Friday, 15 July 2016



One of the key tools in creating unease that Creepypasta authors employ is subverting the innocence of childhood.
Whether it be creating monstrous warped reflections of familiar childhood memories (such as the multiple ‘Dark Disney’ creations I’ve covered in this series), addressing very real childhood concerns (such as bullying in the story of Jeff the Killer or last week’s Liars) or even the creation of new bogeymen (such as 1999’s Mr Bear and the faceless government officials who run the institute Where Bad Kids Go), childhood offers plenty of fuel for horror.
While I’ve been vaguely familiar with the Creepypasta scene for some time, it was four years ago that I truly became a fan.
I praise a handful of masterfully written Creepypasta stories for inspiring this fandom (many of which have yet to appear in these features, so do stay tuned), but arguably the best of these was a series of Creepypasta stories published to the r/nosleep Reddit by user 1000Vultures. This series would later come to be known as PENPAL.

In March 2010 the story Footsteps was published to nosleep. You can read the post in full here. It details a childhood memory of the author about a curious incident in which he woke up alone in nearby woodland. The story plays on the manner in which the gentle thump of your own heartbeat in your ears could easily be mistaken for footsteps. The story builds to a truly frightening conclusion. 
The story was extremely well-received by the users of nosleep. 1000Vultures replied to the comments, remaining in character throughout (the first rule of nosleep is that everybody must treat each story as if it is a true account of events from the reader), and, spurred on by this positive feedback, decided to return to the story to answer any questions with a follow up post, Balloons.
Read the story here.  
In this story, set prior to the events of Footsteps, the author talks about a school project in which the class each attached letters to helium balloons and released them, waiting for replies to come back from whoever discovers the balloon.
In this story we are introduced to the author’s best friend Josh, and soon discover that the recipient of our author’s letter may well have found its way to the wrong person.
Equally popular with readers, Balloons was followed by Boxes; Maps; and Screens; before the story concluded in Friends.
Each chapter introduces new elements to the tale, expanding the cast of characters to include elderly neighbours suffering with dementia, a love interest and people with a number of dark secrets. The subsequent entries escalate the intensity of the story’s horrors, and the whole thing is, to this day, ESSENTIAL reading for Creepypasta aficionados.

The story is an intricately assembled puzzle box, each segment coming in non-chronological order but both setting the scene for future chapters and providing additional meaning and perspective to those that precede it. The beautifully crafted plotting on display is leaps and bounds above that of the vast majority of Creepypasta authors, while the use of language rivals that of any published writer.
It uses the hazy, dreamlike quality of childhood memories, plus the naivety that comes with youth to tell us a far darker story than the narrator originally realises. By using this technique, in which we understand the grimness of a tale far more than those characters within it, we are set in a position of uncomfortable tension, seeing the inevitable horrifying conclusion long before the other foot drops and the characters realise what they have stumbled into. It’s a technique used in horror films (a slip in an unseen puddle of liquid that later turns out to be blood, flies and an unpleasant smell, the now legendary lines: ‘Is this some kind of joke?’ or ‘Stop goofing around!’) and it works every bit as well in prose.

Which explains how and why the demand for this story saw it take that next logical step.
Buoyed by the positive feedback, 1000Vultures decided to combine the story into one long tale, rewriting it in places and expanding it, and to self publish the complete work under the title PENPAL
To this end, 1000Vultures, under his real name of Dathan Auerbach, launched a Kickstarter campaign on 2 April 2012, looking to raise $1500 to cover his publication costs (.
He raised more than 10 times that amount.

The book is still available in print, and honestly, it’s one of the finest horror novels of the new millennium. I’ve bought a copy not just for myself, but as gifts for friends.
You can order your own copy from Amazon here
I THOROUGHLY recommend you do.

It’s hard to explain why PENPAL resonates so well with the reader. I think the most obvious strength that Auerbach’s story has is that rather than inspire straightforward fear, it engages us and gets us to respond to the characters on an emotional level. In a way, it’s a sentimental piece, the story one of realisation and of relationships torn apart. It is a deeply personal story and, by setting the events over the time in which the narrator transitions from childhood to adulthood, it accurately the reflects the melancholy of the time in our lives in which we bid farewell to innocence. It works because it’s good enough to make us care.

Obviously I’m not the only person to have spotted the quality in philosophy teacher Auerbach’s work — Academy Award winning producer Rich Middlemas (who scooped an Oscar for documentary Undefeated) optioned the film rights for PENPAL back in 2012 before the book was even on sale through The film has yet to appear on the big screen, but developments are continuing. It’s a story that I genuinely believe will translate well to celluloid, so I await its arrival with baited breath.

Yet exciting as this news is, PENPAL would not exist were it not for one man, original author Dathan Auerbach. 

Dathan’s work can be seen over at and he was kind enough to speak with Hickey's House of Horrors about his fantastic creation.

Hickey's House of Horrors: Hi Dathan, thank you so much for agreeing to answer my questions.
I’ll start with the most obvious one — what served as your inspiration for the story? 
Dathan Auerbach: When it comes to the story itself, I guess there are two things. 
1) I had dreams of being kidnapped when I was a kid. There were a bunch of different versions, but in almost all of them I was carried away while I cried for help and no one seemed to mind at all. For some reason, that left a pretty unshakable impression on me. 
2) I went to sleep in my bed and woke up on my porch. My mom will deny it to this day, but facts are facts, mom. I think the most likely explanation was that she was trying to get rid of me, but she’s a small lady and couldn’t carry me all that far. 
When it comes to posting the story: it was the r/nosleep forum on reddit. I’d read a bunch of stories – gobbled them up, really. I loved the premise: that everything was true even if it wasn’t. I wanted to give something back, to contribute to the community. I posted one story, people wanted to know more, so I kept going. That community inspired me with its work and then with its warm reception. 

