How the novels of Neal Stephenson illuminate the present and the future.
“Did you hear about the girl who got a text inviting her to a pop-up haunted house called the No-End House? People say she’s the only one to ever make it out alive…” It has the familiar resonance of an urban legend or modern folk tale — and it is — but it’s also the basic premise of the second season of Syfy’s Channel Zero. Understanding its significance requires watching with a bit of double vision, of seeing the show as an interpretation of stories already haunting a collective folk consciousness. Our current media landscape is absolutely saturated with high production horror such as Get Out and American Horror Story, polished artifacts drawn from the singular vision of auteur directors and producers. Horror might be the medium in which they work, but it’s a genre that they stand outside of and manipulate to express a unique individual perspective. What makes Channel Zero different is that each of its seasons are based in large part on “creepypastas,” often (but not always) anonymous stories altered slightly as they’re shared online. That Channel Zero draws from this resource elevates it above other horror shows and transforms it into the most public venue for showcasing a contemporary, online resurgence of the folk tale.
Channel Zero would merit attention even if it didn’t happen to also be a platform for popularizing creepypastas. The show premiered in 2016 with a season called “Candle Cove,” a nightmare saga of a traumatized child psychologist who returns to his hometown in order to discern whether an half-forgotten children’s television show is related to the disappearance of his brother. It’s dreamy, slow, and phantasmagoric, with the understated acting of Paul Schneider providing a fixed point around which the action turns. Critical reception was positive. The season has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which describes the show as: “Creepy, unsettling, and refreshingly unique, Channel Zero: Candle Cove draws on easily relatable childhood fears while peeling back layers of spine-tingling mystery.” Despite a drop in viewership, the following two seasons, “No-End House” and “Butcher’s Block”, improved on the first simply by virtue of having tauter and less meandering plots. In fact, the third season, a “ruinporn” inflected parable about the death of community in America, has a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s simply one of the best scary shows on television. But without its ties to the creepypasta, that’s all it would be.
The creepypasta is simply a scary story shared, re-shared, and altered online, usually on forums like Reddit’s nosleep page. Its origins are opaque, but it’s thought to have originated with email chains and in the rudimentary chat forums during the early days of the Internet. Before the portmanteau term creepypasta was invented on 4chan (as a combination of “creepy” and “copypasta”), proto-creepypastas consisted mostly of stories meant to sound like realistic confessions of horrifying events, descriptions of strange rituals, and unattributed rumors. As the genre naturally developed, something resembling a stable vocabulary of myths and tropes arose. Stories usually dealt with modern anxieties relating to rootlessness and technology, always as text but sometimes with accompanying images. Recurring characters developed, the most famous of which is probably Slender Man. What happened, over the course of twenty years or so, is that a half-anonymous canon of modern folk stories was created online.
Creepypastas might superficially seem to be trying (and often failing) to achieve convincing realism, but this is where their secret power and affinity with folk and fairy tales originates from. Despite being mainly first person narratives, these stories appear flat and abstract. Nods at character development and motivation are rote. Anyone who actually “believes” that characters like Slender Man, an ancient and faceless shape-shifting creature who targets children, is real must be a child, delusional, or both. And yet they’re still moving. They’re still terrifying. What they share aesthetically with the folk tale is a literally unbelievable flat abstraction. The German folktale scholar Max Lüthi describes this “depthlessness” as he calls it in The European Folktale:
Not only does the folktale lack a sense of any gap separating the everyday world from the world of the supernatural. In its essence, and in every sense, it lacks the dimension of depth. Its characters are figures without substance, without inner life, without an environment; they lack any relation to past and future, to time altogether.
While the creepypasta isn’t as extreme as the folktale in its austerity, it also flattens characters and muddles setting in order to express a sense of universality. The narrator could be anyone. The horror could happen anywhere. This abstraction, a slightly jilted rendering of lived experience, conveys the possibility that the plot is somehow of a higher order, expressing a deeper psychological or even spiritual truth which, in some sense, is always happening, everywhere and to everyone. This is the spirit the creepypasta shares with the folktale.
Creepypastas and Folktales share an affinity, but their differences are just as expressive as their similarities. That creepypastas are texts rather than oral communications, which counterintuitively means that they’re subject to more change. Anthropologist Christine Desdemaines-Hugon writes in Stepping Stones that,
A written account can be open to multiple interpretations, distortions, and transformations, depending on the time and situation, economic imperatives, or the whims of political or religious leaders. Orally transmitted traditions, in contrast, must be rigorously and accurately passed on in order to survive in all their subtlety, and in the smallest of details.
In the case of the creepypasta, there’s also a media industry commodifying these stories and reflecting them back at the population from whose collective mind they originated. Channel Zero is the prime example of that. One wonders if, as the creepypasta becomes further commercialized (a Slender Man movie is imminent), they will come to be written with an eye towards breaking out of popular but still hyper-modulated niche forums and into the “mainstream.” Will they continue to be written as modern folktales or potential commodities?
It’s important to remember in all of this that as the Internet (once an anarchic melange of Cold War government funding and hippie libertarianism) teeters between increased corporate or government control, average people have found a way to articulate their collective anxieties through it. In a way, creepypastas are like a cargo cult in reverse. Instead of using anodyne tools to mimic technology without actually understanding it, people force a new technology to mimic the contours of our most fundamentally human experiences. It’s a folk appropriation of tools and devices which are often used to control, nudge, count, and flatten social experience while monetizing the tastes of its users.
But what makes creepypastas and Channel Zero particularly appealing is that they’re rebellious without realizing it, and not just in form. The content of the stories, the horror itself, is often an expression of our ambivalent relationship with technology and the rootlessness of contemporary society. The first season, featuring a quasi-mystical television channel, concerns the intrusive energy of mass media and the power it holds over our children. The second season is about the loss of community at a household level, and the third about that same loss on a slightly larger stage. None of the protagonists have a present, living, father. They’re expressions of our collective anxieties conveyed over the very medium which symbolizes the source of the decay. This makes them politically and culturally extraordinary. More than a horror show, Channel Zero showcases the extraordinary event of humans using whatever tools are available to express the mystery of self-consciousness.