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Meet the TikTok Creators Taking the Mini-Horror Movie to New Levels

9 minute read

There’s a good reason short-form horror movies are taking center stage for some TikTok creators recently.

For people staying home right now, movies and TV shows — maybe more than ever before — are becoming an escape from reality. And on digital platforms like TikTok and Instagram, in addition to choreographing viral dance videos, some users are taking what they’ve learned from the entertainment world and creating mini-movies of their own.

From comedies to musicals, these videos run the genre gamut. There’s even a thriving corner of the TikTok community that has taken to creating short-form horror flicks — including ones that are themed for this unique moment in time. And while it may seem strange for horror fans to want to experience the thrill of a good scare in the midst of a crisis that could be considered a real-life nightmare, with millions of viewers tuning in, it’s clear some of these spooky shorts are resonating with people.

Take the debut post of Riley Bona, a 20-year-old Princeton University student who made his grand entrance on TikTok’s horror scene with an April 11 video that has racked up over 2.3 million views on TikTok and 6 million on Twitter, for example. Like many cooking videos om the platform, the minute-long video opens with Bona going through the motions of baking a strawberry pie to the tune of the main theme from Pixar’s Ratatouille, a sequence that lulls viewers into a false sense of security. But then it takes a sinister psychological turn involving a menacing music switch-up and anxiety-inducing cuts between shots of excessive handwashing, pecking chickens, a whistling tea kettle and more.

For his part, Bona tells TIME that he never thought the video would be as popular as it is. “I didn’t expect it to resonate so much with people because, for me, it was kind of a comedy,” he says. “There are so many people, including myself, making these videos about how well we’re doing in quarantine. I thought it would be funny to put a twist on that and make it a more accurate depiction of how we’re all feeling right now.”

Despite his comedic intentions, the video was shared to Twitter with the caption, “TikTok owns horror now I’m sorry I don’t make the rules,” and quickly began garnering comments like, “This made me so anxious omg,” and, “I’m having a panic attack trying to watch lol.”

Bona, who says he’s a fan of scary shows like campy anthology series American Horror Story and Netflix’s spine-chiling The Haunting of Hill House adaptation as well as movies like The Babadook, credits his video’s fright factor to its unexpected twist. Around the 30-second mark, his serene baking how-to transforms into an unsettling dramatization of what may happen to the human mind in isolation.

“I think it’s all about nuance,” he says. “You have to convey the feeling of anxiety or fear without having the resources to do a really scary costume or horrifying plot line. All you have is a minute and your iPhone, so you have to perfect the pacing and music and whatever else to convey that creepiness.”

The success of the video seems to stem from the way Bona plays off many people’s shared fears amid the current health and social climate. “It’s hyper-contemporary because it plays on everyone being at home and the amount of baking that many people are doing,” says Kinitra D. Brooks, a literary studies professor at Michigan State University who specializes in horror. “He lulls you into thinking it’s just a cooking video. Then suddenly there’s this increasingly foreboding sound and these quick cuts between shots that prey on our fears. Even though he’s showing us simple shots of a rabbit or a cat, they become ominous and scary.”

Of course, short-form horror certainly isn’t a new trend, with Victorian-era penny dreadfuls stories — cheap, sensational and often lurid fiction — enjoying great popularity over a century ago. Brooks says that TikTok has allowed the tradition to continue to evolve. “It’s not a new idea to put horror in short form. Penny dreadfuls were serial, but really short and to the point,” she says. “TikTok is a newer medium, but its short-form horror is part of a long, established tradition.”

Although there are definitely challenges that go along with spooking people in a tight timeframe, Brooks says that horror stories can sometimes be even more effective when presented in short form — just think of the chilling tales of Edgar Allen Poe, the nightmarish Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark anthology or the Reddit-inspired TV series Two Sentence Horror Stories. “Horror doesn’t have to be a long-drawn-out narrative, and a lot of the time, it works best when it’s not,” she says.

