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The pleasures of internet horror

Amateur horror writing is a dynamic yet perennial feature of online culture. Many of us grew up reading creepypastas about characters like the Slenderman and Jeff the Killer. Maybe you even tried to convince your friends that they were real. You may look back upon these stories as poorly written attempts at emulating “real” horror writers like Stephen King. On the contrary, I would argue that online scary story writing communities such as the SCP Foundation, Creepypasta and Reddit’s NoSleep have given way to hundreds, if not thousands, of genuinely good horror stories.

One of my all time favorite ameteur scary stories is a six-part series called Penpal, originally posted on reddit.com/r/nosleep. Penpal is an eerie, but gut wrenchingly emotional, tale about innocence crossing paths with sheer malevolence. It chronicles the life of an unnamed narrator over years as he pieces together memories from his childhood while trying to rationalize the disappearance of his best friend Josh. Effectively, it’s the story of an obsessive, unseen stalker pursuing the narrator and trying to become closer to him. It is the writing style and perspective that make Penpal so compelling. The reader is able to empathize with the visceral fear felt by a helpless child who is becoming painfully aware of the evil that exists in this world. I am not alone in being a fan of this story, as despite its humble origins, Penpal was published as a novel in 2012 and was well received by critics.

The SCP Foundation is a highly organized website that I consider one of the most impressive examples of crowdsourced fiction to date. Technically, the entire website is a multi-thousand-part anthology put forward by countless authors about a secret organization that helps secure, contain and protect anomalous entities. These entities, identified by unique SCP numbers, can be almost anything, placing very few restrictions on contributors. This being said, the SCP Foundation is not strictly horror; many of the articles and stories enter more into the realm of classic sci-fi and many are quite lighthearted.  Examples include SCP-106, called the old man, a wretched being that controls his own universe. He can drag victims into to torture them endlessly. A more humorous one that I really enjoy is SCP-426, a toaster which can physically only be referred to in the first person. For example, one cannot say “SCP-426 is a toaster,” they can only say “I am SCP-426, a toaster.”

A unique aspect to amateur scary story forums is that they are able to foster some feeling of realism and interactivity despite and even through their lack of professionalism. Obviously, a fully developed human brain goes into reading these sites with the complete understanding that everything they are about to read is entirely fabricated, but some small part of me still suspends disbelief, if only slightly. When I read a horror story from an actual published author, it feels as though I am reading a completed, premeditated work. On the other hand, when I read a story from some anonymous user online, it feels more as though I am reading an individual’s report of some horrific phenomenon, and I think the amateur writing style found on many of these websites lends itself to this feeling. In fact, NoSleep in particular has the rules “Stories must be plausible” and “Everything is true here, even if it’s not.” Users are not allowed to doubt the stories’ validity and writers are not allowed to admit that their stories are untrue. 

NoSleep was actually the first place I put a piece of my own writing on display about six years ago, and while I don’t want to expose my fifteen year old self’s take on a horror story, I will say I was surprised to find how willing people were to engage with my story and play along as if it were true. I think there is something to be said about using these types of forums to exercise one’s writing, as there are few other places available online where so many people will enthusiastically respond to your work and ask for nothing in return. To this day there exist multiple thriving communities of short scary story enthusiasts, and I would encourage young adults interested in honing their fiction to participate. 

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