If you work with high school kids and spend any time discussing scary stories and you haven’t heard of Creepy Pasta, you’re either deaf or just not paying attention.
This summer I was picking stories to share with my students, really good horror stories to serve as examples of the best of the form. I was planning on shaking things up a little, not just Poe and M.R. James who I’d exposed them to before, but “new voices”, edgy contemporary stuff I hoped would unsettle and impress them.
While I was planning my new syllabus, I kept observing my students passing their Smart Phones around, alternately cackling and squealing in gleeful terror, carrying on long and energetic debates about which “Pasta” was the scariest or best-written, and shouting out their favorite lines.
These online stories that they were discussing almost non-stop were called Creepy Pastas, and, apparently, there were thousands of them. After a few days of this, I understood that I was witnessing a full-fledged cultural phenomenon, or at least, an internet phenomenon, which for kids these days is more or less the same thing. I also realized that my students (all smart and well-read young writers) had not once mentioned a single short story or novel of horror literature––for them, apparently, this was their horror literature.
A few years ago I might have made grumpy old man-noises about crazy youngsters or the decline of western civilization, etc. But since I really didn’t know enough about what they were talking about to make snotty comments, I pulled up a chair and asked them to educate me.
Creepy Pasta, I learned, is both the name of a particular website (which is responsible for popularizing the form) as well as a noun that refers to any individual piece of writing done in that form (as in, “I read a really good Creepy Pasta yesterday.”). The name has become ubiquitous and is now used to refer to any Creepy Pasta-like story on the internet, regardless of whether or not it appears on the original site.
The best description of a Creepy Pasta comes from one of my students, who defined it as “kind of like a campfire ghost story or urban legend, but told on the internet.” And indeed, many Creepy Pastas simply read like one of those bite-size tales torn from the pages of a Scholastic ‘Scary Stories’ book. (Think of ‘The Ghostly Hitchhiker.’)
The best Creepy Pastas, though, make maximum use of the medium by masking as web forums, blogs, or Email conversations. In many ways (as I pointed out to my students), this is simply the latest version of the tried and true epistolary technique in horror literature where authors present their stories as “found documents”; letters, diaries, interview transcripts, and newspaper clippings (like Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthullu’, Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, Avram Davis’ ‘The Boss In the Wall’), all calculated to create the impression that this is real––this really happened.
Of course, when we read ‘The Call of Cthullu’ and other “found document” horror stories, we’re asked to believe that the author has discovered certain documents and papers whose contents he’s now reporting to us second-or-third-hand––but we don’t actually get to see those original documents right in front of us.
That’s where Creepy Pastas have the advantage––they appear to “cut out the middleman” by putting the reader in direct contact with the actual source-material itself (the fictional online forum/blog/Email exchange) so there are practically no “degrees of separation” between the reader and the experience they’re being asked to believe. (Imagine, for example, instead of reading Stoker’s novel ‘Dracula’, getting to hold Jonathan Harker’s travel-diary in your hand, being able to see the words he scratched out and smell the worn leather cover…)
Some Creepy Pastas masked as non-fictional web content seem so inseparable from the medium they’re presented in that it’s impossible to imagine them in any other format. Try to imagine, for instance, Stephen Volk’s ‘Ghost Watch’ without the medium of television news, or ‘The Blair Witch Project’ without personal video cameras.
Of course, both ‘Ghost Watch’ and ‘Blair Witch’ are stories we experience as video, not as writing––they’re written, of course, but they don’t require us to read words and sentences on a page or computer screen. Creepy Pastas do. And that’s where things can get tricky…
The fact is that most real posts written on real web forums or chat rooms (along with most Emails) are not particularly well-written. They’re usually composed on the fly by people who have no intention of crafting richly constructed sentences or vivid and evocative images. So a writer who sets out to create a work of fiction in one of these web formats may (in the interest of “realism”) be compelled to write in the bland and hurried language of the web–––and somehow craft something interesting and compelling out of it.
Whether or not a writer succeeds in creating a genuinely disturbing and memorable story in the colorless and slightly clunky style of “web-speak” may depend on one thing: is it a deliberately crafted style that the writer is consciously employing for effect? Or is it actually the best that the writer can do?
When I asked my students about the difference between Creepy Pastas and “traditional” horror fiction, one of them answered with a question: “There’s no editorial control on the internet, is there?” “You mean,” I said, “some of them are really good and some of them are really bad?” He nodded, sadly.
