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Creepy Pasta, the Modern Ghost Story

10/29/12 1:30pm
tl;dr

Want some scares for Halloween? Join me as we delve into the internet's scariest variety of noodles.

I bet a lot of you have played Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow, right? This is a gaming website, after all, and they are some of the most popular games of all time. Now if you’ve played the games, you probably remember Lavender Town, a small village that you go through during the second act of the game. Unlike the rest of the game, with its bright atmosphere and fun time, Lavender Town seemed like there was just something off about the whole place. The whole area had a ghost-theme to it, being the home of a sort of haunted-tower dungeon. It was uncannily depressing and oozed atmosphere that you just couldn’t find from other games. And the music. Oh, boy, the music…

When I was a kid, I would sometimes sneak my Gameboy into my room at night. When the lights were out and I was supposed to be sleeping, I would crawl under the covers, plug in some headphones, and play my Pokemon Red version. Except this cartridge didn’t have a label because I bought it from a weird corner store down the street which had never been there before and disappeared the day after I got it. Just saying. I was playing one night and got to Lavender Town. I was really tired, but I didn’t want to go to sleep yet, because Rock Tunnel had taken me a long time and I wanted to reap the fruits of my labor. I ended up falling asleep with the game on, and—this was the mistake—my headphones still plugged in.

The next day, I couldn’t get the Lavender Town background music out of my head. All through school, I kept humming it. I was usually very good in school but that day I just couldn’t pay attention. I kept hearing the song the whole time, unable to even think of anything else. When I finally got home, I ran to my Gameboy and turned on Pokemon Red. To my surprise, instead of the normal start-up screen, a sprite of the ghosts from the Lavender Town tower popped up. It took up the whole screen. And the worst part of all was that it didn’t have regular pixelated eyes. It had these huge, red, hyper-realistic eyes that felt like they were actually looking at me. I screamed, threw the Gameboy, and ran to tell my mom what happened. She went to take a look and game back looking confused, saying that the screen was blank and the Gameboy not turned on. In fact, there wasn’t even a cartridge in the slot. THEN WHO WAS GAME?

If you’ve lurked internet forums long enough, it’s quite likely you’ve come across something like this at some point. And if you haven’t, keep doing it and you probably will. This is the world of creepy pasta, a new brand of horror fiction literature birthed from internet message boards. A creepy pasta is essentially a short horror or paranormal story, often accompanied by (and revolving around) a picture or video, and is designed to send chills down the reader’s spine. The term “creepy pasta” comes from the name “copy pasta,” which is something that gets passed around (“copied and pasted,” get it?) on message boards. They are short, small-scale, unprofessional, and some of the scariest pieces of writing I’ve ever read.

Creepy pastas can be completely original short stories. It’s also not  uncommon for them to be about thinks that already exist, usually something that was already mildly unsettling to begin with. The Lavender Town thing I talked about above, for example. What I wrote up there^ was obviously meant to be a parody, but Lavender Town, and Pokemon in general, are common topics of creepy pasta. Often, characters will find themselves in possession of a weird copy of a video game, which is “glitched out” in all sorts of odd ways, and eventually starts haunting the person in real life. Coming across a video tape of a “lost episode” of some harmless children’s show is a common motif as well, with said episode containing a murder or something.

I called creepy pastas “literature” before. Since most creepy pastas are text based (although many contain pictures and videos) I stand by this label. They are a lot less formal, however. Creepy pastas are a more basic, grittier horror story. In that regard, I like to think of them as the modern version of the ghost story. You know the old cliche of campers sitting around the fire, telling spooky tales to creep-out their friends? The internet is our campfire, and creepy pasta are the scary stories we tell.

Unfortunately, due to the amateur nature of creepy pastas, there is a lot of crap. And I mean a lot of crap. There are probably more bad creepy pastas out there than good ones. Most of this has to do the phenomenon lending itself to makign peopel want to write, even said people aren't exactly the most talented authors to begin with. On top of that, many are just trying too hard, or don't understand why something is scary. They know what is scary, resulting in many creepy pastas reading like a description of a generic horror film.

With that being said, when creepy pastas work, they can be excellent. I think a lot of that has something to do with the format itself. Because creepy pastas are small time, good ones are easier to accept than more formalized literature. Think of it this way: when you read a horror novel, no matter how frightening the subject matter is, you know it's just a novel. I haven't read a book since I was a kid that made me worry that the creatures within it were going to come and get me in real life. The writing itself tells us that this is a story, and the front and back cover clearly mark the boundaries of fiction and reality.

