Since the dawn of civilization, human beings have been scaring the crap out of each other with horror stories inspired by their immediate environments. From early rural communities that feared the terrors creeping in from the wilderness to more recent urban dwellers that feared their own neighbors’ capacity for cruelty, it’s clear how our legends (be it werewolves or unstoppable serial killers) are shaped by our experiences. Nowadays, however, many people don’t seem to realize that we spend most of our waking hours online, be it at home or work, on computers or phones, and our stories have adjusted accordingly.
That’s why I believe it’s time to discuss the Viral Horrors that surround us every day. From Creepypastas to killer memes, these sordid tales are as much a part of our culture as campfire stories about vengeful forest spirits, only on a much larger scale. So let’s dive in, and see if we can come to appreciate these online scares and what they mean to us.
Today, I’d like to talk about a little online odyssey known as The Dionaea House, a sprawling, interconnected narrative told over a collection of blogs and e-mail transcripts that were uploaded by Eric Heisserer (The Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Final Destination 5, Lights Out, Arrival) back in 2004 (though the story itself begins much earlier). In this epistolary tale, we’re introduced to a handful of characters as they communicate through the internet and investigate the connections between an old friend’s murder-suicide and a mysterious house.
As the story progresses, we soon learn that this House might not be a House after all, and that there are others like it, connected in ways that seem to break the laws of physics. With the added elements of paranoia, madness and eldritch horror constantly looming in the background, The Dionaea House evolves into one of my favorite online horror stories that still feels as fresh now as it did back in ’04.
That being said, the story is still clearly a product of its time, with the internet in the early 2000s being ripe with conspiracy theorists, paranormal enthusiasts and viral versions of urban legends that had been popular since the 1950s being spread through forwarded e-mails. Hell, if it wasn’t for Snopes, I’d still be afraid of that one maniac that was said to hide around in parking lots so he could slit folks’ Achilles’ tendons and then haul them off to a sex dungeon or something.
I’m not saying that these things disappeared from the modern internet (in fact, sharing unfounded rumors and accusations as fact is easier now than it’s ever been), but with the rise of mainstream social media and reputable news sites, personal accounts are no longer taken so seriously. Back then, however, in a world of personal homepages and primitive blogging, The Dionaea House pioneered a horror story told over multiple points of view in our new, interconnected world.
It wasn’t the first attempt at an epistolary horror story told through hypertext, and I’ll be the first to admit that there are more than a few similarities with Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but The Dionaea House hits much closer to home with its online presentation despite dealing with equally absurd details (I mean, both houses are technically eating people). The two stories also have a botanical element in common, with Danielewski comparing his endless house with the mythical tree Yggdrasil, and Heisserer describing his creation as a Venus Flytrap (scientific name: Dionaea muscipula) that attracts curious visitors with online rumors and sweet smells, then proceeds to devour their minds and bodies.
I’m a big fan of the symbolism here, not to mention the horrific potential of a being that uses its own online legend as a lure for more potential victims. Living in a world full of curiosity-fueled web-users constantly researching on multiple tabs, I think this tale is really ahead of its time. Plus, if you start to think about it, Eric’s uploads are actually serving the House’s ultimate goal, drawing just enough attention so that it’ll never go hungry, but never enough that people start a serious investigation.
What makes the story scary isn’t that you necessarily believe it’s real (though I have a lot of fun reading through terrified comments on the blog posts), but that you know that in a place as wild as the internet, it could be. This uncertainty is something of a running theme in these internet yarns, and part of the reason why Creepypastas became so effective.
It’s no surprise that both the author and his work would eventually make their way to Hollywood (with Eric being involved with the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, Lights Out and even being nominated for an Oscar for Arrival), though the official Dionaea House adaptation remains in development hell.
As I’m writing this, it also appears that the original Dionaea House website (the one containing the first part of the story with links to the rest of it) has gone offline, which only reinforces the importance of discussing and preserving these bits of internet culture while we still can. Luckily, some noble fans managed to save the text so we can still read it elsewhere, but it’s a shame that we can no longer experience this part of the story as it was originally intended.
Nevertheless, with or without the original website, I can assure you that The Dionaea House is still out there waiting for a new generation of viral victims, so I’ll leave you with the links necessary to embark on this perilous journey. Just beware, as the door is always open.
- Correspondence from Mark Condry.
- Adventures in Babysitting.
- A Quiet Space.
- The Blog of Loreen Mathers.