(or, 'truth and lies in Flux Theatre's Something Awful.')
I’m meant to be revising for my GCSE History exam but instead I’m reading creepypastas: online scary stories. The hardest exams are over, I think – maths and science were last week – so I probably deserve a bit of a break. If you consider stories of murderous, obsessive stalkers obsessed with their child penpal a break.
Tuckered out from the first day of my bronze DofE – we’ve all been there – I’m nestled, fully clothed in a sleeping bag pressed up against my best friend. It’s a bit awkward and we smell of grumpy teenagers who’ve been trekking through the countryside all day. He’s snoring but I’m lying awake, listening out for the sound of goat hooves padding in the mud around our tent. Waiting for the sour sweat stink to turn metallic, otherworldly.
It’s dark and silent in Exeter town centre and I’m walking home from a night-time walk with a boy that would eventually become my boyfriend two years later. I’d been startled by the bells of the cathedral at midnight and spooked by the black waters of the canal as we’d walked past, but now that I’m alone on my walk home, I’m more terrified than ever. I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’ll run into a man in a suit, smiling to himself and waltzing down the road towards me.
I think I was raised by these stories. Ghosts and dolls and thin pale men without faces. They feel like old friends from school that I meet up with occasionally. Like it feels a bit embarrassing at first but soon we fall back into our old jokes; me taking the piss out of them and them taking pleasure in making me jump, keeping me up at night.
Then I’m scrolling through Twitter one evening and see the announcement of Something Awful at this year’s Vaults Festival. And it feels like my old friends are hosting a grand reunion. Putting on a show. It’s been created by a fantastic team: written by Tatty Hennessy (who apparently insists on writing shows catered specifically to things I love; her play A Hundred Words For Snow is a gorgeous exploration into grief and arctic exploration), directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson (A Hundred Words For Snow and Vespertilio – both excellent) and produced by Flux Theatre who are constantly putting out incredible bits of work. Add a poster ripped straight from a 50s pulp horror comic (in my opinion, the best poster at Vaults this year!) and I’m sold.
Something Awful – the title is a play on the forum site where the Slender Man mythos originated – is inspired by a 2014 case where two teenage girls stabbed their friend in an attempt to summon the Slender Man. The girls were convinced that once they'd made a sacrifice to him, he would take them to his mansion in the woods. The victim was stabbed 19 times but still managed to survive, crawling to a main road, and is now pursuing a career in medicine.
The play follows two 13-year-olds Jel (Monica Anne) and Soph (Natalya Martin), two introverted (and slightly nerdy) friends who pass their break-times reading spooky stories online. A new girl, the boastful and boisterous Ellie (Melissa Parker), soon joins the group and becomes similarly obsessed with the stories. One new story in particular – The Whistling Woodsman – becomes their new favourite, despite it having barely any likes, and the tale of the mysterious axe murderer in the woods soon begins to infect their lives.
I settle uneasily into my seat and decide to keep my coat on. The first thing to note about the play is that the Cavern at Vaults is the ideal space for it. It’s dark and dank. Too big but too cramped. The ceiling drips onto the grey brick. The actors patter through the puddles in their school shoes. The smell is mildewy and cold; it puts you on edge. You feel the weight of the trains clattering overhead, the heaviness of the earth and concrete between you and the station above. And it feels even heavier when the lights go out.
The play grapples throughout with the relationship between truth and lies: a theme exacerbated by the nature of these creepypasta stories, which – especially on their dedicated forum on Reddit, r/nosleep – often come with a caveat of ‘truth’. The stories must appear true, even if they are not. The commenters must comment on the stories as if they are true (“Call the police!” “Whatever you do, don’t go outside!”) and the original authors roleplay along as if they are the characters from the story.
