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Revisiting Creepypasta, the Social Horror Craze That Launched Slenderman

HBO’s documentary ‘Beware the Slenderman’ premieres tomorrow, detailing the real-world consequences of a collaborative online nightmare machine.

Every moment we are online, we teeter on the edge of experiencing chaos. That may sound hyperbolic but consider it for a moment. If you spend some of your day on Reddit, you're already just a few clicks away from seeing videos of real death and despair.

It shouldn't come as a surprise then that online messageboards have given birth to an original type of social horror. No, not John Sudano, or terrible social media horror movies—this is something more akin to myths and legends of old, but holds a name that doesn't carry any weight on it's own: creepypasta. It's a collaborative type of storytelling that rearranges found bits of internet text to scare the shit out of everyone who reads it.

Most of us put too much of ourselves online. Nothing helps heal the wounds of modern life quite like oversharing. Creepypasta lives and dies on oversharing. Most creepypasta stories can be found on messageboards in strange first-person narratives of a horrific experience.

Take this story on Reddit from a search and rescue officer from the US Forest Service. In a post from late 2015, the officer describes something strange he saw on the job, "on just about every case where we're really far into the wilderness, I'm talking 30 or 40 miles, at some point we'll find a staircase in the middle of the woods. It's almost like if you took the stairs in your house, cut them out, and put them in the forest." It wasn't long before others claimed to see the strange stairs too. Even though this sounds insane, you almost want to go out looking for the stairs yourself just so you can share your story online.

These narratives rely on a collaborative dedication to build a shared delusion. Someone posts their strange horror story and others on the messageboard can add and elaborate on the narrative so long as they don't break the suspension of disbelief. Everything in a creepypasta is true, even if it's not.

The result is an unsettling fear designed to blur the lines of fiction and reality. Older creepypasta stories like Jeff the Killer or Anasi's Goatman Story went viral because people thought they were real. The narratives don't play by conventional rules of storytelling. Instead, they forego character development and plot to evoke a strange sense of uncanny familiarity.

Take for example, The Russian Sleep Experiment, a story that recounts Russian researchers in the late 1940s trying to keep five people awake for 15 days. The test subjects were kept in a confined room equipped with microphones and five inch thick glass porthole windows. They were promised freedom if they stayed awake for 30 days. Here's an excerpt of what happened next: "After nine days the first of them started screaming. He ran the length of the chamber repeatedly yelling at the top of his lungs for three hours straight, he continued attempting to scream but was only able to produce occasional squeaks."

Once the researchers opened the room they saw that "all four 'surviving' test subjects also had large portions of muscle and skin torn away from their bodies. The destruction of flesh and exposed bone on their finger tips indicated that the wounds were inflicted by hand, not with teeth as the researchers initially thought."

The clinical prose suggest that the worst nightmare of all is reality. Even though what you're reading doesn't hold up to scientific scrutiny, the detailed account almost wills your mind into believing it.

Syfy's 'Channel Zero' adapted creepypasta classic 'Candle Cove' for TV.

The term creepypasta is a portmanteau of creepy and copypasta, a word used on 4chan in 2006 to describe viral copy-and-pasted text. Due to this, there's a weird generational disconnect with creepypasta. The phenomenon went viral on messageboards about ten years ago. In the beginning these stories were random bits of junk: anecdotes, language or whatever that had been copied and pasted over and over to construct a story. The majority of them originated on the NoSleep subreddit and can now be found on 4chan, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Blumhouse, Facebook, YouTube, or really any social platform.

These short digestible urban legends still kinda exist under the radar. Hell, there are YouTube videos where people just read the stories that have over 3 million views. It's a phenomenon. Due to the strange collaborative writing experience, the original authors are sometimes difficult to track down, but that mystery is part of the fun. As soon as someone posts the story, someone can repost and add to the story. Academics call it digital folklore: modern mythmaking at the behest of social media.

Jeff Tolbert, a folklore professor from Indiana University Bloomington, suggests creepypasta represents a process he calls "reverse ostension." Ostension is the process of acting out a folk narrative. Creepypasta does the opposite by creating a set of folklore-like narratives where none existed before through a collective effort. According to Tolbert, this involves the creation of new objects and new disconnected examples of experience, and involves the combination of these elements into a body of "traditional" narratives, modeled on existing folklore.

It seems Tolbert could be onto something, as right now the most popular creepypasta's draw on real world familiarity with topics like YouTuber antics gone wrong, a sentient evil computer program locked away on the deep web and poisoned cans of Redbull.

By drawing on the familiar, writers can expose real fear and receive immediate feedback on their story. The audience can easily help steer the narrative. NoSleep contributor TheJesseClark summarized the appeal to me: "It's a great little niche on the internet where you can hone your skills and get quick feedback and fan bases that you can market more ambitious projects to for free."

Although Jesse writes stories that represent what's currently popular on NoSleep, he did say that "it's easy to see why it was popular and successful in the past. Everything's free, and success is simply due to the quality of your ideas and execution. It's one of the purest ways to share content."

Older creepypastas relied on the purity of the forum experience to go viral and pop culture is taking note. Now stories like Candle Cove and Slenderman are stepping off messageboards.

Candle Cove was recently adapted by SyFy into an an incredible television series. The story follows a group of adults who all remember watching an old pirate kids show when they were children but it turns out they were only watching static. The television show stayed true to its roots by creating a moody and surreal narrative that elaborated on the tale in true creepypasta fashion. The end of the original story is the end of the first episode in the series, everything that happens next is new.

Then you have Slenderman, perhaps the most famous of all the creepypasta stories and the only one to escape the internet and take root in the real world. The Slenderman is a thin, unnaturally tall man with a blank and featureless face, wearing a finely tailored black suit. He is found in a variety of stories but is most commonly stalking children. He's been featured in many different video games and literature. His existence was even the source of a moral panic in 2014 after two girls tried to sacrifice a classmate to the Slenderman. The event, known as The Slenderman stabbing is the subject of a new documentary from HBO films— Beware the Slenderman, launching January 23.

Obviously the two young girls at the centre of the documentary were not able to separate the fiction of Slenderman from the reality. The dedication to suspension of disbelief that is key to creepypasta proves Grant Morrison right when he says "things don't have to be real to be true. Or vice versa."

The modern mythmaking involved in creepypasta allows each separate story to persist outside of a messageboard environment. As the experience is shared and reshared it grows and begins to exist on its own right. No one point of view has a full grasp on the story and by removing a fixed protagonist the story ensures that together we only have own thing to remember: the monsters.

By making horror a social experience, readers can no longer hold the aspects of a story at a distance. Creepypasta stories signify a profound recollection and familiarity within the reader. The reader is drawing on moments from their own life. You can either add to it or walk away.

Of course, that's just for people who partake in it. For those of us on the outside these stories can seem absurd and at times laughable. Most people will find it impossible to believe that any of these fictions are real. They may even demand that readers carry a better authority over their imaginations and step away from the experience.

According to Stephen King, horror "deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us." Those that love horror know the truth of that statement and sharing the experience of horror only elevates its effectiveness. Just ask anyone who's seen The Exorcist in a sold out theatre. By making these short horror stories digital folklore, creepypasta creates a community of people ready to share in the confrontation with something they're afraid to see alone, but afraid not to see together. After all, what good is suffering if not shared?

Follow Zac Thompson on Twitter.