Happy Halloween! – A time where production companies everywhere celebrate putting out spooky stuff in cinemas or mock the B-movie scare fests of yesteryear. Strangely, the horror genre seems to have adapted flawlessly with our modern media consumption.
We have transmedia horror like Blumhouse’s The Purge film and TV series. There’s Crypt TV; an online short-form horror universe, with interconnected storylines, monsters, and mysteries. But perhaps most impressive is the Creepypasta scene; spawning massive fan engagement across short stories, games, let’s plays, and even books.
This Halloween, I wanted to delve head-first into our modern Creepypasta phenomenon and see if there’s anything of note for studios and production companies to look into.
WHAT IS CREEPYPASTA?
The term “Creepypasta” is derived from the phrase “copy and paste.” In the early days of the internet, this was the quickest way to share content amongst a fanbase. A Creepypasta can be anything from an urban legend, a video game, a haunted video, an urban legend based on a haunted video game, or even a meme. It can either be an entirely original concept, or something derived from an existing IP – more often than not video game based.
One thing is certain, it’s an online horror phenomenon.
Perhaps the most popular original concept is the Slenderman – a creepy image of a tall-looking faceless white man in a black suit; known for taking children and other spooky things.
There are a ton to list, so it may just be easier to link to the Creepypasta site if you want to check them out.
Naturally, this went on to spawn discussion, and lead to an online video game sensation, and a less-than-inspired movie adaptation. It was a “viral horror” so to speak, and your typical teen or twenty-something will be more than familiar with it.
Then you have the urban legends; fan-appropriated horror stories like the haunted Legend of Zelda cartridge of “Ben Drowned,” – a *quote unquote* real life mystery of a soul trapped in an N64 copy of Majora’s Mask. The creators behind this one even included video footage of their “playthrough” to coincide with the story.
Many Creepypasta that falls into the “Lost episode” category, or terrifying never-before-seen-footage that was too dark for TV, which the producers created anyway … yeah, it can be nonsensical (especially if you’ve looked into TV budgets and ask why you’d intentionally put money into something that the network would never air), but interesting nonetheless.
I only bring this category up because we’ve recently we saw the showrunners give a nod to one of these fan stories in the actual programme. “Squidward’s Suicide” is a dark, urban legend that is in no way real. Yet it became quite the phenomenon online. Funnily enough, this year, in a surreal episode of Spongebob Squarepants we saw the creative team reference the iconic red-eyed Squidward.
This is interesting because it shows appropriated fan media being re-appropriated by the creative team behind the series.
There’s no denying that these stories have created a devoted fanbase, and we’re seeing more strategic use to generate interest. After all, the philosophy is to create something that’s easy to engage with and share.
Now, we see game developers and producers applying the same philosophy.
THE LET’S PLAY HORROR
The level of immersion cannot be ignored regarding the multi-platform, as the rise of social media and streaming services has given rise to the ‘Let’s Play’ phenomenon. Now, you can engage with a property by not only playing a horror game but sharing your reactions to it.
I view these as an expansion of the Creepypasta philosophy – a wave of viral horror content designed to be shared and engaged with. Although these have been adapted, or inspired creepypasta, it’s debatable whether they should be classified as such. I see it as more of an evolution on the “copy paste” philosophy for a social media age.
Slender: The Eight Pages (2012) was arguably one of the earliest examples of the Let’s Play fan-driven phenomenon. This franchise grew entirely in the online space and shows how online creators are impacting multiple creative industries. The game is complete with crackling video and fourth wall scares for the ultimate immersive experience. Since then, he became a popular character, before transitioning into the video game medium in the indie game Slender: The Eight Pages. As a first-person survival horror, this resulted in multiple channels hosting Let’s Play streams and fostering a community who quickly became familiar with the titular character.
This is an important development in how multi-platform media has evolved to coincide with consumer demands for authenticity. Having a vast fan community, experiencing and reacting to a video game series and spreading a viral online story adds a personal element to it. Unlike past transmedia properties, this type of consumer engagement does not rely on a heavy financial investment and builds up a following of loyal fans organically.
But that was at the start of the decade. The question is how do you keep that level of engagement?
“LOOKS LIKE WE’VE GOT ANOTHER MYSTERY, SOCIAL MEDIA GANG!”
Later first-person horror games would follow a similar trend, but place an increasingly important focus on the story, and creating new ways to engage with a fan community.
One of the more well-known examples out there was the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise – often referred to as FNAF by fans. This property is noteworthy for creating a mystery across social media, and adding an overarching mystery that had fans scrambling to figure out what the heck was going on.
This was again a franchise that began as a first-person horror game, and similar to the Slender method of fan engagement through Let’s Plays. In this case, the story takes place in a series of Pizza diners, and chronicles the animatronics coming to life and attacking the player.
The game has been a critical and financial success and has been ported to mobile with a film announced – although the script has been scrapped and the project delayed. Really, they need to get this out soon if they want to capitalise on the IP.
For me, the most interesting aspect of this franchise isn’t the games or let’s plays, but how it built up a mystery – and then sold the answers.
In 2017 the book trilogy was released regarding the mystery and timeline of the FNAF story. These books were Five Nights at Freddy’s: The Silver Eyes, detailing the backstory of one of the recurring supporting characters and the history behind the animatronics, and expounded upon in Five Nights at Freddy’s: The Twisted Ones and Five Nights at Freddy’s: The Fourth Closet.
In true transmedia fashion, the books are essential to understand the mysteries of the video game series, and the events in the games are essential to understand the chronology of the book.
They are interdependent on each other and exemplify not only the methods of building up a fan community online, but also exploiting multiple platforms to continue a story and answer the lingering questions that were set in place during the game’s inception. It was through this narrative engagement that the production led to another revenue stream, where fans of the games could buy the book and have any lingering question answered.
We’ve seen other series replicate the success of the social media gaming mysteries as well.
In 2017 we got Bendy and the Ink Machine – a game released in five chapters over a period of a year. This is a highly stylised franchise, mimicking the early animation styles of the 1930s, but with a dark horror overtone and mystery surrounding the events of the fictitious animation studio. On the official website, there are animated videos that flesh out the universe, and offer hints to the overarching mystery of the game, maximising the digital potential to explore the mystery.
As one of the most recent examples of multi-platform engagement, Bendy and the Ink Machine typifies many of the elements of modern consumer engagement. Not only is there a direct engagement with the fan community, but there is a greater emphasis placed on the importance of narrative and theory-baiting.
Although Let’s Players use these games to define their brand through an online experience, it is the narrative that distinguishes this transmedia from the purely aesthetic properties. This is a real crowdculture way of producing media and transforms a mystery story into a social media experience, and an approach that producers should consider when crafting more fan-led experiences.
Perhaps Crypt TV best exemplifies this evolved philosophy in practice – using a series of horror shorts to build up mystery with a fan base through short form content and an ongoing story.
I imagine we’ll see more of this online-mystery building as we move further into short form content, and mobile distribution.
But for now, have a Happy Multi-Platform-spanning Halloween.