Having created a flourishing horror TikTok that gives off some major Blair Witch Project and The Others vibes, Charles Robitaille, a 22-year-old TikTokker from Tampa, Fla., also believes that a good twist can make all the difference when it comes to ensuring your post stands out from the crowd. “You have to keep people engaged throughout the whole video, but that twist at the end can be the difference between a good video and a viral video,” he says.

Robitaille has successfully tested the horror TikTok waters with a video that imagines the haunting aftermath of a tragic pool accident involving his little sister. He says he came up with the idea after watching other TikToks that used the same creepy staticky wind sound, Eric Keith’s “ceo of deep moments.”

When a sound becomes popular on TikTok, users often end up riffing off and building on each other’s ideas to incorporate it into their own videos. “That’s how it really starts,” Robitaille explains. “You find a sound, you find some ideas that are similar to yours, and then you put a spin on it to make it your own and make it original to you.”

In addition to devising a spine-tingling opening sequence that immediately gives viewers the feeling that something’s off, Brooks notes that the way Robitaille uses text to convey some of the story’s drama makes the video very compelling. “He makes you read, but not too much. The sentences are short. He gets right to the point,” she says. “With horror, your viewer has to do some of the work, but you want to very much control the amount of work that they do.”

Robitaille says the most difficult part of nailing the video was getting his little sister, who played herself, to cooperate throughout the hour-long filming process. Actors, right?

“She was excited to be a part of it but didn’t realize it was going to take that much time,” he says. “We had to do a lot of takes because she would move a certain way and I’d be like, ‘Don’t do that. Do this.’ She had to be patient with me, but I appreciated it.”

On TikTok, users have a maximum of 60 seconds per video to tell a story. So when it comes to horror, Brooks says it can be helpful for narratives to be rooted in the realities of everyday life. “When you’re doing things in as short an amount of time as TikTok forces you to, you’re usually most successful with horror when you’re playing with the everyday,” she says. “You have to drop your viewer into something that they’re instantly familiar with.”

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TikTokker and adventure videographer Shane Brown, on the other hand, faces a different set of challenges when making his horror videos: the unpredictability of the ocean. Brown, who specializes in videos that play off people’s fear of the deep sea — a.k.a. thalassophobia — that he films in the waters off Hawaii, has garnered nearly 30 million TikTok views with his four-part “Sinking” series.

Although the ocean and the creatures that inhabit it may be some people’s greatest fear — as evidenced by popular horror movies like Jaws, The Abyss and Deep Blue Sea — Brown says that he never gets caught up in that terror while filming. “I’m in the water every single day, sometimes twice a day,” he explains. “I always have a healthy respect for the ocean, but never fear.”

So when it comes to brainstorming ideas for ocean videos that might frighten people, Brown says he thinks back to how he felt as a child when a piece of seaweed would touch his foot while swimming. “With horror, one of the scariest things is not seeing the thing that you’re afraid of. The ocean contains so much mystery to so many people. They don’t know what’s out there, so that mystery is really scary,” he says. “The most scared I’ve ever been in the ocean was when a piece of seaweed would touch my foot as a kid. It’s the stupidest thing to be afraid of, but I would freak out. I just think about that feeling to imagine what other people are experiencing while they’re in the ocean.”

Brooks says this dread of the unseen could also be viewed as responsible for some of the anxiety surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. “The horror isn’t a person,” she says. “The horror is a virus so we can’t see it, and it’s passed by having contact with other people.”

As for why some people are seeking a scare right now, Brooks says that it’s perfectly normal to turn to horror in times of trouble or uncertainty. “Horror is all about dealing with our own anxieties. It plays on our cultural fears,” she tells TIME. “When done well, it gives us a psychological pressure release that can offer us the feeling of being more in control.”

Bona says he thinks that’s why visualizations of horror on TikTok can be comforting right now. “My video wasn’t intended to bring people to reality at all; it was actually intended to remind people that we’re [all in this together],” he says. “It’s articulating the anxieties the viewer wants to escape, and that can be a cathartic experience.”

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Write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com