A Hellscape of Unsavory Experiences

The bogus “Momo challenge” internet hoax, explained
https://www.vox.com/2019/3/3/18248783/momo-challenge-hoax-explained

A flurry of TV reports, along with both local and national news, began breathlessly advising parents on ways to “protect kids from a disturbing internet game.” Lost in any coverage, however, were any examples of the authenticated versions of the Momo challenge, including screenshots of “threatening messages” or confirmed videos promoting violence.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that a viral urban legend (and likely hoax) targeting kids would be able to sweep the globe. The internet can be a hellscape of unsavory experiences for anyone; parents face the added challenge of wrestling with how to adequately protect their kids without being overbearing. Indeed, inappropriate content often does make it past automated platform security and monitors — just look at YouTube’s persistent struggle with combating child exploitation, online bullying, or extremist conspiracies.

I taught a class called “Demonic Women in Japanese Fiction” last semester, and some of my students were obsessed with the Momo Challenge. I have vague memories of the Blue Whale Challenge from an old group conversation on WhatsApp, but I didn’t pay any attention to it then, so it was interesting to watch this urban legend spread and develop in real time this past spring. I wonder, will the Momo Challenge be a bit of internet ephemera that people will forget ever existed, or will it eventually resurface and take on a life of its own?

By the way, maybe this is just me being weird, but I think Momo is actually kind of cute.

The Sepia Tinge of Decay

Echo of footsteps
A sharp fluorescent buzzing
Empty grocery store

I spent way too much time watching Dan Bell’s Dead Mall series on YouTube last night, and it creeped me out. Dan Bell himself is appreciative of the period architecture and kitsch aesthetic, and he doesn’t film in a way that attempts to create elements of horror where none exist, but there’s still something upsetting about these places.

This video series is all very Rust Belt; and, based on the specific locations, I would assume that this slowly creeping neglect is connected to both rural depopulation and the institutionalized economic marginalization of Black communities. That’s upsetting enough in and of itself, of course.

But there’s also a more universal memento mori quality to these videos that inspires a dread of cultural senescence.

I feel like someone should make a video series along the same lines about abandoned websites, because they give off the same sort of energy. It’s not nostalgia, because the affect is distinctly negative, but it’s similar. I think what makes the urban exploration of abandoned malls unpleasant is that they’re “abandoned” instead of “closed,” meaning that the lights are still on and the water is still running. If they were completely shut down and gradually being overtaken by nature, they would be beautiful, but there are still people inside these almost-dead buildings, and that’s disturbing. In the same way, online spaces like Blogspot/Blogger feel weird because there are still a few people using them, and websites for children’s movies from the 2000s are a little eerie because someone is still paying to host them. You want to feel nostalgia when you look at the past; but then, when you realize that it’s not safely in the past, it’s uncomfortable and uncanny.

Also, can I be real for a second? Tumblr is starting to take on an “abandoned mall” feeling, and I don’t like it.

Online Horror Fiction

In the presentation I gave about Japanese urban legends for Anime USA, I mentioned a few cursed websites that are relatively well-known in Japan. These websites are mostly digital memorials for deceased relatives (and pets) that overshoot “elegiac” and land squarely in the realm of “disturbing.” I’m sure that a scholar of Asian religions could write an interesting paper about these websites; but, for the purposes of my presentation, the most important thing was to maintain a sense of respect for the family members who created them. While I was putting together my PowerPoint slideshow, I started wondering if there are any cursed websites in American internet lore that might serve as a basis of comparison. Indeed there are, but the actual “cursed websites” I ended up visiting were somewhat underwhelming. What I did find, however, was some fantastic online horror fiction.

For the uninitiated, urban legends that spread online are called “creepypasta” after the “copypasta” text that used to be cut and pasted from a website onto a forum and then into an email and then into another email (and so on) back in the days of AOL and GeoCities. Like urban legends, creepypasta is generally presented as true. Most stories are ostensibly something that happened to the people who originally wrote them, who are presumably “a friend of a friend” of the people who then copy and paste and thereby spread the story. There’s an entire Creepypasta Wiki devoted to these types of stories, but they can also be found elsewhere, including the NoSleep subreddit and Jezebel’s annual scary story contest (here’s one of my favorites, from 2014).

There are all sorts of “Best of Creepypasta” lists out there, but what I’ve collected here are stories I found during my research that were very clearly written as fiction and presented online in interesting ways, as well as a few journalistic attempts to debunk creepypasta that ended up becoming stories in and of themselves.

Annie Is Typing
http://www.storiesforyourscreen.com/annie96-is-typing/

This is a short and very creepy story written in the form of a text message conversation between a young man and his friend, who’s not entirely sure that she’s alone in her house. It’s a lot of fun to watch the story play out seemingly in real time, and the twist at the end is fantastic.

The Dionaea House
http://www.dionaea-house.com/

This is epistolary fiction written in the form of a set of emails that the recipient has posted online for the family of the sender, who has gone missing after he quit his job to investigate a random murder instigated by someone he was friends with as a teenager. He confesses that he always knew something was wrong with this friend, especially after the boy spent a few days in a strange house that his realtor parents could never keep occupied. Between the presentation of the digital found objects and the encroaching insanity of the narrator, this story is like House of Leaves, but with all of the mystery and none of the pretension.

Candle Cove
http://ichorfalls.chainsawsuit.com/

This story takes the form of a short series of posts on a Reddit-style forum about “Candle Cove,” a homebrewed children’s show broadcast on a small public access channel. The people posting share their memories of the show, which, in retrospect, was quite sinister. The twist ending is horrifying and delightful.

