The Digital Campfire: Sarah O’Bannon and Other Information Age Horrors

18 04 2010

So a while ago I did a post called “Half Life: Full Life Consequences- An Internet Folktale.” Okay, so it ain’t Pulitzer material. But I think the central idea of the post is still compelling: how are oral and written storytelling traditions evolving in the internet age? It’s a concept that I find engaging enough to explore in more detail.

The term “copypasta” refers to text content circulated through message boards. It’s propagated through copy/pasting, hence the name. Commonly, it’s used as a tool to troll (i.e. aggravate) helpless morons who wander onto the internet for their first time. Other times, copypasta takes the form of an in-joke, poem, or a short vignette. A particular subgroup called “creepypasta,” is essentially the message board equivalent of a campfire story or eerie urban legend. Internet users concoct their own tales of macabre and share them with other online entities. Some of them become popular enough to obtain copypasta status, at which point they get spammed until people finally get sick of them.

So, really, it’s pretty much the same folk storytelling strategy that’s been going on since time immemorial, except now the storytellers can’t see each other. Which changes the medium considerably. What draws me to creepypasta professionally is that authors of creepypasta face a whole lot of the same hurdles that journalists do.

The best creepypasta are horror stories that have been been stripped down to the bare bone. There’s not a whole lot of room for detail in creepypasta. Just like journalists, creepypasta creators have to try to appeal to the short and fickle attention-spans of a largely uninterested audience. The general idea, then, is to get to the story really quick, and try to get the point across really fast. But that’s kind of a problem for horror stories. Horror stories rely heavily on details, characterization, pacing, and atmosphere to get shocks out of people. Creepypasta authors usually have to forgo most of those things. Somehow, the good ones still manage to be good.

For the first time out, I’ve decided to copypasta “Sarah O’Bannon.” All stories have been taken from the kind gents at Encyclopedia Dramatica.

Sarah O’ Bannon
Coffins used to be built with holes in them, attached to six feet of copper tubing and a bell. The tubing would allow air for victims buried under the mistaken impression they were dead. In a certain small town Harold, the local gravedigger, upon hearing a bell one night, went to go see if it was children pretending to be spirits. Sometimes it was also the wind. This time, it wasn’t either. A voice from below begged and pleaded to be unburied.
“Are you Sarah O’Bannon?” Harold asked.
“Yes!” The muffled voice asserted.
“You were born on September 17, 1827?”
“Yes!”
“The gravestone here says you died on February 20, 1857.”
“No, I’m alive, it was a mistake! Dig me up, set me free!”
“Sorry about this, ma’am,” Harold said, stepping on the bell to silence it and plugging up the copper tube with dirt. “But this is August. Whatever you are down there, you sure as hell ain’t alive no more, and you ain’t comin’ up.”

This is about my favorite creepypasta to date. It’s a perfect execution of the form. It’s short and to the point. The story’s very clear, but the meaning is still ambiguous. It manages to be colorful and amusing(quite a feat in such a short space), without taking away from the weirdness of it.

Sarah O’Bannon is evocative of a very common theme in folktales and mythology. It tells the story of an average guy outwitting evil or supernatural forces with cleverness, cunning, and common sense. Think about Odysseus outwitting the Cyclops by calling himself “Nohbdy.” Or how about when Sisyphus outwitted Thanatos and conquered death? There are plenty of examples of the underdog mortal pulling one over on some malignant force, from hoop snakes to Rumpelstiltskin to water kappas. We’re obviously drawing on a wide body of work here.

Also, we have a seemingly undead creature in this story. Mythology about the undead transcends nearly all cultural borders, because the human race is naturally interested by the forces of life and death. Stories about creatures that inhabit the region between “life” and “death” were instrumental in creating a shared understanding of what it meant to be alive, dead, or human. What makes the undead scary is that they are us. The problem is that most undead creatures- zombies, vampires, lichs, what have you- have been used so extensively that we’ve been desensitized to them. It’s easy to think about them as “monsters” and not anything remotely close to human. Sarah O’Bannon brings a certain amount of pathos back to the undead. We’re not sure whether our allegiances lie with Sarah in her casket, or with the gravedigger above ground. Who’s the sympathetic figure here? The fact that I even have to ask the question shows that there is a certain amount of power packed into this short little story.

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