If you ever read a story online about a haunted TV episode, you've already eaten the creepypasta. Scary viral stories, images, and vids, often very short, are creepypasta — some will scare you so much that they've been nicknamed "shitbrix." And they could be the closest thing we have to folklore in the twenty-first century.
Over at Aeon magazine, Will Wiles has a really fascinating meditation on creepypasta, where he describes some of the best examples of the medium. Perusing the collection at the Creepypasta Wiki, Wiles notes how closely they resemble H.P. Lovecraft's definition of weird fiction. In his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," Lovecraft wrote:
A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daeligmons [demons] of unplumbed space.
The Slender Man stories and images are perhaps the most famous creepypasta. You can see one of the first Slender Man images here, with a scary, tall, enigmatic figure lurking at the edge of a playground, menacing the children. Slender Man emerged from ideas shared among users on the Something Awful forums, spread like wildfire, and became so famous that there's a Slender Man movie in the works. The hallmark of creepypasta is that these are scary tales designed to be shared, and which often have no obvious original story behind them. French cultural critic Jean Baudrillard would call them simulacra, or copies without an original.
Though creepypasta can be about anything, they are often about storytelling itself. Writes Wiles in Aeon:
Creepypasta works best when the medium infects the message — in fact, when the messageboard infects the message, and you get a sense of the internet starting to talk about itself. Since these stories are shared on forums, why not use the direct and unliterary vernacular of the everyuser to tell your story, putting it as an anecdote? Which isn't to say that the story can't be subtle and intelligent. Kris Straub's 'Candle Cove', a 'lost TV show' story and certainly among the best creepypasta out there, does exactly this. An obscure children's television programme is discussed by members of 'NetNostalgia Forum — Television (local)'. Each message elaborates and clarifies the premise and cast of the show as users reminisce and correct one another. Candle Cove quickly begins to sound more like a nightmare than innocent entertainment, with a swivel-eyed, loose-jawed puppet called the Skin Taker, and unexplained screaming and crying. Indeed, users who recall bad dreams about the show are told by other users that those 'dreams' were real episodes. The last message in the thread delivers a chilling twist with Twilight Zone precision and force. And it's done without the '500 kids killed themselves!' excess that generally plagues the 'lost episode' subgenre.
Though horror movies like The Ring and Pulse have dealt with haunted videocassettes and internet chat rooms respectively, Wiles is right that creepypasta pretty much owns the "terrifying media" tale. He speculates that possibly this is because creepypasta itself is the ultimate expression of industrialized media culture:
Creepypasta represents a kind of industrialised refinement of [weird fiction] art. It is a networked effort to deliver dread in as efficient a way as possible, with the minimum of extraneous matter.
But I think there are two good reasons that creepypasta isn't "industrialized" at all. It's much more like traditional, pre-industrial folklore than anything else. First of all, a lot of creepypasta is not actually written down. It comes in the form of pictures or videos. This mirrors one of the definitions of folklore, which is generally passed along orally, as a spoken story.
Often, folklorists will contrast the world of "orality" with the world of "literacy." Stories are shared differently in an oral culture, remaining fluid and ever-changing with each retelling. In a literate culture, stories are fixed — once they are written down, they can be copied but are rarely transformed. Though pictures are visual rather than oral, I think they make creepypasta more of a folk phenomenon than an industrial one.
This becomes especially obvious when you consider that creepypasta stories — whether visual or written — are always undergoing transformation. Certainly some stories are copy/pasted over and over, but many of them are changed and altered and "retold" in new ways. Folklorists call the different versions of a familiar story "variants." Many folk tales have regional variants where different characters are highlighted, the ending is changed, heroes are killed rather than surviving, and so on. You can even track the spread of a story across a region by investigating the evolutionary tree of different variants.
Creepypasta like Slender Man are perfect examples of variants. There are thousands of different Slender Man pictures, which require absolutely no literacy to understand. And there are many variants on the familiar story. An even more obvious example of creepypasta variants on "The Holders" stories, which are about hundreds of haunted objects — all of which begin with the phrase "In any city, in any country, go to any mental institution or halfway house you can get yourself to."
The pre-literate, pre-industrial world that was the heyday of folklore has disappeared into history. But online, creepypasta has reinvented some of its most enduring tropes. Somehow, in our post-industrial world, folk tales make sense again.