After hours of scrolling through endless TikToks of teens dancing, couples pranking each other, and dogs being cute — something on your For You Page stops you dead in your tracks.
Someone is walking around a dark, empty house, as text explains that their mom hasn’t come home. As they take us through their neighborhood, they realize it’s not just her — everyone has vanished overnight.
“Hey kinda serious here like my entire town is missing I’m not really sure what to do is this happening elsewhere?” the caption reads.
Clicking on the @where_is_everybody account (with over 240,000 followers), you discover someone named Alexander Nielsen has chronicled this phenomenon since October 2019. Each video shows more of this empty world, where people have been replaced by shadowy ghost figures.
After COVID-19 led to a wave of stay-at-home orders and widespread panic-buying at grocery stores across America in March 2020, the videos grow even more dire. Now there’s completely deserted highways, too, with captions mentioning food growing more and more scarce.
Whether you realize it or not, you’ve just stumbled onto the scary side of TikTok.
Despite being an app best known for attractive teens going viral with trendy challenges, a sinister niche has been quietly growing since 2018. Haunted TikTok (aka #HorrorTikTok, #CursedTikTok, #GhostTikTok, #CreepyTikTok, #ScaryTikTok) now pulls in anywhere from one to 11 billion views. That doesn’t even count the stuff without tags, either.
“Many different things converged to create Haunted TikTok,” says Jessica Maddox, an assistant professor at Alabama University who studies digital media and creative media.
First, she points out, TikTok’s short-form horror harkens back to old Penny Dreadfuls, cheap Victorian-era printed thrillers. More prominently, though, Haunted TikTok grew from a legacy of web horror that uses social media to translate ancient oral storytelling traditions into the modern age. “Haunted TikTok is just the next iteration, evolving from campfire scary stories and Penny Dreadfuls, then also digital urban legends like creepypasta,” Maddox explained. Creepypasta, for the uninitiated, are horror stories written by amateur writers (often on Reddit) that capture the internet’s collective unconscious.
While Haunted TikTok started gaining momentum in 2019, it’s now bleeding more into the mainstream in 2020, when people’s general anxiety is at an all-time high. In a world increasingly defined by surreal horrors from an intangible threat, it seems Haunted TikTok is just hitting different when it pops up on people’s For You Page.
“The pandemic is already like the ghost that’s haunting us,” Maddox says. “Like all good horror, the Haunted TikTok trend provides us with a sense of control over something scary that we don’t have control over in our real lives.”
How web horror found a home on TikTok
Haunted TikTok contains a multitude of subcategories, Maddox explains: You have viral horror story recappers, ghost tour guides exploring haunted places in their area, folks accidentally capturing a paranormal incident they swear is real, others claiming to document hauntings they’re experiencing, or the more explicit cinematic fictional “true-story” teller and performance artist like where_is_everybody.
While Haunted TikTok has its own distinguishing features, it all stems from the original creepypasta legend to become a worldwide phenomenon. Slenderman was birthed from a single post on a forum in 2009, which soon led to the very popular Marble Hornets YouTube series around him, as we;; as many popular games, a failed Hollywood movie, and countless other iterations across every social platform.
“The idea of the campfire story and digital urban legend stems from this tension of, ‘Is it true, is it not true? I’ve heard this story from so-and-so,’ or ‘it happened here to this other person in a different town,'” says Maddock.
Like the oldest folklore and fairytales, modern storytellers are often inspired and build on one another’s work, changing elements of it with every retelling to adapt the story for a different audience or platform.
Internet horror is also at the core of another digital storytelling trend called the ARG, or alternate-reality game. While clearly fictional, ARGs are fueled by the premise that you must piece together this real-life mystery through clues and Easter eggs scattered around the web. It harnesses all the allure of the internet rabbit hole, while playing into the culture of internet sleuths theorizing on Reddit as well.
John Galascio, the creator behind where_is_everbody, not only identifies it as one of the first TikTok ARGs but also says he was indeed inspired by another web horror series from Twitter called TheSunVanished.
“TikTok’s short-form video format is the perfect platform for scary stories like mine, but it’s rarely recognized for it,” he says. “Fifteen seconds is the perfect amount of time to show an event and keep the viewer intrigued, while also creating a cliffhanger. But on YouTube you’d need to keep going because there isn’t a time limit.”
For creators like Andrew Smith (known as smitherenes to his one million followers), TikTok’s tools and algorithm also feel more optimized for horror than the YouTube horror that originally inspired him too.
“The app makes it so easy for me to film, edit, and put together a great story in a quick time frame which also allows me to put out content very frequently,” he says. If the first part of your video gets onto people’s For You Page, and you do enough of a job to rope them in, folks will flock to that account and follow it in droves so they can see the next part.
There’s also the plethora of creepy tools readily available to everyone on TikTok, from face-distorting AR filters or the Reality Ripple effect people claim catches ghosts in motion.
