The rise and fall of a minor YouTube group

Posted Jun 18, 2016

If you’ve got even a passing interest in obscure internet drama, here’s a story for you. Early last month, THAC TV, the group behind the kind of popular YouTube series Marble Hornets disbanded after a series of unfortunate events during the past year or so. Let me tell you a bit about it from my perspective as nothing more than a fan. Well, at least I used to be.

Marble Hornets

The story begins almost seven years ago. In June 2009, the Marble Hornets channel uploaded the first two videos of what would become THAC’s most successful work to date and probably — with what happened recently — of all time. The series was a fictional, found footage style horror/mystery show focusing on the internet-created character Slender Man. Originally, the series was mainly produced by two twenty-something friends, Troy Wagner and Joseph DeLage, with Troy playing the protagonist Jay and Joseph playing the (eventual) antagonist Alex. During the first season of the show, other characters were introduced, and the character of Alex’ friend Tim, played by Tim Sutton, became a mainstay and much later a fellow protagonist. Marble Hornets had a number of twists and turns in the course of its three seasons and 87 main episodes, which lasted from June 20, 2009 to June 20, 2014. In addition to the main episodes, it included a companion channel and a Twitter account to make it somewhat ARG-like. It was very exciting at the time, but one thing is for certain: it all went downhill from the beginning.

Regardless of how you feel about the individual seasons, there’s no denying that the first one is the most popular, and depending on whether or not you agree with me, it’s also the best. Marble Hornets grew from a sequence of short and unsettling clips with little context to a genuine story with characters, dialogue and drama. And these things tend to work better if they’re not written, directed and acted out by amateurs. This is by no means a dig at Troy, Joseph and Tim. No one expects world class writing and acting from a free YouTube series, but the original format was definitely better at working around these limitations, to the show’s advantage.

Views per video as of May 26, 2016

At the time of writing, nearly every season 1 episode has gained over a million views, and the first few have several. Season 2 episodes hover between half a million and a million, and season 3 a few hundred thousand less.

As a side project to Marble Hornets, the three main creative forces behind it occasionally made surreal comedy videos for Troy’s personal YouTube channel, Troy Has A Camera. Some of these went on to be mildly successful, no doubt fueled primarily by fans of their horror series. In December 2013, during the third and final season of Marble Hornets, the group registered a company, THAC LLC, mainly for the purpose of merchandise, including a successful Kickstarter for the season 3 DVD.

A new direction

When Marble Hornets ended for good in 2014, the group shifted their focus to comedy videos for the THAC channel, which was now their primary output. As part of this, they brought in a fourth member called Noah Scammon. I was skeptical of him at the time. With their videos and behind-the-scenes info, the three original members had built up a relationship with the fanbase. Noah hadn’t and yet became a prominent part of the face of THAC; it was like he was forced onto us. But the addition of Noah wasn’t the only noticeable change. Around this time, a pattern was emerging: give each member of the group their own recurring comedic character and show. The roster eventually turned into:

  • Nature Break with Craig Digsby (Troy), a nature show
  • Space Time Express with Morningstar Sinclair (Tim), a space show
  • Fixin’ a Fixit with Owen Hankinson (Joseph), a DIY show
  • Spooky Drawer with Dominic Darkwalter (Noah), a spooky story show
  • Cyber Tricks with Computer Jym (Noah), a computer show
  • Isn’t That Something with Dr. Thompson Hacke (Troy), a science show

In addition to these formats, THAC was now also producing a variety of out-of-character videos like Let’s Plays, a podcast, and DnD campaigns. Although they would still occasionally make the kind of original shorts they started out with, it was no longer their main concern. Still, at the time, I was optimistic. Noah started to feel like an integrated part of the team, and the regular formats were occasionally entertaining. Things could definitely have been worse, and I was still somewhat invested. But as we’ll see, most of the shows would end up shortlived.

On August 3, 2015, new videos started appearing on the Marble Hornets channel, titled Clear Lakes 44 (which have recently been unlisted). This was to be a successor to Marble Hornets — direct or spiritual — having been teased as the final stretch goal on the season 3 DVD Kickstarter. Clear Lakes 44 started out with fast updates and decent popularity, but just like with Marble Hornets, interest was steadily dropping.

