At long last, Halloween has arrived! I don’t know about you guys, but for me, this is one of the biggest holidays of the year. I love that there’s a designated day that encourages people to step out of their own personas and experiment with being someone (or something) else for at least 24 hours. I’m also fond of this holiday because scary stories briefly make their way into the mainstream. I’m a big fan of slasher flicks, and at no other time are they so readily available, nor are more people as willing to sit through them with me. Whether you’re a fan or not, everyone has some sort of relationship with scary stories. They’ve been around as long as humans have, and they manage to permeate every type of media we come up with. Once the internet became a common staple, it wasn’t long before scary stories infiltrated there as well. These stories are commonly known as creepy pasta.
Of course, the internet did what it does best and allowed fandoms to run rampant, which has resulted in a whole subset of creepy pasta specifically revolving around video games. Many of these stories are wildly popular, but unlike most scary stories, it’s not always for their effectiveness. Some of them are well-known because they’re bad… really, really bad. Ignoring a few exceptions, terrible video game creepy pasta has become so widespread that the Retsupurae YouTube channel has coined the term “crappy pasta.”
Why is that, though? Why are these stories so effective in seemingly every other subject, but almost instantly tank when it comes to games?
Creepy pasta stands out from other ghost stories because the internet brings a new dimension to the art of horror: The illusion of authenticity. Not only is it a platform to display one’s tale, but it’s much easier (not to mention cheaper) to fabricate evidence and create official-looking websites than it would ever be in a published form. It’s essentially the practice of making up stories around a campfire, but with the perceived legitimacy of a documentary.
Of course, that’s just the presentation. All the glitz and glam in the world won’t save a story that’s poorly written, and that’s where game-based creepy pasta often fail. The thing that makes a story eerie is the grain of truth they’re built upon. It leaves the readers wondering about it because it could happen, even if they’re sure it didn’t. Many video game tales go way, waaay too far outside of the realm of possibility to sound even remotely likely, which just makes the story sound stupid instead of spooky.
What makes a good creepy pasta?
By far the most successful story of this genre is Ben Drowned from Majora’s Mask. While the story is far too long for me to describe in detail within the bounds of this article, the summary is that a gent by the name of Jadusable obtained a used copy of the game and ignored the original save file, which was named “BEN.” Despite creating a file of his own, the game often referred to him with BEN’s name, so Jadusable attempted to rectify the problem by deleting the BEN save; however, this caused the game to not use a name for his character at all. Jadusable then used the Fourth Day Glitch, after which the game became overtly glitchy and/or paranormal. This culminated in the BEN save file inexplicably reappearing and Jadusable being chased by the Link statue (which is ultimately known as BEN), especially when he was near water. For more information, read the provided link. (Trust me, there’s a lot more information.)
Despite the fact that Ben Drowned makes an outlandish claim — that a game cartridge was haunted by a malevolent entity — it’s still able to remain within a perceived realm of possibility. This is largely because, unlike most gaming creepy pastas, the story works strictly within the components that already exist in the game. Additionally, Majora’s Mask is perfectly suited for creepy pastas because of its unique circumstances.
As a whole, The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that embraces family friendliness. The games employ bright colors and outrageous monsters to pull audiences of all ages into other worlds, and while they do dabble with some scary designs now and then, it tends to come in isolated spurts. The cumulative reputation of the series advertises that the games are safe, fun, and appropriate for children. Majora’s Mask, on the other hand, not only make use of death as a plot device, but repeatedly throws it right in the player’s face. I recently described this game as a “death sandwich;” it’s serving death on top of death with death on the side. The Legend of Zelda has confronted the topic plenty of times before (often in the form of ghost characters, redeads, and gibdos), but at no other time has a single game in the franchise embraced such a sheer volume of morbidity at once.
Almost every corner of the game is fueled by death (or at least severe loss) as a central plot point. Neverminding the glaring, menacing moon that’s going to kill everyone in three days, all three of Link’s transformation masks utilize the body of someone recently deceased: The Deku Butler’s son, Darmani the Goron Warrior, and Mikau the Zora guitarist (who even dies right in front of the player).
In addition, the audience is faced with numerous encounters with townsfolk that keep death and loss center-stage, such as the recent death of Cremia and Romani’s father, the theft and impending doom of Lulu’s eggs, the Postman feeling forced to die in Clock Town, the disappearance of Kafei right before his wedding, Kamaro’s grief that he died before passing on his skills, and Pamela’s father becoming a gibdo, just to name a few. Hell, the entire area of Ikana is a kingdom of the dead, in addition to the obligatory in-game graveyard. The player even carries around the remains of the bosses Link defeats in their inventory. To compound the situation, the music is frequently more ominous than catchy, and certain character designs are so unnerving that they’re still considered scary even after more than a decade of graphical improvements to the world of gaming.
