Warning: this article contains images that some readers may find frightening.
He doesn’t have a face. Maybe that’s the scariest part. Where there should be a face, there’s nothing. Just smooth, pale skin…if it even is skin. I’m not sure he’s even a corporal being. He might be some kind of spectre. He’s definitely not human. His limbs are lanky and he’s always wearing that black suit and red tie, like some perverted attempt to pass as a business man. But I know better.
Do you know who I’m talking about? If you were a frequenter of forums back in 2009, this description probably conjures up one notorious character. He’s gained a certain notoriety on the web. That’s right–he’s the Slender Man. Possibly the internet’s favorite monster.
Have you ever come across a story on the internet that is so weird, so freaky, it couldn’t possibly be true?
There’s a pretty good chance it’s not. In fact, it might just be another creepypasta floating around the web. And no, creepypasta isn’t a questionable school cafeteria lunch. The term is used for amateur horrors stories, some of which have gained such virality that they have become urban legends on the web. The term “creepypasta” is derived from the internet slang term “copypasta,” popularized on 4chan and signifying viral copy and pasted text (though the term seems to be commonly applied to any amateur horror story published online). Creepypasta can be text only, but some of the most famous stories circulated with accompanied by a cryptic image or video.
And some of them are startlingly realistic. So realistic that the Slender Man (also known as “Slenderman” and affectionately nicknamed “Slendy”), inspired two young girls in Wisconsin to attempt to murder their friend. There have been other reported cases of Slender Man related violence: a thirteen year old girl who attacked her mother with a knife in Ohio, and a fourteen year old girl in Florida allegedly set her house on fire while her mother and brother were inside.
After seeing tales from the internet enter the real world, I wanted to take a deeper look at what makes for a viral creepypasta. What spooky elements, what narrative choices, what subjects and genres make for a story that people have to pass on to their friends?
What horror story ingredients are most common in viral creepypastas?
By viral creepypastas, I mean creepypastas with the most shares. I took a sample of 72 the most shared and most discussed creepypastas on four popular creepypasta sites: creepypasta.com, creepypasta.org, the Creepypasta Wiki, and reddit.com/r/creepypasta. I drew the samples from their list of highest rated, most discussed, and featured stories. I noticed that a handful of the same stories were repeated across the different sites, but I will touch on those later on.
After reading probably close to a hundred different creepypasta stories (probably some of the most fun research I’ve ever done), I made a list of a couple of the most common horror story elements found throughout 72 creepypastas. What I found was that all of the creepypastas contained a similar set of seven horror story elements–or, as I’m going to call them, creepypasta “ingredients”–despite being very different stories from one another. Although not every story contained all seven creepypasta ingredients.
Here are the seven ingredients for a popular creepypasta:
1. A First Person Narrative
Stories told anecdotally were definitely a popular narrative device that many authors took. In fact, 68% of creepypastas are first person narratives. If a story is told as a personal account, there’s always the possibility that it could be true, even if you know that logically it couldn’t be. It allows for a certain degree of doubt, however small, that there is some modicum of truth in what you are reading. In my opinion, this narrative device was particularly effective when used in stories that had to do with the internet messages or diary entries–Funnymouth and Ted the Caver being two great examples, respectively.
Well, I think it’s safe to say that most people find murder terrifying. It’s no surprise that a large chunk of the stories I read–46% of them–contained either an act of murder or the direct aftermath of murder. A common criticism that I read in the comments section for stories containing murder was that authors would fall back on gratuitous gore to get their scary points. Some of the best creepypastas took a more creative route, relying on other elements of atmosphere, weirdness and surprise to spook readers. A great example is Abandoned By Disney, written by one of the web’s most esteemed creepypasta authors, Slimebeast.
3. A Cliffhanger Ending
While 54% of the creepypastas I read didn’t contain a murder, many of them contained the implication of a murder to come–in the form of a cliffhanger ending (take this unnamed creepypasta, for example). Cliffhanger endings can sometimes be a cop-out but when done well, they can leave readers with a chill and keep the mystery alive. This is especially effective in cases where the reader is made to question whether or not the same could happen to them–like in the zombie creepypasta Persuaded. Of the creepypastas I read, 53% had a cliffhanger ending.
