|ATTENTION! SPOILERS AHEAD!!|
This article contains information from later episodes of The Magnus Archives and may contain major spoilers for the setting and plot. Continue at your own risk.
The Distortion is an avatar of the Spiral. Prior to the Spiral ritual that was stopped by Gertrude Robinson and Michael Shelley, they appeared as a door unbound by physics that led to a series of impossibly twisting corridors. After the ritual's failing they appear and exist as a distorted human but retain the ability to manifest the doors and corridors. They take great pleasure in making their victims question the integrity of their minds and in luring people into their corridors.
The Distortion’s appearance and identity is flexible in nature. They represent the fear that comes from gaslighting and manipulation, and in particular the fear caused by being uncertain whether one's own judgements of a person, idea, or situation can be trusted. They keep this nature hidden as part of their deception and it is unclear whether there is a specific motivation behind their actions.
Prior to the failure of the Great Twisting, The Distortion appeared as a door that led to a series of windowless corridors. The corridors were not bound by the laws of physics and could be entered even when the door should have opened into empty air. The door could appear in any variety of ways but most commonly was plain and painted a shade of yellow. The corridors were carpeted and had a long rug which ran down the middle, and walls were papered over in a swirling pattern. The colours of the wallpaper, carpet, and rug were mutable and would shift over time. On the walls hung electric lamps spaced approximately ten feet apart, as well as paintings and photographs of the corridor viewed from strange angles and the occasional mirror.
During the time they existed as the doors, they used they/them and he/him pronouns. A clay sculpture of The Distortion made by Gabriel depicted them as an intricate arrangement of thin, sharp lines that angled off from each other without connecting, but that when viewed for a period of time would shift and resolve into a door. Those who viewed the sculpture suffered from intense migraines.
After the failure of the Great Twisting, The Distortion begins existing as Michael, who uses he/him and it/its pronouns. Michael is a very tall man, approximately 6.5 feet, with a round face. His hair is blonde and forms ringlets that come down to his shoulders. When seen in reflections or through warped glass, Michael appears distinctly inhuman with a thin, limp body and pointed hands the size of its torso. Michael's laugh has an otherworldly echo, and those who think about him for too long feel strange in the head.
Michael rejects the identity imposed onto it and greatly prefers to be seen as a concept rather than a person. Although he refers to himself as "the throat of delusion incarnate", it does not seem prone to lying to those it does not take as victims and instead chooses to obscure or distort the truth. Michael views human fear and uncertainty as forms of entertainment in addition to nourishment and will threaten or attack individuals with little provocation.
When The Distortion exists as Helen, she is a woman of unknown appearance who uses she/her pronouns exclusively. While she is initially withdrawn and unsure of her new identity, as time passes she seems to grow more confident in herself and her ability to deceive. After this shift, Helen presents herself as a friendly, helpful woman who smiles widely and speaks in a cheery voice, but takes on a colder and more sardonic tone when speaking with John in private. Her preferred method of causing fear and uncertainty is gaslighting, but she will threaten violence when this proves ineffective or when her deception might be discovered. As with Michael, Helen's hands can become sharp and distorted and her laugh has an otherworldly echo.
Helen becomes a domain in the post-change world that takes the appearance of a hotel. Unlike the doors or corridors the hotel is a further manifestation of herself rather than an extension or "limb", but Helen can still appear inside the hotel and engage with her surroundings. The hotel can radically change its structure and location in moments, making it impossible to navigate. The floors of the hotel are carpeted, and while some walls are papered in the same spiral-patterned wallpaper as Helen's corridors, others are painted. The reception is tasteful and is decorated with ferns.
For as long as there has been time, The Distortion has existed. The Distortion was good friends with Gabriel, another avatar of the Spiral, who noted that they were not like other people and that having a name would greatly confuse them.
The Distortion took many victims over the course of their existence, including one Marcus McKenzie, who was followed by menacing doors that appeared in impossible places starting in his early childhood. This continued all through his adult life until he was finally consumed in 2018. Starting in July 2003, The Distortion also terrorised Marcus McKenzie's father, Paul McKenzie. However, he passed away from a stroke before he could be consumed.
At some point between 2009 and 2011, a Spiral ritual known as the Great Twisting was attempted. Located in Sannikov Land, a fabled polar island that does not exist but which was made tangible during the ritual, the Great Twisting involved The Distortion's door in the centre of an architecturally impossible building. The building would be witnessed by one thousand onlookers, whose confusion and terror would allow The Distortion's door to open into an impossible reality in which the Distortion would take on a god-like status.