Halving the team

Some time in October of 2015, Joseph and Tim left the group. At the time, the circumstances of the breakup were kept vague by all of the people involved. No one knew exactly how nasty the split had been. Maybe it was creative differences. Maybe it was gigantic creative differences. I think it’s fair to say that the fan community was unsure how to deal with it: Troy was the founder and initial force that put THAC on the map, but Joseph and Tim had been essential parts of everything good they had ever made. Soon, Troy wrote a post just a few buzzwords short of being a corporate press release.

THAC is absolutely not a studio that has any interest to scale back or drop off content. In fact, moving forward from here, and into 2016, the company lives strong and will be releasing even more videos and series as planned.

According to Troy, the workforce of THAC was effectively halved, yet the workload would actually increase. A bold promise that didn’t exactly build confidence, especially from a post where the group’s usual transparency and honesty was nowhere to be found. Regardless, life — and THAC’s remaining video series — went on.

While Clear Lakes 44 was indeed still in production under Troy and Noah, things weren’t looking too good for it. The release schedule slowed to a crawl, fans generally found it to be too slow and confusing, and view counts were consistently lower than even the worst MH episode. The most recent CL44 episode to date, Broadcast #13, was released on February 18 and has just over 39,000 views to date. I’m not exactly sure when, but somewhere along the way I stopped watching. In my opinion, Clear Lakes 44 was just too cryptic for its own good. A slow burn can be great, but as it turns out, running a web series without any significant events in its first six months may not be ideal. At the same time, THAC’s comedy videos became less and less entertaining, culminating with a bunch of mediocre Let’s Plays and this cringe material.

Back to square one

The story ends in April of this year, where Troy spills the beans about the split with Joseph and Tim. There’s no reason for me to go into it as his account of things is very detailed and has been verified by Joseph and Tim. What I will say is this: what shred of optimism I had left for THAC is now dead and gone. I had always assumed the breakup was just a matter of creative differences, but it was much more complicated than that; things were apparently bad enough that they didn’t speak to each other for five months. Later in the thread, Noah posts a long sentimental post about his memories of the other guys, and then Joseph answers with just this:

Dude, eat shit. Eat shit and be glad that I still (mostly) maintain a sense of professionalism about this whole thing.

At first Noah’s post seems like an attempt to douse the fire, but the jarring difference between its sugar-sweet tone and Joseph’s aggressive response definitely raises a red flag. Was Noah secretly mocking him? Does Joseph hold Noah responsible for splitting the group? Is Noah just unreasonably optimistic about the whole thing? We’ll probably never know, but it’s obvious that the two aren’t exactly on good terms.

Two days later, after a lot of reactions, discussions and (ugh) memes, Troy posts another update on how he has asked Noah to leave THAC, effectively cancelling all shows he was involved in, including Clear Lakes 44. This puts THAC back to how it was seven years go: just Troy and a camera. You might think hey, that worked out pretty well last time! And you’d be right. Except last time, things only got really good with the help of Joseph and Tim. Troy might be able to find other partners, sure, but there’s another problem. Last time — and this is purely speculative — it was a hobby fuelled by the passion for creating stuff. This time, it needs to make money: Troy has a young daughter he needs to support financially, and presumably has too little spare time to make THAC a hobby project.

My best guess: THAC, and the things it used to make, are dead. According to Troy, he’s got plans to reboot CL44 (hence the unlisting of existing episodes), but I’m not going to get my hopes up. As for the rest of the crew: Tim made a decent video in February, promising more videos the following month (which have yet to surface). Joseph works at a deli and has no current plans to make more YouTube stuff. Noah is working as a production manager and generally has an active online presence, though he hasn’t produced any significant solo content lately.

But let’s not end this on doom and gloom. Although I think the chances of anything worthwhile coming out of this debacle are slim at best, who knows? Maybe there will be a Clear Lakes 44 v2.0, and maybe it will be fantastic. Maybe each former member will make great videos on their own, and maybe they’ll eventually reconcile. Let’s just hope and wait.

Update: Troy has rebranded his new solo outfit as Fish With A Nose, which currently has no uploads and is not included in the first page of a Google search for “fish with a nose”. Best of luck to Troy!

Update 2: The THAC forums have been discontinued, so I have updated the links to archived versions of the posts.