4. A Monster or Supernatural Being
Given the popularity of the Slender Man, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that monsters, ghosts, and demons figure prominently in the most popular creepypastas–61% of the creepypastas I read had a monster or supernatural being. Such ghoulish creatures as the Rake, the ghost of Bedtime, and whatever the heck Smile Dog is. And sometimes the scariest monsters aren’t the ones that comes from somewhere unknown, but the ones that come from familiar places–like humans who have become monsters. The Russian Sleep Experiment is one such example.
5. An Unexplained Phenomenon
Some of the scariest things are the things we will never understand. Perhaps that’s why 71% of the creepypastas I read had an unexplained phenomenon. Some strange occurrence or creature that came out of nowhere but has made an unalterable impression on our psyche. The Disappearance of Ashley, Kansas is a particularly unsettling example of this, made all the more effective by its transcriptions of faux telephone recordings.
6. A Creepy Image
Did you know that our brains process images faster than words? According to a study by a team of neuroscientists at MIT, our brains can process entire images in as little as 13 milliseconds. So the moment you look at a scary image, it’s in your brain. It can be really hard to shake a disturbing image. That’s why some of the most infamous creepypastas are synonymous with their images. The Slender Man was an image before becoming a story character. Smile Dog and Abandoned By Disney seem to have always been accompanied by their iconic images. In fact, 23% of creepypastas I read were accompanied by an image (this excludes stories with fan images made after the story original story circulated).
There were also two cases where the creepypastas were comics (both shared on the creepypasta reddit). These were really cool, because although you may think that a comic is not as creepy as a story, you would be mistaken. In these cases, the artists used some pretty interesting techniques to create atmosphere. The first is His Face All in Red, which uses black space on the page to build suspense. The second is this unnamed comic, which breaks the fourth wall at the end and turns on the reader.
7. A Creepy Video
I noticed that a number of creepypastas had videos that accompanied them. After looking into it more, though, I realized that in most cases, videos were made by fans of the stories after the fact. Only two creepypastas were first circulated with a video, a small 6%. One of those stories is the popular gamer creepypasta Ben Drowned uses a short video clip at the end to give readers an extra chill.
The crème de la crème of creepypastas.
Of the 72 stories I looked at, 10 stories in particular were shared across multiple sites, true to the copypasta form. These creepypastas also had some of the highest combined share counts across the four sites I looked at because of that. In order of most total combined shares to least, those 10 stories were:
The Russian Sleep Experiment (64,030 total shares)
Squidward’s Suicide (37,298 total shares)
The Rake (13,223 total shares)
Psychosis (7,428 total shares)
Abandoned by Disney (7,149 total shares)
Smile Dog (7,120 total shares)
Candle Cove (4,588 total shares)
NoEnd House (2,939 total shares)
Bedtime (2,657 total shares)
Persuaded (454 total shares)
A quick note: If you’re familiar with the popular canon of Creepypasta, then you might be wondering why I haven’t included the Slender Man or Jeff the Killer in this list. I did this because I wanted to look at the metrics for specific stories that has been posted on multiple sites. Because the Slender Man and Jeff the Killer both appeared first as images, the mythos surrounding them has been built up over time by many different writers, video makers, and posters on forums.
The original Slender Man images, which appeared first in this SomethingAwful thread:
The original Jeff the Killer image, which appeared first in this video:
The metrics for these stories were, in general, reflective of the larger sample:
The two major differences from the overall sample were the percentage of stories with first person narratives and the stories that contained a monster or supernatural being. While 68% of the 72 creepypastas I read were first person narratives, nine out of the top 10 creepypastas were first person narratives. And while 61% of all of the creepypastas I read had a monster or supernatural being in them, eight of the top 10 creepypastas featured a monstrous creature.
In other words, people really love personal accounts of encounters with frightening creatures. This goes to show that even though the medium of myth making has changed with the times, at the core, the stories that spook us are the same as they always have been. We’re all sitting around a virtual campfire, telling stories about what goes bump in the night. Calling each other out for our tall tales. Wondering if there could be an inkling of truth in the tales.
So what’s the secret recipe for a tantalising creepypasta?
