Just to be clear: I don’t always fall asleep to the sound of creepypastas, the horror stories that proliferate in the spookier corners of the internet like black mold. I can usually doze off accompanied by nothing more than the sound of my own breathing; tales of nefarious small-town traditions, ghosts lurking in classic video games, and arcane paranormal survival guides are for emergencies only. As counterintuitive as it may seem, when I’m wedged into a tight window seat on a plane or struggling with insomnia or trying to take a nap at home with the window open while the breeze is still pleasant, there’s nothing more likely to nudge me into sleep than someone in my earbuds recounting a baleful yarn about, say, a lonely, horny teenager’s purchase of an anime body pillow with a menacing secret (the secret is a nest of venomous spiders). It’s like white noise, only more menacing — dark noise? — which somehow makes it more effective.
Tuning into accounts of uncanny invasions and gruesome dismemberments would feel like a weirder habit if I believed I were alone in it. But while one of the dozen or so horror podcasts I’m subscribed to is called NoSleep, another is entitled Scare You to Sleep, which assures me I’m not the only one who uses scary stories as a sleep aid. It’s of course soothing to have voices on in the background, where they slip by without demanding much of your focus; it’s reminiscent of being a kid and falling asleep to the sound of your parents in conversation with friends outside your room, the grown-up world reassuringly nearby without requiring you to be a part of it yet. How the coziness of this effect squares so well with sinister subject matter is something I can’t as easily explain.
The creepypasta — a goth cousin to copypasta, the word used to describe blocks of text that get copied, pasted, and riffed on across message boards and internet forums — began as a form of digital campfire story, often anonymous and presented as true. Over time, the term’s come to encompass just about all online horror fiction, some of it more traditional in format (and credited to an author). The best-known entry, Slender Man, was a Something Awful meme turned locus of organic lore that was infamously evoked in a 2014 stabbing and not quite as infamously used as the inspiration for a 2018 movie starring Joey King. Today, well-known actors including Cole Sprouse and Tessa Thompson pop up in popular audio creepypasta from the podcast company QCode. But these stories, which are usually longer and more involved, aren’t what best suit my purposes. It’s the run-of-the-mill offerings, which cluster into repeated subgenres and have their own roster of clichés.
As with any audio subgenre, there’s a whole wide world of horror podcasts, and different series specialize in real-life scares (Radio Rental), folklore (The Moonlit Road), full-on serialized sagas (The Black Tapes), and classics in the public domain (most of them). Some of these shows — like Knifepoint Horror, an anthology of original stand-alone stories mostly performed by their authors, which is really the filet mignon of scary podcasts — demand and deserve your full attention. But most have an artless quality, and I find their shamelessly recurring themes and predictable, if not diligent efforts to freak listeners out perversely comforting. Part of what makes creepypasta-centric audio so ideal to drift off to is that there’s just so much of it, and so it blurs together.
There are, for instance, reams of nostalgia-based stories in which a familiar video game turns out to be haunted, or someone describes a fucked up lost episode of a beloved childhood show, or there’s an ominous underbelly to a certain theme park owned by a powerful entertainment conglomerate. These bits of ominous online ephemera aren’t necessarily scary, but they offer a substitute charm in their unsuccessful yet earnest efforts to unsettle. That charm is amped up considerably by a narrator giving the stories a solemn, serious read. The prolific hosts and rotating casts of my drift-off favorites, which also include Creepy and Horror Hill, have deliveries that vary from basso profondo to coyly theatrical, but none are above a full-on mwa-ha-ha-ha when the occasion calls for it. Regardless of what the individual stories might be like, the enterprise has a grounding in camp. And maybe that’s really key to making them so disarming for me.
I picked up this particular horror habit a few years ago, somewhere between Trump winning the 2016 presidential election and the start of the pandemic, at a time when the stress of the world had started, understandably, seeping into every other podcast I listened to. I had to unsubscribe from the daily shows I used to consume on my morning subway ride because I found myself grinding my teeth as they played. I spent the fall of 2020 dealing with bouts of unprompted gagging that a doctor cheerily informed me was stress-related. The compulsive need to submerge myself in the news, as though doing so would mitigate everything going on, was something I had to learn to relinquish.
It turned out that plunging myself into material that was actively trying to trigger dread was what I needed to relax. Compared to all the concerns the outside world has on offer, the ones in these audio collections feel like safer territory, serving up the known menaces of demons and revengeful outcasts, cursed apartment buildings and mysterious serial killers. With them, at least, I haven’t had a nightmare once.
More From This Series
- The Bedtime Entertainment Secrets of Veteran Sleepers
- The Best Horror to Stream As You’re Falling Asleep
- The 20 Best Movies to Stream As You’re Falling Asleep