look at Entry #17, but we don’t have a clear answer; perhaps the Operator can choose to whom he appears.
What is the Operator? What does he want? What are the limits of his powers? Why is he interested in Alex, and in Jay?
Before we conclude, I think it’s fair for us to spend some time looking at the weaknesses of the first season. Overall, it’s a great piece of storytelling, but there are some notable mis-steps. For example, some of the entries seem like wasted opportunities. I don’t need every entry to end with a screech of audio distortion and a blurred glimpse of the Operator; in fact, I applaud the series’ decision to use the Operator lightly, and to frequently subvert our expectations. That said, Entry #16 — Jay’s first visit to Brian’s house — feels anticlimactic, particularly when he immediately returns, and is attacked by the masked man. It may be that the film-makers were improvising the story at that point, but I can’t help but feel that it would have been punchier if the entries had been combined. Likewise, Entry #10 doesn’t have much to offer except a jump-scare; Tim’s interview in Entry #15 could have offered something a little more specific and evocative. Each of these is individually defensible, but when combined, they give the sense that the story could have been a little tighter.
The second major problem in the first season also relates to the house. There’s no nice way to put this, but Jay is rather stupid. Why would he go to the house at night, not once but twice? Admittedly, he seems to get smarter as the season goes on — the visit to the red tower happens during the day, and the third visit to the house begins during daylight hours, at least — but for someone who has seen everything the audience has seen — and more — Jay doesn’t seem to be sufficiently cautious or thoughtful. This extends to posting his plans to Twitter and YouTube, despite the fact that he knows ToTheArk is watching and listening. This is all related to the point I made earlier about Jay being a diegetic narrator who is behaving like a mimetic storyteller, and is perhaps unavoidable.
The third flaw in the first season is perhaps the most damning, but also the least easily-avoidable. Over 26 videos — plus the ToTheArk responses — the film-makers build an interesting world, a cast of likable characters, and a complex and intriguing mystery. Unfortunately, almost none of it pays off at the end of the season. There are so few answered questions that most of the story is as opaque to us as it was when we began; we can speculate, but we have very litte that’s concrete. I’ll break my rule about spoilers just enough to say that I’ve seen the rest of the series, and I know that some answers are coming, but giving us a few to enjoy at the end of the first season wouldn’t have been a bad thing.
That said, I’m eager to get to season two. As I mentioned earlier, Marble Hornets vanished over the summer of 2010, without a word from Jay on YouTube or Twitter. Until, that is, a series of enigmatic tweets appeared, and were followed by a new video, Entry #27. So next time, we’re going to skip over the long, Marble Hornets-less summer of 2010, and begin season two. The last time we saw Jay, he was going to track down Alex, who stood in the shadow of the Operator. Was he successful? Is he okay? What happened over the seven missing months?
If you enjoy Marble Hornets, support the creators by buying the DVD set.