❉ The world of dark media is a new lease of life for the horror genre, writes Kara Dennison.
In his A History of Horror miniseries, Mark Gatiss cut his coverage of horror media off firmly at the 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Beyond this, he said, ‘horror’ – at least on the American side of things – was rarely, if ever, truly ‘horror’ anymore. It had descended largely into gore porn and splatterpunk. And while there is certainly a place for that, it means that a horror fan who is more into psychological horror has fewer true solutions in Hollywood. Japan and continental Europe still provide some scares but, as a whole, mainstream horror is not what it used to be.
There is an alternative, though – albeit one that requires a little digging. Recently, I wrote about the SyFy Channel adaptation of Candle Cove, taken directly from ‘creepypasta’ – an online horror story of a certain nightmarish aesthetic, originally passed around messageboards. If one follows the creepypasta trail, one can in fact find an entire community of indie creators producing dark media in written, audio, visual, and even game form. In an era when anyone can make movies with their phone, not all of them will be solid; but the ones that are, are terrifying and creative and engaging (sometimes on a very deep level).
The first recorded ‘creepypasta’ as we know it is Ted the Caver, originally posted on Angelfire in the form of a blog post. Ted recounted, in diary form, the otherworldly encounters he and his friends had while they investigated a cave – which led to nightmares and hallucinations for weeks after. The story was so tightly written that visitors to the National Speleological Society’s website discussed it in depth, trying to isolate the source of Ted’s strange encounters. Finally, the writer stepped forward, admitting that the story was a work of fiction.
This is one of the keystones of modern dark media: a level of immersiveness so deep that we find ourselves questioning the reality of it. Many series creators trade on this extreme suspension of disbelief – which, in rare cases (such as the international news frenzy caused by YouTube user seventybroad), can become very real trouble if they’re a little too good at their job. But when it works, and people aren’t mistaken for actual murderers, dark media at its best encourages a level of puzzle-solving, code-breaking, and theorizing – sometimes even branching out into ARGs and audience participation (and a few well-placed plants).
Even the heavily memed Slender Man got his start in the world of dark media – originally a creation of the SomethingAwful forum, the concept was picked up by users Joseph DeLage and Troy Wagner. The two created a found-footage YouTube series called Marble Hornets purporting to be real, following the cast and crew of a failed student film as their former director’s obsession and a mysterious figure called ‘The Operator’ began encroaching upon their lives. The videos were laden with codes, imagery, and other cues which, when combined with the players’ social media, unraveled the full story of the Slender Man’s grasp on the team.
YouTube channel EverymanHYBRID followed suit, creating a blokey health and wellness channel that was planned to devolve into a dark media project. At first, their (frankly laughable) attempts at creatures hiding in the trees were little more than awkwardly admirable – until the videos began to cover their friends’ desire to cut the Slender Man plot from their series because bad things really were happening. From there, what originally seemed like a well-intentioned, poorly executed attempt spun out into an interactive horror story of karma and looping timelines, featuring some stunning acting from the cast (especially Evan Jennings, who played both a self-named character and the mysterious villain HABIT).
For Class of 2000 kids like myself, the YouTube series BEN Drowned was an early step into this world – a packet of text files detailing the descent into madness of a college student after buying a ‘haunted’ copy of Majora’s Mask, coupled with YouTube videos of his terrifying playthroughs. The videos are horrifying – imagine every potential glitch you’ve ever encountered in a game, multiply it by ten, and then play the music backwards. BEN Drowned eventually branched out into an ARG, but lapsed because creator Alex Hall couldn’t afford the time needed to run it; however, he is working to turn it into a proper experience soon.
There is, to be frank, too much good dark media of all lengths to cover it all – the self-contained but distressing Noc-10, the off-and-on weirdness of Spectacular Organic, and series like CH/SS and abstractions that still elude even the cleverest of code-crackers. YouTube channel Night Mind, hosted by Nick Nocturne, curates a good number of these and is an excellent place to start when it comes both to finding and understanding them. (He also brings attention to mainstream titles like The Boy and Resident Evil 7: Biohazard that are examples of horror done well.)
When it’s at its best, the world of dark media is a new lease on life for the horror genre: it avails itself of the spread-out, participatory nature of the Internet, pulling new viewers into its web and trapping them in the way good psychological horror once did. And people who want nightmare fuel and fridge horror more than jump-scares and gore, it’s an exciting, ever-growing place to escape to.
❉ Kara Dennison is a writer, illustrator, self confessed geek and convention organizer.