Lot of words in this one.
I've recently been trying my hand at writing a "creepypasta". Before I go any further, I should probably define what exactly that is.
A "copypasta", from the word copy/paste, is a humorous story or block of text that usually originates on a message board like 4chan or Reddit and then makes its away around virally. My favorite versions of these are usually a story written out to sound like the speaker is an absolute trainwreck of a human being, then at the end twists it by being a veiled reference to Star Wars or Pokemon.
A "creepypasta" is like this but is intended to unsettle the reader, sometimes doing an undeservedly good job of it. Some circles refer to it as "horror microfiction", but given that the format has grown to include heavily edited YouTube videos and sprite artwork (more on that in a minute) it's difficult to really classify or name what exactly is going on. The gist of it is, it's scary storytelling in an unconventional, internet-based format that is heavily dependent on being told in its original medium, rather than something that would be served better as a book or short film.
With that terribly amateur definition out of the way, I want to talk about a few creepypasta stories that have influenced me, for better or worse, and hopefully deconstruct what sets the better ones apart from the dross.
1. The Bad
I feel like I should start with the poorest attempts at creepypasta in order to illustrate what exactly we're trying not to achieve. Go and have a look at It Wasn't Lavender Town and the notorious Jeff the Killer. These are the absolute bottom of the barrel, as far as I am concerned, when trying in earnest to tell a scary story.
It Wasn't Lavender Town is an attempt to latch onto the Lavender Town-related creepypasta craze. If you don't know, Lavender Town was a location in the first generation of Pokemon games where you fought a lot of ghosts and was notorious for its creepy 8-bit musical theme. There was a pretty decent story surrounding Lavender Town called Lavender Town Syndrome and I'll be talking about a really good one, Pokemon Black, in a minute.
The point is that Lavender Town took off as the subject of various copycat creepypastas (I hated typing that phrase, btw), and It Wasn't Lavender Town is an example of the kind of absolute dreck that can occur when teenagers are given access to a word processor, and a platform for having their bowel movements praised by other chan-board users. I can't even figure out what exactly is going on in the story, and while normally I'd be able to look past that as a stylistic choice, in this case I don't give a shit. The writer rattles off horror buzzwords-- screaming, pain, secret, innocent, beckoning-- to try and evoke some kind of response out of the reader, and instead just comes off like a high-schooler imitating Stephen King. Barf.
Jeff the Killer has gained notoriety, I think, purely for its use of a visual aid, a grinning bone-white face which has now been turned into a myriad of image macros and fanart. Without that youtube-screamer-worthy face as a hook, Jeff the Killer is little more than an overblown, overlong, Wes Craven-style snorefest. Had the writer used his head, he might have scrapped everything after the news article at the very beginning, edited that up so that it had a nice twist ending or some decent imagery, and then left it at that. As it is, the thing clocks in at over five thousand words. All in all, much like Lavender Town, it serves only to make it sound like a shitty campfire story for the Facebook era.
When it comes down to it, the best creepypastas tend to work well as a sort of "urban legend" that can be copy/pasted (!!!) or linked to out of context and get a good, scared reaction from the reader. The worst ones are the kind that decide they want to be a horror story without having a fucking clue what makes good horror, aping sub-par spooky cinema in the process.
1. Wasted Potential/Jumped the Shark
The next category are creepypasta stories that started out promising-- in some cases, extremely so-- and then at some point disappeared up their own ass. This is usually the result of the author having a good idea to start out, and putting out a pretty good first installment, often with high production values for their visual aids or videos. Then they decide they have a larger story they want to tell, but unfortunately that story pans out into an overblown mess that undermines the sinister quality of the original concept. My examples for these are Haunted Majora's Mask Cartridge (or "Ben Drowned") and NES Godzilla Creepypasta.
In regards to Ben Drowned, you may notice that I posted a link to a KnowYourMeme article instead of the original story. This is because I lost interest trying to find a link to the original story through Google or any related articles, instead digging up a treasure trove of (useless) information regarding an alternate reality game based on the story, and its own fucking wiki. To paraphrase KYM, the story started out as a thread detailing a mysterious forumgoer's experiences with a copy of Majora's Mask he picked up from a creepy old man at a garage sale. He uses youtube videos as the primary means of telling the story at first, the majora-ty (har) of the text just describing what's occuring on the screen.
