Want to write a creepypasta? You’ll have to learn how to balance what your viewers want to know with what they need to know.
What Is Creepypasta?
First and foremost, what is a creepypasta? Creepypastas are scary stories that start online, usually text based but sometimes video-based or audio-based as well. Creepypasta comes from the term copypasta, which comes from a misspelling of copy-paste, and is used to describe stories that people share over and over by copying and then pasting them somewhere else. The first threatening chain e-mails technically count as creepypastas! Slenderman, one of the more famous creepypasta stories online, is often credited with popularizing the term, although it had been used in niche forums for quite some time before that.
Creepypastas used to be a single-author effort, with limited input from the community that consumed them. In the early days of the web, it was very tough to identify what would create a copyright schism, so people weren’t so keen to begin making fan games, write fanfiction, make art featuring copyrighted characters, etc. because the original author might like it, or they might issue a cease-and-desist and make all that work pointless. Anne Rice famously crushed any and all fanfictions about Interview with a Vampire she found well into the late aughts, and so people stopped writing that fiction. There are rules that say you have to defend your copyright or you’ll lose it, so it’s hard to blame creators for being so extreme in the early days before there were precedents for online transformative works, but as a result, the environment was repressive and fan interaction was often limited.
This worked in the favor of the early creepypasta authors. The creator of Slenderman, for example, had a hand in the projects that featured his creation – as a result, most of the cool, big stuff featuring the monster, like the game 8 Pages and the short video series Marble Hornets, retained the original flavor of the monster.
Cruella De Ville
However, things have not stayed this way, for better and worse. To explain this purely by storytelling, lets look at another character, Cruella De Ville. Everything about her is meant to be scary and mean. She wants to skin a bunch of puppies for clothing! She’s named Cruella. She’s arguably one of the most black-and-white (hah) villains Disney ever created. She is just objectively awful, and that’s entertaining in and of itself. Almost anything can happen to her and the audience will think ‘serves her right!’
Until… Disney offered up a movie humanizing her, explaining that dalmations killed her mother, that she’s more of a Devil Wears Prada than genuine, cruel evil. And people hated this movie! Maleficent could be said to be misunderstood, but Cruella was a shallow villain to start with and should have stayed that way. Not only was the backstory unwanted, it added a lot of fluff and humanity to a character that – again – wanted to skin puppies for clothing. It made her motivations confusing and kind of pathetic instead of heartless and cold, defanging her for the sake of making some money on character recognition. This was a multi-million dollar effort on Disney’s side.
I’m explaining all this because in today’s day and age, it’s very easy to accidentally do the same thing to creepypastas and make them funny or clownish instead of scary. Things have changed when it comes to copyright, and fan interaction is not only allowed, it’s sometimes seen as the ticket to getting a lot of really good content about your project for free. Creators now build a community instead of an audience. While this does produce some really good scary content, it also invites a lot of mediocre content alongside it.
Un-Scaring By Missing The Point
There are a lot of talented artists who don’t have the time to create or maintain an ARG, but still want to create scary things. There are a lot of creatives who don’t necessarily have the talent to put their ideas to paper in a drawing, but can describe it over text in a way that is bone-chilling. There are people who can draw and animate things that are terrifying as long as they’re given a prompt, or a mood. There are people who can do neither, but still have great ideas and can collaborate to make those ideas a reality with someone who can put it to paper or animate it.
There are also people in each of these categories who don’t quite grasp what the scariest part of the original story/creepypasta/monster was supposed to be and end up creating something that pulls back the curtain, so to speak, removing the mystery associated with the monster. To use another not-so-scary example, look at Star Wars. The Force is a mysterious, all-encompassing but not omniscient power that flows through all living things, good or bad, weak or strong. It works in mysterious ways; it seeks balance over triumph; anyone may be able to access and harness it if they can devote years and years of their lives to training to become either Jedi or Sith. Some are born with natural talent for it, but others have to work hard to achieve the same talent their peers were born with. But, if they do, it’s worth it, because they get to stand among the Jedi! You get it? It’s so cool! Fans love The Force! Anyone could be a Jedi! And then George Lucas reveals that controlling The Force is actually the result of a blood infection by a microorganism called midichlorians, and all of the cool, metaphorical, mysterious parts of the story are brought into sharp contrast with this new information. Not everyone could be a Jedi. You have to be born special to be special.
To use a scary story, almost literally the same idea was incorporated into Five Nights at Freddy’s with the introduction of this goo called Remnant in one of the books – the animatronic suits that hunt you night after night aren’t bound there by a determination to get revenge on the guy who killed them, they’re there because the suits had that goo in it, and if the suits hadn’t had that goo in it, they would have just moved on. That could be scary, but it’s scientific and cheesy in a way that’s not scary in and of itself. Feeling so much rage that you crawl back out of your grave to seek revenge is a terrifying yet very human concept – midichlorians and Remnant goo remove the element of choice and willpower from the story and turn it into a game of chance. Things happening by chance can also be scary… but the setup has to know that chance is the scary part about the story, because if it’s not, it reads like a plot hole or a contrivance. But that’s the creator doing the un-scaring to themselves, what about fan content?
