Anyone with any sense knows that the last thing you should be doing in 2020 is posting. How is one to resist smashing that blue button, though, when one of the breakouts of Sundance 2020 was a stylish midnight movie adapted from a viral Twitter thread? Social media is a nightmare, sure, but it’s also a stage with millions of eyes glued to it. Tell a story and see what happens. Maybe you’ll get called a loser. Maybe you’ll be ignored. Or maybe you’ll get a movie deal.
That’s what happened with the aforementioned Zola. It’s also what happened to Dear David, an online ghost story that began in August of 2017. “My apartment is currently being haunted by the ghost of a dead child and he’s trying to kill me,” tweeted Adam Ellis, who across several months, would go on to share photos, videos, and in-the-moment musings on his eerie predicament. In 2018, New Line Cinema scooped up the rights. Shortly thereafter, the thread disappeared from Ellis’ page, though it lives on in YouTube breakdowns. The one below has nearly 15 million views.
The idea of consuming immersive, interactive horror stories in the very spaces where we spend most of our waking hours isn’t a new one, but it hits different during a pandemic that’s shuttering productions, disrupting release calendars, and forcing creators to rethink the ways they tell tales. One of the best horror films of the year, after all, was a direct result of COVID: Host, a story of isolated friends conducting an online séance, was filmed entirely over Zoom.
But, as good as Host is, it remains a passive experience; a wall divides the story and the audience. To tell a story over social media, however, is to invite people into its creation, to allow them a space to react, argue, and engage in real time. Dear David could lose much of what made it special when it hits the big screen, divorced as it will be from the real-time immediacy and direct line of engagement offered by a vessel like Twitter. It will also, by virtue of the medium, render Ellis’ story fiction. Truth is malleable online, and while that might be bad for news, it’s good for horror. We want to believe. It’s scarier if we believe. Ellis gets that. It’s why he continues to say it’s all true.
What you’ll find below are eight spooky stories that first unfolded on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Some are alternate reality games (ARGs) that task viewers with solving puzzles and chasing clues; others are off-the-cuff ramblings that coalesce into something bigger. All of them are as scary as anything you’ll find in theaters (except for, you know, COVID).
Created in the early months of lockdown, Arcana is a spooky ARG that summons the isolation of the COVID era without actually being about the COVID era. Nerea Duhart leads the story as Jade, a newly single woman plagued by nightmares that she then interprets as puzzles for players to ponder. Things get strange from there, branching off into other, eerier Instagram accounts and articles about the 1927 murder of Marion Parker, which casts a shadow over the tale.
A collaboration between TV writer Eva Anderson, E3W Productions, and a number of other artists, Arcana is, unlike many ARGs, a well-oiled machine, a finite, satisfying, and well-produced story told with care. Head to Jade’s first post to start it for yourself, resting assured that, if its labyrinthian nature ever daunts, you can follow the walk-through that’s been provided by the creators.
Between October 2018 and January of 2019, a Twitter account known only as “greg” shared what’s essentially a found-footage horror flick in the guise of an epic Twitter thread. “Something weird is happening in the woods outside my house and I don’t know what to do,” reads the post, the trigger for a sprawling litany of horrors that includes an eyeless woman, Blair Witch-ian “artifacts,” and lunar cycles.
The thread’s genius lies in its inauspiciousness. There’s no identifying info on the narrator—“idk,” reads the account’s bio—and the haunt is preceded by months’ worth of banal posts, all the better to help sustain your suspension of disbelief. Greg’s rambling posts read as genuinely perplexed, making it all the more unnerving when he suddenly drops a video like this:
Fittingly, the thread ends with both a bang and a shrug, with Greg knowing something bad has happened, but not exactly what. “I’m heading back to school next week,” he wrote in January of 2019. “But I’ll be back. I have to go back.” Nearly two years later, he hasn’t been back.
#NeverAlone, a collaboration between artists Sabina Friedman-Seitz, Chloe Cole, and Anna Miles, was created to reckon with the cognitive dissonance of witnessing online influencers continue to project perfection during a time of sickness and societal unrest. Across a flurry of Instagram stories, posts, and videos, Friedman-Seitz’s Cassandra Clemm slowly unravels in between vapid posts about positivity that, by project’s end, derail into a nonsensical string of fonts and symbols. Scroll through her account, and you’ll see comments of concern that only serve to highlight the distance between subject and audience.
Although Cassandra hasn’t posted since August—her final video is a doozy—the trio teases a return on Halloween. “We continue to be haunted by our time with Cassandra. We were moved by the response to the story as well as simultaneously unsettled and titillated by our followers’ relentless thirst for answers,” they tell The A.V. Club. “We actually will be releasing a video we made to share our experience at the end of this month. We intended for it to be a Q&A, but, as tends to happen with everything related to Cassandra, things didn’t go according to plan.”