The best creepy pastas work because they make you question that boundary. When I read a creepy pasta, I know it isn't real. The reason it scares me is because of the implications of it. Nothing is scarier than the unknown, and good, scary creepy pastas make us question that unknown. Not that a typical couldn't be scary, mind you. It's just that a leaked government document is a lot more likely to ask you "what if?" than, say, a short story about a ghost dog. (Which you should still read, by the way. Just saying.) The horror isn't about what is, it's about what could be.

This is why, despite what I look for in any other story, my favorite creepy pastas are the ones that don't answer all the questions. I prefer the short ones told as diary entries, or plain descriptions of haunted locales, or maybe a slightly off-putting photograph accompanied with a faux news article. The best ones don't have too many fully developed characters, because too many literature tropes help to bold the line between fact and fantasy. The very nature of creepy pastas themselves already give them a certain degree of verisimilitude. Good creepy pastas make you put yourself in the scary situation, and then make you realize that there is nothing keeping this situation from being real. I don't believe in werewolves. I don't believe in The Rake, either. With that being said, the first time I read the story, I was a little more reluctant to turn off light when I was in bed.

Are you scared yet? With Halloween so close by, you might have a hankering for some horror literature yourself. If you don't want to commit to Frankenstein, and are getting tired of the same old tired cliches, or maybe you want something that caters a little more to your suspension of disbelief, then check out some creepy pastas. Let me get you started with a few of my favorites.

 

 

The Cabin
 
 
A simple creepy pasta, only a couple paragraphs long. It tells the story of a hunter who gets lost in the woods and takes shelter in a cabin. What he finds in there is startling. What he finds the next morning is even worse.
 
This one is very bare bones, and that's what makes it work. There also aren't any descriptions of graphic events or discoveries, just a twist ending that feeds on the hunter's - and by extension, the reader's - paranoia. It is a classic example of how subtlety works well to create fear.
 
 
The Rake
 
 
A predecessor to Slenderman, the Rake is an enigmatic, animalistic creature that has been stalking victims for centuries. It has gone on to star in plenty of other creepy pastas, but this is the first one. It isn't quite as scary as some others. What lacks in fear, though, it makes up for in intrigue. This story is told in snippets and found letters of those who experienced encounters with the mysterious, humanoid creature.
 
The bulk is taken up by a modern account by a woman who saw it up-close and personally and lived to tell about it. This part falls flat a couple times, although it still works enough to make you question if something really could be out there.
 
 
In The Kitchen
 
 
This one is so short, you don't even need that link. I can just post the whole thing here:
 
A young girl is playing in her bedroom when she hears her mother call to her from the kitchen, so she runs downstairs to meet her mother.

As she's running through the hallway, the door to the cupboard under the stairs opens, and a hand reaches out and pulls her in. It's her mother. She whispers to her child, "Don't go into the kitchen. I heard it too."

I heard a story once that somebody challenged Ernest Hemingway to write a story using only six words. His result was, "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn." This creepy pasta works wonders in such a short amount of space, for exactly the same reason. It quickly places the characters in a terrifying situation. It explains nothing, while leaving the events so simple that they don't require explaining. Instead, it lets your mind ask the questions and fill in the blanks.
 
The fact that it is so simple also makes it easy to identify with. Put yourself in the mother's shoes: imagine something in the other room calling out in your voice, and it wants your loved one. You don't know what it is don't want to find out. The unknown is scarier than any explanation could be, and that, combined with the feeling of helplessness, makes this one brutally unsettling with such a small amount of story.
 
 
 The Thing that Stalks the Fields
 
 
The other creepy pastas here are at least somewhat well known. This is much more of personal choice for me. It is also more of a narrative or short story, albeit one without a true end. It is presented as the last testament of a farmer who has found himself being harassed by some, thing.
 
This piece works well as a piece of traditional horror fiction as much as it does a creepy pasta. It actually takes a more traditional approach, melding an actual plot and rising action with the gritty nature of pastas. We never find out what this thing is, or what it wants. All we know is that it is taking over the life of the farmer. We feel his confusion and his dread.
 
There is also a brilliant balance of showing things versus leaving things to the imagination. I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll just say that we never see the monster. We do see what it's capable of. The description of the climax has some great imagery without getting too descriptive, making us feel sick to our stomachs while at the same time reinforcing our fear of whatever this thing is.
 
 
 
SCP-173
 
 
Secure, Contain, and Protect. 173 is the first and probably most famous of the SCP stories. It originally made it's rounds on message boards claiming to be a leaked document from a secret government organization called the SCP Foundation.
 
Since then, the internet has turned SCP into it's own thing. There are now literally hundreds of SCP documents, all compiled in a website created for the fake organization. The articles are essential data profiles of anomalous creatures and objects. Some of them are scary, some are interesting, and some read like something out of Harry Potter.
 
