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The Anatomy of an Internet Urban Legend

The Anatomy of an Internet Urban Legend

You’ve seen the memes.  You’ve heard the stories.  Now, there’s a feature movie out in theaters.  I’m talking about Slender Man, that pesky specter that’s an insidious version of Mister Stretch (Google it, kids).  He’s tall, unnaturally thin, and sports a featureless head and abnormally long arms and legs.  In some cases, he is depicted with tentacles coming out from somewhere on his backside (don’t ask).

Slender Man first reared his lumpy, Play-Doh head as an Internet meme back in 2009 on a thread in the Something Awful Internet forum.  According to Wikipedia, the thread was a Photoshop contest where users competed to create the scariest paranormal image.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Ol’ Slendy took on a life of his own, inspiring what essentially amounted to countless pieces of fan fiction.  He sank his proverbial teeth into the collective consciousness.

I’ve always been fascinated by how these Internet urban legends take root and go viral.  There doesn’t seem to be any specific formula to follow, which is fair enough, but there still seem to be some general characteristics that most of them follow.

Paranormal Antagonist

Most of these stories feature a central paranormal antagonist – either a killer, demon, monster, or ghost.  This serves two purposes.  First, it personifies the fear, whether that’s the fear of death, pain, illness, cannibalism, isolation, or the unknown to name a few.  Often times, these antagonists have no clear backstory or explanation for their existence.  They just are.  Characters like Ol’ Slendy seem to work best as literary figures when there’s an element of mystery to them.  What the heck is Slender Man?  Is he a ghost or a demon?  What is his motive?  Who knows!  He just is.

Threadbare Storyline

For a story to properly take root in the imagination and give audiences room to expand upon it, there have to be some deliberate plot holes.  Not everything has to be explained.  The story can’t be too explicit, but rather just enough to give an impression.  Audiences then run away with it in their imaginations and make it their own.  Zozo, for example, is a Ouija board demon, but that’s all we know.  We fill in the gaps through our retelling.  Often times, the unknown is far scarier than the known.  Successful Internet urban legends invite you to scare yourself with your own thoughts and ideas.  In this sense, mythology provides a launch pad for further story development.

Unresolved Endings

Almost all these stories feature open-ended conclusions, in which there is pretty much no satisfactory conclusion.  In other words, the story lives on indefinitely.  Monsters and demons roam free.  Killers are never caught.  Ghosts never go into the light.  An Internet urban legend must have an element of continuity for it to go viral, because otherwise, what’s the big deal?

Documentary evidence

Another ingredient of a successful Internet urban legend is the existence of visual or audio “evidence.”  Usually, this involves some sort of technological component, like a video or photograph.  There’s a loophole, though.  You don’t actually need to have a photo or video, but merely the rumor that one exists.  This serves to add an aura of mystery to your urban legend and to whet the appetites of ambitious get-to-the-bottomers who scour the Internet for proof of the unprovable.  The truth is out there.  Somewhere.  Believe it.

Innocuous Set-Ups

Lots of these stories have rather innocuous set-ups.  Slender Man appears in random places – in the woods and in children’s playgrounds, for instance.  Laughing Jack is a child’s imaginary friend.  The Rake appears in the woods, just like Ol’ Slendy.  Having these stories take place during unassuming circumstances makes you feel like it can happen anywhere and to anyone – possibly even to you!

So, there you have it – the basic features of a successful Internet urban legend.  For you scare hounds out there, here are some of the most unsettling Internet urban legends circulating the often weird and disturbing dark corners of the Internet.

Penpal

Dathan Auerbach’s Penpal follows an unnamed protagonist who discovers a link between several unsettling childhood memories: a stalker. Serialized as a set of shorts on Reddit, the story became so infamous for its chilling nature, Auerbach expanded his writings into a novel.

The Girl in the Photograph

If you find something on the ground that isn’t yours, leave it.  A young boy learns this lesson the hard way.

The Smiling Man

“I’ve always been a night person,” writes the author. “To pass the time, I used to go for long walks and spend the time thinking.” Read what happens when he encounters a rather unpredictable man in the middle of the night.  Alone.  On the empty streets.


And now for our own contribution to the genre, a short story about the long-lasting consequences of a terrible decision late one night on an empty stretch of road…

“Rear-View Mirror”

Slender Man

In 2009, Bethany Somers was a senior at her small-town college.  A star cheerleader and honor roll student, she felt she had the whole world going for her.  After mid-term exams, she and her friends went to a local bar out in the middle of nowhere, called “The Silver Dollar.”

The group partied until the bar closed.  By the end of the night, Bethany was three sheets to the wind.  Unaccustomed to being drunk, she insisted to her friends that she was okay to drive home.  As she drove, a thick fog fell across the countryside.  Her car zigzagged across the road, nearly running off into the ditch at one point.  Bethany tried her best to stay conscious at the wheel.

A few miles down the Interstate and traveling in the opposite direction was Mary Williams and her two twin daughters, Sherri and Lindsey, who were both asleep in the backseat.  If Bethany had noticed to turn on her headlights, Mary might have had enough time to notice that the car had crossed over the highway median and onto her lane.  But, the fact was that Bethany had been too drunk to notice that her lights were off, much less that she had drifted into oncoming traffic.  She was approximately five miles away from the bar.

It happened in the blink of an eye.  Mary caught the glimmer of metal through the parting fog a split second before the collision.  The jolt was so sudden and forceful that she hardly had a chance to realize what was happening before her face slammed against the steering wheel.  There was the sound of shattering of glass and the loud crumpling of metal as the two cars struck head on.

