Watching Marble Hornets – Part 9

This is the ninth part of a journey through Marble Hornets, a YouTube-based horror mystery series. You can find the introductory post here.

Last time, we enjoyed Jay’s adventures in the red-brick house, the return of Alex to the Marble Hornets-present, and the long-awaited unmasking of the masked man’s mask. This time, we’re looking at the aftermath of those revelations, some cryptic messages from ToTheArk, and we follow Alex down into the dark.

totheark: Broadcast (February 26, 2011)

Amidst heavily-distorted audio, we see an image which appears to be taken under the surface of a shallow pool, looking upward. It is possible that there is a figure to the right of the image, looking down at the camera; it is also possible that there is a second figure at the top of the image.

Let’s pay some close attention to the image, before we move on to the audio. There is a strange red-cyan separation which almost makes the footage look like it is in 3D. We’ve seen this before, of course, back in ToTheArk’s Signal video, which featured the clip from Silent Snow, Secret Snow. Whether there is a connection between Signal and Broadcast — other than their names, and the color separation — remains to be seen.

It is implied both by the angle of the video and ToTheArk’s description on YouTube — “are you drowning” — that we are seeing footage from a submerged camera looking upward; it is more likely that the camera is looking down at the surface of the pool, and we are seeing the reflection of the sky. This may not be significant, in that it is merely a consequence of the film-maker’s limited budget and lack of underwater cameras, but every detail may matter. In either case, the video seems consistent with ToTheArk’s previous uses of water, though the significance of those uses continues to elude us.

As to the figures looking down, it is difficult to be certain how many there are. I am personally convinced that there is a figure to the right, and somewhat less certain that there is a second figure at the top. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

And so, on to the audio. After diligent efforts, viewers of Marble Hornets cleaned up the audio track to the point where it could be identified: it is Mike, the default male voice in the AT&T text-to-speech software. The actual content is more interesting: “Enjoying watching you suffer. Do you know me? I will always know you.” This raises several questions in the aftermath of Tim’s unmasking in the last video. Is it a suggestion that Jay should also know who ToTheArk is? Is it a taunting hint that Tim is not who he seems to be? Or perhaps, given ToTheArk’s apparent antipathy toward Alex, the words aren’t directed at Jay at all; there is little in the story so far, for example, to suggest that ToTheArk would enjoy watching Jay suffer.

Who is ToTheArk, and what is his connection with Tim? Is there an unseen connection between Signal and Broadcast? Who is suffering, and who is watching? How is water significant? Who is — or is not — drowning?

Entry #36 (March 2, 2011)

Jay tells us that he has managed to recover some corrupted footage from the end of the tape we saw in Entry #35. We cut to pixelated footage of a road, and a buzzing sound — possibly a ringing phone — can be heard. Jay arrives at his destination, and begins yelling at Alex, demanding to know what he thought he was doing. Alex defends himself, and Jay protests that he broke “his” — presumably Tim’s — leg with the cement block. Alex suggests that he could have done more, and the footage is interrupted by red distortion. When the pixellated footage of Alex returns, he appears to be holding a rag to his upper arm, and is telling Jay that someone managed to find his hotel room, and have a package delivered. Jay, he says, is not exactly hard to find. Jay asks what he should do until Alex calls him, and Alex instructs him to lay low. Jay mutters a sarcastic reply, and watches Alex drive away. He then says, via captions, that Alex is the one who mailed him the package in Entry #26, though he still doesn’t know why.

This entry clarifies several things from the previous video, and also from the end of the first season. On the surface, it is clear that Alex sent the video of he and Amy being attacked by the Operator; he was, in fact, stabbed by Tim, presumably in the arm; he broke Tim’s leg with the cement block, rather than causing more severe damage.

But consider what is happening in this entry: Jay in 2011 is interpreting events from the summer of 2010 through the medium of the corrupted video; Alex may be lying, or 2010-Jay may be lying; even if they are telling the truth as they know it, they could be wrong or misled; there are also gaps in the dialogue caused by the corrupted video. We have a four-layer cake of unreliable narration here: Alex is passing incomplete information to 2010-Jay, who is passing incomplete information to 2011-Jay, who is passing incomplete information to the audience via unseen narrators who may be deliberately lying to us. Any or all of those layers could be — and almost certainly are, to some degree — misleading.

