Thursday, April 16, 2015

Tom Bensley; The Time I was Haunted by the Internet

The Time I Was Haunted by the Internet

Browsing the message boards on has been a longstanding addiction of mine. The people who post there are mostly a bunch of wannabe critics denouncing popular movies and trying to start a bit of online fisticuffs, but occasionally a topic will inspire people to tell stories. Posters write searing, honest accounts of childhood abuse or open up about their experiences in failed relationships. When I was haunted by the internet, it was 2007 and I was reading through a particular topic on the board for Paranormal Activity.

The topic was encouraging people to tell of their experiences with ghosts, demons or anything that had shaken their sense of reality. The posters were sharing “true” horror stories in a way that felt to me like a round of campfire stories. As page after page filled up with brief, eerie accounts, posters felt comfortable to tell their own stories. I rarely ever post anything, so I’m what’s called a “lurker”. I’m happy to just sit back and listen.

The story that “haunted” me was about the poster’s uncle, who told the story to him. Let’s call the poster’s uncle “Bill”. Bill, a journalist, was making a long journey upstate for a job. Along the drive, he stopped off at a motel to stay the night. When he checked in, the receptionist felt compelled to give him a little history about the room next to his. Rarely used anymore, the room was once used by a woman who had checked in and killed herself during the night. Bill went upstairs to his room and didn’t think much more of it. At some point, late in the night, he awoke hearing a soft thumping against his wall and the faint sound of a woman crying, coming from the room of the supposed suicide. He tried to ignore it and go back to sleep but it wouldn’t stop. He got out of bed to see if everything was okay. Standing in the dark hallway, Bill timidly knocked on the door a few times. Several minutes passed and there was no answer, except for the sobbing and that soft, rhythmic thumping. Out of sleep deprivation, desperate to get a good night’s sleep, he peered through the keyhole in the door. What he saw—aside from hotel room furnishings nearly identical to his own—was a woman in the far corner of the room. She had her back turned and was leaning against the wall. The woman was very pale, wore a white dress and had long, black hair draped down to her waist. He couldn’t make out what she was doing and, after a few more timid knocks, gave up and slept restlessly. In the morning Bill was ready to check out and get back on the road. The noise next door had stopped and so, as he passed the room on his way down to the lobby, he decided to peek into the room again. This time, all he could see was the colour red, completely blocking any visibility of the room. That makes sense, Bill figured. I must’ve been dreaming last night; the hotel has probably always had something over the keyhole to keep people from peering in. Feeling considerably better, he shared with the receptionist his dream and what he’d seen just now. She looked shocked when he was finished, and was speechless for a moment. Composing herself, she told him the woman who committed suicide was shockingly pale, almost totally white. “But the strangest thing,” she said, “Was her eyes. They were all red.”

The poster finished by saying his uncle Bill had been disturbed by the stop-over. He suffered anxiety attacks and had trouble sleeping for years afterwards.

Fast forward 7 years to 2014 and I’m watching a Youtube video called Top 10 Scariest Creepypastas. Creepypastas are short horror stories heavy on the non-specifics. They usually star “a man” or “a family” in “a neighbourhood”. Some of them are sufficiently eerie and some have gone on to become world-wide phenomenas—the Slenderman was first made famous as a Creepypasta—but mostly their effectiveness depends on the teller, like any good campfire story. If it’s told right, whether it’s true or not ceases to matter. I had no idea what a “Creepypasta” was at the time, but I’d really taken to the Youtube channel Number 5 in the Top 10 was called “The Keyhole” and happened to be almost exactly the same as what I’d read 7 years ago. I hadn’t thought about that post for years (who regularly thinks about what message boards they visit, let alone a single post on one?) but it must have affected me at the time, because the story came back to me instantly.

Immediately I figured the story I’d seen on IMDB was a reappropriation of the Creepypasta story, but a couple of things didn’t add up. For one, the original story called “The Keyhole”  was published 2 years after I’d first read the account on IMDB. And the details were different. Somehow the 2007 account being personalised was more effective, especially when he included his uncle’s mental state after the episode was over.  The fact that it was 2 years before the Creepypasta made me wonder what exactly it was I’d seen on that messageboard. Had the poster made it all up and someone had seen it there and turned it into a Creepypasta 2 years later? Had his uncle really told him the story and it had stuck around on the internet for this long, eventually appearing in a popular Top 10 video and now known by at least more than 6 million people?

The internet reflects a folklorian nature of storytelling. Famous stories appear as if they grew organically—under no single person’s control—from the text/pictures/videos on the net, like folktales emerging from the chatter in a town square. The ancient Arabian text 1001 nights is believed to be compiled from stories told in the market places of the towns, first by travelling orators telling stories in exchange for money, which then spread by word of mouth, eventually written down, published, translated, compiled, re-written, re-published, re-translated etc., until the text’s source becomes another story in itself, ancient enough to seem fictional. I think the internet has the same potential. It’s this cornucopia of voices and styles, and with increasing interconnectivity between users, these stories travel worldwide instantaneously, always being changed and re-appropriated. In the same way a person can find little gems of insight by listening to conversations on public transport, the same kind of humble attention to message boards, blogs, social media or anywhere stories are being shared, can offer inspiration to writers if they’re paying attention—if they’re listening and lurking.

Tom Bensley

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