Origins of the Famous Internet Creepypastas

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What’s the Deal with Creepypastas?

As with a lot of things on the Internet, it’s very hard to pinpoint the exact origins of the creepypasta. The word itself is a portmanteau of “creepy” and “copypasta,” an Internet slang term that refers to a block of text that gets “copied” and pasted repeatedly. Copypastas (itself a weird portmanteau between “copy” and “paste”) were typically disseminated through online forums and social networks, and while this form of spamming has been around since the 1980s the phrase was coined on the imageboard website 4chan in 2006. Creepypastas then are basically just horror-themed copypastas, urban legends for the digital age.

“Ted the Caver,” a copypasta first posted on the web hosting service Angelfire in 2001, is believed to be the first example of a creepypasta. It was written in the first-person over a series of posts by someone named “Ted,” and Ted described his caving experience with some friends a few months prior. Upon entering the cave, they found a narrow passageway with a small hole. Drilling the hole to continue their exploration, weird things started happening. They heard ghostly howling, felt breezes come out of nowhere, and saw weird symbols inside the cave. The last post on May 19th, 2001, describes the friends deciding to visit the cave one last time for closure, taking with them a gun and a knife. Ted says that once he returns with answers he will update the website—something that obviously never happened. Over time, several other cavers online began to put the pieces of the puzzle together: the cave Ted was describing was Utah’s Interstate Cave, and the noises were coming from the traffic from the interstate overhead. In January 2005, Ted revealed that the story was original, but highly exaggerated (a normal caving trip with added supernatural elements).

Reading that prior paragraph, you’re probably wondering how a generic, not super scary story like that could have gained so much popularity and infamy. Some of it can be attributed to the timing of its release. The thread was posted two years after The Blair Witch Project came out, and people were captivated by supposedly “real life” tales of ordinary folks up against unseen and unexplainable occurrences. And the Internet at that time was in a state of limbo—it was complex enough to captivate people, but not widespread enough to be cynical (just imagine Twitter ripping apart Ted’s story today). Some of it can be attributed to a fear of the unknown, as even the well-detailed caving accounts are purposely designed to leave much to the overactive imagination. Where were those voices coming from? What did those symbols mean? How did they get there? Will we ever know the truthfulness of Ted’s “debunkery?” Ted’s story was also extremely adaptable—hundreds of alternate endings and retellings of his tale have made their way onto the Internet, feeding into its rapid “copy” spread as friends would link each other to some form of the story.

Early creepypastas, while very chilling, were never the most original. Oftentimes they ripped off or retold lesser-known urban legends like the Polybius (a 2000 internet urban legend about a government psychology experiment in the form of an arcade game) or the Bunny Man (a 1970s urban legend from Virginia about an axe murderer in a bunny costume). They were scattered throughout various different Internet message boards, and it wasn’t until the late 2000s that the three major sources of creepypastas emerged: creepypasta.com (2008), the Creepypasta Wiki (2010), and the “No Sleep” subreddit (2010). With a centralized, permanent archive, the popularity, originality, variety, and number of creepypastas soared. I’m now going to delve into some notable creepypasta examples from this era.

Without a doubt, the most famous creepypasta is that of the “Slenderman.” In fact, the character has become so ubiquitous that not many people actually know of its creepypasta origins. In June 2009, Eric Knudsen, under the online name of “Victor Surge,” participated in a Photoshop contest thread on a “Something Awful” (comedy website) forum. The goal of the contest was to edit ordinary photographs to make them seem paranormal. Knudsen posted two black and white images of children with a tall, thin figure in a black suit hidden in the background. With the photographs Knudsen added text from “witnesses,” which eerily described (and named) the titular character. From there, people expanded upon Slenderman, whether by creating their own Slenderman images or providing more textual context to the character. Slenderman took off, appearing in online fanart, Youtube web series, and other creepypastas. Slenderman was no longer bound by Knudsen’s authorship, and soon everyone had their own slant on the character (one story even traces Slenderman’s origins to 16th century Germany). Slenderman-themed survival horror video games and mobile apps were huge successes, and he even has an upcoming feature film.

Slenderman “became real” on May 31, 2014, when two 12-year-old girls in Wisconsin allegedly stabbed their classmate 19 times. Their reasoning was that they had read online that murdering someone was the first step to becoming proxies for Slenderman. And if they didn’t commit the murder, Slenderman would kill their families. Both were diagnosed with mental illnesses, and are each facing up to more than six decades in prison. Similar (but lesser) Slenderman-incidents have occurred since then, with preteens either attacking their mothers with knives, burning down their house, or committing mass suicide on an Indian reservation. These incidents were notable for three main reasons. First, it represented a reversal—children were now using made-up monsters to scare and threaten parents and adults. Second, the incidents (rather unfortunately) brought creepypastas into the mainstream, and exposed these tales to older people who never use the Internet. And third, by their entrance into the mainstream, creepypastas became real, legitimate, and even dangerous—they were no longer just harmless urban legends bored Internet users made up in their spare time.

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But how did the Slenderman create and maintain its popularity in the first place, especially as compared to earlier creepypastas like “Ted the Caver?” Unlike “Ted the Caver,” which was one person’s account, Slenderman was communal folklore. Slenderman could be adapted to any story or setting or origin, and could make for any kind of great campfire story. Also unlike “Ted the Caver,” it’s obvious that Slenderman isn’t real, granting the character a degree of creative expression and communication. No one is going to factcheck a Slenderman story or tale—that defeats the purpose. And in the age of Wikipedia and Twitter, that’s a pretty impressive feat.

