The week of October 26, 2014

The blurring line between online and IRL horror

By Austin Powell

For years, it seemed the horrors of the Internet were self-contained, bound to the floppy disks and wikis on which they were stored.

If you wanted to test your stomach, you needed to look no further than, the Internet’s first shock site, “a place where you could see images of people hit by trains, self-immolation, the gory aftermath of car crashes, failed suicide attempts, dismemberment, botched executions, orange juice enemas, and perverse pornography,” as Audra Schroeder put it in her personal retrospective.

“These images—many of them reader-submitted, many fake or doctored—became Internet folklore.”

But a strange thing has happened over the last few years—that Internet folklore started bleeding into real life.

Earlier this year, two young Wisconsin girls were arrested for the attempted murder of their friend, an act they said was intended to gain favor with Slender Man, one of the Internet’s most established folk characters. (That tragic event soon inspired another copycat stabbing.)

What makes Slender Man equally fascinating and frightening is that he’s so elusive. Born on the Internet, he’s subject to the whims of those who spread and add to his lore online. “He’s a bogeyman as deus ex machina, fulfilling whatever role you need him to, and that’s exactly how the girls and the media have used him: as a Rorschach scapegoat for this awful tragedy, one that can be shoehorned easily into whatever cause or narrative you desire,” observes Ben Branstetter.

Indeed, the legend of Slender Man has been manipulated in countless ways—none more impressive than Golden Hornets, a five-year “no-budget YouTube series that changed the face of horror.” I’d say more, but really you should just sit down with Aaron Sankin’s phenomenal cover story detailing the five-year existential project.

Slender Man is just one of many Internet urban legends, collectively known as creepypasta, “their horror often enhanced by their brevity, their journal-style format, or their casual ‘here’s a creepy thing that happened to me once’ narrative style,” Aja Romano writes in her definitive overview of the phenomenon. “Creepypasta also often reveals a sense of deep distortion of reality, the kind of just-slightly-off view of the world that only comes from the collective imagination of 4channers, Something Awful goons, redditors, and others who’ve found themselves glued to their computer at 3am reading about Mothman, Chupacabra, or other modern-day monsters.”

That ever-blurring line between online and real-life horror is the focal point of this week’s Kernel issue. Mike Wehner examines the impact of 3D printing on the future of costumes, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw delves deep into the SCP Foundation, the scariest and weirdest Internet subculture you’ve never heard of, and we sat down with YouTube mortician Caitlin Doughty, who’s challenging others to prepare for their own imminent passing

With Halloween on the horizon, we also wanted to tell our ghost story around the Internet’s campfire. On Reddit, there’s a sprawling forum, r/NoSleep, dedicated to sharing original horror stories. For this issue we commissioned one of its contributors, Kristopher Patten, for an exclusive short story, called “Raising the Arctic Shadow.”

It just might keep you up tonight.

Photo via Jason OX4/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)