Let’s break it down by how many creepypasta ingredients were used in each story:
The story with the most combined shares across all four sites is The Russian Sleep Experiment, with 64030 shares. The Russian Sleep Experiment has only four of the creepypasta ingredients. Interestingly, The Russian Sleep Experiment was actually the only story out of the top 10 creepypastas that wasn’t a first person narrative.
The story with the second most combined shares is Squidward’s Suicide, with 37298 shares. Squidward’s Suicide also has 4 of the creepypasta ingredients.
So the secret recipe for a creepypasta that people share is: use no less than two creepypasta ingredients and no more than six creepypasta ingredients. The optimal number of ingredients is four. Although the most shared story was not a first person narrative, the other nine stories were, so it’s still a safe bet to make your story a first person narrative.
What can we learn about writing from creepypastas?
Yes, I’m going to propose that there is a broader lesson that we can take away from this study. After all, creepypastas are stories and in order for stories to be compelling, they need to be written effectively. I read a lot of creepypastas for this analysis and most of the ones I read varied from ehh to good to great, but some of them seriously sucked. Horror aside, the elements of good storytelling present in the best creepypastas can be applied to any kind of writing.
Tell personal anecdotes.
Use a first person narrative, for example–this can be used in virtually every writing context to make a piece not only more interesting, but more convincing. Even if you’re writing, say, an article about a seemingly dry subject like SEO strategizing, you can use personal anecdotes to connect readers to the topic. If readers can connect with you, they will be more inclined to listen to your tips and suggestions.
Use striking images.
The notoriety of creepypastas like Jeff the Killer and Smile Dog also attest to the impression that images have on readers. Generally, writing guides will tell you to use high quality images and for the most part, that’s true. But in the case of creepypastas, low quality images tend to be the more effective visuals, as they obscure details and lend to an atmosphere of mystery. What we can take away from this is that your images shouldn’t just break up the text–they should enhance and build the narrative. Take the tone and style of your text into consideration and use images that fit that same tone.
Leave readers wanting more.
Cliffhangers are so frustrating because they don’t give you a satisfying ending. They leave you with questions. They can spur you to look into the topic more–to find out if anyone knows what happened, if the story is true and if there is a definitive answer to be found. A cursory search will yield many threads on forums and Q&A sites investigating the truth behind creepypastas.
The lesson here isn’t to always use a cliffhanger ending. Because that wouldn’t make any sense in a lot of cases (picture an article about “10 Tips to Improve Your Productivity” where the tenth step was missing…and never heard from again…). But you should leave readers wanting to read more by you, to check out your website, to learn more about the topic. You can do this by pointing them to where they can find more information, or you can simply include a call to action, like asking them to follow you on social media.
Choose the right medium for your narrative.
Some of the creepiest creepypastas were convincing because they made expert use of their medium. For example, Candle Cove (one of my personal favorites) is written in the form of a conversation in a forum thread about a children’s show that aired in the 70s. The author takes the time to attribute original typing patterns to each member of the conversation and does not provide too many qualifying explanations surrounding the show–instead, they rely on the vagueness and uncertainty of memory to build the mystery, making the whole conversation seem very realistic and unsettling. Because of this, many people have been led to believe that Candle Cove was a real show.
You may be familiar with Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism, “The medium is the message.” Essentially, the medium that you choose to tell your narrative will have a profound effect on the narrative itself. Depending on what you are writing about, this can be as simple as finding the most appropriate publication to publish your piece. But this could also mean choosing to make a video, or a podcast, or a slideshow, or an infographic. Consider which medium will communicate your story in the most engaging and convincing way.
Make the old new again.
Most of all, what we can learn from creepypasta is to not shy away from an idea just because it has been done before. Find a way to make it new again. What this analysis showed us is that people gravitate towards traditional archetypes. That’s why archetypes are timeless. What writers of creepypasta have done is taken a tradition of urban myths and monster stories and updated them so that they are relevant in the age of the internet. This is a concept that you can apply to any story, project or product you may want to pursue–find something old that people connect with and update it, make it relevant, and make it new again.
Check out this awesome fan made video that uses our study to analyze creepypastas:
Want to make your own spooky infographic? Visit our infographic templates page.
The infographic in this post was created by Joanna Lu.