The trailer is out for Sony’s new horror film Slender Man, coming a mere four years after the near-fatal stabbing of 12-year-old Payton Leaner at the hands of her pre-teen friends Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weir, who claimed to be inspired by the internet meme known as Slenderman. Just before Christmas of this year, Anissa Wier was committed to 25 years of state mental care, and Morgan Geyser is still awaiting the length of her sentence, though it is known that she too will be committed to a mental institution.
Because of the attempted murder and the media coverage that followed, Slenderman has become the most famous example of these Internet urban legends. They are known online as creepypasta, a term that younger readers are likely acquainted with, but may sound pretty stupid to those who have never heard of them. And many of the stories are, but it wouldn’t be completely fair to judge this book by its bad title; creepypasta that are good enough are making their way into popular culture, on both the big and small screen. With Slender Man out this year, as well as SyFy’s new show Channel Zero, a fantastic horror anthology series that is bringing these obscure Internet posts to life, it appears that creepypasta may finally be reaching a wider audience.
WTF is creepypasta?
(To actually read these these creepypasta, just click the links and they will take you to the source)
Creepypasta are a spin off of something known as "copypasta", which was a mid-2000s term that came from the copy-and-paste sharing of various stories on message boards like 4chan. Before the rise of personalized social media, the Internet was a much more anonymous place, which made it even creepier than it is now, and early creepypasta often originated from unknown sources, making them all the more unnerving. A key component of a creepypasta has always been a suspension of disbelief. Writers created surreal stories that were still real enough to believe, and there was a sort of unspoken agreement with those that interacted with the content: we act like this real. And by acting like something is real, it begins to actually feel that way.
The posts would be shared over and over again across various message boards, passed on similarly to the way urban legends spread across playgrounds and high schools. These horror stories were also told as if they were true (hook on the handle of the door, PEOPLE LICK TOO, spider eggs in Bubble Yum, PopRocks and Coke), and we often believed them even though they were ridiculous. It's possible too, like with creepypasta, that we just chose to believe. But as we saw with the stabbing of Payton Leaner, the ability to differentiate between reality and fantasy isn’t always easy for people. When you first get into creepypasta without knowing what they are or how they work, it would definitely be possible to be sucked into mindset not unlike that of a conspiracy theorist, a kind of manic consumption of the unexplained parts of our world. It happened to me some years ago when I discovered the creepypasta called Candle Cove, which I will get into in a second.
A creepypasta story grows and evolves over time, and this is another of its key components. Stories like that of Slenderman are like living, breathing things, Internet-wide collaborations. Users contributed (and still contribute) new additions to different stories, adding creepy pictures, video, and other created artifacts that fill the stories out and grow them into legends. They photos often act as evidence to help “prove” that the stories are true. Take this found footage video from 2009 that claims to capture Slenderman:
In homage, fan may go as far as creating short films inspired by these stories, as in the case of The Smiling Man, one of the best creepypasta in my opinion:
In the video above, the character is human, but something about his movements are off, causing us feelings of revulsion. Like our fear of clowns, dolls, mannequins, and other human-like creations, much of creepypasta seems to root itself in the Uncanny Valley, a theory that explains that humans react with a feeling of eeriness to things to things are almost human, but not quite. Take this image (I’m sorry) of Jeff the Killer, a very well-known character from creepypasta:
And this image of Slenderman, a tall humanoid with long arms and legs, no face, and tentacles (look in the background between the trees):
And another image from the famous creepypasta called Robert the Doll:
Another creepypasta, called Squidward’s Suicide, plays on childhood anxiety and the corruption of innocence. I find this to be one of the most disturbing of all, even though it dates its creators and consumers a little more than the others. It focuses on the hugely popular kids' show Spongebob Squarepants, and an apparent lost episode that features a grisly suicide of Squidward (a main character), as well as other horrifying images. It very likely influenced another creepypasta featuring with Mickey Mouse that was uploaded in 2013, called Suicide Mouse. Both videos are very disturbing so I'm not going to link them here, but you can find them with a simple google search.
SyFy’s Channel Zero
In the fall of 2016, SyFy aired an anthology show with the goal of bringing creepypasta to the small screen. The six-episode seasons, two of which are already available, flesh out the Internet stories beautifully, leaving me feeling a kind of terror that I thought I was no longer able to feel from a mainstream horror experience. I guess I’m not completely desensitized yet, or maybe these type of stories better poke at some underlying anxiety.
I was excited to hear that the first season would feature my personal favorite creepypasta, Candle Cove. This creepypasta is also built on a foundation of childhood anxiety, especially the unnerving feelings of being unable to completely remember something, especially if that something might be traumatic.
Candle Cove is about a kids’ show of the same name that multiple users on a message board are conversing about, straining to remember an eerie puppet show that played during their childhoods. To create the illusion that the story was real, the writer (we do know the origin of this one) webcartoonist and author Kris Straub, formatted the story to look like an actual message board, here is an excerpt:
The unnerving descriptions of the puppets were brought to life masterfully in Channel Zero’s first season, a season that I believe has not gotten the recognition it deserved. Here is a trailer so you can see what I’m talking about:
The second season covered another favorite creepypasta, NoEnd House. This is a great example of a quality creepypasta, and the Channel Zero season honestly made it hard for me to sleep at night, and did that thing that truly good television and film can do: changed my reality for a time. It seeped into my day to day life, into my dreams. There is something about creepypasta that does this, that fuses itself into your consciousness so that the world takes on a more surreal quality.
Slender Man and Beyond
I’m not all that hopeful that the new Slender Man movie will be a good film. We can only hope that the writers and director make respectful choices with a story like this, a story that proved in some ways the danger of an unchecked belief that left one stabbing victim and two young girls placed in long-term mental health facilities.
Nonetheless, something about creepypasta is obviously resonating with a wider audience, What is it that makes some of these stories so effective in freaking us out? Maybe it's simply the fact that the culture of the Internet agreed to consume these stories as if they were a reality and add to them as well. When we believe in something, when we make that agreement, our reality as we know it can alter. And maybe because these stories exist on the precipice between what is possible and impossible, what is human and not-quite-human, what is rumor and what is truth, they get under our skin the way a life-like doll sitting on a chair in the corner of your room always seems to. Whatever the reason, creepypasta is likely to continue to fan out into the mainstream, and in the hands of skilled writers and directors like Channel Zero’s creator Nick Antosca, they can really make for quality horror. We’ll have to reserve our judgment yet for creepypasta’s first big screen attraction.