The week of October 25, 2015

Lurking in the deep, dark, mysterious Internet

By Jesse Hicks

It’s almost Halloween, that special time of year devoted to intentionally scaring ourselves. In this issue, we’re looking at the people doing the scaring, asking why we even want to be scared, and looking at how the Internet has given us new ways to be scared.

First, Rick Paulas revisits The Blair Witch Project, the out-of-nowhere indie film that gripped audiences in 1999 and single-handedly catapulted the found-footage genre into the mainstream. (Though it took Hollywood a while to catch on; it wasn’t until almost a decade later that the big-budget Cloverfield appeared.) Today we’re awash in found-footage movies, a fitting reflection of our hypermediated world. But Blair Witch appeared in a much different world: one where the Internet was still a strange, vaguely ominous place, a perfect breeding ground for urban legends and what we’d later call “creepypasta.” The creators took full advantage of that, without really even knowing they were doing so; as Paulas details, the murky, still-nascent Web was a major factor in the movie’s success.

It’s hard to imagine the Blair Witch phenomenon happening today, when “real name” social networking, for example, has made the Web feel so much less anonymous. Strange things still bubble up from the darker regions of the Net, sure, but rarely do they achieve the same mainstream success. And on a heavily commercialized Internet, audiences have become more skeptical. (Does anyone want to take odds that the currently circulating “creepy video” is a viral marketing scheme?) That tension between belief and skepticism—between “don’t believe everything you read on the Internet” and “Yeah, but…”—is playing out right now on Reddit, thanks to a game called “Sad Satan.” As Hannah Barton explains, the game supposedly originated in the “Deep Web” and surfaced through a YouTube playthrough featuring long, dark corridors and bizarre imagery. What was it? Where had it come from? Its mysterious backstory and overabundance of allusions made it perfect Reddit catnip, and Barton examines how, as with Blair Witch, the audience’s curiosity and uncertainty turned a simple video into something more.

Curiosity and uncertainty are the core elements of horror media, we might suggest: the desire to know what’s behind that door while fearing it’s too terrible to contemplate. Aja Romano interviews the writer-director twins Jen and Sylvia Soska, a Canadian duo who have turned those primal elements into a new horror-themed game show, Hellevator. It’s a show that challenges contestants to face their fears; the Soskas reveal how, as young girls, seeing female protagonists like Alien’s Ripley defeat monsters made them feel more self-confident—horror movies as empowerment.

In the sleepy desert town of Night Vale, monsters are not anomalous, but everyday. Pedestrian, even. The creators of Welcome to Night Vale—a podcast often described as The Twilight Zone meets A Prairie Home Companion, offering dispatches from a world where things are always weirder than you can imagine, yet strangely quotidian—explain to Rae Votta how they perfected the show’s quirky-ominous tone. They also share how they adapted it for a novel, and why it seemed obvious their characters would share traits with the actors who voice them.

And finally, Cynthia McKelvey asks the hard question: Why do we want to be scared in the first place? What do horror movies do to us, and why do we want that? Adrenaline, racing hearts, sweaty palms: McKelvey explains why some people love it—and some don’t.

Enjoy the issue.

Illustration via toonerman | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III