So the fantastic ARG/YouTube series “hiimmarymary” appears to be approaching a content update for the year if Twitter is any indication (and it may be the last). For those that need an introduction, hiimmarymary is an absolute knock-out horror ARG/found footage series that’s been ongoing since mid-2016. While its film student creator has admitted to taking inspiration from the various YouTube horror video series out there (ala Marble Hornets, EverymanHYBRID, Tribe Twelve, etc.), hiimmarymary (from now forward called “Mary Mary”) has distinguished itself from its peers in rather phenomenal ways. There’s rarely a gap in the visual and production quality from early episodes to later ones. It develops in such a believable fashion within the short number of videos currently out there. We’re at 17 videos right now and the creator has stated it’s a series with a planned set of episodes. This makes for incredible pacing. It also works really hard to distinguish itself from other YouTube horror ARGs out there. Wheras most can’t put themselves online without becoming a living variation of Marble Hornets and the Slender Man mythos (even if the series will eventually take other routes like EverymanHYBRID did), Mary Mary has its own ideas of what can be scary on the internet. And while the Silent Hill homages and fractured psyche mind trap that Mary Mary is going for is very good, I think there’s something else that makes it really compelling. And I think that’s worth discussing.
The Observatory Experience
In movies or film, found footage serves two functional designs: Immersion and budget. Found footage is incredibly inexpensive to make compared to bigger budget movies, yes, but it’s also competitively cheaper than other types of horror movies. Horror in general usually takes the lower end of the film genre costs unless we’re talking big fantasy or science fiction pieces that require bigger set building, so being able to cut that cost down to using Canon or cell phone cameras changes the cost even more. And since movies are usually less of an interrupted experience compared to digging through videos on the internet, films use the found footage idea as a backdrop, as in “the stuff you are watching might’ve happened and the viewing experience is going to be a much more grounded perspective instead of what a director is trying to get you to see.” It creates the idea of an immersive element that is reinforced by the lack of a soundtrack (which aids that budget case I was just making even further). Found footage horror movies are, to many, a more immersive, and exciting way of experiencing horror. It’s a different camera perspective (oftentimes first person) and so during the tension building sequences you’re begging the camera to not go towards the danger you know is there but can’t see coming. That’s good, that changes how we experience fear. But that’s not necessarily engaging the same way found footage online has worked.
I think there’s two primary motivating “experiences” in found footage horror stories on the internet. There’s the fact that ARG elements (coded messages, some sort of an interactive or “game” element that works viewers into the unraveling of the mystery) has certainly made found footage online feel more “real” as the main characters are piecing together the story at times. Eventually the story is happening to the uploader once enough of the back story has been put together. We watch a bunch of videos in a certain order and have to put together what happened and why. The cutting up of a story into chunks instead of a steady stream of videos that feel like they have no ending in film compared to “entry by entry” on YouTube really enhances one’s ability to go through each video and approach one after another uniquely. It allows for micro pacing while still retaining many of the strengths of found footage films. The veil of the internet really adds to this observation feeling: It’s a YouTube channel, not a movie you paid to go see in a theater or opened up on Netflix at home. By taking the various components of a YouTube video published online (individual videos, comments, description, titles, channel art, etc.) and focusing it on acting like the situation is real, we’re able to suspend our disbelief a layer further in a virtual environment. We feel like we’re stumbling on a channel and uncovering something real. Part of us still buys that this is fake, but we have more means by which we can convince ourselves this is something out there in the real world right now compared to just some text at the start and end of a 90 minute runtime.
These are all strengths you may already know about. So why is Mary Mary even more compelling (at least to me and many of its fans) than Marble Hornets or EverymanHYBRID? Well…let’s talk setup. If you’re interested just go watch the entries, the series isn’t over yet so I actually can’t spoil how it ends so much as some of the turns the story takes. I’ll try to keep bigger “scare” moments out of the way, but I do need to paint some strokes here to refer to things that happen at points.
Mary is someone who (by all appearances) is in their 20s, wakes up in a house that won’t unlock, the windows don’t break, no one else is in the house, but the house provides Mary will all potential base needs: Food magically reappears when cupboards are closed and re-opened, it has plenty of clothes, power and the internet works. But, the internet appears vastly empty of other humans. And so does the house. And the world outside. And Mary has no memory of how she got here. She only knows this seems to be a copy of her parents’ house.
But at night…lights go out, and some rather inhuman beings prowl around. The story then tells the really unnerving tale of how Mary becomes acclimatized to living a routine of evading monsters every night. As the story reveals itself more, viewers come to learn these monsters are manifestations of Mary’s own self-hatred over her looks, her esteem, and very sense of self-worth. We learn a bit past the current half-way point that the house is a manifestation of Mary’s own wishing that the world leave her alone. Now, trapped in a world on her own, Mary is falling prey to her own personal demons at the help and mercy of no one.
This is really original content for found footage in the internet space (outside of the really passionately done Stan Frederick series). So much of the other stories out there spend time doing coded messages because it was an established thing in Marble Hornets, and you want to copy that success so you do a similar thing. They also do Slender Man, a cult of some sorts, and the same video glitches. But without proper planning this can turn into the very problems EverymanHYBRID and TribeTwelve have/had. The main reason these two shows have survived is because they practically abandoned the Slender Man fiction for horrors of other kinds. Stan Frederick smartly ran with the idea of taking the various creatures the internet had manifested and making them a wheelhouse of Stan’s own detective work, a part of his routine life that he has learned to live with, set against the backdrop of a personal story about regrets and living with past major mistakes. Mary Mary abandons all of that for personally inspired monsters that represent exactly what Mary’s own character faces down. This stuff always makes for strong storytelling because “person vs. their own horror, but physical” is easy to comprehend.