To his credit, the videos are very good. Unfortunately, with each entry, the story flies off the handle and becomes a story about a ghost that lives in your computer and omg you just downloaded the ghost and then, from there, turned into an overblown ARG involving a cult modeled after the game's villain (???) and the exploits of a series of protagonists as they fought against this killer AI. I guess if the author wanted to make an ARG, he succeeded, but the storyline is laughably bad and any sincerity the tale originally possessed is quickly drowned out under the old horror staples of cults and an omnipotent spooky intelligence. Swing and a miss.
NES Godzilla follows a similar trail, beginning as a pictorial recording the writer's encounter with a seemingly cursed or haunted NES game (haunted video games are a popular concept). Using admirable skill with sprite artwork, the author subtly alters the game as the playthrough progresses, eventually leading to an encounter with the work's villain; an unrecognizable, low-res demon, whose boss "fight" area is labeled by a single chilling directive. RUN.
At that point, I would've ended the thing, but the thing goes on for a groan-inducing eight more chapters, each of those divided into several sub-entries for a grand total of a couple dozen posts. The story culminates in some bullshit about a childhood friend who is trapped in the cartridge, now in the form of an alien-looking angel, and a Hollywood-worthy (that's not a compliment) final showdown with the demon where the player can't move or turn off the game and feels actual pain whenever his character is attacked. Oh yeah, there's also a silly redemption arc with one of the characters, a defected minion of the villain.
This shit is still awesome though:
What this boils down to is they start out with a good, unsettling concept-- and then fall into the trap of thinking every story needs to escalate swiftly to stay interesting, and that every story needs an ending that either wraps up the story or kills off all the humans involved. When you're writing horror, many of these rules are extremely malleable, and you have to be exceedingly careful when choosing to follow traditional structure; particularly when your second and third acts are stupid as fuck.
With that out of the way, two of the best ones I can think of off the top of my head are Candle Cove and Super creepy Pokemon hack (or the now-defunct "Pokemon Black").
These are very good scary stories. Candle Cove, using the format of a small forum such as the kinds that these sorts of stories tend to originate on, starts out fairly innocuous, and then goes on to play with something almost all of us are familiar with; the insane, retrospectively traumatic imagery of kids' shows. We all remember Ren & Stimpy, the scary boat ride from Willy Wonka, the donkey island in Pinocchio. The discussion concerns a fucked-up sounding puppet show from a local TV station. The beauty here is that the show is set up as being obscure enough that googling it would realistically not turn up anything, and nothing in the show sounds particularly insane, as far as the insanity of old children's programming goes. Until you reach the Skin-Taker, arguably.
The stakes are raised when one poster's nightmare about the show is recalled by another as being an actual episode of the show; then whole thing is punctuated with a delicious twist ending that answers one question-- what?-- while opening up a whole host of others-- why? How? There are no further entries to elaborate on those new questions, and god damn it, that's how it should be.
Super Creepy Pokemon Hack doesn't even do that. The entire story is an account of the player's experience with the cartridge, a transcript of what exactly occurred on the Game Boy screen, and then a quick rumination on the origins of the cartridge without any concrete answers. It takes a fond memory, a subject very familiar to most people reading the story, and makes it wrong. After subtle twisting of the source material, the story leads to an oppressive conclusion that has the scares administered by an inhuman, unfeeling, nigh-faceless 'other' that never answers any questions or makes its motives known in the slightest.
In the end, we're left with the two basic blocks of a good horror ending-- leaving more questions than answers, and never bringing the monster down to the protagonist's level. Even if the Ghost had been vanquished at the end of Pokemon Hack/Black, it was never humanized and could have been part of a larger, unknowable force.
I'm guilty of breaking a few of my own rules about scares in the name of a more marketable story in my novels, but given the freedom from market expectation I would definitely do something more along these lines, and that's what I hope to accomplish with my own little creepypasta story. This exercise has got me to identify a few of the elements that I think make a great scary tale, and hopefully some of you who are already creepypasta enthusiasts might go away thinking a bit more critically about what you read.
For the rest of you, I'm an opinionated blowhard, move along.
Addendum: I wanted to talk about The Princess as well, which is a long-form creepypasta concerning a video game ghost and which has taken off into a few fan-made videos and artwork. It's harder to comment on as a whole piece because it's not finished yet, but so far it's up to part 11 and I'm still on board, so take that for what it's worth. Give it a look!