In a similar way, the entire play hinges on the lies told by Marmitey new girl Ellie – that one person in your friendship group that's the life of the party one minute, then the next she's turned the music off, yelling at your mate and thrown a bowl of crisps out the back window. Parker’s performance perfectly straddles this line: she is bossy and cutting in one instance, vulnerable and sincere in the next, before reverting right back to bullyish - but it never feels unnatural. Her lies grow bigger and bigger: her dad’s a pilot, she lives in a mansion etc. until she tells the other girls – the delightfully earnest Anne as Jel (sweet Jel…) and Martin's Soph in a intensely clever, something-going-on-behind-the-eyes performance – that she’s seen the Woodsman from the story.
And it’s genuinely convincing. I find myself sat there flip-flopping along with the girls, not sure whether to believe Ellie or not. You don't believe that she lives in a mansion, that's ridiculous... But maybe she did see the Woodsman from the story..? Part of you wants to believe. Because it’s fun. That’s why we play along with the creepypastas, because it's fun. Because everyone knows it’s fake and harmless. It’s just the internet. And even then, I’ve had arguments with my boyfriend after reading him a creepy story off Reddit and swearing it’s true just because the writer says so. “Well yeah, everything on r/nosleep is fake. But I found this on r/LetsNotMeet* so it’s got to be real. Those are the rules of the board. It has to be a true story."
* r/LetsNotMeet is a board for creepy, true stories of creepy encounters with people. Fiction is not allowed, even if it's pretending to be real like on r/nosleep. (But still makes its way in occasionally.)
It’s only when the girls begin to attribute a real crime in their community - a missing girl - with the Whistling Woodsman do we start to see the cracks: we’re used to seeing this make-believe online. Armchair detectives sat around pulling evidence of their theories from different corners of the internet. But when we’re seeing it played out in real life, it’s absurd, disturbing. Where does the story end and real life begin?
And, as it turns out, theatre is just as perfect a platform for these stories as the internet. It’s halfway between truth and pretend. I’m sat feeling the cold of the room and the guy in the audience opposite me dropped his Coke can onto the stage and the actors are kicking it around like it’s part of their world... because it is part of their world. It’s immediate and real and very clever. And the play actually suffers a little bit when the characters are just reading the online stories to each other. The right-now-ness of it falls away and we’re left with just the story. Just the lies and pretend without the all-important truth.
As Jel says in the play, “I know you wanted it to be real, but I don’t think it is.”
But when the play is successful at its truth tugs, it dredges up little clots of real horror (emphasis on real) that genuinely chills. The horror of being a teenager; the constant fear and insecurity and looking around to check if anybody else noticed you just did or said that really embarrassing thing. An eyelash curler becomes some sort of primitive torture device. A glob of bubble-gum in Jel's hair is treated like a deep wound caused by a madman with a knife or a werewolf’s bite. There is palpable social trauma when Soph gets her first period at one of the girls’ sleepovers. In the most disturbing scene of the play – even more so than the very end scene that I won't spoil – Ellie force-feeds the vegetarian Jel a chicken nugget. Straddling her stomach, pinning her down like a bloodthirsty demon conjured by sleep paralysis, she holds her nose and forces it into her mouth, clamping it shut with her hand until it's chewed to pieces.
And the choice of creepypastas to pull inspiration from also speak to this adolescent terror. The opening story comes from the motherland of horror folklore, Japan, and is inspired by its facially-scarred Kuchisake-onna spirit. It is said she kills anyone who says she is not beautiful with a pair of scissors (I see what you did there..!) and cuts open the face of anyone who says that she is, so they can look like her. An old ghost story, but one pertinent for the age of selfies, FaceTune, beauty influencers and all the insecurities that come with them.
Further teenage horror is conjured up by The Russian Sleep Experiment - one of the more well-known creepypastas. A story about the darkness we have hidden inside us that can be unleashed if only we let it take us over. In the context of these 13-year-olds, it feels like a portent to the rage that comes with puberty - the rage that Ellie is already beginning to experience. The fears of what you would do if you let your hormonal anger or desire to fit in get the better of you. Something the girls themselves experience at the play's close.
