If you’re like me, you probably enjoy a good spooky story. I’m a huge baby where scary stuff is concerned, but I sure do love getting my pants scared off. From the novels of Stephen King to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it’s fun to be creeped out. And apparently the internet agrees with me, because over the past decade creepypasta, short horror stories written and shared online, have become incredibly popular. There are whole wikis and websites dedicated to collecting and recording them. The /r/nosleep subreddit gets dozens of new posts a day, most of them new original stories. In terms of sheer quantity, it’s never been a better time to be a fan of horror writing.
Unfortunately, most creepypasta aren’t very scary. In fact, most are pretty shit.
While Sturgeon’s Law suggests that 99% of anything is always going to be crap, what’s striking about creepypasta is that so many of them are bad in the same way. They start out promisingly, offering up some good creepy imagery and generating some effective atmosphere. But somehow, by the end, that atmosphere has evaporated entirely, and what’s left behind feels stagnant and dull. Even some of the better examples of the genre suffer from this problem.
So, what mistake are these bad creepypasta all committing? I think I’ve figured it out: their authors have failed to recognize that they are writing a fantastic story, and in the absence of the fantastic, the story itself just isn’t that interesting.
If you’re not familiar with ‘the fantastic’ as in the genre of literature, and only know ‘fantastic’ as in ‘really good’, that sentence probably didn’t make a lot of sense. Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.
The fantastic is a genre of literature described by Bulgarian structural theorist Tzevetan Todorov in 1970. Wait, please! I know that the second you read the words ‘structural theorist’ your eyeballs started drying up and your soul started desperately clawing at your windpipe in a vain effort to get away from the pure, raw, intense boredom those words invoke. I promise you, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Todorov’s theory is the best kind of literary theory: the kind that simply puts into words a concept that you run into all the time but never had a word for. And it’s so simple that the main point of his entire book can be successfully summarized in a single paragraph, which I will attempt…now:
When you read a ghost story, the author very rarely comes right out and tells you in the beginning whether or not the events of the story are supernatural. Instead, the author presents a world which is pretty much the same as ours, and then starts piling on Weird Shit. Spooky noises, objects moving on their own, ghastly visions, characters behaving in strange and unsettling ways. All of these things suggest that something supernatural is at work, but they stop just short of confirming it, until finally at the story’s climax the author pulls back the curtain and either reveals that the ghost exists, or reveals the unlikely-but-rational explanation for all the strange goings-on. That building ambiguity – the period when there might be a ghost but there also might not be – is what Todorov calls ‘the fantastic’. If the ghost is real, the story then becomes ‘marvelous’; if the ghost is merely a set of hallucinations and coincidences, the story is instead ‘uncanny’, a word which, let me tell you, comes up a lot when you do an English degree. In Todorov’s own words:
In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination – and the laws of the world remain what they are; or else the even has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality – but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us. Either the devil is an illusion, an imaginary being; or else he really exists, precisely like other living beings – with this reservation, that we encounter him infrequently.
The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighbouring genre, the uncanny or the marvelous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.
Here’s a great example of a creepypasta which makes heavy use of the fantastic: Candle Cove by Kris Straub. Take a moment to read it if you haven’t already; it’s a short read and it definitely shouldn’t be spoiled. Ready? Done? Because I’m about to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it.
The story takes the form of a fake online forum thread discussing a (fictional) children’s show from the early 70s, called Candle Cove. Various respondents chime in with their own hazy childhood memories of the show, and as they gradually lift the fog of childhood amnesia together the show becomes stranger and stranger. Then the details of the show itself begin to take a sinister turn, with stories of creepy marionette-work and foreboding catchphrases. By the time the commenters start recalling that the villain of the series was named the ‘Skin-Taker’ and that the final episode consisted of nothing but a series of jump cuts to all of the characters screaming, the reader probably has a strong suspicion that something supernatural is afoot. But it’s not a certainty yet! We do, after all, live in a world where The Adventures of Mark Twain was a thing. It seems absurdly unlikely that Candle Cove could have ever been real, but up until the final entry in the comment thread, the possibility still exists; the story could have ended by telling us about some twisted Ohio millionaire who owned a bunch of local TV stations and delighted in scaring the hell out of kids, and it wouldn’t have contradicted anything. The story is hovering in the space between natural and supernatural (or, in Todorov’s terms, the uncanny and the marvelous); it is fantastic. That is, until the final entry pulls back the curtain: the show never existed, and when they thought they were watching it they were staring at dead-air static for half an hour at a time. The fantastic collapses, and the story becomes fully supernatural.
‘So what’, you might be saying. ‘I already knew that from reading the story, I didn’t need you to tell me that.’ And fair enough, as far as Candle Cove goes! But Candle Cove is just one example of many; creepypasta in general thrive on the fantastic. Think of the classics of the genre: in BEN Drowned it’s a while before it becomes clear whether the cartridge is actually haunted or if it’s just a weirdly glitched bootleg, The Smiling Man never makes it clear whether the eponymous smiler is just a disturbed passerby or something more sinister, and so on, and so forth. I think you would have a very difficult time finding a creepypasta which doesn’t lean heavily on the fantastic for its appeal. The only exceptions I can find are certain Slenderman stories which are deliberately imitating folklore tales, which are by their very nature marvelous in Todorov’s terms.
