Creepypasta: A Penne For My Thoughts

Zalgo. The Rake. Slenderman. To the uninitiated, these names may just sound like a crappy version of the Avengers, but to the initiated they, along with countless other characters, movies and images, all have a particular significance. They have one thing in common…they are all examples of creepypasta.

“But Phil,” I hear you cry. “what is creepypasta?”

Well, fictional reader, that’s a very interesting question. To try and define exactly what counts as ‘creepypasta’, it’s worth looking at the etymology of the word itself. It evolved from the internet-coined word ‘copypasta’, which refers to any form of media that is propagated around the internet through repeated copying and pasting (hence the quasi-homophone, ‘copypasta’). So, extending this definition and applying it to creepypasta, we see it refers to anything that demonstrates some form of virality with a vaguely creepy twist. As such, it’s a rather broad term, and is getting broader by the minute.

So why is it so popular? That is a question that has got me thinking for a while now, so I figured I’d use the opportunity to set my ramblings in digital stone. And I’ll again emphasise; this isn’t any form of study on the subject by any stretch at all – just the opinions of a lone horror reviewer. So be warned: from hereon in, expect overgeneralisations aplenty.

Now, ask any horror fan why they’re so devoted to the genre and, in amongst the inevitable myriad of answers you’ll get, I’m willing to bet one will crop up time and time again: it’s all about chasing that high, that first time you watched a horror movie that terrified the living shit out of you. Every time. However, sadly, this is inherently self-defeating. Inevitably, the more horror movies you watch, the more you understand the language of horror movies; you begin to notice the way they’re structured, the way shots are framed, the way music is used…which means, consequently, the scares become predictable, and just lose their edge. Broadly speaking, it’s all about context; the less you know, the more potential there is. Think, say, of Jeepers Creepers. It’s a pretty solid film up until the Creeper appears, and you realise it’s just a dude with a dodgy rubber costume. It’s a cliché, but your own imagination is truly the most powerful weapon in the horror genre’s arsenal.

Which brings us neatly onto the concept of creepypasta. Due to the nature of the internet and the way information is filtered and disseminated, a lot of the examples of creepypasta exist in a vacuum and thus are devoid of context, regardless of their origins. Whether it’s a particularly creepy photo, or a video clip filled with bizarre and unnerving imagery, they all seem to provide just enough information to pique your imagination without giving too much away; they exist on the threshold between the known and the unknown. Consequently, your imagination yearns to make sense of whatever it has seen and thus it strives to extract meaning from the media in question.

I’ll tell you a story from personal experience: during my frequent travels through the internet, I stumbled across a rather unnerving photo. It portrayed a man in hospital; a man, however, with unnaturally long limbs and an abnormally broad chest. In this photo, the man was fastened to the wall, his limbs and body held aloft and upright by a harness that dangled from the ceiling. Now whilst the logical side of my brain scoffed at the image, there was also a part of it that somehow wanted to be convinced that it was real. There was just something about it – whether it was the slightly blurred look of a photo that has been taken whilst in motion, whether it was the casual way in which the nurse in shot seemed to be going about her daily business, whether it was the slightly off-colour tone of a photo taken during the advent of the camera – that made me want to believe there was some reality to it.

After months and months of knowing of the photo, I had the idea of using Google’s reverse image search to try and track down its origin (of course, other search engines are available). Lo and behold, my search proved successful: I discovered the image was actually a screengrab of an early Lars von Trier TV show called Riget, the show that inspired Kingdom Hospital.

And just like that, the image had lost its proverbial sheen. Knowing the origin of the photo somehow took away the intrigue. This may sound obvious, but this, along with a few similar examples, leads me to believe that this is a lot of the dark charm of creepypasta, and one of the reasons this type of image is borne into virality so often: the distinct (and sometimes deliberate) lack of context.