I bring this up to cast doubt upon two strong implications in the video, which Jay assumes to be true but which may, nonetheless, be incorrect. The first of these is Jay’s assertion that he “found” Alex at the red-brick house. As I pointed out last time, there are compelling reasons present in the scene to believe that Jay didn’t find Alex there by chance — or vice-versa — but went to the building with Alex. The second is that Alex sent the package to the hotel in Entry #26. We are missing the opening of the clip in which Alex discusses the package, but it is easy to fill in missing details which pin the blame on another party. This isn’t significant because I necessarily think that someone else sent the package, but rather to highlight the danger of making assumptions about the sequence of events, even when those events are presented by the higher levels of narrative authority.

Let’s consider the distortion that swamps the remainder of the tape. We’ve seen distortion caused by the Operator, and we’ve seen it caused by intense emotion, specifically by Tim and Jessica; while there’s no shortage of intense emotion in this scene, it doesn’t seem to match the intensity of the distortion. The most likely explanation, to my mind, is that Tim’s pain somehow corrupted the entirety of the tape at the moment his leg was broken, and Jay was recording onto an already-damaged tape. That said, we can’t ignore the possibility that some other factor is causing the distortion: Alex, perhaps, or an unseen Operator. I wondered for a while if the corruption was caused by Tim’s presence in the back seat or trunk of Jay’s car, but without even an oblique reference to support it, it must remain a theory.

And while we’re talking theories, here’s one: is it possible that Alex is ToTheArk? We have two ToTheArk videos in season two so far: the first is Fragments, in which we saw the torn-up photograph of Alex, along with the messages “you are broken” and “you cannot be fixed”; the second is Broadcast, which we just saw. If Alex made these videos, then the messages are cast in a different light: Fragments becomes a signature, and the message is almost certainly directed toward Jay, rather than toward Alex; Broadcast may well be aimed at Tim, whose suffering Alex is almost certainly enjoying. We must also think back to season one’s video Warning, which is presented as “raw footage excerpts by Alex Krailie”. Is it possible that the mystery of ToTheArk’s identity has been much less complicated that we thought? Alex certainly possesses the technical ability to create the videos. This is particularly compelling if we acknowledge the possibility that there is more than one member of ToTheArk, as suggested by references to “us” in the season one videos.

Is Alex ToTheArk? What caused the distortion? Did Alex really send the package in Entry #26? What will Jay do next, and what is Alex waiting for?

totheark: Sidetone (March 15, 2011)

In darkness, we hear a dial tone. The audio distorts as we are shown a close-up of a phone keypad, with the 0 key — and the letters OPER — particularly prominent. A hand-written caption saying “ring” appears, and we hear Alex’s outgoing voicemail message. There are flashes of a silhouetted figure at the end of a tunnel, which appears to be the shot of the Operator from the “noentry” video we saw in Entry #29; also, we see glimpses of a person’s back, with lights to the right-hand side. The numbers 12, 9, 5 and 19 flash rapidly on the screen, and we cut to black, with the disconnection tone playing.

While there’s a lot to enjoy in the style of this video, there isn’t a great deal of substance there. We have a veiled reference to the Operator, the spliced-in frames, and a simple numerical code which resolves to the letters L, I, E and S. The backwards “ring” looks similar to the “regards” caption that we saw back in ToTheArk’s Warning video, which I mentioned above. The video reads either as a warning to Jay that Alex is not what he seems — the presence of the voicemail message may suggest Jay attempting to get in touch with Alex after their meeting in the park — or, possibly, a less-specific plea for help in the face of the Operator’s presence. The former seems much more likely, and seems to play against the idea that Alex is ToTheArk; except, of course, that we already suspect that ToTheArk is more than one person, and this video is very different in style to Broadcast.

One potentially important note: whoever made this video knows, at the very least, Alex’s phone number.

Who is lying, and to whom? Who is ToTheArk?

Before we get to the next video, some updates from Jay’s Twitter account at this time. On March 20th, five days after Sidetone was posted, he wrote:

@marblehornets, March 20, 2011, 1:05PM
The last few tapes have just been of me driving around by myself. Where did Alex go?

Later that night, he writes:

@marblehornets, March 21, 2011, 12:37AM
Found something that makes me not want to go through the rest of these tapes. Headache. Laying down for now. Uploading it tomorrow.

That evening, Jay begins complaining on Twitter that he can’t get access to YouTube to upload the new video. After midnight, he posts four tweets.

@marblehornets, March 22, 2011, 12:04AM
I have the worst hheadache right now..

