The week of November 8, 2015

Behind the ‘scary maze prank’ that shocked the AIM generation

By Rick Paulas

“This is a game of skill and patience,” begin the instructions for an old Flash game called The Maze. “Guide your dot with the mouse through the 4 stages of maze levels to get to the finish.” But before you press play, the screen offers two hints to make the obstacles easier to overcome. “Play in full screen,” it meekly prods. “Sound effects will help,” it suggests, innocently enough. And so you take the bait.

At this point, readership inevitably falls into two distinct camps: Those who don’t know what’s coming, and those already forwarding a link to the nearest intern. If you’re in the former, well, why not click the link above and give it a whirl. And then, I suppose, take a few moments to clean up the insides of your pants.

This “scary maze game,” an “Internet screamer” in meme parlance, is the diabolic masterpiece of programmer Jeremy Winterrowd. He had been dabbling with Web design since the late ’90s, before delving into this hot new thing called Flash, by Adobe, around 2003. One day, he happened to see the now infamous fake car commercial featuring a creature popping up in place of the car company’s name, and he set out to make his own.

“I just thought it would be funny if I scared the crap out of everyone,” said Winterrowd, who speaks in a soothing Southern twang from his home in Texas.

“His kid was so excited, and when it scared him he screamed and hit the monitor and started crying.”

Seven hours later—after finding the perfect promo photo of Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, the ideal banshee scream, and learning the fake commercial’s lessons for how to get viewers to settle into a near-hypnotic trance—he’d finished his unlikely cultural touchstone. He emailed it to a few friends around Halloween, scared the proper hell out of them, and didn’t think much else of it. But then, the following Halloween, he got a scare of his own.

“It had gotten back to my mother,” he said. “One of her friends had forwarded it to her.” Winterrowd went through the email and began to examine the list of forwards and replies that led to his mom’s email address. The pathway was byzantine, the forwarders legion. “I was like, uh oh, something happened.”

He quickly added a hit counter to the page, and collected between 50,000 and 100,000 hits a month. “The first thing that went through my head was Google ads,” Winterrowd recalled. He was paying for the site’s bandwidth, so it only made sense to try to recoup some expenditure. He put up a few ads and received a not-insignificant amount of money for his time. “For the amount of hits I’d get today, it’d be like 10 times the payout back then,” he said. “That was before the bubble burst.”

But the game’s popularity didn’t end there. One day, Winterrowd opened an email from a particularly sadistic father. “[It was] a video of his kid playing, he thought it was the funniest thing,” said Winterrowd. “His kid was so excited, and when it scared him he screamed and hit the monitor and started crying.”

Winterrowd’s upload was subsequently taken down by YouTube due to a copyright claim—it still lives on in mirrored uploads, including one with over 27 million views—but not before the hive mind learned the lesson and began uploading their own versions. Eventually, it got back to a celebrity, and the phenomenon got the requisite famous-person bump.

On Aug. 2, 2008, Miley Cyrus got into the act by scaring the hell out of her friend. (The video has over 7.7 million hits.) In the video, Cyrus referred to it as “the scary maze game,” the moniker by which it’s still known today. The game’s popularity spiked: America’s Funniest Home Videos used a version of it less prone to copyright claim and flew Winterrowd in for a taping.

Saturday Night Live even spoofed the aforementioned video of the dad scaring the bejesus out of his young son. As a result, YouTube continues to be littered with hundreds of reaction videos. The victims cross all cultural barriers, disregarding age, race, or income. Little girls, grandmas, even American soldiers are at risk. No one is safe. (Except dogs, apparently.)

Winterrowd has tried a few times to recreate the viral magic, making another 15 or so games; the most successful being Bubble Wrap Maniac, where the lull-into-zoning-out action is popping a whole bunch of bubble wrap. And while this game gets plenty of hits, it doesn’t have quite the same effect. Probably because, by now, visits to his site are met with earned skepticism. “Everyone sees it coming,” Winterrowd said. “It’s like, why are you so anxious for me to play this game? Why are you hovering over my shoulder? Why are you videotaping me?”

“I just thought it would be funny if I scared the crap out of everyone.”

He doesn’t miss the attention either, partly because it means his inbox is no longer flooded with death threats.

“I was getting [them] on a regular basis,” Winterrowd said. “I’m going to find you and kill you, or you killed my grandpa so now I’m going to kill you. I’m like, all these grandpas are dying, it’s an epidemic.” It makes sense: Someone has a weak heart, and you stick headphones on them, full-size that screen, and lure them into the shock of their life, maybe that nudge could push them off into the next realm. But Winterrowd doubts the legitimacy of the complaints. “I’m sure their grandpas were very upset with them, but I doubt they died,” he said.

Winterrowd still lives in Texas and works as a programmer using Microsoft’s ASP.NET. He never really got rich off his Flash expertise, for what he says is good reason. “My games are very, very simple,” said Winterrowd. “It doesn’t take a genius to program them.” And while he’s happy to have had a cultural impact, he also realizes the game’s relevance is quickly slipping away. Ask any teenager if they’ve ever played the “crazy prank maze” game, and they’ll just respond with dead blanks; at this point, Flash websites are essentially a dead medium. “Anyone that grew up with iPhones hasn’t played it,” he said.

And so onward marches the ever-increasing rate of tech progress, where the cultural touchstone of one tech generation is completely lost on the next, despite it peaking less than a decade ago. Through the right lens, that reality of nearly instantaneous obsolescence is perhaps more frightening than a dumb little scare. Hell, maybe even more horrific than a long, winding trail of dead grandpas.

Illustration by Tiffany Pai