The other day, a few friends and I were discussing the concept of “creepypasta”, which one of them had just discovered via the Creepypasta Wiki. Now, I’ll admit that I was not familiar with the wiki, or with the fact that creepypasta had become an outright genre, but it didn’t take long for me to feel at home.
And by “at home” I mean “terrified of the Slender Man.”
When I was a child, I had a huge window over my bed, and I was deathly frightened of waking up to find someone looking into it. The Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode “Hush” has a scene where two monsters appear suddenly in someone’s kitchen window, and it’s the only TV show ever to give me nightmares. Let’s save my psychoanalysis for another day, however.
The Creepypasta wiki has a pretty concise definition of what they document: A Creepypasta is a short story that is posted on the internet that is designed to unnerve and shock the reader. One of my other friends, as we gleefully all tried to top each others’ terror, suggested Candle Cove as the platonic ideal of Creepypasta. I went and read it, and my reaction went from “This is pretty tame” to “Oh, I see where they’re going” to “HOLY — WHAT NO THIS IS NOT OKAY” at the last “comment” on the fictional “messageboard”.
I was working on some tyepsetting for The Dead Isle while I was having this discussion, and what struck me almost immediately after reading Candle Cove was that I had written creepypasta myself, and inserted it into The Dead Isle. In this case it’s literally a single paragraph:
It is brilliant in its simplicity, tumbled and smoothed by decades of telling; at heart it is nothing more than a perplexing puzzle over a train gone missing, disappeared off its tracks one foggy night in the middle of empty country. The pleasure is in the build and the epilogue — the mysterious goings-on beforehand, the ill engineer who would eventually disappear with the train, the engine troubles, the peculiar cargo, the unease of the conductor and driver. The frantic search, and the reports long after of drivers who would see a train coming towards them and brace for a collision only to find there is no other engine. The odd pieces of rusted iron discovered years later and quite too far from the track to mark a derailment.
I wrote this, and it still makes me shiver. In the latest extribulum read-through, half my readers wanted me to take this out and put the actual story in instead, and the other half thought it was much, much scarier this way. I’m inclined to agree.
There is one reasoning which says that it’s scarier this way because for sheer horror value prose on a page can never compare to the images one forms in one’s mind; I learned this very young while discussing The X-Files with a friend who was working on her master’s degree in English Lit. She pointed out to me that the reason a certain scene was so horrifying was that we don’t see the gore or the blood or the aliens: we only see Agent Scully’s reaction to what she’s seeing, and we form in our minds something more terrible than TV could show us.
But the other reason that creepypasta in particular is so effective is that it’s not actually a story. Of course it is a story, in the “I made this up” sense, but it’s not structured as a story. I remarked to my friends that the whole gestalt of it is deeply effective, and when asked what I meant, I replied:
It’s the idea of a ghost story that’s not told as a story. It’s a factual account, a documentary (like Blair Witch), a piece of ephemera or, like Candle Cove, a series of comments; in Dead Isle, it’s the afterword to the actual story, and describes the story being told as a secret mystery in the dark, between two other people and only overheard by the author.
It’s scarier because there’s no “this is a story” disconnect; the traditional story format that reassures us that we’re experiencing something openly false isn’t present. Instead what we’re faced with is a construct we’re used to being truthful, like Wikipedia or a discussion between friends, perverted into something that can’t possibly be true. There’s nothing there to reassure us that it’s “just a story”.
This can happen even when something isn’t actually fictional, as well. To illustrate this, I linked my friends to the Bloop, a mysterious underwater noise picked up by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1997. The Bloop in itself is not that scary, though I get unnerved whenever the ocean makes noises that science can’t explain. But wikiwandering from the Bloop is dangerous: the first place you’re likely to end up is the List of Unexplained Sounds.
Wait, wait — there’s a list of these things? Oh my God, did you listen to the Train?
A part of your mind is yelling, in the background, that there’s a perfectly logical explanation for these noises; a whale passing by or a really big air bubble or the Earth’s crust settling (which is in itself a little scary) but that only makes things worse, because it reinforces the idea that all this stuff actually happened and sometimes still happens and what if there’s a giant sea monster? What if? And it’s scarier because it’s presented by a trustworthy source as absolute fact: Wikipedia.
Eventually clicking on links will get you to UVB-76. For my money UVB-76 is the most terrifying unexplained noise of all, because it involves people, sentient beings capable of rational thought and strategy, and we can’t find them. The Cold War was pretty much over by the time I was aware enough to follow politics, so it’s not the fact that it’s a Russian radio station that freaks me out; it’s the fact that we don’t know where it is or what it means, and it’s possible the people who are occasionally heard on the radio don’t know it’s there.
Horror is a pretty powerful genre, though a discussion of humanity’s essential morbidity is perhaps best saved for some other time. But fear, even fear within some other genre, is equally powerful if not more so. I used this heavily in Trace, to really nail home just how evil the antagonist is; one of the strongest reactions I’ve ever had from my readership was the reaction to the dinner scene, where everyone is so excited because it’s pizza night, and then they discover mold under the cheese on the pizza — and then the other diners surrounding the narrator keep eating it.
The unexpected can cause a sudden, hard, powerful emotion in someone, and when it’s used well it can be a great tool for any writer.