The Great Twisting was stopped by Gertrude Robinson, who instructed her assistant Michael Shelley to open The Distortion's door and enter their corridors. Once inside, Shelley followed a map that Robinson had provided and carefully navigated the corridors, destroying specific mirrors as he went. He eventually reached the truth of The Distortion and was destroyed, at which point The Distortion was forced to take on Shelley's appearance and identity.
Michael views himself as a manifestation of the failure of the Great Twisting. He considers his newly-acquired identity as a symbol of his lack of purpose, and greatly resents having lost the chance to become a god. He returns to tormenting and consuming his victims as he once had with the doors. One of the victims it took in 2015 was Lydia Halligan, a woman who suffered from insomnia.
In 2016, Michael appears outside Sasha James's building. He stares at her briefly, then goes into a cafe and waits for several hours. When Sasha passes the cafe on her way home from work, she enters and sits down with him. Michael is deflective when asked personal questions and rejects the notion of identity, but tells Sasha it wants to be friends and to help her. It invites her to meet him at Hanwell Cemetery, and the following day the two meet and walk to an abandoned pub. There, Sasha encounters Timothy Hodge, who has been made into a Flesh Hive and is covered in writhing, silver worms. Michael watches idly as Sasha is attacked by the worms, but after she kills both Hodge and the worms using a CO2 fire extinguisher he removes a worm that had burrowed into her shoulder.
Later in 2016, Michael approaches a real estate agent named Helen Richardson who is selling a house on Saint Albans Avenue. It claims to be taking the place of one Adrian Lombardi and refuses to shake Richardson's hand when offered. Richardson hurriedly shows Michael the house before he interrupts to point out a door he had manifested. Richardson enters the door after staring at it for a time and is taken into Michael's corridors, where she wanders for three days. Inside the corridors, Michael appears to Richardson in its distorted form, likely intending to consume her. By chance, she manages to escape through a mirror and return to reality. Michael keeps hidden and follows Richardson to The Magnus Institute, where she makes a statement regarding her experience and attempts to draw a map of the corridors she traveled. After she finishes her statement she unknowingly leaves through a door which had been manifested by Michael, returning her to the corridors.
After once again trapping his victim in the corridors, Michael taunts Jonathan Sims on his ignorance of Not-Sasha's presence in the archives. He confirms himself to be the Michael that showed Sasha James how to kill the silver worms and states that the purpose of his visit was to collect Helen Richardson, not to kill John. Michael's words enrage John, who angrily insists he return Richardson to their reality. Michael refuses and stabs John when he moves to attack him. Michael alludes to a war that was being fought and claims the destruction of The Magnus Institute would sway the war too much in one way. It asserts itself to be a primarily neutral party in the conflict but says he helped The Magnus Institute defeat Jane Prentiss to indulge his own curiosity.
In February 2017, Michael appears to John just after he destroyed the web table that had contained the NotThem. It mocks John's ignorance of the purpose of the table and offers him a door as a way to escape Not-Sasha, whose full power is no longer limited. The door leads into the tunnels below The Magnus Institute, which Martin Blackwood and Tim Stoker had entered as well. Michael appears to the two archival assistants and threatens to kill them, prompting them to flee into a door he had made appear nearby. They wander Michael's corridors, at one point spotting Helen Richardson still trapped inside, before finally escaping two weeks later.
Michael's final appearance was to John when he was captured by Nikola Orsinov later in 2017. He decides to kill John to prevent Orsinov from using his skin in The Unknowing, but insists that first John understand what happened in Sannikov Land and how Michael came to be. He explains this all in the form of a statement.
After it is finished explaining the events of the Great Twisting, Michael invites John to open the door that will lead to his death. The door is locked, however, and neither John nor Michael can open it. Michael is afraid and seems to be coming to a realisation before he is destroyed. A new door opens, and Helen appears to John. She is not the Helen Richardson who made a statement but is a new, distinct state of existence for The Distortion. 
When she begins existing, Helen offers John an escape through her door. She explains that Michael had become overwhelmed by emotions that shouldn't have been its and compromised the integrity of The Distortion. Helen insists that while John's death was something that Michael wanted, she is uninterested in killing him on account of Helen Richardson having thought well of John.