For her part, Bethany couldn’t remember any of it.  Not the crash, from which she emerged, miraculously, with just a fractured arm and a broken nose.  Nor did she remember the screams of the other driver, who stumbled around blindly in the dark, blood streaming down her face.  The woman’s front windshield was shattered, and in the back where her two little girls had dozed off, were two empty seats and not a sign of the twins.

“My babies!” the woman started to scream.  “Where are my babies?”

Bethany could see the woman through the rear-view mirror, crouching in the grass on the side of the road, holding something in her hands.  She stumbled out of the car, an awful realization starting in the pit of her stomach and walked towards the woman.

“Oh my God!” the woman howled.  “They’re dead!  They’re dead!”

Bethany saw she was cradling the head of one of the little girls – or part of it, anyway.  Half the face was missing, and other body parts lay strewn in the blood-splattered grass, which was illuminated by the headlights.  When the police and EMS arrived, the scene of the accident was photographed for evidence.  The twins were placed in a single body bag, piece by piece, unable to be sorted out. The mother was taken in the ambulance, still howling into the night about her dead children.

Bethany was arrested and transported in the back of the squad car to the local station.  After she was booked, she was given the chance to make a phone call, which she made to her mother and father, both of whom were fast asleep at home.  By the time they answered, their daughter was reduced to heaving sobs on the other end of the line.

The trial didn’t last very long at all.  Just a few days to present the evidence.  The DA considered it an open and shut case.

“This has torn mine and my family’s life apart,” the mother of the two girls told the court.  “I struggle to get out of bed most days.  When I run into people who don’t know me, and they ask me how many children I have, my heart stops and I can’t breathe because I say two, even though I know better.”

“From the bottom of my heart, I am so sorry for what I’ve done,” Bethany testified through tears.  “I suffer through this every single day.  I will for the rest of my life.  I never wanted any of this to happen.  I never wanted to hurt anyone.”

The father of the two girls made a statement, too.

“You can still talk to your mom and dad,” he said, never taking his eyes off Bethany.  “You can cry with them, and eventually, you’ll laugh with them.  I cannot.  I want to hug my girls.”

The jury deliberated for less than an hour before returning with a guilty verdict.  Bethany received the maximum sentence of fifty years in prison – two twenty-five year sentences for each child.  Bethany’s parents, who were present in the court throughout the trial, collapsed in each other’s arms as the sentence was delivered.

A few weeks after the trial, the prison psychologist delivered news to her parents that Bethany had stopped eating.  Most of her days were spent curled up in bed staring at the blank walls of her cell and muttering to herself.  There was something else, too.  She claimed to have seen two little girls in matching blue dresses standing in her cell late at night when the lights went out and the other prisoners went to sleep.  The little girls didn’t speak to her.  They just stood there.  Watching.

The visual hallucinations were consistent, according to the psychologist, with acute primary psychosis, commonly referred to as a psychotic break.  Bethany claimed that the spirits of the two dead children were haunting her, seeking retribution for their deaths.  Eventually, she became unable to distinguish reality from fantasy.  She stopped talking completely and was transferred to the county psychiatric ward for monitoring.

Late one night, the nurse on duty heard laughter coming from Bethany’s room in the hospital.  According to the hospital record, the nurse said it sounded like children’s laughter.  On the security camera footage, Bethany was seen standing perfectly still in the corner of the room facing the wall.  By the time the nurse got to the room and unlocked the door, Bethany had smashed her head repeatedly against the concrete.  The final blow caused the blunt trauma that caused her death.  It was instantaneous.

Bethany was laid to rest in a small, private funeral at which her parents and a few other members of her extended family were present.  No eulogy or words were spoken at the ceremony.  The small placard at the gravesite read: “Bethany Somers, Beloved Daughter.  1989-1995.”

The day after the funeral, on the same highway where the accident occurred, a woman named Heather Donaldson was doing eighty on her way to meet a friend in the city.  She picked up her cell phone to text her friend that she was running late.  When she looked back up at the road, she saw the figure of two little girls in matching blue dresses holding hands directly ahead.

Heather swerved to avoid hitting them and narrowly avoided running her car into the ditch.  Checking her rear-view mirror and getting down to investigate, there was no sign of anyone on or near the road.  She left her phone face down on the passenger seat after that, not touching it until she arrived at her destination.

Two days later, John Lambert, a commercial truck driver in a big rig, started dozing at the wheel.  He had been driving for going on eighteen hours straight and his vision drifted in and out of focus.  He was startled awake by the sound of whispering near his ear.  A child’s voice.  The voice said one word, clear and unmistakable: “Stop.”

Looking in the rear-view mirror, John saw – or could have sworn he saw – two distinct figures in the back seat of the cab, though their features were indistinct.  He pulled over immediately to check, but, of course, there was no one except for him. He decided perhaps it was best to take a nap before continuing on his journey.

Weeks later, a man named Lester Jones walked into “The Silver Dollar” late one night and ordered a beer.  A baseball game was playing silently on the television above the bar.  He slumped on his bar stool and took a swig from his drink.  When he was done, he ordered another drink and then another.  After eight beers, he closed out his tab and stumbled his way to the parking lot, fumbling for his keys. A thick fog had settled over the countryside.

Lester sat in his car and rolled his head lazily from side to side.  He started the ignition.  Before putting the car into reverse, Lester looked in the rear-view mirror and screamed at the sight of two bruised and bloody faces – two little girls with their eyeballs hanging from their sockets and a gaping hole where their mouth should have been.  Their tongues dangled down like dead worms.  He scrambled out of the car, tumbled onto the ground, and passed out.

When he woke up the next morning, he had a massive hangover and his body was shivering from the cold.  I got to stop doing this, he told himself as he got into his car and drove away towards home.  I just gotta stop doing this.


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