by Adam Drazsky
“Clay is one of the easiest ways in the world to get Lynk’s Disease… and that doesn’t wash off,” informs a ragged-looking Alan Resnick in the eerie psychological horror webseries This House Has People In It, produced by Wham City Comedy and aired on YouTube by Adult Swim in 2016. Part of a larger project, the video is the first in a series of clips and other content accessible through clues hidden in the pilot. Combining an alternate reality game like Cicada 3301 with internet video, Wham City’s oeuvre works on a revolutionary set of principles for transmedia storytelling in the internet age.
What’s in a Webseries?
The bizarre webseries pioneered by Wham City are strong enough to be a category of their own. Along with Alantutorial, The Mirror, and The Cry of Mann, This House is an instance of a much-copied narrative format. Despite the generalist name, “webseries” is a category of niche online content that is governed by three principles:
- To use the literary term, there is a volta at some point in the series: a seemingly innocent narrative shifts into eerie or sinister territory;
- A degree of metafiction: for instance, actors in The Cry of Mann seem to break character when in fact they are playing fictionalised, ironic versions of themselves;
- Paratexts help build the alternate universe and maintain the aforementioned metafiction.
Most webseries adhere to these principles, even those independent of Adult Swim. Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, a British production, 1. shifts in tone from a CBeebies-style programme into psychological horror; 2. becomes metafictional when its characters are shown acting in the real world; and 3. involves paratexts like two unsettling videoclips that build the show’s mystique.
The same can be said for webseries like Poppy, a California-based singer’s promotional project, The Onion’s SexHouse, a parody of reality TV that devolves into utter derangement, and Lonelygirl15, arguably the first YouTube webseries: a seemingly simple vlog channel with sinister undertones that was unveiled as scripted.
Wham City continues as a primary innovator in the webseries world, having released The Call of Warr this November, a development of their previous online theatre show, The Cry of Mann. Integrating the principles of webseries into live experimental theatre, Wham City turns the audience into their paratext: viewers call in and influence the story by speaking directly with the characters.
The democratic environment of YouTube and the internet has been a fertile ground for all sorts of fresh and interesting ideas that would be stifled by traditional broadcasting forms. In light of recent criticism of YouTube’s content practices, one questions whether it will remain a beacon of creativity for long… indeed, Wham City’s last two webseries were published exclusively on adultswim.com. Perhaps it is time to look elsewhere.