Please note: The following recommendations are frequently R-rated and
not for the faint of heart, and the websites are not always appropriate for the workplace. Save
them for an evening without the kids. — Editor
It’s finally October, that brief time of year when everyone is trying to get scared. My friends are all watching The Haunting of Hill House
and I’m keeping myself up too late reading stories on r/NoSleep
, which you can tell is scary because of its ominous black background. The forum has over 12 million subscribers and it features thousands of terrifying stories; it's a natural first stop if you want to freak yourself out.
I didn’t expect to talk about the Internet so much, before I started this column: I am still very dedicated to analog literature, bookshops, and IRL book clubs. As it turns out, though, it’s been difficult to write about books without writing about the Internet. I might still buy paperbacks, but the way I read — and what I read — has absolutely been shaped online. This is especially true for horror, where I’ve pretty much given up on reading published books in lieu of the creepypasta popping up all over the Internet.
"Creepypasta" is an encompassing term for horror-themed photos, stories, posts, and documents published online, although it used to define a more narrow subset of the genre. The word is a mutilation of the term "copypasta," which are bits of text that are copied and pasted into new contexts without any regard for copyright or authorship; initially, creepypasta was merely the scary version of copypasta, but as the term gained steam it also gained a broader definition. Creepypasta can be about anything, from haunted houses to strange creatures to experiments gone awry, but they definitely read modern: aberrant technology features heavily, and you’re more likely to come across a cursed video game cartridge than a cursed amulet. They share some formal territory with more traditional horror stories, including the use of metaphor and symbolism to explore our quotidian anxieties, but many of them don’t read like stories at all. They are often written as blog posts, requests for advice, or oral histories that have no reliance on typical story structure. They are also largely stripped of the atmospheric quirks that define traditional horror, relying instead on the shock value of finding something unfamiliar in a banal place.
If you’re not an aficionado, the creepypasta you’re most likely to be familiar with is Slenderman
, an Internet legend which started as a series of creepy photoshops and achieved notoriety as the motivation for an attempted murder in 2014. Slenderman is, predictably, a tall, slender creature that is shaped something like a man and likes to hang out in the woods. Sometimes it is depicted with tentacle-like protrusions; it is almost always wearing a suit. It doesn't have a singular origin story: many creators have written their take over the years, and some of them are more successful than others. It's most recent iteration, a self-titled film that debuted this August to no fanfare, has been critically panned. I don’t think that indicates that Slenderman has lost its ability to terrify; the inclination to force a chaotic Internet meme into the format of a traditional blockbuster seems like a failure of imagination. Besides, the apotheosis of the Slenderman mythos already existed in the subtle, slowburning Marble Hornets
, a found-footage web series released from 2009–2014. It was a DIY project released on YouTube that netted its creators almost no money, but it is one of the finest examples of found footage that I’ve ever seen.
It’s finally October, that brief time of year when everyone is trying to get scared.
There is a paradox exposed by Creepypasta: everyone lies on the Internet, but these stories have more authenticity than they would were they published in a slickly marketed hardcover. It is another paradox that authenticity is key to horror, a genre as unmoored from reality as it is possible to be. These paradoxes, the gaping void they expose between what is
and what should be
, are what make horror horrifying. Creepypasta often start somewhere familiar — an old photograph, a call from an unlisted number — and then march decidedly out of our reality. They beg you to believe they’re real and often give no indication that they aren’t, and in doing so they exploit a weakness in the Internet itself: we have all begun to place a massive amount of trust in words on a screen, despite knowing next to nothing about their genesis.
This is what makes creepypasta so effective. The Internet has made it very easy to run up against everything that we don’t know about other people; given anonymity, people will admit to bizarre things in very unlikely places. Creepypasta rely on the supernatural to embellish this tendency, but the basic shape of the stories is recognizable from the hundreds of other banal things we already see online. The horror is in both the theme and the format.
My favorite example predates use of the word creepypasta. The Dionaea House
was published in 2004 and it is still online today; you should read it, although its form feels dated in a post-social media world. The story is basic: Mark Condry has gone missing, and his friends and family have set up a website to share his final communications in the hope of finding him. The story published in real time, in the voices of several characters across several platforms, so that the lines between following along and taking part began to blur, and if you came across any piece of it out of context, it wasn’t obvious that a man named Mark hadn’t
gone missing. Like all the best horror, it twisted the familiar into something monstrous. The Dionaea House
deftly used my Internet home — a loose coalition of message boards and Livejournal — to make me afraid of my actual house.
I don’t know if it has aged particularly well; its exploitation of a living medium made it especially effective in 2004, and significantly less so in 2018 when we’ve all left our Livejournals behind. But this is the nature of horror, and it is especially the nature of creepypasta. Anxiety is fleeting, a state of being that our bodies can't maintain, and what seems especially frightening now will lose its impact through repetition and exposure. Creepypasta, though, are in and out before you can question them or think about them or doubt them, and they leave, in their wake, a vague sense of unease. They’re probably not true, but you definitely can’t prove it.
The Dionaea House
Ted's Caving Page
The Russian Sleep Experiment
The Enigma of Amigara Fault
The Left/Right Game
÷ ÷ ÷
is a bookseller at Powell's. The Gold Room is her favorite and she has too many opinions about the Animorphs.