Another interesting and unique creepypasta is “Candle Cove.” This Twilight Zone-esque creepypasta, written by Kris Straub in 2009, is about a fictional 1970s TV show called “Candle Cove.” Straub presents his story in the framework of an online message board conversation among different people reminiscing about a weird show they watched when they were kids. Together they use their recollections of the show to try to piece together the premise of the show. They remember a girl, Janice, who had creepy pirate imaginary friends. As their dialogue goes on, they discover that each of them have had the same exact nightmares from watching the show. Once they establish that, they all come to realize the big shocker—Candle Cove never existed. Rather, it was just 30 minutes of static. Like Slenderman, the inherent anonymity of Candle Cove opened it to various forms of creative expression, like fans making their own episodes and characters for the show. “Candle Cove” takes the fear of the unknown to the next level: what happens when our childhood memories deceive us? Everyone has had false memories, but what the hell is going on when a select group of people distinctly remember something that never existed? Wouldn’t it have had to?

On the note of childhood memories, three famous creepypastas exploit and distort these memories and preconceived notions, with horrifying results.
One is “Abandoned by Disney,” first uploaded to the Creepypasta Wiki in 2012, where a traveler visits Disney’s abandoned “Treasure Island” (probably based on Discovery Island in Florida, which Disney abandoned in 1999 but still remains intact). Venturing into “Mowgli’s Palace,” he finds the structure left like the employees had to evacuate. His account is extremely detailed, and at the end he is greeted by some…interesting figures (personal note: it’s a very good story and I don’t want to spoil).

Another is “Red Mist,” or “Squidward’s Suicide.” This creepypasta popularized a now-popular creepypasta theme: the idea of a creepy, perverse “lost episode” of a beloved, innocent TV show. The narrator of the story, a former Nickelodeon intern, claims that he saw the lost episode during his time at Nickelodeon Studios. He and his coworkers were given a tape titled “Squidward’s Suicide” to edit. The tape begins with Squidward looking forlorn, and gets exponentially gory and horrifying from there, ending in a detached voice ordering Squidward to kill himself, which he does.

Yet another is “Lavender Town Syndrome,” which is actually a series of creepypasta stories and videos covering a conspiracy to cover up mass suicides caused by listening to the “Lavender Town Theme” in the Japanese version of Pokémon Red and Green. In the games, Lavender Town is the location of a haunted Pokémon graveyard. All three of these creepypastas share a common theme of looking at the hidden underbellies of beloved childhood memories (Disney’s shady ventures, Squidward’s depression, the death of Pokémon) and making nightmares out of them, nightmares that a child could never conceive and an adult could hardly fathom.

Another popular subgenere of creepypastas are image-based creepypastas. “Smile Dog,” first posted to 4chan in 2008, was notable for both being an early example of image-based creepypastas and an early example of “haunted image/video/song” creepypastas. The most common image tied to the story is a polaroid of Siberian Husky with human teeth and bloody fingerprints. The story is a first-person account of a young writer attempting to interview a woman named Mary E. Mary, who supposedly had an experience with that image, which is said to cause insanity simply by viewing it. The backbone of the story is based on the chain email phenomenon, like a perverted twist on the “Share this with 5 people for good luck!”.

Another (partially) image-based creepypasta, “Russian Sleep Experiment,” concerns a purported Russian government experiment from the 1940s in which scientists gassed prisoners with an experimental stimulant to keep them awake (in order to test the effects of extreme sleep deprivation). While this has never properly associated with a specific image, a photoshopped image of a Halloween decoration has become the defining symbol of the creepypasta. This story’s horror comes from its plausibility. The Soviet Union probably did a lot of weird stuff, so who’s to say they didn’t do this? While this was proven not to have ever happened, well, it could have, right?

Meanwhile, “Jeff the Killer” takes the throne as both the most popular image-based creepypasta and the most popular image associated with a creepypasta. While there are a few different versions of the story, the most popular tells of a bulled boy, who, after mutilating his own face, goes on a murdering spree. While killing his brother, he whispers to him, “go to sleep” (this tagline sometimes accompanies the picture). The terrifying image, which is the result of extensively photoshopping a selfie, has its own terrifying origins: the selfie was from a girl who later committed suicide after being bullied over 4chan about her weight. However, few people know that this is probably some random guy’s selfie (he admitted to it online). But is it actually? Will we ever know the truth?

These are just a sample of the hundreds of thousands creepypastas available online. Other popular creepypastas I would recommend reading include “The Grifter” (fear of the unknown), “The Rake” (modern-day monster), “Ben Drowned” (you’ll never look at something the same way again), “Gateway of the Mind” (like a more horrifying version of Stranger Things), and “Suicide Mouse” (the granddaddy of all “lost episode” creepypastas).

A simple Google Trends search shows that since their zenith in 2014, the popularity of creepypastas has been waning. However, their appeal, storytelling ability, cultural significance, and horror have remained timeless. By straddling the line between modern urban legends and horror fiction, creepypastas have secured their place as a discrete form of cultural and creative expression uniquely suited to the needs, fears, and imaginations of the digital age.

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