Another real-world example: as some of you may know, fellow Gorepress reviewer and resident madwoman Mrs. Louise McGettrick makes her living creating plush toys complete with fake human teeth. About a year ago she stumbled across an image of one of her Fugglers on the internet, captioned with a rather unfamiliar backstory. This story told the tale of a woman driven into insanity over the death of her child; a woman who then proceeded to extract the teeth from her dead kid and attach them onto a plush toy. It would seem that this particular image had gone through the process described above; devoid of context, some internet user had taken it upon themselves to ascribe meaning to the image of the Fuggler, and thus this fictional backstory was born.

So as we can see, context plays a massive part in determining the effectiveness of horror, whether it’s the context of the medium internally, or the context of media externally. Generally speaking, the less we know about it, the more our imaginations work, and the more our imaginations work the creepier we find it. (Hell, I had to write this article in short bursts over a few days just because I kept freaking myself out whenever I did any research. And I haven’t been scared by a horror movie for ten years.) But what else is there?

Now we’re all familiar with the concept of the urban legend; even if you didn’t necessarily experience the situation firsthand, it inevitably conjures up images of a group of kids sitting around a campfire in the middle of a forest as darkness closes in around them.

Whilst the concept of the urban legend has fallen a little into ridicule now that we’re all considerably older, I think the psychology behind what made urban legends popular plays a very important part in the propagation of creepypasta.

Regardless of what the details may be, urban legends revel in their supposed truth; they all start off practically in the same way: “Thirty years ago, deep within these very woods…”. It harks back to the point I made earlier about the importance of context (or lack thereof): some of the most popular examples of creepypasta are just enough founded in reality to be believable, ESPECIALLY so if they’re based off of popular media…or at least, seem to be. Candle Cove is one that jumps out here; written in the form of a message board forum, it seems to show a discussion between a group of adults about shows they used to watch when they were children. Before I go any further I recommend going to read the original text now because it’s genuinely creepy.

Read it yet? Terrifying, isn’t it? Anyway, for those of you who decided not to venture outside of the warm cosiness of Gorepress, I’ll summarise: the thread progresses as the adults reminisce about a show called Candle Cove. They discuss the characters and plots, entering the wistful mists of nostalgia…but things take a slightly sinister turn as one of them remembers a Candle Cove-induced nightmare that transpires to actually be an episode of the show. The thread ends with one of them mentioning that he had gone to visit his mum with the intention of talking to her about Candle Cove and after expressing surprise that he remembered it, she proceeds to tell him that every time he watched the show all he did was to tune the TV to static and sit there, staring, for half an hour…

Now Candle Cove is undeniably, indisputably, incontrovertibly 100% fiction (sorry…). It was a work of fiction inspired by, of all things, an article from The Onion. But what makes it so sinister, apart from the rather unexpected twist, is how it pertains to exist in our own reality. The basic concept itself on its own is clearly fictional; creepy kids watching static has practically been a horror trope ever since Poltergeist. But due to the content’s format and method of delivery, it lulls you into a false sense of security – the idea of fiction being told through message board threads is rather unusual, so it’s very easy to be tricked into thinking that it is real.

What makes Candle Cove so interesting, however, is that it has captured the imagination of hundreds of people across the world; so much so, that in an example of life imitating art, large amounts of derivative works can be found on the internet supposedly of Candle Cove itself. Hell, even tvtropes.org has its own section on it. It is, for all intents and purposes, becoming a real show…consequently making that threshold between fact and fiction just a little bit blurrier, and making the urban legend just that bit more believable.

