How to Board the West Philly Ghost Bus

(1)  It needs to be after dark.
(2)  You should be standing at a bus stop.
(3)  You need to be horribly, desperately lonely.
(4)  You can’t have a specific destination in mind.
(5)  You’ll see a bus with no route number on the display.
(6)  It will slow down but not stop, so you need to chase it.
(7)  You probably won’t catch it, but if you do…
(8)  The driver will let you on without asking you to pay.
(9)  You’ve made it this far. You might as well sit down.

I’ve recently found myself asking people I meet in West Philadelphia if they know any urban legends. Most of what I’ve heard are rumors about real people who have become local characters or stories about bodies being buried under public places. (Because Philadelphia is a relatively old city, the stories about buried bodies are mostly true!) A few people also told me about a ghostly SEPTA bus, which is famous enough to be mentioned a few times online.

According to the stories I’ve heard from university students and friendly strangers I’ve spoken with at local bars, the ghost SEPTA bus picks up people late at night, but only if they have nowhere to go and no one to miss them once they disappear onto the bus. 

There are actually a number of non-supernatural SEPTA buses that drive back along their routes through West Philly when they aren’t in service, and I occasionally see them pick up city maintenance workers and hospital staff late at night. What’s different about the ghost bus is what happens once you get on.

Apparently, there are three possibilities. The first is that the bus vanishes, and you’re never heard from again. The second is that you’re now trapped on the SEPTA bus along with the other desperate and unlucky souls who boarded before you. The third is that the bus travels back in time, albeit within a span limited to the history of the bus, and that you can signal the driver to stop when you’ve reached your desired destination in the past. 

The third possibility seems the most likely, as no one who has vanished or become trapped on the bus would be able to tell other people how this process works. Then again, it may be that a person who boards the mysterious SEPTA bus seems to vanish or sit in stasis from the perspective of someone who’s still in our timeline. There’s only one way to find out for sure…

Tokyo’s Underground Cathedral

The Underground Cathedral Protecting Tokyo from Floods
https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20181129-the-underground-cathedral-protecting-tokyo-from-floods

Cecilia Tortajada recalls making her way down a long staircase and into of one of Japan’s engineering marvels, an enormous water tank that crowns Tokyo’s defences against flooding. When she finally reached the tank’s ground, she stood among the dozens of 500-tonne pillars supporting the ceiling. In the cavernous, shrine-like cistern, she felt humbled.

If Japan is a pilgrimage destination for disaster and risk-management experts like her, this is one of its main temples. The floodwater cathedral hidden 22 meters underground is part of the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel (MAOUDC), a 6.3 km long system of tunnels and towering cylindrical chambers that protect North Tokyo from flooding.

I have to admit that, even though I’ve known about this for years, I assumed it was an urban legend. The way I’ve always heard people refer to this structure is Tōkyō no hashira (the Pillars of Tokyo), which sounds a little like a Legend of Zelda dungeon. It’s wild that this is real, and the photographs in the article are stunning.

Crosswalk



This comic was drawn by Frankiesbugs (@frankiesbugs on Tumblr) and written by me, Kathryn Hemmann (@kathrynthehuman on Twitter).

This actually happened to me in Philadelphia in 2012. It was super creepy, and I still think about it sometimes. Maybe this is just me, but I’m not entirely sure that Philadelphia exists in consensus reality.

A Hellscape of Unsavory Experiences

The bogus “Momo challenge” internet hoax, explained
https://www.vox.com/2019/3/3/18248783/momo-challenge-hoax-explained

A flurry of TV reports, along with both local and national news, began breathlessly advising parents on ways to “protect kids from a disturbing internet game.” Lost in any coverage, however, were any examples of the authenticated versions of the Momo challenge, including screenshots of “threatening messages” or confirmed videos promoting violence.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that a viral urban legend (and likely hoax) targeting kids would be able to sweep the globe. The internet can be a hellscape of unsavory experiences for anyone; parents face the added challenge of wrestling with how to adequately protect their kids without being overbearing. Indeed, inappropriate content often does make it past automated platform security and monitors — just look at YouTube’s persistent struggle with combating child exploitation, online bullying, or extremist conspiracies.

I taught a class called “Demonic Women in Japanese Fiction” last semester, and some of my students were obsessed with the Momo Challenge. I have vague memories of the Blue Whale Challenge from an old group conversation on WhatsApp, but I didn’t pay any attention to it then, so it was interesting to watch this urban legend spread and develop in real time this past spring. I wonder, will the Momo Challenge be a bit of internet ephemera that people will forget ever existed, or will it eventually resurface and take on a life of its own?

By the way, maybe this is just me being weird, but I think Momo is actually kind of cute.

Online Horror Fiction

In the presentation I gave about Japanese urban legends for Anime USA, I mentioned a few cursed websites that are relatively well-known in Japan. These websites are mostly digital memorials for deceased relatives (and pets) that overshoot “elegiac” and land squarely in the realm of “disturbing.” I’m sure that a scholar of Asian religions could write an interesting paper about these websites; but, for the purposes of my presentation, the most important thing was to maintain a sense of respect for the family members who created them. While I was putting together my PowerPoint slideshow, I started wondering if there are any cursed websites in American internet lore that might serve as a basis of comparison. Indeed there are, but the actual “cursed websites” I ended up visiting were somewhat underwhelming. What I did find, however, was some fantastic online horror fiction.