And the Whistling Woodsman – to my knowledge an original story – seems to have been inspired by the story (the actually possibly genuinely true story! But maybe I’m falling into that trap again…) of The Whistler, whose bone-tingling whistle (with an identical two-note ‘tune’ to the one in the play) has followed its teller from teenage life into adulthood. The Woodsman in the story is a similarly indefinable figure: are they a killer or a protector? As the characters shift personalities to fit their surroundings and relationships to each other, they begin to feel just as ineffable as the monster in their story.
I once heard somebody say that old fairy tales are about the dangers of nature, the things that are hiding out there in the woods and the wild. Stories to protect people in an age before industrialisation, where wilderness was a real danger. Urban legends, therefore, have sprung up in recent years about the dangers of the city: murderers hiding in plain sight, dodgy cons, gang initiations and so on. It would therefore seemingly follow that creepypastas are about the dangers of the internet, a space where you can never know who somebody really is or if they’re telling the truth. But in this instance, these stories become about the dangers of being a teenager growing up online: losing your old, childhood-self behind. Self-image, anxiety and worth. Growing up and gaining responsibility for yourself, your own safety.
Again, however, it is in its excellent grappling with truth-telling that the play falters a bit for me. While the individual scenes and characters are excellently constructed – original, natural, sinister and truthful – the overall plot and framework tends to follow well-trodden tropes, which leads to the play having less of an impact at its end. It lost a bit of this element of reality and truth by falling occasionally to storytelling conventions. In this sense, the play almost did too well in some instances by building up such a complex spiderweb of themes and characters, such intricate and clever individual scenes (like the chicken nugget moment), that I was a little disappointed by its framework not quite matching up. This is, of course, an incredibly difficult task when dealing with a high-school, teenage setting, and so I absolutely commend Hennessy and Atkinson for managing to create something that still feels so unique and exciting while still utilising familiar tropes - perhaps that was the whole point. With all that being said, I was gripped throughout: screwing up my face in ‘eek’ness at all the right parts and screwing up my face in laughter at all the right parts.
Because this play is funny. Like actually really very funny. Just like in A Hundred Words For Snow, Hennessy has a talent for writing deadpan one-liners (mostly delivered by Jel in this case. Sweet Jel…) that are genuinely very witty, but never so heavy-handed that we can hear the writer talking through their characters.
When putting together this review, I asked a few friends to submit stories about stories. The stories about the stories that sat at the back of their minds for days, nights, months. Slowly knotting up the fear in their brain into a big unloosenable lump. I was expecting “humans can lick too” and “the call is coming from inside the house” - stories we all know from sleepovers - but (for the most part) it was stories that were made up by someone they know. A story told for the purpose of scaring them in particular. Or one they told themselves and became convinced of.
Stories that straddle the line between real and pretend because they took place on your street or back garden or bedroom or were connected to a familiar local culture. (And apparently a lot of bike bells?)
The horror of Something Awful terrifies because it’s real. It isn’t the whistled tunes in the woods or the sleepless prisoners going mad in a Russian prison somewhere. It isn’t a man/goat hybrid sneaking up on your campsite. It isn’t a thin, pale man with no face who lives in a mansion in the woods.
It’s just us.
I meet a friend briefly for a drink in the Vaults bar after the show, before heading back with him on the train. He gets off a few stops before me and my phone runs out of charge somewhere around Vauxhall. So, I walk home in silence from the station. Up the high street past Tesco, take a shortcut through some residential roads, past the church, back onto the high street and do that weird run/walk across the zebra crossing over to my street.
It’s January and still dark and the streetlamps are far apart. There are big patches of blackness between each smattering of light. And, because I can’t listen to my music, I can hear every one of my footsteps on the paving slabs.
There’s a small gust of wind and a twig scrapes against grit as it clatters off the curb into the road.
I see it move, I see where the sound came from.
But, just for a second, I think it's fingernails on the pavement.
Thank you to...
Ellen Victoria (floatinghand124)
Ortensia Fioravanti (movingchairs09)
Simon Marshall (birdcagesfromitaly)
Jem Venn (jemvenn)
Emily Johnson (rockinwelshgirl)
and Katherine Lea (klea)
...for telling me their stories.
Jem Venn, as always, also provided the gorgeous illustration for this post.