Softly Glowing Screens: Horror Told via Twitter

Fear is flexible.

And writers who like to create fear? They’re adaptable too.

Lately, Twitter has been a vehicle for scary stories. First-person stories told as if they’re unfolding in real time! As I see it, when you tell a story via texts or tweets, you’re armed with three weapons: first-person narrative, compact expression, and multimedia.

(Spoilers Upcoming.)

1. First person narrative: First person is inherently tricky for storytelling. It’s a lot more popular right now than in previous decades! But it’s still a lot tougher than you might think: Voice is critical. Reliability of the narrator is a constant consideration. Point of view is a pain in the ass.

That said though, first person is a potent tool for fear creation. And platforms like WhatsApp and Twitter? Applied effectively, they can supercharge the best advantages of first-person narrative.

The Sun Vanished is a good example. The Twitter account “TheSunVanished” opened with a one-word tweet on April 30: “Help.” The account holder has woken up in a dark world. The sun is gone. He obeys the media’s instructions to stay put… but then the electric cuts out. The individual is suddenly trapped in his home, in the dark, with tornado sirens and random gunshots echoing in the distance.

Twitter lets the writer of TheSunVanished immerse the reader to a pretty intense degree: Should I do this? Should I do that? What do you think? It’s expanded now across multiple “characters,” each one with his own perspective of this collapsing world. It uses real-time pauses to create tension, with the characters sometimes disappearing for hours or days on end (perhaps to the mere convenience of the writer, but who cares: it works).

TheSunVanished (so far) has a fairly weak voice and so-so character development (IMO). But it absolutely shows how Twitter can convince a reader that the narrator is nonetheless a real person… or at the very least, a valuable one, since the narrator (or account user) is our only set of eyes into what’s going on.

2. Compact expression: Eh, Dickens wouldn’t do great on these platforms. Twitter forces you to scrap a lot of description. That makes scene setting is tricky. And it makes character development difficult. Location, layout, mood, atmosphere, backstory, character relationships: It all has to be done hyper-compactly.

Sure, showing is better than telling, but showing also tends to require words.

Twitter’s limited word count puts stories at risk of being purely event-based: “I did this. I did this. I did that.” Nothing else goes on. TheSunVanished, for all its creativity, stumbles into this pitfall a bit. The world rules are intriguing! But beyond that, I find it a little dry.

Everything is Fine, in contrast, plays incredibly well with the Twitter format.

Everything is Fine lays out Manuel Bartual’s terrifying one-man vacation. He walks out to the hallway of his own hotel room to find a tall man standing there, babbling anxiously in mangled Spanish (Manuel is from Spain, and the original thread is in Spanish). The man eventually leaves. When Manuel spots him at breakfast the next day, the tall man’s personality seems alarmingly different. Manuel begins to become anxious himself when he discovers his own doppelgänger roaming the premises, seemingly now in league with the doppelgänger of the original tall man.

Yes, I read the English version.

It’s possible that in translation, syntax shifted, maybe some exclamations were lost.

But even so, I’d argue that this story is beautifully minimalist.

I know, yeah: It’s TWITTER. Everything is minimalist.

But I’m trying to say that Manuel’s story (in particular the tweets that compose it) is especially so. The vast majority of his tweets are a single sentence well short of the character limit. Not one tweet, or even word, is wasted. Outcries of concern are minimal and well placed. Almost every tweet is critical to the story, and most indicate physical movement, and because of that, the suspense builds rapidly and effectively for the most part. It’s just plain well done.

3. Multimedia, bitches: Photos. Videos. Audio recordings. Twitter and WhatsApp are borderline cyber-theater.

When it comes to multimedia decisions for scary stories, the big decision is balancing going too far with constantly notching up the tension. Go too far, and the whole story becomes hokey. One false step can take it from Edgar Allen Poe to Scooby Doo (nothing against Scooby, but those “meddling kids” don’t really impart the horror buzz I’m looking for). Wielded effectively though, multimedia can build a multidimensional experience that lets the writer overcome the potential limitations of word count and first person.

Dear David is a hands-down stellar example on all counts for multimedia usage in a scary Twitter story. Adam Ellis is the genius behind it. Part of what makes Dear David so fun is Adam’s voice. He’s a relatable dude trying to deal with a ghost in his apartment. He’s freaked out, but his behavior is (fairly) logical and believable. Now, Adam’s got a leg up as a writer: He’s tweeting as himself. It’s a lot easier to sound like your authentic self than to sound like a character.

The real genius of this thread, though, is Adam’s multimedia usage.

At the start of Dear David, Adam spends several tweets catching us up on the situation. He’s had some odd dreams while living in his first-floor apartment: A girl informs Adam that he can ask “David” two questions prefaced with “Dear David.” However, if Adam asks a third question, David will kill him. Naturally, upon encountering David again in his next dream… Adam screws up. This simple mythology goes a long way in creating what feels like a rich background for the haunting (one that I hope gets explored more). Adam advances the story by tweeting about his new experiences while or immediately after they happen.

Photos help us visualize his whole apartment: front door, attic door, living room, bedroom, etc.; his day-to-day walks; his trip to Japan. He offers videos, Sleep App recordings. He gets a Polaroid camera, and we get images posted of his own photographs. Screenshots off his phone.

Almost all items of evidence keep us just shy of anything concrete, and the effect is that every smudge, every blurry corner, every twitch in his cats becomes a scare. It’s a delicate dance, and I do think there are some missteps: The small child’s shoe and the marble in the ceiling hatch, and certainly the final two or three photos which claim to show the top of David’s physical head, went slightly too far for me. I would’ve personally liked to see tension build via a more unfolding of David’s behavior, backstory, or mythology instead.

Regardless though, Adam does the best job of all three stories of blurring that line between fiction and reality. And much of that blurring, I’d argue, is thanks to his consistently clever multimedia usage.

So… can you tell scary stories live via Twitter? 

Uh, hell yeah.

With Dear David, Adam did such a good job that a chunk of the internet referred to it as a “hoax” for a while. The story provoked ethics debates about how deceptive Twitter users have a right to be in trying to create a sense of “reality” when telling a story that’s not true.

Side-stepping the question of ethics for now… Twitter can, in short, totally be a platform for storytelling.

Way back in 2011, The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel came into being via Dan Sinker’s fake Twitter account for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The compiled tweets were literally published in book form. It’s political and humorous: Definitely not at all a scary story.

But it does seem to indicate a turn in people’s willingness to accept writing posted live via tweets as actual, you know, writing (as opposed to just raw information delivery).

Dear David apparently has a movie deal? TheSunVanished is attracting enough attention that it’s being called out as a potential of plug for Cloverfield. Everything is Fine has been translated into at least three languages.

I’ll be honest: I’ve been staggering along in terms of Twitter usage. It’s a frustrating newfangled thing that makes me grumble. But as creative minds keep manipulating Twitter as a tool for sharing narratives, I’m more and more compelled to learn how to follow along.

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