Some weeks after, Helen appears to John as he is finishing a statement. She wants to talk with John, but is accused of pretending to be Helen Richardson and of taking on false identities. She says she is struggling badly with her new identity as Helen but that the intensity of Michael's anger gave her no choice but to take on this new existence. Helen tells John that she felt confused and dissatisfied after taking a victim, and that she had hoped that since Helen Richardson found comfort in talking with John the same would be true for her. John becomes angry and accuses her of lying about her motivations. Offended, Helen reasons with John and implies that their experiences in becoming avatars are similar, but his anger intensifies and he demands that she leave.
When The Magnus Institute was attacked by The Flesh during John's six month coma, Helen helps by disposing of bodies and by trapping Jared Hopworth inside her corridors. She keeps one of her doors in the tunnels beneath The Institute to be accessed by the archival assistants, and becomes close with Melanie King.
About one month after John wakes up from his coma, Helen is sought out by Melanie to facilitate a meeting between John and Jared. Here, she is confident with herself and asserts that the labels of personhood John holds on to are meaningless to her. After John meets with Jared, Helen allows the latter to exit through a door that opens some distance above a river. She says to John that she supports what he is doing and is happy to help how she can.
In the months following their return from Ny-Ålesund, Helen is occasionally visited by John to discuss what it means to be an avatar. During one visit, Helen encourages John to embrace his role and needs as The Archivist just as she embraced her role as The Distortion. They discuss the necessity of feeding and she mocks him when he tries to shift the responsibility for the harm he causes away from himself. On another occasion, John pleadingly asks when The Eye will make him stop caring about his victims. Helen explains that The Eye has no reason to make him stop caring, and describes the decision she made near the start of her existence to stop feeling guilty about the victims she took.
After Peter Lukas takes Martin to the centre of the tunnels in September 2017, John goes to Helen for insight. He asks what they are doing, but she refuses to tell him and says she knows enough about what is going on to not get involved. He tries to compel her, but Helen interrupts his attempt and threatens to kill him if he tries again. She says she doesn't want to risk taking him to the centre of the tunnels through her corridors and laughs as she sends him off.
Shortly after John and Martin begin their journey to The Panopticon, Helen greets them and voices her support of their relationship. She antagonises John while offering mostly-polite conversation to Martin, then leaves after calling the two of them "adorable" to Martin's amusement and John's chagrin.
After John kills Not-Sasha, Helen appears and explains the structure of the world and the nuances of John's ability to kill, antagonising John all the while. She is surprised but enthused when Martin encourages John to go on a killing spree and offers her full support of the idea.
Helen privately watches as John destroys Jude Perry and Jared Hopworth, but reveals herself after he chooses not to kill Simon Fairchild. She voices her disappointment with John, but after her encouragements to kill aren't responded to she becomes sharp. Helen is frustrated and unimpressed with John, as she had assumed he would have embraced his role and power as The Archivist after bringing about The Change. She has been enjoying herself in the new world and views his moral dilemma as selfish and immature. John and Martin do not respond to her outburst, and Helen leaves.
When John, Martin, and Basira pass through Wonderland House, a domain of The Spiral , Helen appears and offers Basira a shortcut on her path to killing Daisy. After Basira declines, Helen derides her decision and criticises John's continued rejection of their new world. She then leaves to participate in the torture of the domain's victims.
Helen makes several visits to Melanie and Georgie, as well as their followers, in the tunnels beneath The Panopticon. She uses her previous friendship with Melanie to gain the group's trust but stops appearing to them after she is caught attempting to consume Celia, a member of Melanie and Georgie's cult.
After Basira kills Daisy and John and Martin leave Upton House, Helen appears as John and Martin near a Spiral-aligned domain. To Martin's frustration, she laments Basira's decision to kill Daisy and claims to have only been making a point when she previously encouraged Basira to kill her partner. Helen becomes offended when Martin bluntly asks why she appeared to them, as to him it seems she only came to antagonise them. She states that she wants to be friends and reveals that Martin has his own domain, something John had been keeping from him, before leaving.
While Martin explores his domain, Helen invites John into her own domain, an impossibly-shifting hotel that serves as an extension of herself in much the same way her doors and corridors did. When inside, Helen continues to antagonise John for his distrust toward her and for his reluctance to embrace his status as The Archivist. John responds by pointing out her literal embodiment of deceit, but stops when he begins to feel a statement come on. John speaks from the perspective of one of the domain's victims while Helen makes frequent asides that reference details mentioned in the statement. The victim locates John by the sound of his voice and begs him to help her, but he shouts at the victim and pulls away after she tries to touch him. She falls to the ground, crying.