Another aspect of what makes TikTok such a powerful place for web horror is precisely because horror is the opposite of what we expect from the platform. An app otherwise populated by e-boys and e-girls lip-syncing and dancing to pop songs, Haunted TikTok gets viewers who’ve been lulled into a false sense of security.
The niche also subverts the app’s music integration, twisting its usually cool and idyllic vibes into the cursed and nightmarish.
“Since the invention of the horror film, music has become such a big part of how we convey story tension, theme, and feeling in horror storytelling,” says Maddox. Whether it’s through the Get Out or Hereditary soundtrack or “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” song, all the most popular horror sounds on “TikTok use musical juxtaposition to increase the level of anxiety and unsettledness in the viewer.”
No creator embodies the grotesque subversion of mainstream TikTok like Eli Stevens (known as Elisteves to his 238,000 TikTok followers).
Stevens started his TikTok to exclusively poke fun at the Chad-types flexing with their shirts off to popular music. His first post had all these elements, with him pointing to a $10 for 10 beef patty deal as the popular Midsummer Madness by 88RISING plays. It got over a million views.
But people weren’t picking up on enough of the absurdist messaging.
“So I was like, ‘Alright, I need to make this a lot darker real fast.’ So in the next video I crashed my car and spit blood out everywhere,” he says. Midsummer Madness was still the soundtrack, though, and continued to be the soundtrack for the series that grew increasingly hellish from there, dissolving into cannibalism, prosthetic fangs, and blood-soaked California Raisin figurines.
After the Midsummer Madness series concluded, he moved on to a travel vlog series that subverted even more of influencer culture, and similarly concluded with implied cannibalism. Now, he’s in the process of creating a Midsummer Madness sequel.
“I ask myself everyday why I get onto people’s For You Page or why they like it,” he says. “I have no idea. But I think it’s surprising. They think they’re getting one type of video, then it’s something totally different.”
While he wasn’t conscious of it at the time, Stevens’ cursed performance art bore many similarities to a figure who is arguably the Slenderman of Haunted TikTok: Bonskinny.
Though the whole series was recently deleted, it lives on through YouTube analysts dissecting the deeper meaning of her work and its impact on Cursed TikTok (and inspired other creators of her ilk, like Sitting and Smiling). At first, folks didn’t know what to make of the girl always wearing a decrepit clown mask crying about wanting to feel pretty, threatening self-harm, and apparently being kept in a cage by a mysterious figure called Mister Man.
While many commenters worried this was a girl broadcasting a real cry for help while in a dangerous situation, others pretty quickly identified it as digital performance art. The overwhelming consensus now is that Bonskinny was a commentary on women’s beauty standards, particularly the ones perpetrated by social media like TikTok.
“Since the rise of Instagram, and even before, there’s always been a dominant aesthetic of presenting the very perfect, polished, neat, cleaned up version of yourself on social media, whether you’re an influencer or just kind of the average person. Bonskinny was the opposite of influencer perfection,” says Maddox.
The question of what’s real and what isn’t — which is at the heart of Haunted TikTok — is in itself a commentary on those pretty lies we tell through online personas. Because even though we know that perfect influencer aesthetic isn’t actually authentic, we want to believe it is anyway.
“Bonskinny implodes that because we’re asking ‘is it fiction, or is it authentic?’ about the grotesque and the scary,” Maddox says.
The twisted realism that’s so characteristic of most Haunted and Horror TikTok does have a darker implication, though. Because Haunted TikTok can be a one-way avenue to Conspiracy TikTok, where conspiracy theories like #FreeBritney and Wayfair child trafficking thrive.
“The way TikTok horror threads the question of ‘is this real, is it not’ reflects and speaks to a lot of larger digital culture issues about disinformation, misinformation, and what can we take to be true,” says Maddox. “Bonskinny is problematic in the sense that we’re missing the social cues that would clue us in on whether this is really a girl who needs help, versus a girl expressing herself through art. Yet at the same time, that lack of social cues is exactly what makes the digital urban legend so unsettling and powerful.”
Another one of Haunted TikTok’s most viral accounts blurs the line between fact, fiction, and conspiracy in a whole other way too.
Jonathan Ballen (or Mrballen to his 6 million followers) falls under the scary story recap category, by explaining famous oddities in under a minute like the Dyatlov Pass incident, in which a group of students went on a hiking expedition in 1959 only for their bodies to be found frozen and oddly injured. Yet it’s hard to distinguish between his coverage of a well-vetted, real mystery like that one, versus other stories he covers that certainly aren’t passing any Snopes tests. Another video with 11 million views has a thumbnail declaring it “the scariest true story on the internet,” but if you Google it (as he suggests you do) it’s clearly a creepypasta.
“I distinguish truth versus fiction by saying explicitly whether it’s true or not in the caption,” Ballen says, and indeed this one’s tagged #NoSleep which means it’s fiction. Meanwhile captions with “true story” mean it’s true “as far as I can tell,” but “based on a true story” means he’s “spinning a true story to fit TikTok with “a little embellishment.” He also provides sources for each story, fiction or otherwise.
