Creepy pasta and Internet “culture”

I’m not talking about some new Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese Halloween-themed release. “Creepy pasta,” a term from 2007, refers to  memes of creepy stories. They are like urban legends or folklore from the Internet. The term itself comes from “copypasta,” a name from 2006 given to easily “copied” and “pasted” documents, around since the 80s.

Creepy pasta has similar roots. In the 90s, for example, people often copied and pasted creepy stories and sent them via e-mail. Many of these ended with an infamous clause, like the Mickey Mouse one that threatened an evil Mickey Mouse would invade your home unless you forwarded the message. Others threatened curses or a ruined love life. As people forwarded the messages, the creepypasta spread.

Image inspired by the "Suicide Mouse" creepypasta. Mickey Mouse is actually quite common in these. [Image from Villians.wikia]
Image inspired by the “Suicide Mouse” creepypasta. I guess Mickey Mouse horror stories live on. [Image from Villians.wikia]

With the advent of Myspace in 2003, Facebook in 2004, and YouTube in 2005, these sorts of things continued into other social media, with comments today using the same ploy. Fortunately, creepypasta has more to offer than evil Mickey Mouses and poorly worded threats.

Today, many sites like Reddit, 4Chan, and countless forums churn out creepy stories, movies, and images. Others have taken notice. In 2010, The New York Times wrote an article about it. A major website devoted to it exists. It has a wiki page. Numerous YouTube channels narrate, animate, or discuss them, MrCreepyPasta being one of the most well known. And, the ultimate sign of an established cultural trope, parodies exist.

Slenderman may be the most ubiquitous of all creepypasta, bridging the media of video games, video, and photography. He also exists in multiple genres, from documentary to horror, and has his own “Slenderverse,” organized by numerous fan sites and an active wiki page. In an ominous stroke, two girls face charges for allegedly trying to stab their friend apparently to please Slenderman.

This shows major growth from Slenderman’s humble origins. In a Something Awful forum contest in 2009 to create a new modern myth to terrify people, Eric Knudsun, using the screen name “Victor Surge,” posted two edited pictures, including this one:

One of the original pictures [Image from BBC]
One of the original pictures [Image from BBC]

Accompanying the picture, was the following caption:

“We didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time…” – 1983, photographer unknown, presumed dead.

You can make out the mysterious “Slenderman” in the background. Without his various makeovers, he’s a pretty simple alteration, not the sort of thing to possibly inspire a murder. But as will any successful meme, he grew and expanded.

One of the many "Slenderman sightings" [Image from slderman.wiki]
One of the many “Slenderman sightings” [Image from slderman.wiki]

I find creepy pasta interesting for many reasons, but most of all, I’m fascinated by the way it “converges.” The American media scholar Henry Jenkins uses the term “convergent culture” to describe the ways some contemporary media has multiple outlets or sources that “converge” in unique ways. For example, the television show Breaking Bad has websites, forums, Facebook pages, and related Twitter accounts devoted to it. Some of these outlets are more official than others, with fans making websites supposedly from characters in the show or wiki pages for discussion.

Thus, a television show converges on multiple outlets from multiple angles. Content from the original producers converges with content from the so-called consumers. And with websites, like the Save Walter White page hyperlinked above, fantasy converges with reality. The same thing occurs with most shows, like Walking Dead, which has the added influence of the graphic novel, a webseries, and a video game.

Similar convergences occur with creepypasta but because no original commercial source exists, I find it more fascinating.

In the case of Slendermen, the extension of an entire ethos across media outlets occurs as creators expand it through their own content. For example, Marble Hornets is a Slenderman-inspired web series, with no ties to the original creator, but their new characters and concepts remain a part of the “canon.”

Many also require media convergence to tell their story: Slenderman’s Photoshop-edited picture, the diverse “documentaries” that use video, the forums and social media users that “share” content, the low-tech talking between friends. Instead of an oral tradition spread from person to person, slightly changed with each retelling, we have multimedia, multimodal texts jettisoned through a variety of outlets, embellished or altered in numerous ways.

Few if any of these creators are official media outlets. They are not the centralized “culture industry” that Adorno and Horkeimer wrote about, who propagate conformity through mass media. They are not profit-centered movie, clothing, and television companies.

The Culture Industry [Image from Google Images]
The “Culture Industry,” low-tech version [Image from Google Images]

Instead, most of this new “culture” blends the culture industry and its tools, like video, with an even more traditional one: popular culture from the people. Or, at least a “poaching”of popular culture to serve their own ends. For example, I may use an image of Tom Hanks in adulation or satire. And Tom Hanks has little power over this.

Whether one can call this “Internet culture” or not remains too early. But as these cultural complexities and shifts continue, they require investigation, even things as seemingly trivial and crude as creepypasta.

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