It seems safe to say that horror fiction, of one type or another, has existed for as long as people have told stories. We can readily imagine that, not long after early humans harnessed fire, they sat around and shared stories of whatever sinister beings were lurking beyond the plain, or behind the next cluster of trees.

Whenever a new medium for storytelling develops, horror follows, whether it is the Devil on stage, haunted castles in novels, or vampires on the cinema screen. The Internet is no exception, and has given rise to a body of horror stories tailor-made for the World Wide Web. It has even given us a word for this phenomenon: creepypasta. The term is relatively recent, but the sort of material it describes has a slightly longer history…

The Early Years

Multiple websites are dedicated to gathering allegedly true stories of supernatural encounters, and of these, Ghostories must rank among the longest-running. Run by Ken O’Neill, the site has been online since 1996, a vintage demonstrated by the dancing baby GIFs on its homepage. Ghostories publishes tales sent in by readers, purportedly describing actual hauntings. Of course, in many cases, it is easy to imagine mundane explanations: a ghost at the foot of a bed may be no more than a hypnagogic hallucination, and spooky messages from a Ouija board can be chalked up to the ideomotor effect. But such conclusions have no place at Ghostories, which favours giving an eerie thrill to its readership.

Fairly typical of Ghostories’ material is an account by an eighteen-year-old contributor named Evelyn, posted in 1999 under the title “Stay Forever!”. The story begins with a then-fifteen-year-old Evelyn having a dull evening. She has three friends over, but they have nothing to do, and her parents are only embarrassing the guests: her mother dresses like a stereotyped fortune teller, wearing a skirt with sun and moon prints.

But then Evelyn’s mother produces a Ouija board, and the gathered friends perk up:

My brother suggested going to a nearby cemetery. And so we did. The cemetery was beautiful, with bright green carpets of grass, numerous bouquets of flowers, and angelic stone statues. It was hardly the place to frighten yourself. The sun was still out, slowly sinking behind a cluster of willow trees. My brother picked out the grave of a fifteen-year-old girl named Poppy to sit near.

An idyllic setting, although one with the implied tragedy of a deceased fifteen-year-old. The group initially has little luck with the Ouija, and consider departing, only for the planchette to suddenly spell out the word “STAY”, followed by Evelyn’s name, at which point she asks if there is a spirit present. “YES”, it replies, before giving its name as “POPPY”. Evelyn asks how Poppy died, and receives the reply “MURDUR”  (quotations sic throughout this article). Evelyn remains skeptical, even when another seemingly supernatural incident occurs:

“Prove you are here,” I demanded.

Suddenly, for a moment, we were all shaking. There had been an aftershock. “That proves it!” yelled my brother gleefully.

I scowled at him. “It’s a coincidence,” I said.

Evelyn then asks the ghost why it is still on Earth. “MURDURER”, it replies. The friends ask who murdered Poppy: “DON’T KNOW.” They ask if they can help: “YES.” They ask how to help: “STAY.”

Everyone pulls away from the board, except for Evelyn. “We can’t stay,” she says. Undeterred, the planchette spells out “STAY… FOREVER.” They decide to run back home, leaving the Ouija board behind.

The writing style is obviously crude, but in a way, this adds to the verisimilitude of the account. Throughout the twentieth century, purportedly true ghost stories of this type were typically filtered through professional writers, be they tabloid journalists or career ghost-hunters such as Elliott O’Donnell or Harry Price. But with the rise of the Web came a glut of accounts which—it is easy to imagine—were typed out in a state of near-panic.

As with many of the accounts posted on Ghostories, the events described by Evelyn are easy enough to explain away in mundane terms—in this case, the ideomotor effect and a coincidentally-timed earth tremor. But in many of these purported true-life stories there is no room for mundane explanations: the narratives can be either accepted as accounts of supernatural phenomena, or dismissed as fabrications.

An example is an account credited simply to “Faith”, which can be found at The Experiences Page (as “Jack and Bitch”) and, with a number of minor differences, at Ouija Confessions (as “Salem Witchboard”). The former lists the account as being one of several stories “taken from the ghost-stories mailing list or alt.folklore.ghost-stories,” while the latter indicates that the story was posted online circa 1999.

Again, the tale involves a Ouija board. Found in the trash, this was not a Parker Brothers board, but a distinct make:

It was dated late 1800’s and made in Salem … In one corner it had an ugly old witch, the second corner had a man with a crystal ball, the third corner had a man on a camel and (I think) the fourth corner had a wizard(?).

Faith claims to have previously used Parker boards, but notes that “the spirits were weak compared to this one” and “often spelled wrong”. The reader may have come across Ouija stories before, but this one—it is implied—will be different.

Using the board, Faith conjures up two spirits named Jack and Bitch. So strong are these entities that the board and planchette move without being touched: “it would move so fast at times that my hand would slip off and it would continue to spell dirty words, even though I was not touching it … It would rattle around when it wanted to talk to me.”