@marblehornets, March 22, 2011, 12:14 AM
Keep thnking I’m hearing things.

@marblehornets, March 22, 2011, 12:26 AM
.hea’ds poudning.

@marblehornets, March 22, 2011, 12:29 AM
sllee pno.w

With that, Jay’s Twitter feed goes silent. Almost twenty-four hours later, “enttry #37” is uploaded.

enttry #37 (March 23, 2011)

The word “play” appears on a blue screen, much like an old VHS player. The audio is distorted, and the bottom tenth of the screen is static, but we see a woman surrounded by a number of children, one of whom appears to be opening wrapped presents. It is the fourth of April, 1991. The camera changes positions several times, and there is a moment of distinctive visual tearing. We see a white Operator symbol flicker over the child’s face, and then the scene changes; it is an hour and a half later, and the woman is carrying a cake lit with candles into a dark room. We hear voices, one of which is ominously low and distorted, singing Happy Birthday. We hear the child’s name: Alex. He blows out the candles on the cake, and in a rush of audio and video distortion, we see a negative image of the Operator. The video returns, and the woman congratulates the child for blowing out the candles all at once. The tape ends on a blue screen with “stop” in the top-right corner.

So, Alex’s birthday. This is a striking video, and one of the most effective jump-scares to date; I remember watching it for the first time, and the one-two punch of hearing Alex’s name and seeing the Operator left my jaw agape.

Let’s take care of some healthy skepticism right out of the gate: we don’t know who posted this video, although Jay later denied that it was him. We have no confirmation that the child in the video is Alex Krailie, or that it really took place on April 4, 1991; we have no reason to believe that the Operator was either literally present in the scene when Alex blew out his candles, or more generally present in Alex’s life at the time. That said…

Back in my wrap-up of season one, I speculated that Tim may have been patient zero for exposure to the Operator, based on his sickness and behavior; this video, if we’re to take it literally, clearly shows that the operator was aware of Alex when he was no more than five or six (this birthday was 1991, and he was college-age in 2006; also, the number of candles on the cake seems to be consistent). It also seems significant that Entry #26, in which Amy and Alex were attacked, also took place on April 4th. No matter how real this footage is, it’s tough to shake the feeling that Alex is more profoundly connected to the Operator than we had previously realized.

As previously mentioned, Jay later denied posting the video, but we should note that it was uploaded a little more than a year after Entry ######, of which Jay also denied knowledge. Like Entry ######, it seems probable that it was uploaded by ToTheArk, although it’s more difficult to see the message behind it: is Alex simply a lier? Is he contaminated, or corrupted? Is he working for, or with, the Operator? Or was he merely the first victim, the root of the infection?

I don’t normally linger on out-of-game information in this series, but there are two details about this video which you should know, particularly if you’re reading other material about Marble Hornets out there on the internet. The first is that there is a “real” Entry #37, which is included as an extra on the Season 2 DVD; it is non-canon, and was pulled when the film-makers decided that it didn’t achieve what they wanted it to. It’s interesting to think that one of the most striking videos of the series was created as a last-minute replacement. The second interesting detail about this video is that it was edited and replaced after viewers spotted a Spongebob Squarepants shirt on one of the children in the opening scene; since the video is set in 1991, and the world was bereft of Spongebob until 1999, the film-makers edited out the anachronism and uploaded a new version of the video.

One last thought: if ToTheArk is really Alex, the tone of this entry changes significantly, becoming less accusatory and more a cry for help, coupled with a tragic confession. It’s an interesting thought to hold on to as we progress.

As for Jay, a week passes before we hear from him again.

@marblehornets, March 29, 2011, 12:29 PM
Just woke up in my car, near the red tower. Don’t remember how I got here. This is a long way from where I was.

@marblehornets, March 22, 2011, 1:47 PM
The tapes aren’t with me, and the footage I copied to my laptop has apparently been deleted. I need to get back. Fast.

Does the footage really show Alex’s birthday party? How long has the Operator been aware of him? Where did the footage come from, and to what degree was it edited? Who posted the video? How did Jay end up at the red tower?

