by Meira Chasman
This is a question that has been looming in the background for me for a long time, and I think that Slenderman is a good target to focus on, because the phenomenon is recent enough in my memory that I watched the downfall in real time.
Many people my age are simply not very scared of horror pre-2000 (which is sad because 80s horror is one of my favorite subgenres out there!). I remember when, out of context, my 10th grade music teacher showed the famous shower scene from Psycho. Most of the class couldn’t stop giggling, because they could see through the editing tricks and the scene was presented without the disturbing atmosphere of the overall film. It also didn’t help that the twist is so widely known. Obviously, Psycho isn’t the only example of outdated scares: the 50s monster B-movies, 80s slashers and schlocky found footage also lost their reputation for being genuinely ‘scary.’ Slenderman and internet creepypastas more broadly were just next in line.
Some would argue that the Slenderman mythos was always filled with self-awareness and irony, so it was never truly, seriously scary. But is that not true of every genre listed above? All horror is fictional and is clearly recognized as such. A better reason could perhaps be oversaturation of a market, where the familiar tropes and copycat structure become predictable and unscary shortly afterwards. Yet some trends, despite oversaturation, still manage to chug along for a decade and a half whereas Slenderman was dead far before that point.
Another piece of this puzzle is the youtube series “Marble Hornets.” This series managed to scare the whole class, and Slenderman, a long dead meme, is the ultimate antagonist! On paper (aka the wikipedia summary), this series overall seems uneventful with low stakes– few characters actually die over 90% of the series. Still, the tension and mystery remain high due to the unique presentation. So, that’s the easy answer, right? It is not about the villain itself but how skilled the presentation of the story is. However, this brings us right in another loop: Psycho, The Thing, Halloween, The Shining and more were always well made even though younger audiences (unfortunately) might not take them seriously. So, in order to understand why Slenderman is not scary, and why villains die out, it is important to identify what’s scary about “Marble Hornets”.
Part Two: Marble Hornets and the Glitch
Episodes of “Marble Hornets” often start with a short introduction from Jay, simple white text on a black background, no music. This setup in and of itself is already unnerving, but I soon began to breathe a sigh of relief any time his narration returned- it’s a connection to reality, a voice to identify with. Additionally, once the ‘totheark’ videos are introduced the Alex tapes suddenly become more bearable and grounding. “Marble Hornets” continuously raises the stakes of what counts as creepy, leading the audience down a rabbit hole where even the uncanny presentation is not as bad as the videos to come. The audience experiences horror on multiple levels but also builds a higher tolerance for what appears on screen.
Next, the series relies on glitchiness, voice distortion, random cutting, shaky cam, and out-of-focus horrors, tools that were not as available in previous times but were elements that contemporary audiences recognized back in 2009. It took everyday technology and distorted it, much in the way that older generations of horror distorted everyday experiences (like summer camps) to lean into unspoken paranoia. Glitchiness is scary because it cuts off the audience’s connection to the world of the film, adding to the fear of the unknown. Attacks, creatures, blood, and danger are intentionally out of focus, a significant shift from the focus on intricate gore and special effects in the 1980s-90s.
Even though no one films on VHS anymore, glitchiness still appeals to modern audiences. For example, ‘glitch’ is at the forefront of lots of experimental music nowadays (pioneered by producers like SOPHIE). The distortion of familiar sounds and the hints of incomprehensible and otherworldly experiences is an appealing tool for innovation in many mediums that older generations of horror did not have broad access to/did not tap into. Obviously past filmmakers relied on glitchy things like TV static (Poltergeist) and used camera techniques to avoid showing the monster (Evil Dead demon cam) but this was not the primary mainstream horror style.
[In fact, one of the most terrifying moments of 80s horror for me actually comes from a nightmare sequence in the John Carpenter movie Prince of Darkness. I won’t spoil it but it relies on fuzzy VHS glitch in order to communicate something apocalyptic, otherworldly, and incomprehensible. Highly recommend!]
Finally, “Marble Hornets” understands how to punch above its budget and skill level. In general, it tries to avoid large dialogue scenes because the actors are not great. The cinematography is intentionally bad in order to add realism. Scenes are shot at night to avoid expensive set design. Half of the series is shot in the woods because they did not need a permit to shoot there, so the woods become a prominent element of the story. It was uploaded in 480p! By understanding its budgetary constraints, “Marble Hornets” was able to create a creepy atmosphere while not being too campy and killing the tension.
Part Three: Slenderman’s Limits
From this, I believe there are multiple factors in what makes something scary and then unscary: these include presentation, stylistic appeal to current audiences, and levels of saturation. “Marble Hornets” is scary because it caters to contemporary horror techniques while still relying on the classic fear of the unknown to make its story more timeless. Slenderman himself is an image, and once one sees a million copies of the same static picture it loses its bite, while “Marble Hornets” offers far more than photoshop in the realm of horror. Similarly, serial killer flicks still make tons of money nowadays (See: Halloween remakes). While characters themselves can become outdated, their archetypes do not necessarily. As long as style is continuously updated for the next audiences these films can continue to scare. Gore itself is not outdated, but its old presentation has been abandoned (extreme focus on practical effects), due to modern audiences’ comfort with CGI and studio cheapness crutches. (RIP).
Another example: Possession and haunted house horror films are more popular than ever, and they heavily borrow from Gothic and Victorian horror, a genre over a century old! Broad concepts seem to be far more timeless than old styles, no matter how advanced or artful. This post might have stated the obvious, but it does go to show that while concepts can be timeless, once filmmakers start to coast on trends rather than understand which formats appeal to current audiences, their villains will die.