Creepypastas: Urban Legends and Campfire Stories for the Internet

by Matthew Lewallen

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated with the macabre: even as a very young child, I adored the likes of Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Creature, the Wolf Man, and anything along the lines of King Kong or Godzilla. Naturally, growing up through the early 1990s, I had regular exposure to the horror-themed (but youth-oriented) television series Are You Afraid of the Dark? and, occasionally, syndicated reruns of Tales from the Crypt. Likewise, I was an avid reader of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps juvenile novels, as well as—in my most humble of opinions—Alvin Schwartz’s more satisfying Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy (to this day, I still find Stephen Gammell’s illustrations to be equally charming and disturbing).

Sample of Stephen Gammell’s illustrations for Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. SOURCE: http://slightlywarped.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/3011385313-OEMy35m.jpg

With such a deeply rooted interest in horror fiction—not to mention adolescent attraction to hearing and reciting stories—it’s no surprise that I was enthralled with listening to (and, in a few embarrassing instances, trying to tell my own) various ghost stories and urban legends. Some tales I heard were iterations of old campfire yarns like “The Hook” or The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs,” while others were playground “gossip” about local witches and monsters. It was just entertaining to hear all of these stories and to let the darkened theater of my imagination construct the spookiest scenes a young boy with an established background in horror media could possibly muster in a pre-internet setting.

Suffice it to say, my love of the macabre continued to grow over the years, and also seeped into my love of comics, animation, and video games. Eventually, access to the internet not only increased my exposure to horror, but it also showed me different ways horror could be told; in particular, I became very attracted to a popular storytelling practice called “creepypasta.”

What Is Creepypasta?

According to its entry on the website Know Your Meme, a “creepypasta” is a “popular subgenre of copypasta which consists of short horror fictions and urban legends mainly distributed through word of mouth via online message boards or e-mail.” As the entry states, “creepypasta” is named after a “copypasta,” an image or excerpt of text (usually nonsensical, like this example) that is posted and reproduced online by using a computer’s “Copy and Paste” function. Copypastas and creepypastas are both examples of an internet meme—a meme is any “spreadable media” (such as a basic phrase or image) that holds established meaning(s) within a given sociocultural group as it grows and lessens in prominence over varying periods of time (and among varying people).

As popularized through various forum-based websites like Reddit and 4chan (both well-known for allowing comments and content that are often wildly offensive and tasteless), creepypastas have become a very large component of modern internet culture. Will Wiles’ online article “Creepypasta is how the internet learns our fears” alludes to the notion that creepypasta stories are functionally similar to the aforementioned campfire stories and urban legends. That is, they feature readily identifiable and seemingly innocuous scenarios of everyday life (e.g., going to school, starting the first day of a brand-new job), infusing the author’s application of horrific elements into the story with “just enough familiarity to give a frisson of awful possibility.”

Much like how “The Hook” and “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” take normal activities (a car ride and babysitting job, respectively) and put the protagonists in threatening situations, creepypastas make real-world settings feel terrifying. In fact, Wiles points out that real-world settings used in horror narratives are memes in and of themselves: they have established meanings and are frequently referenced and reproduced. Many creepypasta stories utilize various narrative “templates” not unlike how most versions of “The Hook” generally follow the loose “young couple hears about an escaped criminal” premise; similarly, “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” largely boils down to the “babysitter receives odd phone calls” outline.

However, creepypasta writing deviates from campfire stories and urban legends in small yet interesting ways that are heavily shaped by the capabilities of the internet itself, including the communal nature of forums and messageboards (as well as a greater use for multimedia).

What Makes Creepypasta Special?

For the most part, creepypasta writing entails a wide variety of length, quality, and content largely due to the fact that it’s a relatively open-ended form of composition generally produced for entertainment by internet users covering many different demographics. Because of the internet’s immediate access and widespread connection, anyone with sufficient typing and browsing skills could potentially write a creepypasta story of their own. To be more precise, any person with the simplest experience in using computers and the internet, and a proper interest in telling scary stories, is free to create and post creepypastas of virtually any subject and quantity as they please—regardless of his or her age group, cultural background, or social status.

Yet, the digital nature of creepypasta also allows storytellers to incorporate (or completely rely on) pictures and videos, adding a multimedia angle to their narratives; as Annalee Newitz discusses in “Has Creepypasta Reinvented Classic Folklore?”:

First of all, a lot of creepypasta is not actually written down. It comes in the form of pictures or videos. This mirrors one of the definitions of folklore, which is generally passed along orally, as a spoken story.

Often, folklorists will contrast the world of “orality” with the world of “literacy.” Stories are shared differently in an oral culture, remaining fluid and ever-changing with each retelling. In a literate culture, stories are fixedonce they are written down, they can be copied but are rarely transformed.

