It’s hard to imagine a time when social media wasn’t the staging area for a pitched battle for truth or the engine of total epistemic and societal collapse (depending on whether you like your internet spatialized or not). Indeed, social media platforms, message boards, forums, and comments sections, as sites of multimodal interpersonal communication, are used to create innovative terrifying fictions. These fictions leverage the unique affordances of the medium to hover in the cracks between fact and fiction – scaring and thrilling readers with the potential that the horrific nightmares depicted could be real.
I am, of course, referring to Creepypasta, the genre that The Russian Sleep Experiment, The Slender Man, and Candle Cove call home. However, I could just as easily be describing the post-2020 conspiracy landscape, awash with satanic cabals, pizzagates, and shadowy transhumanist 5G plots (though “innovative” might be giving too much credit here). Researching both – one for my Ph.D. and the other for my job – has given me an insight into how the current state of online disinformation, specifically conspiracy-fueled movements such as QAnon, Anti-COVID-Vax, and the nascent “Freedom Movement" that exists as a fusion of both, essentially functions as a spiritual successor to Creepypasta by building on its unique formal properties to destabilize ontological boundaries between fact and fiction.
Tugging at the boundaries between fact and fiction or real and imagined is nothing new for horror as a genre.
Creepypasta, at its most basic, is neologism built on a neologism. A derivative of copypasta – that is, short anecdotes or blocks of text sometimes accompanied by an image or video that are copied, pasted, and circulated online. Copy… paste...copypasta. Creepypasta functions in a similar way, except the anecdotes are designed to be, well, creepy, often using a first-person narrative technique to appear as if they are told by whoever is posting them. Unpacking that means that baked into Creepypasta is a native exploitation of the affordances of digital text. Specifically copy and paste, and from there, the interactivity involved of the ‘pivot’ from reading to telling through reposting, and thus the necessity for its digital text to be on the internet and most likely, social media.
Tugging at the boundaries between fact and fiction or real and imagined is nothing new for horror as a genre. In fact, whenever there has been a leap forward in media and communication technology, horror and the Gothic have been right there to exploit said leap forward to create "real" scares. From the Gothic’s inception with the first edition of The Castle of Otranto’s conceit as a "found" document and classic Gothic literature’s continuation of this tradition, via radio plays such as Orson Welles’ infamous broadcast of The War of the Worlds, to video with Cannibal Holocaust alleging to be found footage – a claim so convincing that the filmmakers were put on trial for murder – and The Blair Witch Project’s blending this with a wildly successful marketing campaign on a then-fledgling internet to continue the reality presented in the film beyond its title card and credits.
Despite conceits or techniques to assert that the story is real, the list above is intrinsically tied to various industries that contain many paratextual indicators of fictionality. The literary conceits of classic Gothic novels likely did not fool anyone at the time; Welles’ broadcast did not trigger the panic it is so famous for, and though Cannibal Holocaust’s director was pulled into court in his native Italy, this was only after a moral panic over the violence depicted. Both it and The Blair Witch Project found initial purchase on the film festival circuit, with the latter distributed by Artisan Entertainment; an established feature film distribution company. Despite any sensation of realism in the cinema, suspension of disbelief ends once one considers that an actual snuff film probably isn’t going to get a widespread cinematic release.
Far from the audience being separated from the story by being able to exit a cinema, close a book, or turn off a radio, stories simply appear in spaces where one would usually find interaction with assumedly real people, often in the guise of interactions with assumedly real people.
The form of Creepypasta sets it apart from this rich lineage. Far from the audience being separated from the story by being able to exit a cinema, close a book, or turn off a radio, stories simply appear in spaces where one would usually find interaction with assumedly real people, often in the guise of interactions with assumedly real people. Paratextual indicators of fictionality aren’t part of the mechanism by which a Creepypasta narrative is delivered to the reader. On the contrary, paratextual elements of forums and social media platforms ask users to consider its content to be things that real people have uploaded. Indicators of fictionality must be consciously added – if at all.