Helen snidely comments on John's perpetuation of human suffering, but quickly changes the structure of the hotel to remove the victim from his sight after he threatens to make her an avatar. Helen is unsurprised to learn that John intends to kill her. She attempts to reason with John and presents herself as no more of a threat than any other avatar, but John asserts that she is uniquely dangerous because of the friendship she claims to have with people. Helen is dismissive of his conclusions and continues to downplay the threat she poses.
Both John and Helen are aware that Helen will oppose any attempt to change the world back to what it was, something that leaves John worried for Martin's safety. He repeatedly tries to destroy Helen, but she has full control over the structure and location of her domain and dramatically changes before The Eye can properly focus on her. John directly states his intention to kill her, and after a brief pause Helen says that she is not afraid of him. Sensing the lie, John calls on The Eye to witness Helen's fear and to follow it back to her being. Helen immediately drops her bravado and offers him a door to leave, then brings up times she helped him while desperately begging John not to kill her. When he is not swayed, she calls him a monster and says that killing her will also kill the people in her domain. She states the pointlessness of John's attempt to change the world back, then is fully destroyed.
The hotel collapses after Helen is destroyed. Martin is surprised that John has killed her but does not seem particularly disappointed with the news, a reaction also seen in Melanie and Basira after they hear of Helen's death.
Bold marks episodes where The Distortion has given a statement.
- Different forms of The Distortion have different relationships with identity and the idea of personhood. While Helen repeatedly affirms her identity, even going so far as to correct John when he refers to her as The Distortion and insisting he call her Helen, Michael rejects identity at every opportunity and asserts that it is something unattainable to him. This difference is further reflected in their respective relationships to it/its pronouns; despite Michael's proneness to antagonise John and act violently toward him, only Helen speaks out against John's repeated, derogatory use of "it".
- The Distortion was good friends with Gabriel, who enjoyed making clay sculptures depicting their door form.
- Helen's last words were "You can’t save anyone!"
- Michael's laugh is described as sounding like a headache.
- Michael's hair grows in ringlets, a type of spiralling curl.
- Given that Marcus McKenzie mentions living in his parent's home for much of his 20's and 30's, as well getting a divorce in 1993, the Distortion likely began pursuing him in the 1970's or 1980's before finally consuming him in 2018.
- An agent of the Spiral began following Ivo Lensik's father sometime prior to 1996. Although this entity is similar to Michael in having "all the bones [in his] hands", it is strongly associated with fractals rather than doors and appears to take on a human shape at a time when the Distortion existed in their door form. It is unclear what relation it has to the Distortion, if any.
- MAG 187: Checking Out
- MAG 47: The New Door
- MAG 126: Sculptor's Tool
- MAG 92: Nothing Beside Remains
- MAG 79: Hide and Seek
- MAG 26: A Distortion
- MAG 101: Another Twist
- MAG 115: Taking Stock Specifically, the line "I have never told you a lie, Archivist. I wouldn't dare." Although this statement is true as of MAG 115, it is an example of gaslighting because Helen says it to undermine John's legitimate concerns on whether she can be trusted.
- MAG 157: Rotten Core
- MAG 152: A Gravedigger's Envy
- MAG 146: Threshold
- MAG 27: A Sturdy Lock
- The exact date of Michael’s merging with The Distortion is unclear. Gertrude had lost all her assistants by 2011, and according to MAG 126, The Great Twisting took place some time after October 2009, placing Michael's transformation between October 2009 and 2011. This conflicts with the events detailed in MAG 167, which suggests he was part of the Distortion before the death of Agnes Montague, which occurred in 2006.
- MAG 74: Fatigue
- MAG 78: Distant Cousin
- MAG 80: The Librarian
- MAG 177: Wonderland
- MAG 115: Taking Stock
- MAG 131: Flesh
- MAG 195: Adrift
- MAG 188: Centre of Attention
- MAG 143: Heart of Darkness
- MAG 164: The Sick Village
- MAG 166: The Worms
- MAG 174: The Great Beast
- MAG 190: Scavengers
- MAG 183: Monument
- MAG 89: Twice as Bright