Scary In Under 280 Characters: Horror Fiction On Twitter


Even though it’s been around a while, Twitter is still a relatively new platform, and as it’s evolved, it’s attracted use as not just social media but as a creative medium. In fact, it is probably the best social media for getting your work seen, as its interactivity is easily shareable, being based around following and having an audience.

The burgeoning literature form that’s been coined “twitterfiction” has been evolving since the social media’s inception in 2006. Attracted by the possibility of reaching a large audience, the challenging constraints of the strict character limit and the viral quality of hashtags, many have tried their hand at crafting a Twitter tale over the years.

These stories are often overwhelmingly dark in nature, mostly being horrors and thrillers. People love sharing scary stories and the viral nature of twitter harks back to the days of telling ghostly stories by the campfire. Here’s a look at the evolution of horror stories on Twitter – from their humble roots to how they continue to evolve and frighten today.


The Early Days

Twitter’s early days were much like the formative days of the internet as a whole: we didn’t really know what to do with it. At least not for a good while, where people were still getting their heads around a social media with such a strict character limit. If you only had 140 characters, what should you spend them on? Despite the general timidness to engage with it fully, people were still curious, exploring the possibilities the unique new social media had to offer.

Seanan McGuire‘s #connollyhouse #weshouldntbehere was not in fact written on Twitter, but only in the style of it. The story was published in the old fashioned way in the What The *@&% Is That? anthology book of monster stories.

The story follows the separate Twitter accounts of a team of paranormal investigators exploring the allegedly haunted Connolly House, updating their fans as they delve further. As they descend through the seemingly infinite depths of the basement, the characters tweets change from upbeat and enthusiastic to genuinely unnerved. One of the character’s feeds suddenly goes dead and recurring, threatening hashtags pop up that the protagonists insist they didn’t write.

#connollyhouse.png

For such an early toe-dip into using Twitter to write, it really makes use of its features, like hashtags, and embraces the bite sized commentary style of tweets. It does make you wonder though, if it would’ve been more effective if the story was written in through the medium itself, as reading these tweets live as they came out could’ve added another layer of realism to the story.


The Long Sagas

As twitterfiction became more established it began to attract literary celebrities, particularly writers of dark fantasy and horror, who welcomed the chance to experiment with the unusual form.

Neil Gaiman‘s involvement in crafting a twitter story became known as Hearts, Keys, and Puppetry. It was a crowd-sourced story that ended up spanning 124 contributors, each tweeting a portion of the story. His first tweet kicked off the story with an opening sentence that’s classic Gaiman:

“Sam was brushing her hair when the girl in the mirror put down the hairbrush, smiled and said, ‘We don’t love you anymore'”

This resulted in a collaborative, organically growing dark fairytale of evil puppets, haunting melodies and a girl’s journey for love.

David Mitchell, on the other hand, has been pretty upfront about his distaste for social media, regarding his experimental story as merely a publicity boosting novelty, claiming, “I don’t want to add to this ocean of trivia and irrelevance; it’s already vast and deep enough.” Apparently egged on by his publishers to drum up publicity for the release of The Bone Clocks, Mitchell’s reluctant Twitter story The Right Sort is still wonderfully chilling. Comprised of 280 tweets, it tells the story of teenager Nathan’s visit to a mysterious house. There he meets a strange boy and believes he is being hunted by a beast through the house’s many rooms.

The right sort.png
The tale acknowledges and embraces the 140 character limit, even lamp-shading the feature through Nathan’s valium habit:

“The pill’s just kicking in now. Valium breaks down the world into bite-sized sentences. Like this one. All lined up. Munch-munch.”

As a publicity booster it worked amazingly. The story was praised extensively and was later expanded into the unconventional ghost story Slade House.

While on paper these would most likely be considered short stories, for the internet they’re practically sagas. Their length in real time spans over days, even weeks, so you have to stay online vigilantly over several days to make sure you get the full story.

What keeps you invested is also what keeps these stories scary – that they are made up of such small slivers of information. You’re essentially being drip fed snippets of story and being forced to wait to get the full picture. This really allows suspense to build up, particularly in tense or creepy moments as to provoke fear, horror so often capitalises on what we don’t know. Those minutes, hours or days you’re waiting until the next part of the story is tweeted, your brain has a chance to go crazy filling in the gaps with all sorts of horrible possibilities.


The Short, Experimental Stuff

As well as long sagas, there are the more experimental single-tweet-length stories which followed them.

The whole point of these one or two sentence stories is to either subvert your expectations, or to give just an impression, where you can fill in the rest of the narrative yourself. This mode of writing isn’t exactly new but it perfectly fits the medium of Twitter.

Sometimes disturbing, sometimes darkly funny, stories this short can still be impactful. When you reduce your story to only 140 characters, things like setting, time, characterisation and even punctuation fall away, leaving only the most essential kernel of the story.

ShortHorrorStories tweets.png
DeadEndFiction and HorrorStory_140 are two accounts that put out single-tweet stories. Sometimes a tweet will be a simple description, leaving you with an overall spooky impression, for example DeadEndFiction’s:

“There are more ghosts than living people. You are pushing past them, encroaching on their space. They were here first; move out of their way”

But most tweets have an almost setup/punchline structure, leading you to a certain conclusion and then subverting it:

DeadEndFiction tweets.png
With just enough space for a little twist, these type of fictions are great if you enjoy getting little bites of horror in with your twitter feed.


The Future

What the future holds for twitterfiction is difficult to guess, as it’s hard to predict how social media will evolve. In September last year, Twitter’s long-standing 140 character limit was increased to 280. While having twice as many characters at your disposal may sound like it widens possibilities, this could also be something of a drawback for twitterfiction writers.

The restrictive character limit was a signature for Twitter. With that gone, there’s less to make it unique among the myriad other social medias out there and if it’s not unique, there’s nothing to experiment with.

What does this mean for horror on Twitter? Well, shorter stories can be fleshed out more but in many cases adding more to a story doesn’t necessarily make it better, and it’s possible that tension will be diluted overt padding. Suspense will likely be lost as there will be fewer “gaps” between instalments. They’ll read just like any other short horror story.

shelley_cover.jpgStill, it’s not all doom and gloom for online horror fiction. An AI named Shelley (after Frankenstein author Mary Shelley) launched on Twitter only a couple of months ago on Halloween. Designed by the same team that brought you the Nightmare Machine, Shelley’s goal is to write horror stories in partnership with users.

Every hour, Shelley tweets out the beginning of a horror story. She relies on responses to keep writing, so you can @ her with what you think would make a good continuation of the story. If you want her to finish where you left off you finish your tweet with #yourturn. Then you can leave as is, having a spooky little flash fiction, or keep responding up to three threaded tweets to keep the story going.

As an AI, Shelley learns by doing, and the more you interact with her, the better her stories become. The team originally programmed Shelley using 140,000 horror stories from r/nosleep, the sub-Reddit for original horror stories, to form her base knowledge of writing stories that people would find frightening.

shelley story.pngCreators Pinar Yanardag, Manuel Cebrian and Iyad Rahwan at the MIT Media Lab explained the motivation behind Shelley:

“For centuries, across geographies, religions, and cultures, people have innovated ways of scaring each other… Creating a visceral emotion such as fear remains one of the cornerstones of human creativity… This challenge is especially important in a time when we are exploring the limits of artificial intelligence: Can machines learn to scare us?”

Shelley’s rapid development is proof they’re learning to do a pretty good job of it. Even though fear is something that we think of as organically human, not logical or explainable, it’s already being dissected and broken down into algorithms.

The machines are getting a handle on what scares us, and maybe that in itself is scary.


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