For the uninitiated, urban legends that spread online are called “creepypasta” after the “copypasta” text that used to be cut and pasted from a website onto a forum and then into an email and then into another email (and so on) back in the days of AOL and GeoCities. Like urban legends, creepypasta is generally presented as true. Most stories are ostensibly something that happened to the people who originally wrote them, who are presumably “a friend of a friend” of the people who then copy and paste and thereby spread the story. There’s an entire Creepypasta Wiki devoted to these types of stories, but they can also be found elsewhere, including the NoSleep subreddit and Jezebel’s annual scary story contest (here’s one of my favorites, from 2014).

There are all sorts of “Best of Creepypasta” lists out there, but what I’ve collected here are stories I found during my research that were very clearly written as fiction and presented online in interesting ways, as well as a few journalistic attempts to debunk creepypasta that ended up becoming stories in and of themselves.

Annie Is Typing
http://www.storiesforyourscreen.com/annie96-is-typing/

This is a short and very creepy story written in the form of a text message conversation between a young man and his friend, who’s not entirely sure that she’s alone in her house. It’s a lot of fun to watch the story play out seemingly in real time, and the twist at the end is fantastic.

The Dionaea House
http://www.dionaea-house.com/

This is epistolary fiction written in the form of a set of emails that the recipient has posted online for the family of the sender, who has gone missing after he quit his job to investigate a random murder instigated by someone he was friends with as a teenager. He confesses that he always knew something was wrong with this friend, especially after the boy spent a few days in a strange house that his realtor parents could never keep occupied. Between the presentation of the digital found objects and the encroaching insanity of the narrator, this story is like House of Leaves, but with all of the mystery and none of the pretension.

Candle Cove
http://ichorfalls.chainsawsuit.com/

This story takes the form of a short series of posts on a Reddit-style forum about “Candle Cove,” a homebrewed children’s show broadcast on a small public access channel. The people posting share their memories of the show, which, in retrospect, was quite sinister. The twist ending is horrifying and delightful.

Mr. Bear’s Cellar
https://www.bustle.com/articles/72619-is-the-creepypasta-1999-real-heres-the-truth-about-caledon-local-21-and-mr-bears-cellar

This article, written by Lucia Peters, explains the cultural context of 1999, a famous story on the Creepypasta Wiki. This story’s premise is similar to that of “Candle Cove.” The narrator vaguely remembers that a small local public access station, Caledon Local 21, once broadcast a low-budget show called “Mr. Bear’s Cellar,” which is just as upsetting as you’d think it would be. Peters provides an excellent summary of the rambling creepypasta and argues that, although this particular story isn’t true, it’s not unreasonable to think that a similar story very well could be.

Abandoned by Disney
https://www.bustle.com/articles/88129-is-the-creepypasta-abandoned-by-disney-real-heres-the-truth-about-mowglis-palace

This is another article written by Lucia Peters (who – can I just say – is a very cool person). In this article Peters investigates the origin of another famous story on the Creepypasta Wiki, “Abandoned by Disney,” which is about a Disney resort on the coast of North Carolina that was suddenly shut down with no official explanation before it opened to the public. These haunted ruins are not real, but that doesn’t mean that Disney hasn’t actually built and then abandoned waterside resorts. What’s interesting about this article is where and how Peters manages to track down information about these derelict theme parks online. It’s also interesting that the original story has apparently been deleted, perhaps because the author was afraid of the real monster in the room, the Disney Corporation.

Sad Satan
https://kotaku.com/a-horror-game-hidden-in-the-darkest-corners-of-the-inte-1714980337

In this in-depth article, Kotaku reporter Patricia Hernandez tries to figure out whether or not a game called “Sad Satan,” which was featured on a popular Let’s Play channel on YouTube, is actually real. She and I both think that it’s mostly likely not, but her investigation takes her to some interesting places online. What I appreciate about this article is its no-nonsense explanation of what the Deep Web actually is based on details drawn from interviews with people who spend time there. I was also amused by its references to real horror games hidden in places you’d never expect, like Microsoft Excel 95.

The Princess
http://ifyouseeherturnoffthegame.blogspot.com/

This is classic creepypasta from 2011 written in the form of thirteen blog posts. On one level, it’s about the strangeness of video game glitches. On another level, it’s about how odd game-related forums used to be, with faceless and anonymous people spreading rumors, making things up, and roleplaying in ways that didn’t always make a great deal of sense. The fact that this story is posted on Blogspot, which now feels akin to a collection of lost and forgotten ruins on the internet, only heightens the eeriness, but the story is really more nostalgic than scary.

SPC-231
http://www.scp-wiki.net/scp-231

This is probably my favorite story in the shared universe of the SPC Foundation, a wiki hosting the X-Files style “records” of a paragovernmental organization given the task to “secure, contain, and protect” various dangerous and unexplainable phenomena. I learned about this subset of creepypasta through a video of someone playing SPC-87-B, a game based on the entry for SPC-87. What’s so horrifying about this story, as well as many other stories on the SPC wiki, is not the various creatures being documented, but rather the inhumanity of the bureaucratic organization that documents them. SPC-231 is especially disturbing in this regard, specifically in terms of its refusal to specify what something called “Procedure 110-Montauk” actually entails. A short story based on SPC-231, Fear Alone, offers a brilliant interpretation that makes the nastiness of the experience of reading the original case file worthwhile.