As such, you’ll want to stay tuned to Cassandra’s Instagram page.
Equal parts creepypasta, Unfriended: Dark Web, and Fight Club, Red Monkey began in 2018 on the account of Nela García, a computer programmer who took to Twitter after finding a phone on the ground in Madrid. After she discovers that the owner of the phone has apparently been dead for eight years, the narrative begins to spiral into darkness, culminating in a deeply creepy, Marble Hornets-esque video in which she and her mother are being filmed as they sleep by someone in a red monkey mask.
There’s a self-awareness to Red Monkey, an ARG that exists in a world where ARGs exist, that serves to elevate its tech-horror and bolster its themes of technological revolution. It’s best experienced via García’s original thread, but, if you’re not a Spanish speaker, you can read an English translation here.
Sickhouse, a 2016 found-footage thriller about online influencers and one very haunted house, originally unfolded in 10-second snippets over five days on the Snapchat of YouTube celebrity Andrea Russett. Russett’s 500,000 followers had no clue what they were watching was fiction. They figured it out eventually, but the creep toward understanding brings with it the question that horror fans love to ask: How real is this? As movies like Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project have demonstrated, horror fans love that liminal space between fiction and reality.
Of course, Sickhouse isn’t either of those movies in terms of impact, but that shouldn’t stop you from renting it. By framing the story through the lens of social media, director Hannah Macpherson allows the fabric of the found-footage style to be stretched by the stars’ performative relationship with the camera. Blair Witch’s doomed cast wants to document a local legend; Sickhouse’s influencers just want to document themselves.
“The most exciting thing about Sickhouse, for me as the filmmaker, was the fact that we were uploading the story through Snapchat in 10-second videos in real time over five days,” Macpherson tells The A.V. Club. “We were posting to a famous YouTubers account and her audience thought what they were witnessing was real—that she was searching for ‘Sickhouse’ in the woods with some friends and when they found it, really bad things happened. Millions of people were opening these snaps within a minute of us posting them. Watching the Twitterverse freak out was extremely rewarding; the fear was real. As someone who sat terrified in the theater when The Blair Witch Project came out, I am very excited that social media horror gives the filmmaker direct access to a willing audience with the ambiguity—real or fake?—that is hard to come by in filmmaking these days.”
“Help.” So says the very first post of The Sun Vanished, a post-apocalyptic ARG that begins with the disappearance of, you guessed it, the sun. Created by Aidan Elliott, the narrative differs from others on this list by virtue of its scope—this isn’t one person’s chronicle of some bumps in the night, but rather a character-driven sci-fi opus with multiple characters, monstrous creatures, and a complex mythology. That it’s apparently becoming a webseries isn’t much of a surprise, but that it captivated with a post-by-post format certainly is.
The Sun Vanished is easily one of the most popular social-driven narratives to emerge in recent years. There’s a slew of YouTube videos unpacking it, not to mention a fan-made glossary and a subreddit teeming with theories and digressions.
Tom Taylor, a writer of comics, plays, and TV shows, is clearly comfortable writing in different mediums. Why not, then, see what he can accomplish on Twitter? Last year, he captivated thousands of scrollers during a trip to a cabin in the woods, where he was besieged by terrifying noises, shadowy figures, and mysterious packages.
Compelled by Taylor’s night of terror, we wrote about it back when it happened. We weren’t the only ones, either. Taylor’s replies were flooded by people seeing shadows and other strange details in the photos and videos he posted, and his enthusiastic interactions with their observations only served to make the entire event that much more addicting.
What makes Taylor’s thread so fun is that he allows his followers to get under his skin, indulging each of their theories and sightings in ways that spin the narrative in weird, unexpected directions. For example, did you know what a Bilby was? Well, you do now.
What do you do when you wake up to discover you’re the only person left in your small town? You start a TikTok account, naturally. Roughly a year ago, someone named Alexander Nielsen started @where_is_everybody, a page chronicling the survival of a man who wanders his desolate surroundings in search of food and companionship. He takes us through empty restaurants, empty malls, empty airports, and empty highways, sometimes while running from a shadowy figure that’s neither man nor animal. It feels post-apocalyptic in the same way as The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone To Rapture, consumed as it is by an eerie vacuousness and inviting placidity.
Although it started in 2019, @where_is_everybody took on extra resonance during lockdown, a time when most, if not all, of our social interactions happen online. The account’s output, however, has decidedly slowed during quarantine, its last post having arrived in mid-August. Of course, one of the appeals of online narratives is that they could return at any time, an unassuming notification on your timeline. The story never ends so long as you stay subscribed.