When Christine Druga was a little girl, she said, she would sometimes wake in the night to see a man with a wide-brimmed hat and red eyes staring through her bedroom window. Her parents didn’t believe her, so she hid under the covers whenever the man came. Once, she said, he left a handprint on the outside of the glass.
In 2013, while Druga was raising two children of her own a few miles from her childhood home outside Pittsburgh, she wrote about the hat man on a Reddit horror forum titled Nosleep. She told me her story happens to be true, but that doesn’t matter on Nosleep, where the first rule on the front page is “Everything is true here, even if it’s not.”
Druga is the top administrator on Nosleep, whose indistinguishable mixture of the real and merely realistic (weighed heavily toward the latter, most likely) has helped it grow into the internet’s main source of amateur horror stories — with more than 13 million subscribers and hundreds of thousands of posts along the lines of “My neighbor has been mowing his lawn for 12 hours straight” and “My granddad used to come to my room at night wearing a mask. Now I know why.”
The internet is awash inderivative nightmare fuel (see Slenderman, Momo, and any number of “creepypasta” sites), but nearly a decade after Nosleep was launched, the site remains its premier creative hellmouth, with aspiring authors competing daily for a chance to go viral and perhaps even invade popular culture.
A story about a fictional disease outbreak in Mammoth, Ariz., caused a nonfictional panic in 2014, when the police chief had to assure residents there were not “14 to 55 dead bodies” rotting in the streets.
At least two authors have struck deals to turn their stories into Hollywood movies, and another was hired to co-write an episode of Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House.”
I became obsessed with Nosleep when I discovered it and, like thousands before me, felt compelled to try my hand at writing horror for the first time — and attempt to discover the secrets to creating terror that makes people click.
Unfortunately, I have never seen a hat man or anything like it, so my story would have to be fake. It would also have to truly stand out: On average, 120 stories are posted to Nosleep each day, and all but one or two quickly fall off the bottom of the page into obscurity. Readers can vote any story up or down, and only those that get hundreds or thousands of endorsements remain on the front page long.
“A lot of really new people have asked me what makes your story successful,” said Carter Milford, a computer science student in Atlanta who in March wrote the most popular story in Nosleep’s history — about a woman who gave him an empty glass jar that made everything in his life disappear. “She Sold Happiness in Glass Jars” has been voted up by nearly 27,000 Reddit users, just ahead of “My sugar daddy asks me for weird favors.”
“My answer every time is: a third luck, a third timing, a third your writing,” Milford told me. “I don’t want to be mean, but there are objectively bad stories. Try to avoid writing ‘too many teeth.’ I have no idea why, but I read that all the time: ‘There was a monster who smiled and had too many teeth.’ “
I crossed dentate monsters off my list of possibilities, as well as serial killers, which are so overused that the forum recently banned stories based on them.
My girlfriend told me she was once creeped out by a figure she saw moving around inside an out-of-service subway train. We tried to develop this into a plot involving a subway ghost or ghost subway but couldn’t figure out a realistic way to prevent the protagonist from simply running out of the station to safety. Nosleep has a very elaborate list of rules, one of which is that you can’t die at the end of story, or else how would you post it to Nosleep?
I turned to popular authors on the site for advice.
“I’d recommend taking something everyone can relate to, and twist it to make it horror,” said Connor Phillips, a ninth-grade English teacher in Richardson, Texas, who wrote a Nosleep story about a Mickey Mouse costume at Disney World that is opened to reveal the head and spinal cord of a lost child. (He has not shown the story to his class.)
I immediately thought of the hell that is commercial airline travel. As a reporter, I’ve written about flights infested with bed bugs, contaminated with feces, disrupted by sex acts — and in one case a midair brawl that required a flight attendant to use wine bottles in self-defense.
My first attempt in the air fright genre was a story about waking up on a plane to find all the other passengers gone. My girlfriend thought it was spooky, but on later reflection I realized I had stolen the plot of Stephen King’s “The Langoliers.” That became the first of at least nine aborted drafts I threw out this month.
Spending all your time imagining plane horror, I have learned, is exhausting and depressing. On a road trip through Pennsylvania countryside in mid-October, I was almost oblivious to the gorgeous scenery while I fantasized about how to hide a body in my carry-on luggage. (It’s impossible, I’ve decided; the bag size restrictions are too strict.)
I eventually found inspiration in a Q&A post by a flight attendant, who said that when a passenger dies on a full flight the crew simply leaves them in their seat.
Finally, my story had a workable premise and a title: “I volunteered to sit next to a dead man on a plane, and deeply regret it.”
“The trick for me is writing exactly what I’d love to read,” advised Thamires Luppi, a writer in Brazil whose Nosleep hits include the stories “My Parents Sold Me When I Was 7” and “I was hired to murder myself.” I can’t say I would love to read about a sitting next to an animate corpse on an airplane, but I managed to bang out 2,400 words about what it might be like.
“I could see his face reflected in the plexiglass,” I wrote. “It was undoubtedly a dead man’s face: pale, drawn, lips parted, jaw slack. There was no life in it. Except his eyes. They were moving.”
By the end of the story, quite a lot of my seatmate was moving because I had kicked him out a shattered plane window several miles over the Atlantic Ocean. The plot was ridiculous, but it did more or less what I wanted: flicked at natural fears of flying and of dying.
The writing finally accomplished, I still had to contend with the two other factors in Milford’s formula: luck and timing.
I couldn’t do much about the former, but on the latter got advice from Nosleep veteran Scott Hensman (“I woke up during surgery, they weren’t trying to save me”), who has reverse-engineered the Reddit algorithm that dictates which stories rise to the front of the page.
“If you get 15 upvotes in the first hour, you’ll be in the top for that day,” he told me. “If you reach spot 1, you’ll stay there from the 14th to 18th hour, then start dropping.”
This implied that the best time to post a story was just before the last day’s top story started falling toward the bottom of the page, and preferably during a low-traffic period when I’d face less competition for those crucial first 15 votes.
I did some math, woke up early in the morning Sunday and hit submit.
I don’t think I’ll count “I volunteered to sit next to a dead man on a plane, and deeply regret it” among the writing I’m most of proud of when I’m retired. I doubt anyone is going to make a movie of it, although an aspiring YouTuber asked if he could recite it in a video.
But I must have done something right. It was the most popular post on the site that day, racking up about 6,000 endorsements before it was supplanted by the next hot horror story, “I witnessed something horrifying at Wendy’s,” on Tuesday afternoon.