Many creepypasta, however, take this a step further, and blur the line not only between the natural and the supernatural within the fictional world it creates, but also between fiction and reality. Creepypasta often go to great lengths to convince the reader that the story is an account of real events. Stories are presented as blog posts, comment threads, and are posted on social network sites as if they actually happened to the writer. People are rarely fooled, of course, but that’s part of the fun: you know that the story isn’t real, but plausibility makes the story all the more thrilling. A certain frisson goes up your back as you think: this can’t be real…can it? The story reaches through the screen and intrudes on the real world.
One particularly strong example of this is a series of Search and Rescue stories posted to /r/nosleep. Although the author tips his hand as to the story’s falseness by choosing to post to r/nosleep, on its own merits the story is, at least in the beginning, downright masterful in its use of the fantastic. Each post in the series combines a series of stories, ostensibly from a SAR officer in a national park and his colleagues; some of these stories are fantastic in nature – ominous, suggestive of the supernatural, but never explicitly so – while others, like the tale of the nine-year-old girl who fell down a hill and died, are entirely plausible, grounding the entire affair in the real world. But the centerpiece of the whole thing are the stories about mysterious staircases:
This is the last one I’ll tell, and it’s probably the weirdest story I have. Now, I don’t know if this is true in every SAR unit, but in mine, it’s sort of an unspoken, regular thing we run into. You can try asking about it with other SAR officers, but even if they know what you’re talking about, they probably won’t say anything about it. We’ve been told not to talk about it by our superiors, and at this point we’ve all gotten so used to it that it doesn’t even seem weird anymore. 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. I asked about it the first time I saw some, and the other officer just told me not to worry about it, that it was normal. Everyone I asked said the same thing. I wanted to go check them out, but I was told, very emphatically, that I should never go near any of them. I just sort of ignore them now when I run into them because it happens so frequently.
This is fantastic, in both meanings of the word. It’s just bizarre enough to demand explanation, but just plausible enough that one can be provided: buildings that have been abandoned will sometimes leave parts of themselves standing as the rest crumbles away; a doorway, a patio, a staircase. It’s weird, but not actually supernatural. But then there’s the was senior SAR officers respond to them: don’t talk about them, don’t think about them, don’t go near them. The warning suggests the supernatural without insisting on it. It evokes from the reader the simple question: why? And, since the rest of the post seems consistent with the real world: is this real?
This is not, of course an entirely new trick; off the top of my head, Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar presents itself as a scientific journal of mesmeric experiments which never occurred, and at least half of Lovecraft’s ouevre are written as though they were letters to an academic authority. I’m sure there are other examples which I’m simply forgetting. But the way it is presented to us is new; creepypasta spread using the same technologies which we use to share our lives with others. These spooky ghost stories are not conveniently labelled as such (at least, not until they are archived to the Creepypasta wiki or another repository), or set apart in their own corner. They occupy the same space as photos of our children and pets, and rub shoulders with mundane stories about our everyday lives.
If this was an academic paper I might be tempted to give this new effects its own impenetrable name, like the meta-fantastic or the ur-fantastic or something like that, and wax on about how this penetration of the fantastic into our lives allows us to ascribe narrative meaning to our lives as agency-free cogs in the capitalist machine, or some such. Fortunately for all of you whose eyes have already started crossing, that’s not what I’m here for. Instead my question is: since the fantastic is the source of so much of creepypasta’s appeal, why then do so many stories undermine it so badly in the back end?
BEN Drowned has a brilliant first installment, and the creator put in a ton of effort to produce the hacked Majora’s Mask footage. Creepypasta about spooky video game cartridges are a dime a dozen and are almost always lame, but BEN Drowned has over five minutes of believable game footage to sell it. The story suggests all sorts of possibilities, but stops just short of making them explicit. However as the story wears on, it becomes explicitly supernatural, losing the fantastic edge that made it interesting in the first place. It ends on what can be described only as a wet fart, with an entry that didactically explains every detail of the story. The Search and Rescue stories maintain their momentum for several entries, but soon begin to sag as the sheer piling-on of details edges the supernatural ever closer to explicitness, and the final nail in the story’s coffin is a detailed explanation of the mysterious stairs’ powers. So many creepypasta fall into this trap; start with wonderfully fantastic material, and then stumble in the final stretch by making things too obvious.
Caitlyn Dewey, writing in the Washington Post, suggests that the key to Slenderman’s (pretty much unarguably the creepy pasta subject with the most longevity) lasting success is its vagueness and mutability. Slenderman can be anything to anyone; his details live in the reader’s imagination, and are only hinted at by the writers. A pair of doctored photographs with evocative but unclear captions will always be more compelling than generic monster stories featuring Slenderman, because one makes use of the fantastic and the other does not. The more concrete you make your answers, the less compelling your story will be.
I understand the desire for clarity and ensure that your story isn’t misread. I’m not saying that every story needs to be a whirlwind of unanswered questions and vague hints. You don’t need to turn your creepypasta into an ARG. You don’t need to ride the line of the fantastic all the way to the end of the story. But you need to be careful with the answers, lest you damage your story’s appeal by giving them away too soon or too freely. Look to Candle Cove for an example: the fantastic does collapse into the marvelous, but only at the very end. This was the perfect time to end it. Imagine if instead, the story had continued for another series of entries detailing how the Candle Cove hallucination was the work of the dark lord Beezlebub, or a cursed antenna, or a TV station full of druids. Is there anyone out there willing to say that that wouldn’t have been an inferior final product?
Wanting to explain is an understandable impulse, but it’s the wrong one. Know when to end your story and just how much to reveal. And if in doubt, err on the side of obscurity. If you leave the reader with questions, they’ll come up with their own answers; if you give them the answers, the whole story might fall flat.