Newitz is touching on the argument that the inherent “copy-and-paste” format of creepypastas limits how much they can be revised and retold in the same ways that more traditional “word-of-mouth” stories do through varied repetition. But Newitz counters that while some creepypastas are repostings of unchanged selections of images or text, users will still find ways to use visual media (and, in some cases, even audio) to enhance or repurpose those selections for audiences, much like how written works are frequently adapted for film and television.

The “Go to Sleep” image meme, frequently used as a “screamer”, or in conjunction with the “Jeff the Killer” story. SOURCE: http://i2.kym-cdn.com/photos/images/original/000/237/357/9d8.jpg (click image for video link)

Another interesting aspect of creepypastas Newitz mentions is the significant participatory/collaborative elements seen in their writing communities, as highlighted by the development of the ongoing “Slender Man” and “Holders” mythos. Both narratives feature rather complex stories and media contributed by a countless number of users to create fully realized, large-scale fictional worlds with interconnected characters and events. Similar communities, like the SCP Foundation, have even drafted guidelines to maintain a defined canon that, in turn, encourages readers and writers to engage in varying levels of role-playing (for example, SCP articles are treated as “official reports” of anomalous subjects being held by the foundation).

Above all, creepypastas are special because of their memetic and interactive qualities, as well as their ability to accommodate different media; another, equally important, aspect that makes creepypastas unique is the idiosyncratic ways their writers establish and punctuate horror.

What Does Creepypasta Taste Like?

While many creepypastas feature the typical gamut of serial killers and recognizable pop-culture monsters (vampires, zombies, and so on), others feature more abstract—and, at times, misanthropically violent or cruel—stories that subvert categorization. An infamous creepypasta titled “Knock” is literally two sentences long: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.” Despite its incredible brevity, the sheer vagueness of the situation suggests myriad unsettling implications in the reader’s imagination; an extended version, “Knock: Full Story,” adds a considerably larger amount of details than the original, but its ending still leaves enough room for audiences to come up with equally chilling possibilities.

Because creepypastas are composed and shared online, it’s no surprise that many stories feature content related to the internet and/or various entertainment media that are frequently discussed and commented on by users. The creepypasta “Username: 666” concerns rumors of a demonic YouTube channel (which has accompanying video “recreations”), while “Dead Bart” involves an allegedly “missing” episode of The Simpsons featuring exceedingly bizarre content. As Newitz states in her article, creepypastas like these are similar to Japanese horror properties like Pulse and Ring, respectively featuring cursed websites and videotapes, in that they both integrate fears of the supernatural with the overwhelming presence and accessibility of technology.

Furthermore, certain creepypasta writers will even utilize the very structure and pacing of the stories to unnerve its readers—again, many creepypastas “twist” audience expectations but will sometimes do so in ways that are sudden and jarring. An interesting example of this is the creepypasta “A Bright Flash,” describing an unidentified narrator’s disfigurement from an explosion and his ensuing thirst for revenge against the world. I won’t spoil the ending, but I’ll say that the final line is such a revelation because those reading it closely probably won’t initially pick up on the (retrospectively) obvious clues that the writer provides, taking the seemingly grounded story “as is” before finding out the narrator’s identity.

Even though plot twists, or looking at the “dark side” of popular media, aren’t really exclusive to creepypasta writing, there’s still a lot to consider in regards to how such writing is created, spread, and adapted over the internet, as well as how people are encouraged to collaborate on it.

Closing

In closing, I’d like to say that while creepypastas—and, to be honest, the horror genre as a whole—aren’t for everyone’s tastes and sensibilities, they’re still fascinating examples of community-based writing that give us similarly fascinating insights into what internet culture considers terrifying (and how it conveys such terror). While there are immediate parallels between creepypastas and word-of-mouth storytelling, creepypasta writing adds the contextual background of the internet itself into the narratives, frequently using technology and media as sources for strange and horrific situations to occur. The participatory aspects of creepypastas are also quite interesting, with sites like Creepypasta Wiki being devoted to letting users share, archive, and edit creepypastas; likewise, the continued expansions of the Slender Man, Holders, and SCP Foundation narratives showcase unified canons developed through mass collaboration.

As I’ve been writing this article, the month of October draws ever closer, bringing the fall season with it: cooler weather, longer nights, and attractive orange and red foliage; more importantly, the eagerness for Halloween is palpable, with stores already stocking their aisles with candy, costumes, and other seasonal paraphernalia. Being in my early 30s, I’m perfectly content staying home and watching the usual marathons of horror movies and Halloween specials on television in lieu of trick-or-treating or handing out candy to children. But I’ll still enjoy the holiday for what is: a celebration of the macabre, and a time to indulge in a mixture of fun and frights—it’s everything I’ve loved about horror since childhood but shared on a significantly larger scale once every year around October 31st.