HHoH: Which writers, horror or otherwise, do you consider yourself a fan of? 
DA: I read lots of different stuff, I guess. I tend to gravitate toward people who find the menace the world as we know it. Whether it’s unapologetically terrestrial horror/suspense or supernatural stuff that’s allegorical. Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury do the latter really well. Dennis Lehane and Thomas Harris are great at the former. 
Sometimes you just need something brutal and out there; Clive Barker and Stephen King and Lovecraft are great for that. I’ve been on a big Erik Larson kick lately.
Obviously, there’s lots of other stuff. This question shouldn’t be so hard. 

HHoH: Congratulations on the successful Kickstarter campaign that allowed you to publish PENPAL. What inspired you to do this? What were the biggest challenges with self-publishing? 
DA: Thanks! It’s funny, but I was initially pretty averse to any kind of crowdfunding. The story (the six parts that eventually comprised PENPAL) were all on reddit for free. The book was an expansion on those stories, but I didn’t feel quite right charging for it before it was even out for sale. 
It was actually at the behest of some of my readers that I began to seriously explore Kickstarter. I just wanted to raise enough money to cover the ISBN, art, and formatting costs. I had to bump the number up a bit to cover the costs of the extras I offered on the Kickstarter. I never thought I’d hit the goal; the fact that my fans flew past it as far as they did still blows my mind. 
One of the biggest challenges was having pretty much complete control. There was never a point where I could turn something over and just be done with it. 
Don’t get me wrong, I had some really talented people taking care of things that were outside my skillset, but making executive decisions about cover art and layout was all new to me. It’s hard to know when something’s done, especially when it’s your first time doing it. 
And that was probably the biggest challenge: finishing PENPAL — knowing/deciding when it was done. Trying to expand upon the existing material without taking it so far away that fans of the original stories would think I’d messed it up. I went back and forth on a lot of stuff. Finally, I just decided that this was something I was doing for myself and for however many fans would want to check it out. If they didn’t dig it, they’d always have the original stories to go back to. I found a middle ground I was comfortable with and let it loose. 

HHoH: How does it feel to know that people are still posting questions to the web wondering if the events of PENPAL are real? Do you feel proud that your work was so well written that it's often mistaken for fact? 
DA: Feels crazy. The comment section of the original reddit post Footsteps was the crucible of the whole series. They were asking whether the police ever found anything. If anything more ever came of the events. I gave some short answers and then decided to write another story to give something a bit more substantive. It took off from there. 
After that, I had at least one (alleged) psychologist reach out to me and offer an ear if I felt I needed help. I got a lot of messages from people who didn’t know quite what to say. They’d congratulate me on a good story with the caveat that, if it was actually true, they meant no offense and offered me their condolences. 
I still get emails to this day about it. I never say whether it’s true or not. To me, it’s not so much a testament to the quality of the writing (though thank you for saying so); I think it’s more to do with the environment where it was born. 

HHoH: The fans are very passionate about the story. Are there any examples of fan art, such as films or readings, in particular that have impressed you? 
DA: To be honest, I’m impressed and enthralled by any fan-generated material. I wrote PENPAL to participate in something that I thought was great – r/nosleep. The fact that my contribution has inspired others to create things is moving, and I don’t say that lightly. The collector cards that shipped with my Kickstarter were done by a great artist named Carolyn Nowak; originally, she wanted to work on a comicbook adaptation with me, but it evolved into something different. A filmmaker named Brooks Reynolds reached out to me really early on to adapt Footsteps. The camera-work is terrific, and it was so wild to see people acting out something that I had written. YouTuber MrCreepyPasta did an audio narration of my stories that turned out to be really fantastic. 
My biggest hope was that a handful of people would read the stories; I never imagined that they would inspire people to create things of their own. 
Someone even reached out to me recently to show me a Super Mario Maker level she had made that (unbelievably) had elements of one of my stories in it. It’s really all pretty incredible. 

HHoH: I see that a deal was signed to bring PENPAL to the big screen some time ago. Are you able to share any updates on that? Will you have a role in the adaptation? 
DA: There’s really not much I can say here, other than I’m excited. 

HHoH: And finally will you ever return to the PENPAL story in the future? And what else can your fans look forward to from you in the days ahead? 
DA: The story of the narrator and his penpal is over, but that’s not to say that world is complete. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw it again. 
I’m almost done with a new book. It’s very similar to PENPAL in tone. I’m excited to get it out there and see what people think.

In my last feature I covered the dubious ground of Crappypasta, those attempts at Creepypasta that are dismissed by the vast majority of readers as amateurish, poorly structured and inadequately composed. There are plenty of stories that are quickly and easily cast aside under this banner.
So why do readers keep coming back? 
Because nestled in among these stories are genuine works of astounding quality.
PENPAL is one of the very best.
Come back next time for an introduction to another.

If you haven’t already, do please check out and Like the Hickey’s House of Horrors Facebook page, which you can find here. It gives you a nice quick link to any new posts on this blog, plus regular news updates from around the web. I check the Internet so you don’t have to! Alternatively, follow me on twitter: The House @HickeysHorrors

Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.

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