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There’s something particularly — some might say obviously — horrific about the boogeymen of the real world. Everything they do, no matter how corrupt, vile, or sadistic, occurs within a realm of possibility, and no amount of reassurance changes that. Whispering “it’s only a story” doesn’t work. Every headline seems to bring us closer to the brink of something calamitous, a disaster that could easily be avoided by a more-competent group of degenerates. We’re watching franchises that will never stop churning out sequels because it’s too lucrative for their profiteers.
Framed against Capitol Hill’s B-movie villain contingent of greedy nihilists and backhanded cretins, I’ve come to find a strange kind of solace in an online horror project known as the Secure, Contain, Protect Foundation. Originally meant as a novice writer’s playground for creating new monsters, the SCP is entertaining not only for its oddities and creatures, but also for its ordered, clinical attempts to make sense of unpredictable, dangerous, and unchecked forces outside our comprehension.
The SCP Foundation is ostensibly the archive of a secretive, apolitical organization tasked with cataloging, guarding, and, if necessary, eliminating threats beyond the scope of understanding. Members are free to submit their own creations for peer review and editing and, if they’re up to snuff, can add them to the overarching SCP canon, perhaps the largest amateur dark-fiction collection online. It’s a library of postmodernist stories, told as if holding a digital flashlight in the dark — tales rooted in primal emotions, transmitted through our most modern machines using the aseptic language of office jargon. George Saunders by way of H.P. Lovecraft; Jonathan Franzen meets Joyce Carol Oates.
An unassuming, stark archival wiki, the foundation’s thousands of entries, some including audio and video, aren’t bound to any sense of logic or sanity, but there is still something darkly comforting in watching a fictional group tackle fictional boogeymen with the stated goals of law, order, and understanding — even if they are still barreling toward almost inevitable disaster.
According to the website’s official history, the foundation came online after a lengthy gestation period on the now notorious (and then far lesser-known) message board 4chan. Internet horror fiction — “creepypasta,” in web parlance — is as varied in subject matter as it is in quality, but 4chan’s paranormal subforum, /x/, allowed visitors to hone their skills with anonymous and, therefore, often brutally honest criticism. If a story was bad, it would eventually disappear, along with its detractors’ insults, into the internet’s background static. If they were effective, well, who knew what could happen once the author hit send? Perhaps no one would read it. But maybe, with enough luck, it would gain a life of its own online, a 21st-century ghost invoked by a bored teen in their bedroom. Communities like /x/ let anyone become both the conjurer and the folklorist, creating the stories that were then passed from one storyteller to another.
Most creepypasta on /x/ followed a standard storytelling framework — setup, suspense build, twist jump scare, ending — but SCP-173, aka “The Statue,” took a more creative approach. Instead of a standard prose tale, the anonymous author crafted 173 like a bureaucratic report, one with a highly detached tone, full of unexplained jargon. SCP-173 wasn’t another demonic doll or haunted piece of jewelry, it was a “Class 4 hazardous object,” designated with “Object Class: Euclid” status, housed somewhere called Site-19. The blanks in the story were just as ominous as the creature itself, which was a being that stands still at all times if constantly kept under direct eye contact, moving in for the kill the moment it isn’t seen. (Doctor Who fans might note a certain similarity to a popular episode, but the SCP Foundation notes that they published 173 a few months before the “The Weeping Angels” aired on BBC.)
“The Statue” inspired a group of contributors to create their own entries and anomalies, and their writings soon spun off into massive message board threads that many realized could be the start of something larger. Finally, thanks to a few dedicated authors, a wholly separate foundation website went live on January 19, 2008.
There’s no monetary gain to writing for SCP, no widespread recognition or acclaim. Its authors are a group of people who concoct oddities for the sheer enjoyment of their creation. Said creations range from the horrific (SCP-439, an earwig that ossifies victims’ bones, turning them into a living hive) to the absurd (SCP-504, tomatoes that launch themselves at great speed toward tellers of bad jokes) to the absurd and horrific (SCP-1545, a two-person costume of a llama wearing galoshes that convinces its wearers to stay in character as “Larry the Loving Llama” until they starve to death).
