For hundreds of thousands of years, campfires have been a gathering place for all of humanity. They have given us light, they have given us food, and just as importantly, they have given us stories.
Since the first Homo erectus discovered that sitting around a fire at night kept the darkness at bay, we have told tales of what we fear might be hovering just beyond the edges of the light. So fundamental to our existence is this habit of sitting around a campfire telling scary stories, that it has become a trope in and of itself. We have always known fear and by putting stories around it – urban legends, myths, ghost stories – we attempt to make sense of it.
The forums and message boards of the internet are our campfires now.
Giggling little girls at a sleepover, faces underlit by the flashlight that stands in for a crackling fire, daring one another to call out the name of Bloody Mary. Boy Scouts gripping their sticks of toasted marshmallows and pretending not to be scared as their troop leader tells them the tale of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. Horror movies beginning with a group of high school students huddled around a campfire as one irreverent friend tells them about the HookHand Man who murdered a young couple ten years ago. In that clearing. Right over there...
But in recent years, the campfire has shifted from the woods or the beach to a location more metaphorical and intangible. The forums and message boards of the internet are our campfires now. Instead of fire pits, teenagers gather around Reddit's NoSleep forum. Instead of eerie flashlights, it’s Creepypasta. Urban legends evolved from ghost stories that evolved from more ancient myths and old wives' tales; now they're being reborn on the internet and taking on a life of their own.
Consider the origin of internet myth Slender Man. The ghastly thin, tentacle-armed ghoul's origin can be traced to one particular source, unlike that of, say, Bloody Mary. But the way his story has grown collectively, through the community of the internet and how the details vary from teller to teller, mimics the creation and dissemination of traditional, oral folklore, just in a fraction of the time. He is ubiquitous on the internet, the boogeyman of a digitised millennial generation. And, like the boogeyman of old, has become real to some in ways that go beyond a mere myth.
This line between fantasy and reality blurred horrifically in the case now known as "the Slender Man stabbing," when 12-year-old Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser stabbed their friend, Payton "Bella" Leutner nineteen times and left her for dead in the woods. They later told detectives they had hoped that by making a ritual sacrifice, they'd be rewarded by Slender Man and become his proxies. Though taken to a tragic extreme, it is in some ways no different than people once believing enough in monster myths to bury corpses with bricks in their mouths to prevent them from coming back as vampires.
Audiences are creating their own tales of terror on the campfires of the internet, scaring themselves, and Hollywood is finding its inspiration there.
And, as pop culture has always reflected the Zeitgeist, the internet urban legend has extended to Hollywood. In recent years, we've seen a spate of smash hit suburban horror movies. There is clearly something about these types of stories, with their normal settings subverted by unexpected supernatural events, that resonates with a generation that is becoming harder and harder for Hollywood to scare. But these "it could happen to anyone" plots perfectly mirror the spirit of the urban legends being born and passed from user to user across the internet.
It used to be that Hollywood dictated what audiences were scared of, influencing and shaping the pop culture fears of every generation. Now, it works in reverse. Audiences are creating their own tales of terror on the campfires of the internet, scaring themselves, and Hollywood is finding its inspiration there.
Sinister director Scott Derrickson spent a lot of time online when he was searching for the right look and tone for Bughuul, the movie's monster. He eventually had his "this is it" moment during a search on Flickr for horror photography. He and writer C. Robert Cargill bought the rights to the picture and gave a concept design credit to the original artist, and a big screen monster was born.
Oren Peli, the creator of the wildly successful Paranormal Activity franchise, cites a real life occurrence that inspired the franchise. The then video game programmer and his girlfriend were unsettled by a few things they couldn't explain in their Southern California home. He wasn't interested in blood or gore, but the way humans have of asking "What if?" and filling in the blanks for themselves, often in direct response to their primal fears. So he set up a video camera and started recording. The original film was made for a mere $15,000 dollars but, through buzzy midnight screenings and a clever guerilla social media marketing campaign, it became a cultural phenomenon and monster box office hit. Its legend grew because of the word of mouth nature of the internet.
The Conjuring and spin off film, Annabelle, were inspired by a real life couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren, and the story of their supposed real life encounter with a murderous doll. Their account traveled through the dark paths of the internet where, much like Slender Man, it inspired other ghost stories of a similar ilk. The story of the possessed Raggedy Anne doll, named Annabelle, eventually got turned into the screenplay for The Conjuring.
And last year, horror movie Unfriended was set online, the entire movie unfolding on computer screens. Because of the movie's ultra realism and similarities to real life suicides caused by cyberbullying and social media stalking, the origin of the inspiration for the film soon took on a life of its own. A persistent urban legend sprang up around the film when people who watched the trailer started to speculate whether the movie was based on the actual suicide of "Laura Barns," whom they believed was a real girl. The creators explained that it’s entirely a work of fiction but the legend persists today.
Horror filmmakers have learned the value of the internet campfire. These stories all come from that murky area of the internet where fiction meets a captive audience and intersects with an unlimited ability to be instantaneously passed from person to person. The results are unsettling urban legends that spread so fast that no one can quite prove their truth...nor disprove them either. Our logic tells us they're not real, but quietly in our hearts, do we ever really believe that? In the end, it’s the ultimate legacy of a horror film: when we’re forced to ask ourselves if the fear ever truly goes away, and for something deep inside of us to whisper back: ...no.
This article was originally posted in the Moviepilot Magazine – Fear Issue.