Creepypasta stories take the shape of posts as dictated by platforms: forum posts, message board greentext, Twitter threads, YouTube videos, and comments sections — all to be copied, pasted, and recirculated by other assumedly real people. Depending on the reader and "teller," any spread of the narrative can then become an interactive experience between two or more people on a real platform. Reflecting on the memetic success of Candle Cove, author Kris Straub captures the essence of Creepypasta’s leveraging of form:
“People would orchestrate recreations of the story by pretending to be the characters in actual forums, to the confusion and discomfort of the forum regulars who are now wondering if Candle Cove was a real children’s program. I was and continue to be really flattered by this, and I love that in a way, Candle Cove has entered a subset of the public subconsciousness, much in the way the characters were trying to figure out if it was real within the story. It’s almost as if Candle Cove is becoming real.”
By being told at the same textual level that a reader exists online at, when first encountered, a Creepypasta narrative is as real as you or I are online; a textual representation of something or someone that platforms ask us to sincerely believe in, if only to consider whether to continue believing.
Of course, the original author and those who spread and repost the story are part of a group that know about its fictionality, but they conduct what scholars Aaron Trammell and Anne Gilbert refer to as “a participatory and collective ritual” that evokes and animates the monsters at the heart of Creepypasta narratives. This play results in a "disposition towards media outside the game" of world-creation that can be dangerous. Playing this game "is a process that makes fiction take on an affective actuality that blurs the supposed distinctions between illusion and reality." In other words, by posting about and interacting with Creepypasta stories as if they are real on platforms where people are not expecting fictions, the stories are as good as real to those who aren’t already in the know.
By the same token, conspiracy-based disinformation also weaves narratives that aim to blur the distinction between fact and fiction on platforms where many expect to read truths – or at least interact in a sincere way with other users. Much like fans of Creepypasta, believers in QAnon, Great Reset, or Sovereign Citizen conspiracies also participate in perpetuating the "reality" of those narratives by spreading, remixing, and retelling various elements. Whether it’s a mythical video of Hilary Clinton conducting a child sacrifice, alleged depopulation plots, or the idea that the U.K. and the U.S. are corporations rather than countries, the fictional nature of these beliefs and the sincerity with which they are believed in matters little when those posting it treat it as fact. To those looking in, especially those who are one foot down a rabbit hole, the conviction in rhetoric, interactivity with community, and the sheer amount of content repeating these same or similar messages may be enough to tip them into sincere belief.
The desire to reinforce one’s existing beliefs through narrative is what drives disinformation with a force that Creepypasta can never truly attain. After all, nobody wants a world with paranormal monsters in the same way that they want their political adversaries to be monstrous.
Where Creepypasta and disinformation differ, however, is in resonance with existing beliefs and the desire for the worlds depicted to be true. While an encounter with a Creepypasta narrative may result in a frisson of briefly considering a world with the potential for monsters such as the Slender Man to exist, their threat to us dissipates quickly when one attempts to square that world with our own physical experiences. Conspiracy-based disinformation, on the other hand, relies on potential political resonance to reinforce beliefs that readers may already hold. If you don’t like Hilary Clinton… why not have her be a child-sacrificing Satanist? If things feel off and that spheres beyond your control are dictating political decisions, maybe that’s exactly what it is. The desire to reinforce one’s existing beliefs through narrative is what drives disinformation with a force that Creepypasta can never truly attain. After all, nobody wants a world with paranormal monsters in the same way that they want their political adversaries to be monstrous.
A brief occasion where Creepypasta overlapped with desire can be found in the Waukesha “Slender Man Stabbing," where two girls, believing in Slender Man and wanting to live with him, lured their friend to the woods and stabbed her 19 times. Something Awful, the site where the Slender Man originated responded in typically glib fashion:
“We are 15 years post-Blair Witch. These girls were 12. Found footage Youtubes, shaking cameras and bad Photoshops of people with socks on their head standing in the woods should not be fooling anyone […] But maybe all these chemtrails and Art Bells are actually making people dumber”
While Something Awful was perhaps right that the internet should be savvier at recognizing misleading content made for itself, but they missed a key component; wanting to believe despite any signposts pointing to fictionality.
The Waukesha stabbing effectively marked the beginning of the end of Creepypasta’s ‘golden era’. Horror fiction on social media still exists, but has traded out monstrous mascots like Slender Man for a satanic cabal of child-trafficking elites and is much more effective at becoming the world in which people truly believe in by appealing directly to the desire to believe in it. Much like in Waukesha, desire to believe in these narratives spilled out into reality and ended in tragedy on January 6, 2021, when four people died wholeheartedly believing in the myth of an election stolen by dark forces and an existential threat to their lives. A horror story if ever there was one.