But what happens when you mix that with found footage? Well, I think you get something special.
The Empathy Experience
See the natural comments you’ll catch on a currently running YouTube horror ARG that’s been around long enough (take the comments on the latest Dark Harvest video for example) is a response to the upload like it’s an episode of serialized TV. Because if you make your series too big and it takes too long, you “out” yourself to the world, which eventually buys viewers into the experience as passively as someone would the next episode of The Mandalorian. You have a fan-based response to the new things that happen. But Mary Mary has a different response. Since comments are “disabled” (usually) and social media responses to her are invisible, most people respond directly to Mary. Some people have comments that aren’t really to Mary but aren’t quite the passive (mostly) “CAN’T WAIT TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT” or “@myfriend hey Mary is posting again”. You get those here and there, but the overwhelming response is people telling Mary to stay strong, people responding to Mary’s Tweets with advice for what she needs to do to get past this. It’s like watching a a thriving supportive community when someone vlogs…except this is fake, and we all know it.
I normally don’t buy into that stuff too much myself because I’m so much more entertained by watching it unfold instead of participating. But for people who like to participate, Mary Mary has been a really compelling situation for it. There’s even a section of the story where Mary can suddenly see all the comments on her stuff online. She starts opening up, listening, responding. There’s no understanding of why it’s happening, but she and the world take advantage of it as much as possible. Mary even livestreams at one point in the series and takes polls on what she should do next. However, she never focuses on the people trying to help her. She’s almost always negative about this stuff, and even berates some of the people responding to her.
All of that comes crashing down eventually, leading us to the pit of suffering Mary is currently going through in the series. She can’t see our responses again. Her demons are winning. And everyone wants to help her. Even a silent messenger hiding in the page source of her blog.
This is when the strength of Mary Mary really started revealing itself to me. I’ve got a friend who has been in boats like this. Actually I probably have many friends who have been in this boat and I didn’t even know it. Depression and self-loathing are real human issues that hit a large portion of our kind. And seeing the very manifestations of those problems attack, berate, and destroy a character (while never actually granting her death) is both unnerving and…frustrating to watch as an observer. Anyone who’s been with a friend dealing with depression and self-hatred long enough understands that it’s not always about doing something or saying anything to make the situation better. You want to, and some people are even motivated to act, thinking it’ll fix things.
But, since this is an ARG, the feeling that viewers need to do something to unlock the ending of this story is really strong. On Mary’s blog a secret messenger revealed itself, and only the viewers can see its words. Fans have been waiting for the messenger’s secret post to give us a message to relay to Mary, the MAGIC BULLET that will get Mary out of this situation. But we don’t have one yet. And I almost get the feeling there won’t be one.
Because you don’t solve self hatred with a magic bullet. You also don’t solve it by sending all the love in the world to the person suffering depression, problems with self-esteem, or a personality that’s self-destructive. You, the person suffering, don’t solve it by ignoring your own problems (which is what Mary starts doing before it all crashes down on her). You don’t even always solve it.
You try to learn to live with it.
My friend went to therapy and learned techniques that helped him in times of heavy anxiety and times of self-destruction. Since then, he’s vastly improved his life. He picks friendships that are better to him compared to what he would ten years ago. He cuts toxic people out of his life. He believes in himself more and reaches for goals that fulfill him personally. Real life doesn’t always have a magic ending, it requires work and often ends in what feels like tragedy. But the current situation of Mary Mary showcases how you have to choose and work at one’s odds against their personal demons, even if it means you won’t always win against them.
At least, that was the case until the latest Mary Mary development.
The Endgame (current story situation info)
However, all of this doesn’t mean Mary Mary (and people in real life) don’t get to have a real shot at cathartic breakthrough and fulfilling change. And that’s where the endgame comes in. The recent pickup trend on Twitter is that Mary is…done. She’s going to ask the demon that taunts her the most to kill her, to end it all.
On Friday May 29th at 8 PM (EST I presume), Mary’s going to ask her demon to end it all. And of course, the messenger on her blog has a message:
<!-- This is it. Our last chance. I have been conserving what energy I have left, but I can’t do this alone. And neither can Mary. I need you all. If we do this together, we might be able to get one more signal through to her, but we need numbers. This is where I need your help. Spread the word wherever you can; let people know what’s happening and when it’s happening, on all fronts. I’m going to try to break into her twitter, she’s more likely to see it that way. We need to call to her, reply to her, to let her know we’re here. If there’s enough of us in one, huge push, we might be able to crack the barriers she’s built.
May 29th, 8pm. We have a week to prepare. Watch the twitter for my signal, and use my tweet as an anchor to reach out to her. We, all of us, together, can be something she can grab onto. You’ll know when it’s me. The tweet will probably look… well, a little different. Thank you, everyone, for holding onto her. We can do this. For Mary. Thank you. -->
And with that, Mary Mary isn’t just getting a phenomenal advantage by giving viewers an empathetic observatory experience about a person suffering self hatred and depression. It’s about to use that to engage people in its (seeming) endgame. And that’s exciting as get out. This is the one time I’ve actively wanted to be a participant in the finale of a horror ARG. I really want to see where this lands. I also honestly wonder if the series creator has spent time building an alternative ending if not enough people show up. Either way, if you’re interested in this series, now is a fantastic time to catch up. You can easily watch all the videos and read all the blog posts and the twitter feed in a leisurely afternoon (we tend to have a few of those in surplus these days).
Friday, 8 PM, Mary Mary’s various accounts, I hope to see you there.