Creepypasta, short viral horror stories that usually take the form of urban legends, have been around for roughly a decade, being passed around reddit and other forums. (The name comes from the 4chan term “copypasta,” meaning text that’s copy-pasted into emails and onto forums.) Creepypasta has gained popularity among horror fans, to the point where Clive Barker and Max Landis are each adopting creepypasta stories for the small screen.
So it was only a matter of time before someone took an academic approach to the disreputable genre. Inverse reports that Sara McGuire, writing for the infographic web site Venngage, datamined the four biggest creepypasta web sites, and drew conclusions about what made the most successful stories successful.
Her insights, most of which apply to short stories and fiction in general, involve what these stories had in common: namely that certain archetypes and plot tropes recur, generally because they’re successful at luring the reader into the story. For short horror fiction, those include murder, cliffhangers, unexplained phenomena, and a creepy image accompanying the story. But the most popular element isn’t a horror trope; it’s first-person narration. Having the story come from an individual rather than an omniscient narrator brings the reader closer to the story, and makes it feel more like someone’s lived-in experience.
So the real lessons McGuire draws are the ones behind these basic tropes: Make the story personal and memorable, leave readers wanting more, find a new way to use classic archetypes, and whatever you do, don’t feed them after midnight.