Sometime in the 1940s, the Russians brought five political prisoners to a military-run facility, where they were put in a chamber being pumped with an experimental gas, to keep them awake for 30 days. They were provided with cots – but with no bedding, food, and water.
The prisoners would be observed through microphones installed in the chamber and a glass window. This was in the pre-CCTV camera days.
Problems started surfacing from the fifth day when test subjects refused food. One of them started screaming on the ninth day. The others blocked the glass window with papers. Then the chamber turned very quiet with only whispers.
When the chamber was opened on the 15th day to understand what was going on and special forces personnel were sent in to restrain the subjects, it was seen the subjects had turned into zombie-like creatures – they were eating their own flesh and had their skins and several organs missing. One subject was dead. The struggle that followed caused the deaths of another subject and of six hardened soldiers.
The experiment ended when the military commander ordered three scientists to be locked inside the chamber with the last two remaining subjects. The scientists refused but the commander stood by his order. One of the scientists mutinied and shot dead the commander on the spot before shooting dead the remaining zombie-like test subjects.
Unlike several other stories from the Soviet Union, that trickled to the outside world over the Cold War years or in years after its fall, this gruesome story from the 1940s only became public in 2010 when it surfaced on the internet. It clicked with readers who sent it to friends and shared it on every internet platform they knew.
The delay of more than six decades in the story becoming public was not because it was top-secret, but because it never happened. The “Russian sleep experiment” is among the earliest and most successful stories from what's known as “Creepypasta” – a genre of highly believable, viral horror stories on the internet.
What is the Creepypasta genre?
Creepypasta refers to the horror story genre on the internet with highly believable, viral, internet-originated stories – the Russian sleep experiment is just one of the many well-known stories.
The name Creepypasta is believed to have come from "copy-pasta", which itself came from the "copy-paste" nature of these stories, as these stories were copy-pasted across several places around the same time because of their virality.
These stories are often told from a realistic, first-person point of view, which makes them more believable. While some of the earlier stories were text-only, several stories carry photographs and even videos, which are often edited.
What makes creepypasta popular how has the genre evolved?
The unexplained phenomenon, supernatural themes, and deaths are common elements of these stories, which help them linger more in people's minds.
From their humble beginning as viral stories and photographs in free circulation, these stories have now evolved into an organised genre where authors are now known persons rather than unknown as was the case in the beginning. Novels and films have also emerged from the genre, such as Dathan Auerbach’s PenPal series and Felix Blackwell’s Stolen Tongues, both of which were first shared on Reddit.
There have been unintended consequences as well, such as the stabbing in the United States where two 12-year-old girls stabbed another girl in the belief of protecting their families from “Slender Man” – a character in a creepypasta published in 2009. The character is a very slim and tall man figure that haunts parks, forests, playgrounds or abandoned buildings.
What are some popular creepypastas?
Other than the Russian sleep experiment and Slender Man, two of the most well-known creepypasta stories that many find hard to disbelieve are:
• Mickey Mouse lost footage is a popular story. In this video, Mickey Mouse is seen walking with eerie background music. A minute or so in the video, the screen goes black and when it returns, there is screaming in the background and more voices join and it continues to get grotesque every moment. Mickey’s face also gets disfigured towards the end.
The accompanying story is this – Film critic Leonard Martin found this clip while going through an old collection, but he got so upset watching this particular video that he left and asked an assistant to watch it and take notes. The guard that night said the assistant stumbled out of the room after completing the footage, spoke the phrase “real suffering is not known” seven times and snatched his gun and shot himself.
This really creepy story is of course just a story. There is an entire sub-genre of “lost episode” creepypasta out there.
• Polybius video game has been said to have been used in USA’s Portland in 1981. There are many stories about it. Some say it was a tool of the US government to test mental and physical strength to recruit soldiers. Others say it was a prototype for CIA brainwashing activities. There are also accounts of it causing seizures and brain aneurysms.
Just like the Russian sleep experiment, this story from the 1980s only surfaced in 1998. It was not because it was a state secret but because it was just a story.
But there is no dearth of believers, perhaps because the idea of government spying on people through video games is so appealing – perhaps more so in the age of Pegasus.