Faith concludes the force she is in touch with is “no alien or someone who past away or an entity on a different plane and it sure was not holy” and that the spirits are instead “two very powerful demons”. The demons place Faith into a trance and force her to recite incantations. Later, Faith’s five-year-old nephew falls under the spell of the board. It compels him to take his younger brother into the bathroom and start a fire, but Faith arrives in time to save them. She pleads God’s forgiveness, and gets rid of the board.

Taking a close look at the details of the story we find a curious mix of fact and fiction. The description of the board—with the four images showing a witch, wizard, fortune-teller and camel-rider—matches up with the Hasko Mystic Board, manufactured by the Haskelite corporation in the 1940s (variations can be seen at the Museum of Talking Boards). Faith alleges that the board was “dated late 1800’s”; the Spiritualist movement did indeed begin using talking boards towards the end of the nineteenth century, although Haskelite’s design would not come onto the market until decades later.

Other parts of the narrative appear to have been lifted from horror films. At one point the five-year-old nephew breaks Faith’s trance, recalling a scene in The Devil Rides Out where the villain places a woman into a trance, only to be interrupted when a little girl unknowingly enters the room. Finally, the story ends with what seems like a hook for a sequel, as Faith describes Exorcist-like phenomena occurring even after the board was disposed of: “I sometimes felt like I was being held down, paralyzed, unable to move or scream … I would find myself floating in the air almost like an out of body experience.”

There may possibly be a grain of truth somewhere in Faith’s story, but it is hard to pick out amongst the parts borrowed from various movies. It is easy to imagine that the author read a more credible Ouija board story—such as the Ghostories account by Evelyn, for example—and decided to write one of her own, with a few additional twists. This is the digital equivalent of campfire storytelling: taking a narrative that has been passed around, gaining and losing elements along the way, and giving it a personal touch it to further spook the audience. The performative element associated with creepypasta is already apparent at this early stage.

Creepypasta and Pop Culture Hauntings

The word “creepypasta” entered Internet idiom in around 2007, a specimen of second-generation Internet slang destined to leave head-scratching normies wondering where macaroni enters the picture. (For those unaware, the term derives from “copypasta”, itself a pun referring to copy-pasted text.) Creepypasta stories have covered a range of subjects including serial killers, Soviet experiments, and whatever eldritch entity the Slender Man may be.

Another theme, and one that recurs time and time again, is the usage of existing pop culture. Perhaps the quintessential example of this is a creepypasta known as “Suicidemouse.avi”, which is based around a lost Mickey Mouse cartoon. It posits that in the 1930s, Disney made a cartoon that simply shows a glum-looking Mickey walking down a road before fading to black after three minutes. At least, that is how the short version ends…

Just as the “Jack and Bitch” story mixed in a factual element by borrowing the Hasko Mystic Board’s distinctive design, “Suicidemouse.avi” introduces real-life film critic and animation historian Leonard Maltin as a character. According to the account, Maltin found a longer version of the cartoon, one that continued after the fade to black. The story then quotes an anonymous acquaintance of Maltin, describing the nightmarish imagery found in the full cut:

The sound was different this time. It was a murmur. It wasn’t a language, but more like a gurgled cry. As the noise got more indistinguishable and loud over the next minute, the picture began to get weird. The sidewalk started to go in directions that seemed impossible based on the physics of Mickeys walking. And the dismal face of the mouse was slowly curling into a smirk.

On the 7th minute, the murmur turned into a bloodcurdling scream (the kind of scream painful to hear) and the picture was getting more obscure. Colors were happening that shouldn’t have been possible at the time. Mickey’s face began to fall apart. his eyes rolled on the bottom of his chin like two marbles in a fishbowl, and his curled smile was pointing upward on the left side of his face.

The buildings became rubble floating in midair and the sidewalk was still impossibly navigating in warped directions, a few seeming inconceivable with what we, as humans, know about direction. Mr. Maltin got disturbed and left the room, sending an employee to finish the video and take notes of everything happening up until the last second, and afterward immediately store the disc of the cartoon into the vault.

The detail of the sidewalk heading in directions “seeming inconceivable with what we, as humans, know about direction” seems to be an attempt to imitate H. P. Lovecraft, who famously described an otherworldly land where “the geometry … was all wrong”. The Lovecraftian influence is also evident when we learn of the unnamed employee’s fate: Just as Cthulhu’s victims go insane, the employee repeats the phrase “real suffering is not known” seven times before killing himself with a pistol after witnessing the final frame of the cartoon, the contents of which are left largely to the reader’s imagination,

This text accompanied a YouTube video, uploaded on November 25 2009 by user “Nec1” (whose other videos generally deal with cars and metal music). The video itself is a crude Mickey Mouse walk cycle accompanied by distorting filters; there are no melting faces, technically impossible colours or Lovecraftian geometry to be seen. This raises the possibility that the story and the video were created by two separate people.

“Suicidemouse.avi” appears to have initiated an entire genre of creepypasta, the “lost episode” story. These tend to read like parodies of the various pop culture urban legends relating to sexual imagery in Disney cartoons or hidden features in video games.

One of the more famous examples of lost episode creepypasta is “Dead Bart”, a story posted on the GameFAQs forums in 2010. This story alleges that there is an episode of The Simpsons entitled “Dead Bart” that was produced for the first season, but never aired.