I think I’ll even read a creepypasta or two this Halloween…I’m always looking for a good scare.

References

Creepypasta. Creepypasta. Web 24 Sep. 2015. <http://www.creepypasta.com/>.

Creepypasta Wiki. Wikia. Web 21 Sep. 2015. <http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Creepypasta_Wiki>.

Edmond, Spike (Mr. CreepyPasta). “Go to Sleep – ‘Jeff the Killer’.” YouTube. YouTube LLC. 12 Oct. 2012. Web 29 Nov. 2011. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2K5I3NJtiQ>.

Jenkins, Henry. “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead (Part One): Media Viruses and Memes.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins. WordPress. 11 Feb. 2009. Web 13 Oct. 2015. <http://henryjenkins.org/2009/02/if_it_doesnt_spread_its_dead_p.html>.

Know Your Meme: Internet Meme Database. Cheezburger, Inc. Web 20 Sep. 2015. <http://knowyourmeme.com/>.

Newitz, Annalee. “Has Creepypasta Reinvented Classic Folklore?” io9. Gawker Media. 6 Jan. 2014. Web 24 Sep. 2015. <http://io9.com/is-creepypasta-a-form-of-folklore-1495902436>.

SCP Foundation. Wikidot. Web 24 Sep. 2015. <http://www.scp-wiki.net/>.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web 20 Sep. 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page>.

Wiles, Will. “Creepypastas is how the internet learns our fears.” Aeon. Aeon Media Ltd. 20 Dec. 2013. Web 23 Sep. 2015. <http://aeon.co/magazine/culture/creepypasta-is-how-the-internet-learns-our-fears/>.

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7 thoughts on “Creepypastas: Urban Legends and Campfire Stories for the Internet

  1. A really rich and well developed article! In your discussion of creepypastas, you provide such thorough context that it would take many a dark and stormy night to follow all the internet paths you uncovered. I read through some of the examples and found “A Bright Flash” interesting and “Russian Sleep Experiment” terrifying in its gory detail. Great work, Matthew! You’ve thoroughly creeped me out. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A highly educational article! I’ve seen the term creepypasta on message boards but had no idea what it was. I’m not a horror fan, but it’s interesting to see how urban legends and folktales have moved from word-of-mouth stories to internet memes.

    I saved this article for Halloween so I’d get a touch of scary on the holiday. In fact, after reading your links, I found one of my own — http://gizmodo.com/the-best-creepypasta-stories-to-give-you-nightmares-for-1737840921

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent! I have always wondered how Creepy pasta became as influential as it has today. The writers at Creepy pasta truly rely on the imagination,
    And reason (facts, etc) of Web users to make these camp fire stories come to life. Without the significant use of forums and blogs edifying the lore of a scary tale, where would Creepy pasta be right now?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It is fascinating how Creepy pasta came to be! I am a horror fan but Creepy pasta is, well, creepy. I like the collaborative aspect of writing Creepy pastas-how one can add to a story or just pass the story along like an urban legend. It sparks so much creativity and imagination which, frankly, lacks in the traditional urban legend or stale horror movie. I am not certain if you have take Rhetorical Theory, but we discussed how a narrative is rhetoric. I think that his applies to Creepy pasta because Creepy pasta is a horror narrative. You can read in the link below.

    https://projectnarrative.osu.edu/about/what-is-narrative-theory

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Creepypasta adds a eerie slant to the phrase “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead,” right? This was a very interesting read on a topic that I was only casually acquainted with, and I think you very thoroughly described the appeal of creepypasta!

    I’d never really thought of them as meme’s, but of course they are! Even though I don’t read creepypasta, I’ve definitely heard of slenderman!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Your pictures and descriptions alone gave me goose bumps and remind me of the books I used to read in my adolescent years. They are like the surface samples of the more detailed websites through your links.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. When I was younger, I went through a phase of loving scary movies—Freddie, Chuckie, and I still like Rob Zombie—but I enjoy older ones as well. I still occasionally enjoy a scary movie, but my personal favorite thrills are the psychological thrillers, such as The Twilight Zone, Art Bell, and George Noory.

    Though critics point out the flawed edit-ability of Creepypasta, I see it as this generation’s form of storytelling. People nowadays are not only able to share stories orally, but through pictures and videos too. Stories are now accessible from all parts of the globe, exposing people to folklore from other cultures as well. The methods by which ideas are able to be conveyed in today’s age are widely varying and very creative.

    Like

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