Make Everything Else Scare Again: what did I just see?

Even fairly recently, internet streaming video sites like Youtube and DailyMotion were considered a sort of holding spot for music clips and cat videos, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But if you go looking, there’s some creepy video footage to be found lurking in the shadows of those sites. Videos of unexplained phenomenon and weird events abound.

After the jump, did you see that?

Chris Hornbostel, The Marble Hornets Youtube channel
Marble Hornets is a Youtube channel of 92 clips. Some are as short as a few seconds, some as long as 10 minutes or more. The premise we’re asked to buy into is that this Youtube account person had a friend making a student film, a sort of rom/dram/com called Marble Hornets. The friend never finished the film, because something drove him nuts. He gave the tapes to our Youtuber with instructions to burn them. Of course, that didn’t happen, and instead the tape recipient starts watching the extensive tape collection and posting his finds. The posted clips are disturbing, and tell an evolving story of supernatural stalking. After a while, most of the tapes arent footage from the student film at all, but are the director-friend filming himself, trying to capture the people or entities who are coming after him.

Marble Hornets (as the entire thing has become known) is nothing if not derivative. We’ve seen all this before. There’s elements of Slender Man nonsense, The Ring movies, some Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity…even some X-Com woven through this thing. It’s a found footage movie, as written and directed by amateurs.

So why is Marble Hornets so compelling? I think part of it is the bite-sized nature of the clips themselves as they were posted to Youtube between 2009 and 2014. There’s a “one more clip” compulsion to watching these that’s undeniable. There’s also a feel that this actually represents what found footage actually should look like. Often the camera is aimed at walls, or some person’s feet. No one is blocked or framed the way you’d expect professionals to do for a feature film like Paranormal Activity. Weird things are seen not close up or even necessarily in focus. They lurk at the periphery of the shot, barely seen and hinted at darkly.

That amateurism serves the purposes of Marble Hornets well. There are some early lapses of voice in the first two episodes, but pretty quickly this thing draws you in. It feels and looks like what it purports to be, and as a viewer I couldn’t help but eventually let my guard down and buy in. I’m not alone in getting the willies from watching this. The late Roger Ebert was a fan, and the famed film critic wrote admiringly of Marble Hornets before his passing.

Helping to amp up the fright factor (and although later clips in the series get a bit too far down the rabbit hole of its own mythology) are some mysterious ciphers and “answer” videos posted by another Youtube channel, “totheark,” who seems to be part of the mysterious force “stalking” the original Marble Hornets account. While intellectually I know that it’s obvious that these are from the same source, when watched in the right order there’s a feeling of dark foreboding and, yes, real terror that creeps in.

Thankfully, with the internet being what it is, someone’s taken the trouble of putting all the Marble Hornets and totheark videos together in a single playlist , in the chronological order they were originally posted. That’s probably the canonical way to watch these, and if you’re able to even kind of buy into yet another found footage thing at all, this saga will get under your skin in a very frightening way.

Tom Chick: Ghostwatch
Ghostwatch is remarkable for a few reasons. Most notably, that it aired two years before Spinal Tap, three years before the birth of reality TV, and seven years before Blair Witch Project. And it still holds up as well as any found footage horror movie. It understands that scary stuff is scary because it stands out so sharply from mundane stuff. But in order to stand out, the mundane stuff has to play out. That’s the premise of found footage: something extraordinary is captured with documentary dispassion. Ghostwatch wouldn’t work without its cast of Britishly convincing hosts, experts, camera crew, correspondants, and callers doing the yeoman’s work of setting the stage.

It also holds up for its pacing. It sort of lolls along for about an hour and then starts to simultaneously come undone and come together. The best thing about Ghostwatch is how it sees the story through to its conclusion. In an age of video surveillance, live television, and voyeurism as entertainment, haunted houses have to stand up to unprecedented scrutiny. What would happen if live national television peered into a haunted house? Would the haunted house peer back?

You can get a Ghostwatch on DVD, but it lends itself to streaming, as if it were surreptitiously posted footage. The BBC has had it taken down from YouTube, but you can still watch it here on Dailymotion. And you can read writer Stephen Volk’s follow-up short story here.

Tomorrow: through an earbud darkly
Making October Scare Again starts here.