‘Twas the night before Christmas, and there was one creature stirring. It was fifth-grade me, absolutely terrified of what the night may bring — not Santa Claus or reindeer or even a bag of coal — but … Um. Okay. Promise not to laugh? Like, really, really promise? I was having visions and paranoia of … Herobrine from “Minecraft.” And “Ben Drowned” of the iconic “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask” creepypasta. That Christmas Eve as an elementary schooler, I had decided to spend my spare time during winter break reading up on these video game mysteries that had haunted the internet years before my discovery of them. That night, all I could see when I closed my eyes were the consequences of these creepypasta creatures. My loved ones laid in front of me with their eyes hollowed out and stared into my soul with a blinding white gaze or they stood upright not in their bodies but as unmoving dolls, uncanny expressions still boring into me.
It wasn’t just one night, either. While the stories of “‘Minecraft’ creator Notch’s dead brother haunts the game” or “A ‘Majora’s Mask’ cartridge is haunted by a dead boy” were always reported as fiction, some part of me remained unsure upon seeing the “Herobrine removed” patch notes in the “Minecraft” update log or the doctored game footage of “Majora’s Mask” depicting events of the written story — the latter being why “Ben” was so oft-believed, even outside of me. This was horror eclipsing anything I had ever experienced, something I’ve yet to experience so viscerally in my adult life. I had read and watched this kind of horror before — more of the Goosebumps and “Jurassic Park” variety, mind you. What separated the creepypastas for me were two distinct factors — their bleeding into my reality and their senselessness. Nearly every piece of media we consume has been imbued with specific themes and messaging, but the intent of creepypastas — these small fragments of text and imagery — are instead compiled for the sole purpose of horror: To exist only to scar the reader. Media meticulously crafted to prod the mind of its reader and then to sink its claws in, tearing apart rational and coherent thought until nothing but a scared child remains.
That’s what I thought for many years. At least for “Ben Drowned.”
Just days after the original story was published, fans were directed to a website supposedly connected to a cult. The website would respond to certain video submissions and cryptographic translations by members of the internet, and thus the game-based horror short of “Ben Drowned” became an alternate reality game that the whole of the internet played. Even with a nine-year hiatus — the story finally concluding in October 2020 — the story’s author Alex Hall taking his initial self-challenge to write a horror story concluded in what has been now considered one of the greatest creepypastas/ARGs to ever exist. Of course, I’m just giving you the CliffsNotes. I’d much rather you experience it for yourself, or to imagine experiencing it through the eyes of a child.
The horrors of “Goosebumps” or “Jurassic Park” are related to the messages R.L. Stine wanted to express or to how Steven Spielberg wanted to effectively communicate Michael Crichton’s disturbance with science and capitalism. Seeing “Ben Drowned” in its primordial existence — as the record of a man who goes insane and ruins a part of his life being haunted by a spirit he never asked for — cut me so deeply because it was horror for horror’s sake. Taking the story into context for what it would later become, we can understand that it was to build to an actual message. But as a piece of horror, I think the former version in my head works better, and scares me more because of that aforementioned senselessness.
It scarred me more because it was a story of haunting for the sake of haunting, violence for the sake of violence, brutality for the sake of brutality. It scared me more that these things could be real, and it scared me that a part of me had sought them out in the first place. It scares me now, that senseless, haunting, violent, brutal horror is a very real part of our world, and that we as humans seek to commit these acts in the first place. Maybe I scarred the child that I was so he would grow up to be stronger than what scared him.
But the truth is, I’m still scared. I always am, of a great numerous things both large and small, both entirely too relevant to my life and far removed from it. Sometimes, I’m still even scared of looking directly at these haunting images that would stare into me as I tried to sleep when it’s too late. And then I think of reading “Goosebumps” by myself, or watching “Jurassic Park” with my family as my parents comforted my crying little sister and even finding some of my first friends in middle school because they read the same scary story in elementary school that I did. Scare your kids, because they will eventually see the horrors of this world with or without you. Scar their childhoods, but understand that the intrinsic joy of childhood — of seeing the world with new eyes — does not end with innocence. Whatever abyss stares into us, whether through blinding white pixelated eyes or the blank uncanny expression of a doll, cannot conquer us. And if there is a kid reading this? Go ahead and scare yourself, I promise you’ll be better in the end for it — though if you pick any night to stay up racked with fear, don’t choose Christmas Eve.
Summer Managing Arts Editor Saarthak Johri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.