The post begins as a seemingly unremarkable exercise in geek trivia (“You know how Fox has a weird way of counting Simpsons episodes? They refuse to count a couple of them, making the amount of episodes inconsistent”) before going on to discuss a missing episode, one that Matt Groening refuses to talk about. The author claims to have met Groening, who—pale, trembling and on the verge of tears—eventually showed him where to download a copy of “Dead Bart”.

As described in the post, the episode starts off as a fairly typical Simpsons installment, albeit with cruder animation and harsher characterisation: “Homer seemed angrier, Marge seemed depressed, Lisa seemed anxious, Bart seemed to have genuine anger and hatred for his parents.”

Then Bart dies in a plane accident, and “an almost photo-realistic drawing of his dead body” is shown. The episode’s second act consists entirely of the surviving family members crying, with eerie visual distortions recalling “Suicidemosue.avi”: “There were faces looking in the window, flashing in and out so you were never sure what they looked like.” At the very end the story introduces an apparent supernatural element when it reveals that “Dead Bart” predicted the future deaths of various celebrity guest stars.

Such stories are not meant to be taken seriously—although the authors would doubtless be amused if any readers are taken in. “Suicidemouse.avi” and “Dead Bart” are a curious mixture of campfire story and fanfic, where geek fact-finding meets the urge to give a few chills.

Entire communities online exist to read and write material of this kind, where connoisseurs discuss the relative merits of various creepypasta tales. Consider the case of “Sonic.exe”, a story uploaded onto the Creepypasta Wiki (yes, such a thing exists) which deals with a cursed pirate copy of Sonic the Hedgehog. “Sonic is the very embodiment of evil,” writes the narrator after recounting his ordeal; “he tortures people who play his game in more ways than one and then when he gets bored he drags you into the game, literally drags you to Hell, where he can play with you always, as his toy….” Although it picked up a few fans, “Sonic.exe” was eventually deemed a poor quality creepypasta by the wiki owners; it was then relocated to the Trollpasta Wiki, where it suffered the ultimate indignity of being rendered in Comic Sans.

“Suicidemouse.avi,” “Dead Bart,” and “Sonic.exe” each use modern digital technology in their stories, but their central plot device is one familiar to any reader of ghost stories: the cursed artefact. This was a favourite theme of M. R. James, whose stories often revolved around haunted objects. “A Warning to the Curious,” published in 1925, is a classic example: a character goes looking for a legendary crown, finds it buried, and is afterwards pursued by a supernatural entity that guarded the object.

In James’ stories, the narrative voice is typically that of a seasoned antiquarian, as fascinated by the historical backgrounds of the cursed artefacts as by the supernatural incidents that follow their discovery. In “The Stalls of Barchester,” for example, the three (fictitious) church carvings are described in much the same enthusiastic detail as the (similarly fictitious) Simpsons episode in “Dead Bart.” We have gone from the careful words of a scholar to the unvarnished ramblings of an Internet geek, but the essence remains the same.

Even creepypasta’s fondness for pop culture is not entirely new. Stephen King’s novels frequently invoke images from popular entertainment, as when—to pick just one example—a narrator compares Carrie’s blood-soaked face to a scene from Disney’s Song of the South. David J. Skal analyses this aspect of King’s work in his book The Monster Show:

King’s major function may be his validation of the lives and experience—especially childhood lives and experiences—of a large segment of the population whose most vivid formative memories centered on homogenized mass-media rituals like E.C. Comics, “Twilight Zone,” “Shock Theater,” and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Stephen King’s books reflect back the lives of his readers, especially the “intimate” media moments, and the result is a surge of pleasure and self-recognition.

This same cultural validation can be found in lost episode creepypastas: they form a genre of ghost story that stems directly from geek subculture.

Multimedia Creepypasta

The above tales are more than prose stories: they cross over into visual media as well, much of which is created by readers rather than the original authors. As noted, the “Suicidemouse.avi” story accompanied an animated clip. Multiple YouTubers have made their own attempts at creating “Dead Bart.” There is even a game based on “Sonic.exe,” created by hacking a Sonic ROM.

And then we have the case of Petscop: a set of YouTube videos purporting to be a “Let’s Play” series with footage recorded from a disturbing PlayStation game. In fact, the game does not exist, and the footage was made specifically for the videos. So, what we have here is an animated series masquerading as a documentary about a video game … which in turn has spread far enough to have its own Reddit community.

The end result of all this cross-media blurring would appear to be—ironically enough—a return to traditional media. Since 2016 the SyFy’s series Channel Zero has been adapting creepypasta stories, using the anthology format familiar from the likes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

Horror fiction and urban legends have long influenced one another. With creepypasta we have what is perhaps a new stage in that process: a halfway point between short story and urban legend, one capable of blurring in either direction. One person may read a creepypasta and believe that it is true; another may take it as a starting point for a novel or screenplay. Exactly how big a role will anonymous Internet stories play in the development of the horror genre remains to be seen, but it is too soon to dismiss the possibility of “Suicidemouse.avi” inspiring a new classic.