“My page is about experiencing the scary content. Telling people it’s fake upfront is a turn-off,” says Ballen, which is why he leaves it in the caption for people to investigate further themselves. “But I think most people like the idea that it could be true, and they don’t really want to know if it actually is or not.”
Clearly, TikTok is a powerful tool for people to believe what they want to believe.
“There’s definitely a lot of overlap between conspiracy theories and urban legends, but there’s a slight difference. The urban legends are, ‘I heard this thing happened.’ Whereas conspiracy theories are, ‘I heard or think this thing happened, and here’s why,'” says Maddox. “But it’s a slippery slope, especially when the TikTok algorithm starts recommending conspiracies if you spend enough time on Haunted TikTok.”
When you consider how belief in the Slenderman caused two real-life teen girls to stab their own friend to near death in 2014, too, that slippery slope can look like a path straight to hell.
Out with the old, in with the new media horror
While there’s a lot of innovation in web horror and its latest evolution through Haunted TikTok, the things that scare us never really change much.
A lot of the tropes we know and love from traditional horror movies are alive and well on TikTok too. That’s why cemeteries and empty houses are their usual setting, and they often use jump scares and quick edits.
“TikTok is especially conducive to quick edits in particular because of the limited amount of real estate in its short-form format,” says Maddox. “So much of Haunted TikTok also feels like found footage. And because so many are shot on phones, the found-footage style translates better to TikTok than film.”
With TikTok and the Gen Zers who fuel it, there’s no need for the story to justify a camera being on during a paranormal experience. Whether it’s a ghostly figure peeking out in the background of a dance TikTok, a closet slamming behind a makeup tutorial, or a multi-part exploration of a haunted space — it’s totally at home in the digital age.
The ties to found-footage horror and Haunted TikTok go even deeper than just style, though. Blair Witch, the first found-footage film ever, had a marketing campaign that sold the story as being entirely true too. Its success invented the viral marketing movie campaign and is also largely credited for inspiring ARGs.
In other ways, though, Maddox theorizes how Haunted TikTok is also a fascinating reversal of one of the most foundational tropes in horror movies: teensploitation (meaning teen exploitation), especially from the ’70s and ’80s.
“Teensploitation horror films were all about trying to get young people to grow up. But as an app of mostly teen content creators, teensploitation on Haunted TikTok seems to be rooted in the larger movement of teens using the app to challenge the status quo and remain true to themselves,” she says.
I mean, what else would you expect from a generation using the app to tackle real-world horrors by collectively crashing Donald Trump rallies.
Another point of departure, Maddox says, lies in the endings of TikTok horror series. Like Bonskinny, these series often end abruptly. The “protagonist” usually just reaches a point of danger where they realize it would be too risky to continue — and that’s where it all stops.
“But that lack of ending reflects the short-form video platform, and just larger uncertainty of our lives right now too.”
In other ways, the latest trends of Haunted TikTok and horror films do reflect one another, though. Since Get Out, the comedy-horror film has risen to prominence and its influence is all over cursed TikTok, most prominently in Elisteves and Bonskinny’s work.
“Internet content, in general, is characterized by an absurdity that the horror-comedy mirrors,” says Maddox. “And that absurdity mirrors our anxieties about everything going on in the world right now. Because it feels like everything’s failed us, doomed us: Whether it’s politics, climate change, police brutality. When those failures are so immense, so crushing, everywhere, all the time — you kind of just have to laugh.”
Maybe people believe Bonskinny is real because we live in a world where Britney Spears actually legally does not have any control over her own life. The surreality of Haunted TikTok, unfortunately, doesn’t feel that farfetched in 2020.
Stevens even named this new era of horror, from Get Out to It Follows and Heridatry, as direct influences on him because, “They’re not too gory or in your face. They focus on the more realistic issues we all deal with while just having a horror element lingering in the background.”
In other ways, though, web horror and Haunted TikTok is on a wavelength that’s more personal than traditional media. With horror movies, you know the fear is contained to a theater. But Haunted TikTok exists on our phones, ready to corrupt our digital escapism with no warning.
Traditional media can’t begin to address the anxieties that digital urban legends can because it gets us where we live most of our lives in the modern age. More than ever before, our phones are where we live, work, find love, create friendship, shop. Some recent horror movies like Unfriended, Unfriended 2, Blair Witch 2016, Slenderman, and Cam try to tap into the power of digital horror, without understanding what makes it so scary.
“When it comes to Haunted TikTok, the horror is always there, waiting in your pocket,” says Maddox. “Once you watch one, the algorithm knows it affects you, too, so it will continue pushing more and more horror onto your For You Page.”
In the same way that you can’t escape the evils of the digital world, we can’t escape Haunted TikTok. So welcome to hell, friends. Get comfortable, because we’ll be here for a while.