Many creepypasta monsters are scary because you don’t get a good look at them, either metaphorically or literally. You don’t know where they came from or what they’re after, just that you’re in their sights and you really don’t want to be. Getting a good look at them, therefore, removes the fear and defangs some of them. Some monsters continue to be scary even after they’re revealed to the viewer (a lot of monsters that represent forces of nature or evils remain scary if they don’t take the form of a human themselves – Room 1408 and The Blob, for example), but many more are less scary once they go from concepts to being real things, dumb animals, ‘just some guy’. Slenderman, for example, became divorced from representing paranoia and stranger danger and started being just some guy after countless works of fan art watered his presence down. He’s still plenty scary in the first few games that came out about him, but doing horror poorly tends to turn it camp, and now he’s often just some guy in a suit. Seeing art of Jason Voorhees just casually mowing the baseball diamond at Camp Crystal Lake like a regular camp counselor made him funnier and campier (hah) than actually, genuinely scary, too. Intentionally making art cute, or unintentionally failing to scare makes fanart one of the most dangerous blades a community has. If a monster doesn’t have a lot going for it, consistently cutesy fanart or fanfiction can break down the monster’s reputation more than a badly written chapter or a terrible plot twist ever could!
And Storytelling in a New World of Fan Art
As previously mentioned, transformative works are no longer a constant source of copyright anxiety, so huge springs of art and fanfiction appear around characters like never before. Hot Topic had to get a license to use Jason Voorhees on their shirt, but some guy on Twitter can sell stickers with him dressed like a regular hockey player without the license because the work was transformative.
As a result, it’s never been harder to control the perception of the monster. Creepypasta writers often do their writing alone, so issues with how the monster might be perceived by fans aren’t necessarily caught until the fans are already perceiving it. Make it dumb, and maybe it’s just a trapped animal, make it smart, and maybe the main character could have reasoned with it, make it demonic, and maybe you should have known better than to invite it in, make it nature, and humans are the monster for the destruction they’ve caused. No monster is perfectly unredeemable… but there are many monsters who don’t get the ‘I can fix him’ treatment from fans because they aren’t lovable.
Still, even if you have beta readers and you’ve written a pretty good monster, people can be weird online. You don’t want to ask people to stop making their art – a scorned artist with a big fanbase can remove their fanbase from yours, which has happened before – but you don’t want the cute, calming art to consume your idea, at least not before the story’s completely over and fans who want to be terrified have gotten their fill.
How Would You Prevent Your Work From Becoming a Meme?
Assuming you’ve written a pretty good monster (and there are tips online all over the place if you’d like to try your hand) there are a few things you can do to keep the horrifying entity you’ve made from being cross-contaminated with My Little Ponysonas by well-meaning but young fans.
Firstly, create an environment for your story that isn’t going to break immersion for your readers. In a movie, you can’t have someone interrupt your watch with a funny picture of the monster caught in a raccoon trap. If you’re scrolling through a blog, you can – if the artist reblogs works from fans on the same blog that they’re writing the story, they can accidentally reduce the seriousness of their own story. The creepypasta subreddit on Reddit actually has rules that state both the writer and commentors must treat everything as if it’s really happening, so you don’t get awkward breaks at the end of the story where the original poster thanks everyone who gave them nice feedback or medals. This saves the original poster of the story from having to shake hands with fans while they’re still in their monster makeup, so to speak, and it’s a good rule to apply no matter where the story is happening. Keep fan interaction on a side blog or side page so you’re not having to break character.
Secondly, know when enough is enough. This is really, really hard. There’s a saying in music ‘to always leave them wanting more’, but you still want to make the story and share your ideas about it. Share enough to make the story, and maybe some stuff that didn’t make it in, but don’t reveal every corner of every room. Monsters are usually scariest in the dark, metaphorically and literally, so you have to leave some stuff to the imagination. This is where the midichlorian problem from before happens – maybe even you don’t know how your monster works perfectly, but it’s okay to leave it like that. Sometimes no explanation you could possibly give will surpass viewer imagination. Sometimes explanations for how things ended up the way that they did end up making the story less enjoyable, the way Cruella’s prequel movie did.
Thirdly, be aware of who your content is geared towards. In horror games, something like Outlast is going to have a very different audience to something like Five Nights at Freddy’s, and even that is going to have a wildly different audience than something like Poppy Playtime. The more kid-friendly your project is, the more likely it is you’ll end up with cutesy, AU, or less-than-scary fanart, because the population consuming it is going to veer younger. This can be pretty simple – while horror doesn’t have to be washed out and gray, Poppy Playtime sort of shot itself in the foot by giving itself a cute, floppy, absent-minded mascot in a building colored with bright, happy, primary colors. For even starker contrast, Five Nights at Freddy’s creepy animatronics attracted (and scared!) people of all ages. Five Nights at Freddy’s: Security Breach redesigned those characters into cuter, rounder, more human versions, and the game’s fear factor is noticeably lessened as a result.