While interesting, I think the website and organization robs the SCP documents of a lot of the mystique. On top of that, a lot of the individual entries aren't that interesting, or scary, or would work far better in their own stories.
 
Regardless of that, the original document, SCP-173, is still a top-notch creepy pasta. There is no story and there are no characters. It's about statue that kills people if nobody is looking at it. The story here is in the presentation. It's status as a "leaked government document" says that this is something that exists and is a real threat. That alone is scary enough, then you throw in the concept which is simulatenously unique and startling. There is also a lot of mystery and intrigue, making us wonder, what is this thing? What does it want, and how did it come to be?
 
The icing on the cake is the photograph. There is an actual picture of the beast, and boy is it ugly. It's hard to imagine how they made that, which lends even more credence to the government document gimmick. All of these things add up to one freaky creepy pasta, featuring a monster where the only thing worse than seeing it, is not seeing it.
 
 
Candle Cove
 
 
This is my favorite creepy pasta. It encompasses everything that makes creepy pastas good, from it's presentation, to the sense of realism, to the subject matter itself. There is no death or murder. There is a little bit of scary imagery packaged with a twist ending that becomes the very essence of paranoia. There is nothing outright horrible, just a subtle and mysterious phenomenon that preys on our fear of the unknown to tickle our spines just a little bit.
 
It is structured as a forum post from a message board discussing an old forgotten children's show. This alone is a pretty good concept, and is executed very believably. Different posters have different writing styles, and occasional typos reinforce the casual conversation part. As they reminisce, they start to bring back memories of some pretty weird stuff. And the more they talk about it, the stranger things start to become, until they realize that there may be something more to this show. Something sinister.
 
Everything about Candle Cove works. It's great and lives up to the "creepy" part of creepy pasta very well. If you only read one entry on this list, make it this one.
 
 
 
Slender Man / Marble Hornets
 
Slender Man Origin Thread: http://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3150591&userid=0&perpage=40&pagenumber=3#post361861415
 
 
You can't talk about creepy pasta without talking about Slender Man. Possibly the most famous of pastas, Slender Man isn't actually a creepy pasta. It, or he, is more of a mythos. Slender Man is not a creepy pasta any more than zombies are a movie. Instead, "he" is a recurring villain in various creepy pastas sharing similar themes. The mythos got its start on the Something Awful forums in a thread about photoshopping paranormal images (linked to above.) One user posted a couple pictures of children playing with a scary guy in a suit watching them from the background, accompanied by a story of a fire in the orphanage that the pictures supposedly came from. From there, the "faceless guy in a suit" meme took off, and the Slender Man legend was born.
 
 While Slender Man has appeared in plenty of creepy pastas and other stories, the most important entry into the saga is undoubtedly the Marble Hornets video series. I hesitate to call "Marble Hornets" a creepy pasta, because it's not really a short fiction story. It is an ongoing web show hosted on YouTube. In fact, the first two seasons have even been released on DVD. Whether or not it is a creepy pasta is a matter of semantics, I guess. The point is that Marble Hornets is pretty much the codifier of the mythos. In that way, you could say that Marble Hornets is to Slender Man as Dracula is to vampires. (What's interesting is that they don't even call their monster "Slender Man," they call it "The Operator," but thus far it's been pretty much the same thing.)
 
It is sort of a vlog/documentary style series, shot in the found footage style similar to the Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity, or Cloverfield. It follows Jay, a college student whose best friend Alex went nuts while making his student film and moved away. A couple years later, Jay finds the tapes of the raw footage from Alex's film and starts to investigate what happened. It turns out that there was some freaky stuff going on during the project. To make matters worse, whatever evil forces were involved are not only still around, but they don't like Jay snooping into their business, either.
 
Marble Hornets is an excellent series. It even got a recommendation from Roger Ebert. Most of the videos are only a couple minutes long, and if watched back to back, a whole season is about movie length. I personally love it, it's one of the most entertaining and well done horror/thriller shows in the past five years, and I'm sure to check every day for a new episode. Updates are kind of infrequent now days, but it's there's a pretty sizeable archive of content to keep you busy for a couple days. If you like Slender Man, or even if you just want something spooky to watch on Halloween, I highly recommend Marble Hornets.
 
 
Halloween is only a couple days away now. We can't all go trick or treating, and we don't all have access to good movies. Fortunately, if you're reading this, you can probably find some good scares here on the internet. Creepy pasta is a beautiful bastard child of internet culture and the perfect way to get some scares. Whether you enjoy my choices or find some of your own, I hope you got something out of reading this long winded mess of a blog. If I don't post anything else in the next couple of days, have a happy and safe Halloween, and thank you for reading.

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