Entry #38 (April 5, 2011)

Jay is back. He and Alex are walking through a forest near sunset. As they walk, Jay complains that it’s getting dark, and Alex tells him that they are almost there. Jay takes the camera and begins to film Alex as they walk. Alex ignores Jay’s questions, and tells him a story he heard about the punishment of criminals in this area, who were tied to swiftly-growing trees and left to die. A child went missing, and was found in the area where the criminals died, dismembered. Jay challenges Alex as to his purpose in bringing him to this part of the forest, and Alex simply tells him to, “Come here.” Jay replies that there is only a minute left of the tape, and begins to change it. The footage ends, and Jay switches his focus to enttry #37; he says that he did not upload it, and that he has changed his password to prevent anyone from getting access to his account. He will not, however, delete the video.

Luckily, Jay returned to his new base of operations from the red tower, and found the tapes.

@marblehornets, April 6, 2011, 1:58 PM
I’m back. All the tapes and my camera are still here. So relieved.

Now may be a good time for a quick reminder of the geography we’re dealing with in this story. So far, the action has been split between two main areas: the events of season one took place near the red tower, the other Marble Hornets shooting locations, and Brian’s, Alex’s and Jay’s houses. We are now in the second area, which is a significant distance from the first, though apparently no more than a few hours’ drive; the second area contains the hotel where Jay and Jessica were staying, Rosswood Park, the abandoned red-brick house, and, presumably, Alex and Amy’s house from Entry #26. That last detail can be inferred from a line in this video, when Alex introduces the story: “When I first moved here.” It’s not impossible that he’s talking about the first area, rather than the second, but Jay admits that he doesn’t know anything about this area, which is consistent with what we know of the second area, rather than the first.

Somehow, of course, Tim also found his way from the first area to the second between the events of season one and two. He couldn’t have been following Alex, who left the first area before Jay even began reviewing the tapes; was he following Jay? Was he active in both areas simultaneously?

But back to Entry #38. The most notable — and controversial — thing about this episode is that it seems to offer an origin story for the Operator. Alex’s story is clearly supposed to evoke a long-limbed spirit, vengeful and dangerous, connected with trees and children.

It fails to explain, however, the Operator’s facelessness, his attire, his ability to teleport, the damage that he causes to cameras and recording devices (confirmed) and the health of those who are exposed to him (suspected). It addresses nothing more that his long limbs and inhuman proportions, and does so in a slight and superficial manner. For a series which has been investing heavily in the mysteries of who and what the Operator is, this origin story is remarkably weak.

So let’s assume that it isn’t, in fact, an origin story. What is Alex trying to achieve? It’s possible that he’s genuinely relating a story that he heard, as a means of tactfully preparing Jay for the (supposed) revelation that the Operator exists. If that’s the case, though, why do it in such a circuitous and ominous fashion? For my money, Alex is deliberately trying to frighten Jay. This cold self-confidence is in keeping with what we saw of Alex in Entry #36; we are clearly seeing someone who, in one way or another, has been changed by his experiences.

That said, there are elements of the story which sound familiar, and Alex’s inclusion of those small details may hint at their greater significance: forests are obviously important to the Operator, and the idea that the trees were burned connects both with the fire at Jay’s apartment, and both the strange painting of a forest ablaze which we saw in Brian’s house back in Entry #20, and the scribbled drawing of a tree and smoke in Entry #19.5. It’s also difficult to ignore the connection between the child in the story and the footage we saw of Alex in the last video.

One more quick thought before we wrap up: where does this entry fall in the Marble Hornets chronology? Jay’s skepticism and the fractious relationship between the two are reminiscent of the scene in the parking lot, and the most obvious conclusion is that this stroll in the forest took place after Alex contacted Jay. There is, however, an alternative: perhaps this footage comes from a much earlier expedition into the forest, perhaps when Alex and Jay were location scouting for the original Marble Hornets student film. Jay’s nervousness could easily be explained by the ghost story and the oncoming night. Alex, meanwhile, could simply be trying to frighten his friend.

It’s a wild theory, and not necessarily one you should invest in, but it’s an interesting thought, and a strong reminder that if this installment of my commentaries is about anything specific, it is about the unreliability of these narrators.

Next time, we meet a new player, and Jay has an encounter with an old friend. Don’t miss it!

If you enjoy Marble Hornets, support the creators by buying the DVD set.


2 thoughts on “Watching Marble Hornets – Part 9

  1. I’ve never got the hyperbole around this ‘origin’ story. As you said in your piece the correlation between the story and the Operator are superficial at best. Also it assumes that Alex is an informed and/or reliable source. As you’ve shown over and over Alex is unreliable.

    I had never considered the chronology of this entry… It’s interesting to think that this could be from location scouting.

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