Some Transitions in the Digital Gothic – Part I: The Youtube Horror Web Series

We’re at that time in the year where the subtle yet perceptible shift from late Summer into early Autumn is making itself known. Day creeps into night unexpectedly, just that little bit sooner than it did a few weeks before; the air pinches slightly.

In the run up to Gothic Realities, a one-day symposium hosted at the University of Stirling on Friday October 24th, I’ll be posting three entries in a blog series on transitions in the Digital Gothic.

Widely held as a development of Contemporary Gothic through its use of technology-themed horror and online community participation, the Digital Gothic text acquires an affective power through its transmedia life; its themes of computerised and biotic infection are paralleled by the viral nature of Internet search algorithms. Its most famous manifestation, arguably, is the Creepypasta phenomenon: a shared mythology and emergent global, cultural heritage for the Web 2.0 generation. The Lovecraftian horrors of the SCP Foundation (2008-) and Slenderman (2009-) Creepypasta series encapsulate the collaborative nature of horror texts made possible by the online habits of Internet users between the late 2000s and early 2010s.

The current trend in Youtube Horror Web Series might narrate our responses to social media in the late 2010s, as a period not of rapid communication but of isolation and loneliness, in which fears about digital rights, data privacy invasion and the dangers of a seemingly nostalgic past are expressed.   

In this blog post I’ll be focussing primarily on one Youtube Horror Web Series, exploring the ways in which it represents that format’s production of a shift in the content and consumption of online horror, and hypothesising reasons to account for this transition. Additionally, however, I’ll briefly discuss other horror series on Youtube and how they contribute to the articulation of contemporary fears in the online world.

‘Petscop 1’, 12 March 2017, Youtube

Petscop. Purportedly an unreleased and unfinished 1997 game for the Sony Playstation. On 12 March 2017, a Youtube channel simply entitled ‘Petscop’ uploaded a video playthrough of the starting area of the game. The player is Paul, and the video description reads: ‘The game I found’. So far, the premise follows the conventions of haunted game Creepypasta popularised by many an entry in that genre.[1] Petscop is identified ostensibly as a children’s game in the Pokemon mould, the aim of which was to catch pets of different species. The opening section demonstrated by Paul is of the Even Care pet home, where some of the pets still reside, despite signage noting that the centre has closed. This area channels nostalgic aesthetics of Playstation titles; its upbeat, jaunty music and sky pink hues are reminiscent of famous platform titles such as Spyro the Dragon (1998).

Where Petscop goes from here, though, marks its deviation from prior haunted game narratives and the Creepypasta subculture, inscribing in its own peculiarity the ongoing social concerns about Internet behaviour. While similar to Creepypasta in that the videogame is a hoax, invented for the purposes of the horror experience, Petscop as a text intentionally disposes of the viral nature of that form, presenting a closed-off experience to which we, as Youtube viewers, are entirely external. Unlike other Creepypasta games as downloadable creations or ‘haunted’ versions of official games reproduceable via fan-released codes, Petscop demonstrates playability only insofar as it exists on the creator or creators’ hard drive storage. Its nature as such has led to its being dubbed ‘The Best Game You’ve Never Played’ by influential Youtuber Pyrocynical.[2]

‘Petscop 2’, 2 April 2017, Youtube

The direct non-interactivity of Petscop extends into its dissemination through Youtube as a performed artefact of private correspondence. In the first couple of videos, Paul’s commentary verifying the game’s existence and explaining its features appears, like all other Let’s Play videos on the media platform, to be directed at a general audience. However, something he says near the end of the second upload to the ‘Petscop’ channel reveals that the videos are addressed to a specific person, a family member: ‘But also, when you come home next month, and hopefully you’re feeling a little more enthusiastic about that now, we can investigate this together’ (‘Petscop 2’ 2017). The uploads’ minimalist titling and near non-existent video descriptions, as if unprepared for the Youtube algorithmic ecosystem, suggest that they were private videos made specifically for this one person and released publicly without the author’s consent. This intentional design of the Petscop experience marks our viewership as excessive, an intrusion upon interfamily communication. The fifth Petscop video begins its description with ‘Hello folks. I guess this is for all of you, now’ (‘Petscop 5’ 2017), and subsequent uploads indicate some sort of strong-armed agreement between Paul and the channel’s hijackers, revealing the former’s ambivalence towards his content being made public without his express permission. As the horror series develops, Paul explores the game’s Newmaker Plane, a dark, desolate, dull-coloured underworld to the bright, seemingly friendly Even Care pet home, and an area not intended to be accessible to players. Events in Petscop then appear to mirror those in Paul’s own family, as the game details the abduction of a young girl during dates that correspond to when a family friend of his went missing.

‘Petscop 11’ video description, 25 December 2017, Youtube

The literary Gothic’s dramatic focus on the institutional hold over the family, on property contestation and on the in vitro establishment of an English nostalgic heritage in a fantasy, European past has been transplanted into subsequent eras. From the aristocrats and clergymen of absolute monarchies via the modern surveillance state, the Gothic eye of power now finds itself on the personal front of social media, where the act of observing can be as unsettling as the subject matter being observed. Who owned the castle? Who owns the nation? The Internet? Who, finally, owns ‘Petscop’? The Petscop Youtube Horror Web Series channels the contemporary realisation of horror, a process in which governments, big businesses and brands have obliged people to spy and intrude on one another freely for leisure.

As the series goes on, Paul commentates less and less, to the point where more recent videos uploaded in April 2019 are entirely absent of his speech, suggesting that he has been swallowed up by the game or possessed by the spirit of the lost girl. (The latest three videos, ‘Petscop 22, 23, and 24, were uploaded on 2 September 2019.) The Petscop creator or creators’ stonewalling against endless fan speculation on wikis and forums maintains the Youtuber as an isolated, rather than an interactive, contemporary subject. This encroaching verbal silence exacerbates viewer feeling of illicit detection of personal trauma, and undercuts established notions of online fandom in which relations between creator and consumer are reciprocal. The lasting feeling of watching the Petscop series is one of uncanny unease. Its staged antithesis of the creative and smooth-running Internet society promised by the 1990s might sum up the enduring experience of our increasingly online existence; the series dramatises our compulsive, vicarious living through constantly-unfolding Internet drama, against a cultural and legal narrative of Youtuber burnout, social media data breaches, and online harassment.

Finally, some other notable examples of the Youtube Horror Web Series format. ‘Mina Murray’s Journal’ updates the narration methods of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula in vlog form, focusing more on the female perspectives of Mina and Lucy and their respective accounts of the Count’s intrusive presence. ‘The West Records’ takes the found footage subgenre popularised by films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999), REC (2007), and Cloverfield (2008), and uses it as a basis for a new sort of digital, recovered medium; its horror story is realised through the decryption of corrupted video files on a found external hard disk. Finally, ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ directs its horror from under the guise of looking like a children’s puppet web programme.

With these recommendations, we reach the end of this first blog post. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next entry, where I’ll be discussing the Gothic elements of the Vaporwave music phenomenon.

[1] Two notable examples of this are Ben Drowned (2010) and Sonic.exe (2012).

[2] Pyrocynical, ‘Petscop: The Best Game You’ve Never Played’, Google: Youtube, published 5 September 2017.


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