By Noah Lueker
It goes without saying that the film industry is one of the hardest to break into, but that preconception is fading fast with the boom of digital filmmaking and the internet making the craft accessible to pretty much anyone.
Nowhere are the advantages of internet short form storytelling more visible than in the horror genre. With an endless library of ideas, unique ways of engaging with an audience, and a near limitless means of presentation, the genre’s practically begging for up and coming creators to try their hand at exploring “the unknown.”
Below are just a few examples of films that really pushed the genre to its limits.
9. “2 AM: The Smiling Man” Directed by Michael Evans
While not the most ambitious of the films on this list, 2AM has its roots in a popular internet creepypasta by the same name. The film plays on the audience’s fears of the mundane— a walk along a lonely street, playing with idea of encountering a stranger at night.
The most classic technique the film implements is the Rule of 3’s to building tension: 1. Introduce something scary, 2. Do it again, but scarier, 3. Do it again, but slightly different (opt: scare the living bejeezus out of your audience). On top of that, its synth score, simple camera setups and blocking, truly prove how effective an idea can be, no matter how simple the execution.
8. “Salad Fingers” Directed by David Firth
Next on the list is if not the first, than the most influential horror short: Salad Fingers. This 10-part series, spanning over the course of 9 years tells the story of a green mutant creature (appropriately named Salad Fingers) and his daily life. It features his unhealthy love for rusty spoons, as well as his expansive finger puppet collection.
The two most revolutionary freedoms this series is granted are its ability to tap into the uncanny valley, and an early use of the internet to help conjure speculation on the series’ symbolism.
7. “Girl Goes Psycho During Makeup Tutorial” Directed by ‘the15experience’
One of the most unique liberties of internet short-form storytelling is its unlimited opportunities of presentation. Specifically, it can trick the audience into believing it is real laptop footage, dash-cam shots, etc.
Despite the fact that recent films such as Searching and Unfriended have used similar tactics, videos like Girl Goes Psycho allow for a very streamlined expression of a single idea. Gone are the days where the tag “Based on a true story” was the most intriguing way to sell a horror film. This film— which is actually a creative teaser for a larger project by the anonymous channel ‘the15experience”— oozes with authenticity and mystery. It’s short, sweet, to the point, and more than likely to leave an impact on its viewers.
6. “Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man with the Plan” Directed by Mike Flanagan
Remember 2013’s Oculus? Looking back, it is highly regarded as one of the earliest entries in what I’ve grown to call the “Horror Renaissance.” The “Horror Renaissance” is a time in roughly the past 10 years where horror films stripped away the jump scares, hokey music, and slasher and demon archetypes to produce grounded, often metaphorical tales of loss, grief, addiction and the like (as explored in The Babadook, It Follows, The Witch, It Comes at Night, and most recently Hereditary).
Well, this 30-minute short film was essentially Flanagan’s pitch to make the feature, illustrating how powerful the internet horror culture can be. All the elements listed above can be seen in this eerily toned down, ominous film, that’s better experienced than explained.
5. “Petscop” Directed by ‘Paul’
In this internet series, disguised as a “Let’s Play” of a fictional video game, YouTuber ‘Paul,’ takes his viewers on a journey of discovery as he delves deep into this apparent Pokemon ripoff. The meticulously designed fake game incorporates several tropes of the blossoming ‘technological horror” genre, including glitched textures, music playing in reverse, and a seemingly living presence inside the game.
The series’ fan base has grown exponentially over the course of its 15 entries, spawning on-and-offline engagement in the form of theories involving a real life murder, as well as an in-game hunt for the game’s true creator. Much of the discussion bleeds with authenticity, as even the original creator of the ongoing series has chosen to keep his real identity anonymous, as he continues to push out new content to this day. Go check it out, and make a guess for yourself as to what’s actually going on, and what might still be in store.
4. “Lights Out” Directed by David Sandberg
How do you know this film deserves to be this high on the list? Maybe because it got a feature film adaptation in 2016 of the same name. Like 2AM, Sandberg demonstrates a near perfect execution of a simple concept, in most of the same aspects: atmosphere, score, mundanity, and its harsh lighting.
What Lights Out excels in, though, is its masterful pacing. Because of the domestic setting, there’s an added sense familiarity, helping audiences put themselves in the character’s shoes, and all the hesitation and uncertainty that entails. However, the most important thing that this film gets right is its ability to add horror to an ordinary scenario. Needless to say, this film will leave you shaking in your bed, with all of your lights on for hours after you see it.
3. “Marble Hornets” Directed by Joseph DeLage and Troy Wagner
At Number 3 stands the quintessential example of long-form, augmented reality storytelling in the internet age: Marble Hornets. What on the surface seems like a stretched out, found-footage film, when more heavily researched, reveals one of the most prolific examples of augmented reality storytelling.
Besides the main channel videos featuring over 90 entries, viewers during the time of upload could access more content from a second channel named ToTheArk, as well as a separate Twitter feed from a character in the series. Each source sprinkled in puzzles that the others were then tasked with solving, as well as revealing more and more clues to those puzzles as time went on. It’s a neat series to look back on, seeing how some of the creative choices made influenced other creators in the genre, as well as how they shaped their own story going forward.
2. “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” Directed by Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling
Back in middle school, there was only one DHMIS. It was the video to show to all of your friends between classes just to ruin their day. At first glance, it seems like nothing more than a low-budget Sesame Street knockoff, with the characters singing about creativity and whatnot. However, it quickly divulges into an almost lovecraftian nightmare, with horrifying imagery and some of the most unsettling music you’ve ever heard.
Back then, there was no rhyme or reason, no method to the madness. However, to date there are 6 DHMIS videos in total, and the larger narrative, one of corporate greed and creative freedom, has fully developed. It’s a prime example of having your cake and eating it too— scaring your audience half to death, while also having something to say along with it. It’s an instant classic that deserves all the analysis it garnered.
1. “You Are On the Fastest Available Route” Directed by Kris Straub
Imagine driving down a dirt road in the middle of the night, and you swear you keep seeing your headlights reflect off of something just beyond the tree-line. Now imagine you can’t turn back. Without spoiling anything (seriously, stop reading and just watch it!), Straub’s short film employs some of the best techniques the medium allows— from the dangers of technology that pervade every episode of Black Mirror, to the unique presentation and feeling of inevitability that the film subtly ties in from the beginning. It’s only a few minutes long, but the it leaves you with feeling that will linger for days.