The second Creepy Pasta story I ever heard (more about the first one later) is a good example of how a little editorial input might have made a pretty good story pretty great. In this story, the narrator who works at a 24-hour gas station is asked by his boss to review a set of security-camera videos in order to catch a fellow-employee in the act of stealing. Needless to say, the videos turn out to be lot more unusual and disturbing than anyone expects.
The writer’s explanation for what’s happening (sorry, no spoilers here) is a good one. It’s the kind of core idea that could easily give birth to a dozen possibilities, any one (or two) of which would make a good, solid story. Unfortunately, the writer throws all of those ideas into the mix and the result is a bit of a mess (although a smart, interesting mess).
The story is presented as a kind of online journal or report that the narrator’s boss has asked him to write while watching the security videos––setting aside the whole question of how likely that is, the writer does a good job of keeping these journal entries in the simple, unadorned style of a real online journal. And that’s where the problem arises––whenever the narrator is reporting a frightening experience.
The experiences that the narrator describes are, without a doubt, creepy, even frightening. And he tells us so, in more or less those exact terms (as in “it was the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen,” or “I’d never been so scared in my whole life,” etc.) which is exactly the way most real people would express themselves on a web-forum or in an Email. But while that may be a victory for “realism”, it does nothing to give the reader a real sense of what the narrator is feeling and robs the story of any visceral power it could have.
The first Creepy Pasta I heard (read aloud by one of my students) was, I thought, very good. Called Candle Cove, it’s presented as an internet forum with multiple participants chiming-in to discuss a (fictional) childhood TV show. The reminiscences become stranger and stranger until the final post, which provides a twist that’s either terrifying or disappointing, depending on who you ask. (More on this later…)
While the fictional “posts” in Candle Cove are all written in the flat, hurried tone of real forum posts, what (I believe) keeps the tone from becoming distracting or tiresome is the fact that there are multiple (fictional) speakers/posters which prevents you from expecting an individual in-depth narrative voice to develop (and becoming displeased when it doesn’t). The rapid-fire volley of multiple voices also helps keeps the focus on the strange phenomenon at the heart of the story.
That’s what makes Candle Cove a typical Creepy Pasta (albeit a very good one)––it’s all about the idea, the clever/disturbing conceit that the writer comes up with. In fact, from listening to my students talk, it seems that the main appeal of a Creepy Pasta is what happens, not how (or how well) it’s told.
Ultimately, Creepy Pastas are not so much stories or pieces of writing as they are concepts or viral ideas that seem to exist independently of the medium they’re communicated in. The same core narrative idea in a Creepy Pasta may pop up on the internet as a text-story, a photo or meme, or a video, often in multiple variations. I could, for example, post a Creepy Pasta about the laughing face of Satan appearing on my Smart Phone and in less than a week there may be dozens of other stories, pictures, and video-clips all featuring the ‘Laughing-Face-of-Satan-in-a-Smart Phone’ trope.
When I hear my students swapping rapid-fire verbal summaries of Creepy Pasta plots, the impression I get (from some of them, anyway) is that it’s these summarized core ideas that are the Creepy Pasta, and that any piece of writing that expands on those core ideas is almost incidental. All of this is fine in a playful, post-modern kind of way––unless, of course, you want to read a really good story.
In an essay on his website, the author of Candle Cove (an intelligent and hardworking writer, from all the evidence) laments the lack of “new ideas” in horror fiction (although, being a modern guy, he prefers the T-word, tropes).
Here’s an idea: If contemporary horror fiction has a problem, maybe it’s not the lack of new tropes or ideas––maybe it’s the lack of well-written ones.
So, as much as I hate to be the old codger who says something as predictable as It’s the writing that matters…
It’s the writing that matters.
My students know this. One day I overheard two of them having a friendly but spirited debate about the final post in Candle Cove that provides the “twist” that many Creepy Pastas thrive on.
“It’s a great story,” one student admitted, “But that last post is terrible.”
“What are you talking about? It’s great!”
“No. It’s not. If something like that happened to someone, they’d be terrified. They’d be screaming and losing their mind. They wouldn’t say, Oh, I think I’ll sit down and post something on the internet.
“I don’t know,” I interjected, “Maybe they would. It’s possible, right?”
“Sure, it’s possible,” my student answered, “But he wouldn’t sound so matter-of-fact about it. He wouldn’t sound so calm.”
“You mean the fear,” I said. “The fear doesn’t come through.”
My student nodded and like smiled like a teacher who’d just gotten his point across. “That’s right––in a web forum post, no one can hear you scream.”