Mr. Bear’s Cellar
https://www.bustle.com/articles/72619-is-the-creepypasta-1999-real-heres-the-truth-about-caledon-local-21-and-mr-bears-cellar

This article, written by Lucia Peters, explains the cultural context of 1999, a famous story on the Creepypasta Wiki. This story’s premise is similar to that of “Candle Cove.” The narrator vaguely remembers that a small local public access station, Caledon Local 21, once broadcast a low-budget show called “Mr. Bear’s Cellar,” which is just as upsetting as you’d think it would be. Peters provides an excellent summary of the rambling creepypasta and argues that, although this particular story isn’t true, it’s not unreasonable to think that a similar story very well could be.

Abandoned by Disney
https://www.bustle.com/articles/88129-is-the-creepypasta-abandoned-by-disney-real-heres-the-truth-about-mowglis-palace

This is another article written by Lucia Peters (who – can I just say – is a very cool person). In this article Peters investigates the origin of another famous story on the Creepypasta Wiki, “Abandoned by Disney,” which is about a Disney resort on the coast of North Carolina that was suddenly shut down with no official explanation before it opened to the public. These haunted ruins are not real, but that doesn’t mean that Disney hasn’t actually built and then abandoned waterside resorts. What’s interesting about this article is where and how Peters manages to track down information about these derelict theme parks online. It’s also interesting that the original story has apparently been deleted, perhaps because the author was afraid of the real monster in the room, the Disney Corporation.

Sad Satan
https://kotaku.com/a-horror-game-hidden-in-the-darkest-corners-of-the-inte-1714980337

In this in-depth article, Kotaku reporter Patricia Hernandez tries to figure out whether or not a game called “Sad Satan,” which was featured on a popular Let’s Play channel on YouTube, is actually real. She and I both think that it’s mostly likely not, but her investigation takes her to some interesting places online. What I appreciate about this article is its no-nonsense explanation of what the Deep Web actually is based on details drawn from interviews with people who spend time there. I was also amused by its references to real horror games hidden in places you’d never expect, like Microsoft Excel 95.

The Princess
http://ifyouseeherturnoffthegame.blogspot.com/

This is classic creepypasta from 2011 written in the form of thirteen blog posts. On one level, it’s about the strangeness of video game glitches. On another level, it’s about how odd game-related forums used to be, with faceless and anonymous people spreading rumors, making things up, and roleplaying in ways that didn’t always make a great deal of sense. The fact that this story is posted on Blogspot, which now feels akin to a collection of lost and forgotten ruins on the internet, only heightens the eeriness, but the story is really more nostalgic than scary.

SPC-231
http://www.scp-wiki.net/scp-231

This is probably my favorite story in the shared universe of the SPC Foundation, a wiki hosting the X-Files style “records” of a paragovernmental organization given the task to “secure, contain, and protect” various dangerous and unexplainable phenomena. I learned about this subset of creepypasta through a video of someone playing SPC-87-B, a game based on the entry for SPC-87. What’s so horrifying about this story, as well as many other stories on the SPC wiki, is not the various creatures being documented, but rather the inhumanity of the bureaucratic organization that documents them. SPC-231 is especially disturbing in this regard, specifically in terms of its refusal to specify what something called “Procedure 110-Montauk” actually entails. A short story based on SPC-231, Fear Alone, offers a brilliant interpretation that makes the nastiness of the experience of reading the original case file worthwhile.

Aunt Bernice

One summer my family took a long drive to visit my Aunt Bernice. The land around her house was completely flat and completely empty. There were no cornfields or scrub pines or chicken farms; the only thing in that part of the world is red dirt.

Aunt Bernice was obsessed with people who were either dead or dying. My parents were obligated to listen to her, but my sister and I could only handle about half an hour of her stories. They didn’t get cable out in the country, so the two of us decided to go outside.

My sister and I walked across the dirt patches surrounding Aunt Bernice’s house and climbed over the rotting wooden fence enclosing her property. We wandered through the field that spread out behind her backyard, pulling up long stalks of grass and kicking at grasshoppers. Eventually we made it to the edge of someone else’s farm, where we found a single tree, probably the only one for miles. Its branches were hung with a collection of dust-coated plastic toys dangling from threads of twine so dirty they were almost black.

We noticed a boy sitting on one of the tree limbs. He was naked except for a faded pair of red shorts, which were too small for his thick legs. I started to turn away, but my sister stepped out of the unmowed grass and onto the stony soil surrounding the tree.

The boy interrogated her in a toneless voice.

“Who are you?”
“Who are your parents?”
“Why haven’t I seen you before?”
“Where do you go to school?”
“Do you have any brothers?”

My sister responded to his questions with curt and perfunctory replies, but neither she nor the boy showed any signs of becoming bored with the conversation. After turning over a few half-buried pebbles with the tip of my sandal, I interrupted my sister to ask if maybe we shouldn’t go back. She told me to go on without her.

The sun was already low in the sky by the time I pried open the unhinged screen door on the back porch. My parents were in front of the house saying goodbye to Aunt Bernice. They told me to use the bathroom before we left. I went inside and sat down on a ratty couch in the living room, but it was musty with the smell of decay. I got up and went to the kitchen, but there was nothing in the refrigerator except for a thin film of ancient grease on the glass shelves.

When I went back outside, my parents were standing beside the car, saying that I should hug Aunt Bernice before we left. I remained on the porch, calling out to them that we needed to wait until my sister got back.

“What are you talking about,” my mother snapped, clearly annoyed. “You don’t have a sister.”

Oh, I realized. Of course I don’t have a sister.