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Creepypasta and the psychology of negative nostalgia

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Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

Every generation has its own urban legends, from the hook dangling from the car door at make-out point to the gangly figure of Slender Man. Like a lot of community-based activities, the development and spreading of urban legends has become a largely online activity, in the form of short, easy-to-share creepypasta.

Lost Episodes stories, like “Candle Cove” and “Suicide Mouse,” focus on unaired episodes of cartoons or children’s shows, usually featuring creepy or violent imagery, while video game stories, like “BEN Drowned” and “Lavender Town Syndrome” feature modified, haunted game cartridges. But both categories focus on retro media objects. Nobody’s writing creepypasta about Fortnite; it’s always older media, objects from childhood that we’re looking back on and turning sinister. But why?

To understand what’s happening, you have to understand the purpose of nostalgia.

Humans desire continuity. When we go through periods of cultural upheaval, we use nostalgia to look back and try to find continuity between the past and present — which often involves rewriting, refocusing or entirely omitting parts of the past. So, for instance, when white Americans of a certain age venerate the 1950s, it’s because they’re trying to recapture the good, stable times they felt in their youth by focusing on rock ’n’ roll, diners, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. But they erase the unstable parts that made them uncomfortable, like the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the civil rights movement.

Nostalgia, as defined by theorist Svetlana Boym, is a desire “to turn history into private or collective mythology.” It allows people to develop a sense of community by rallying around a shared past, like when someone says “only ’90s kids will remember.” They’re knitting together individual childhood experiences into a larger collective: I remember this. I am a ’90s kid. I belong to a community of ’90s kids.

Sociologist Janelle Wilson posited the idea of “negative nostalgia” in 2005, where instead of looking back and finding happy memories, we uncover ones with misery, horror, confusion, and trauma. But Wilson also discounts the idea, saying it can’t exist because nobody wants to make their past into a nightmare.

When Wilson was conducting her research, I don’t think negative nostalgia existed as a broad phenomenon. But since then, there’s been a huge uptick in media and legends that tell warped stories about our collective mediated past. Like dark fan-theories that warp mundane media — have you heard that Ferris Bueller was just a projection of Cameron’s fractured psyche? Or consider “Too Many Cooks,” the surreal sitcom-parody-turned-horror-short. Or “Petscop,” an ongoing YouTube series about a creepy, unreleased PlayStation game.

We’re living in a time of unprecedented access to media. Previous generations couldn’t stream any obscure show from their youth. People remembered the parts of shows that made sense to them, logically and emotionally — so they overlooked darker or more adult aspects. Our relationship to media of the past changes as our values change; movies that are considered classics of a previous era are often looked upon with horror as prevailing cultural norms shift.

But negative nostalgia is more than that. We are rewriting our past to be miserable and broken, because it creates continuity with our present. It makes it seem like things were always bad, and always will be. That’s a profoundly hopeless stance.

For the most part, the negative nostalgia we’ve seen so far is fairly playful fandom-esque activities. So as long as you aren’t basing your entire identity on clickbait articles and fan theories, you should still have a well-rounded sense of the past and the future. But it does make me wonder what aspects of today our future selves will co-opt as part of nostalgic mythologizing. The halcyon days of Pokémon Go? That year everyone played Fortnite?

What do you think we’ll be cherry-picking in the future? Check out the video above for more insight into the negative nostalgia phenomenon.