“Autopsy indicated that the rearward operator had died 1 day earlier, and had severe bruising on her body from being dragged throughout the household by the frontal partner,” reports Larry’s case log.
In addition to these individual files, the foundation includes pages upon pages of information about the organization itself. There are dozens of groups known as Mobile Task Forces, each varying in number, size, personal insignia, and purpose, who aid the SCP in capturing monsters and protecting its archives. There are primers on security clearance levels, important individual personnel dossiers, and various classified site locations housing all manner of unexplainable entities. There’s even a nifty shortcut to remember each of the foundation’s object class designations:
The Locked Box Test is an informal guideline used to determine an object’s most appropriate Object Class. It goes like this:
- If you lock it in a box, leave it alone, and nothing bad will happen, then it’s probably Safe.
- If you lock it in a box, leave it alone, and you’re not entirely sure what will happen, then it’s probably Euclid.
- If you lock it in a box, leave it alone, and it easily escapes, then it’s probably Keter.
- If it is the box, then it’s probably Thaumiel.
The best ideas tend to go viral on sites like 4chan and Reddit, eventually drawing similar creative minds to SCP like moths to the digital flame. While the site originated with only a few dozen regulars on the fringes of the internet, 2017 brought it more than 12 million unique visitors. This past January alone saw nearly 1.3 million visitors. The website has offshoots in South Korea, Germany, France, and China, among other nations.
As the site grows, products like Snapchat, Instagram, and the late, great Vine are drastically shortening story lengths, trimming social narratives down to frantic clips of 30 seconds or less. Online horror isn’t immune to this quickening creation and consumption of online content. The past decade saw a revival of the horror short-film anthology format in theaters, and because of the lack of copyright laws, channels like SyFy are drawing directly from internet creepypasta for their own television series. Slenderman, one of the original and most famous lo-fi horrors of the web, inspired video games, short stories, and an upcoming feature-length film — not to mention an attempted murder. In an era when the president’s fireside chats are now bedside tweets, the SCP Foundation is a perfect means of serving up bite-size terrors.
It’s difficult not to read through SCP’s pages without thinking of their political parallels. Every day brings more headlines from the nightmarish, labyrinthine halls of the Capitol, each one additional evidence that those in charge don’t appear to possess a fraction of SCP’s tenuous organizational competence. As the foundation and its offshoots continue creating creatures that bump in the night, our real-world monsters can’t be redacted or edited by a team of dedicated moderators. Their consequences are painfully, glaringly real; some would be considered “world enders” in the most literal sense.
Satire centered on the Trump administration seems to fall flat for a very basic, sad reason: This administration is its own satire. There’s simply no need to mimic its incompetence. Mockery stands no chance against the unprecedented levels of self-destruction, inanity, and callowness exhibited by the ghouls roaming the West Wing. Dr. Strangelove and General Turgidson seem quaint compared to the deranged figures sitting in today’s Situation Room.
With conventional parody providing little relief from reality these days, I still manage some escapism while getting lost in the SCP’s fictional bureaucracy. The officials of SCP exhaustively document attempts to control the chaotic, all the while seemingly oblivious to their project’s ultimate futility. The unspoken sentiment in all SCP Foundation reports is that, eventually, it will all backfire hideously. As such, their blind, orderly, hyperbureaucratic approach in itself is absurd. The foundation becomes an ouroboros — a dragon eating its own tail — making increasingly difficult to differentiate the foundation’s cold, calculated bureaucratic horror from the monsters its bureaucracy purports to rein in. It’s a codependent, symbiotic relationship — horror’s own mutually assured destruction.
This might be why I find myself consistently returning to the SCP Foundation’s archives. It allows me to enjoy the dangerously ludicrous free from consequence. I might not understand the things that roam the halls, but I enjoy them. And increasingly, I also find myself enjoying the absurd contradictions of the halls themselves, at least before the building collapses in on itself.