To someone looking to write a creepy pasta, this is like getting the keys to Willy Wonka’s factory. There are far more possibilities for a realistic-sounding story here than, say, in a Mega Man game. Jadusable wisely stuck to a game that’s already unnaturally eerie and only made use of elements that already existed in the game, which anyone could find for themselves if they wanted to. To help sell his story, he also constructed evidence in the form of screenshots and videos, but again never ventured beyond the elements anyone could encounter on their own. By coupling this technique with audio and video glitches (something every gamer has experienced at least once) and utilizing characters that fans have already described as nightmare fuel, Ben Drowned resulted in legitimately scaring many of its readers — to the extent that many continue to believe the tale today, despite the fact that Jadusable has openly stated that he made it up.
What makes a creepy pasta a crappy pasta?
Many gaming ghost stories aim to accomplish the same goal as Ben Drowned; that is, the intent is to take a franchise that’s generally regarded as safe and kid-friendly and turn it on its head to make the story elements that much more shocking; after all, it’d be a lot more unexpected for someone to die horrifically in a Mario game than it would be in Halo. The problem with this trend is that the games that are chosen for these stories don’t have the same outlying element to give them the legitimacy that catapulted Ben Drowned into gaming history. The entire reason Ben Drowned worked is because Majora’s Mask is NOT like the rest of the games in its series. When the game itself steps away from its franchise, the creepy pasta can simply piggyback on that distance and emphasize it, rather than attempting to create the distance from scratch.
Perhaps the best example available of just how quickly a creepy pasta can fail is Sonic.exe. Like Ben Drowned, the story claims that a copy of the game in question was haunted, and it used videos and screenshots to make its case, so I feel they’re a fair comparison. What makes this story different, however, is that the game allegedly steps outside of its canonical contents right from the get-go. The title screen is replaced, the stage select screen (which the original Sonic the Hedgehog didn’t even have) contains characters that didn’t exist at the time, and the in-game levels contain sprites of murdered creatures. In addition, the characters are noted as exhibiting animations and sound files not contained within any official game. The story ultimately culminates with a bloody Sonic plushie inexplicably appearing in the author’s room and whispering in his ear. (Again, for more detailed information, follow the provided link.)
Unlike Ben Drowned, the story of Sonic.exe lacks both plausibility and relatability. Even if we were to assume the events actually happened, it would have clearly happened on a fan-hacked game, as it supposedly contains a plethora of graphics, sounds, animations, and characters that cannot naturally be found in the original Sonic the Hedgehog. This completely eliminates the possibility of the audience ever experiencing the events for themselves, which reduces the story from a cautionary tale to a lame playground rumor.
Furthermore, the finale of the story — which was undoubtedly intended to be the freakiest part of the tale — is what ultimately hangs it as ridiculous. I don’t care how good your story is, a plushie appearing from nowhere in the real world is already enough to ruin your creepy pasta, but then to also have it whispering? Even Ben Drowned would’ve destroyed its own reputation if it’d attempted to incorporate that breed of nonsense. The fun of a scary story is wondering if it could ever happen to you. Players can at least turn on Majora’s Mask and look out for any BEN-like glitches occurring, but no one’s going to honestly worry that they’ll turn around and see a bloody Sonic plushie.
Avoiding crappy pasta
While it is true that very few games present the same opportunities as Majora’s Mask to develop a good story, there are still a lot of games that provide possibilities. The trick is simply to know when to stop. Ben Drowned was able to make a huge song-and-dance because its game was unnaturally dark compared to the rest of its franchise. While Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario Bros, and Mega Man don’t offer the same kind of black sheep, they do all contain individual moments of creepiness that can be expanded upon. Even the little article I did the other day on the ghosts of Sandopolis Zone was tagged as a creepy pasta by a blogger on Tumblr.
Creepy pastas need to be scaled in accordance to their source material in order to be effective. A good example of a game that provides just a teaspoon of material which was masterfully embellished is Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow, the source of the infamous Lavender Town Syndrome rumor. According to the story, the original theme song to Lavender Town (which happens to be an entire city dedicated to housing dead pokémon) was different in several early copies of the games. It allegedly contained an audio tone that was undetectable to adults, but could affect young players whose ears hadn’t fully developed. The tone was said to cause anything from headaches to madness, which supposedly provoked mass suicides among children ages 10-15 in Japan.
Despite the fact that this tale literally revolves around a single element, it still makes for a very good story. Lavender Town is already creepy enough on the basis that the entire town is essentially a mausoleum, and the song itself isn’t particularly warm and fuzzy, either. It manages to be even more compelling based on the fact that it’d be difficult for an individual to personally debunk, given that original copies of Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow are extremely rare to come by and there’s no guarantee that even someone of the suggested age range would be affected. Furthermore, the fact that it allegedly happened in Japan makes researching the story difficult for westerners, as Japanese is not a language rooted in Latin and thus rarely offered as a language course in public schools. Japanese also has its own sets of written characters, making translations even more difficult. Lavender Town Syndrome is a prime example of creating a solid story without getting complicated, and when told in an environment without easy access to computers (such as a school yard or a bus stop), it can sound surprisingly authentic.
All in all, a story doesn’t have to compete with Ben Drowned to make a good creepy pasta. If you ever decide to write one, take your time and know when to edit yourself. A little bit of restraint can go a very long way — or at least get you a peg above Sonic.exe.