Similar things can be said of the myriad of supposed ‘lost episodes’ of popular TV shows. Whether it’s the ‘Squidward’s Suicide’ episode of Spongebob Squarepants, the ‘Dead Bart’ episode of The Simpsons or the Disney-inspired suicidemouse.avi, there are many creepypastas that take advantage of the popularity of specific shows for their fame. All of them have a very urban legend-inspired backstory, often using the ‘found footage’ trope of an intrepid researcher piecing together the story bit by bit. However, they exist almost as the dark side of fan culture; whereas the concept of the meme reuses and recycles a specific trope for humorous effect, some creepypasta distort a trope in order to creep people out. I think the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance plays an important part here; if you notice, all three creepypasta listed at the start of this paragraphs are (practically) kids’ cartoon shows. It doesn’t even stop there; Lavender Town Syndrome (Pokemon), Ben Drowned (The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask) and Polybius (arcade games), all take advantage of the sanctity of things we enjoyed as children before subverting them. Thus, we are left with a cognitive dissonance, as our brains try to resolve the conflict between the happy familiarity of the media and the unnerving creepiness we feel about the subversion…which naturally makes us feel uncomfortable.

Overarching all of these points, however – not to mention conveniently tying all the arguments of this article together – is the main thing that I believe is the cause of the popularity of creepypasta. And that, my friend, is, quite simply, you. Yes, you. You, my friend, are the main cause of the popularity of creepypasta. Okay, maybe I’m not referring to you specifically, but ultimately anyone who considers themselves both a fan of horror as well as a Person of The Internet is the main cause of the popularity of creepypasta. It may sound stupid – not to mention a little pretentious – true, but it’s one thing to get creeped out by a photo or a video, but if it was just left there then creepypasta wouldn’t exist. Ultimately, we live in a social-media-driven digital world in which we share everything that piques our interest, whether it’s a grassroots attempt to crowdsource the film adaptation of a much-loved television show, a campaign to overthrow a tyrannical African military leader, or a gif of a cat trying to stand in a very small box. Consequently, if we find a particular video on YouTube that sends shivers up our spines then you’re sure as hell we’re gonna share it. But it doesn’t even stop there. Memes mutate; it’s in their very nature to do so (or rather, it’s in our very nature to make them mutate). Hence, what started off as a casual discussion online between a handful of horror fans who decided to make their own monster has since spawned a YouTube series, countless forms of fan art and two videogames…and thus, the Slenderman mythos was born.

…come on, you didn’t think I’d finish this article without discussing ol’ Slendy, did you?

I suppose, just in case you’ve been living under a particularly scare-free rock for the past four years, I’d better recap the story of Slenderman’s inception. On the SomethingAwful forums, a challenge was issued to photoshop new supernatural entities into photos. The winning entry was Slenderman; an unnaturally tall, faceless, suit-clad being with a penchant for kidnapping children. Now this just took the world by storm; what started out simply as a small contest between a handful of people captured the imaginations of thousands of internet-users globally and consequently the meme mutated from a single photo to a webseries with over 300,000 subscribers, a game that has been downloaded over 2 million times…and there are even films in the works. But none of that would have happened if it weren’t for our desire to share and adapt things that seize our imaginations.

Now, dear reader, if you’re anything like me if you are discovering these creepypasta for the first time you’ll probably be going through a rather severe case of the willies right now, so lucky for you I’ve decided to be merciful and end on two rather humorous takes on the subject – that incidentally, still utilise the concept of the urban legend – in all their grammar-nazi-inducing glory:

“man & girl go out to drive under moonlight. they stop at on at a side of road. he turn to his girl and say:

“baby i love you very much”
“what is it honey?”
“our car is broken down. i think the engine is broken. ill walk and get some more fuel.”
“ok. ill stay here and look after our stereo. there have been news report of steres being stolen”
“good idea. keep the doors locked no matter what. i love you sweaty”

so the guy left to get full for the car. after two hours the girl say “where is my baby, he was supposed to be back by now”. then the girl here a scratching sound and voice say “LET ME IN”

the girl doesnt do it and then after a while she goes to sleep. the next morning she wakes up and finds her boyfriend still not there. she gets out to check and man door hand hook car door”

And of course…

“So ur with ur honey and yur making out wen the phone rigns. U anser it n the voice is “wut r u doing wit my daughter?” U tell ur girl n she say “my dad is ded”. THEN WHO WAS PHONE?”

Classic.

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