DARK WEB: STEVEN HICKEY’S NEW GUIDE TO CREEPYPASTA – PART 5: DIONAEA HOUSE
Everybody loves a good spooky house story.
It’s a staple of horror fiction, almost as old as the genre itself, and for that reason it becomes a trope that is hard to ignore. From classic tales such as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw to modern marvels such as Mark Z Danielewski’s critically acclaimed House of Leaves, the subversive quality of shifting a house from shelter to threat is one that strikes dread into us all. We all fear the unfamiliar, strange places and things, but worst yet, we fear that which takes the things we know and turns them into a source of terror rather than familiar comfort.
This week Dark Web examines one of the finest Creepypastas to utilise the ‘monster house’ device, if not one of the very finest examples of epistolary horror writing (that which is told via correspondence between characters rather than traditional prose) to ever grace the web – and it’s one penned by a successful Hollywood screenwriter to boot!
That story is The Dionaea House.
A cleverly written puzzle box of a horror story, the first part of Dionaea House was presented as a site detailing a series of messages between some old school friends that have since experienced a dreadful tragedy.
Correspondence From Mark Condry unfolded between September and October in 2004. You can find the first part here: http://www.dionaea-house.com
The story consists of a number of emails exchanged between the author, Eric Heisserer and the titular Mark Condry. The pair reminisce about an old school friend, Drew, and discuss his shocking recent violent psychotic break.
As they talk about their former friend, it becomes apparent that the turning point in Drew’s behaviour came when he was asked to watch a strange house as a boy. It seems that after staying in the house, despite his reservations, he emerged a different person.
Still reeling over Drew’s actions, Mark intends to investigate, heading back to Houston, Texas, to check out the house.
His investigation (as reported to Eric via email exchanges) then leads him to Boise, Idaho, where he makes a shocking discovery – the exact same house, identical in every way, is also in Boise, despite the fact that the two cities are nearly 600 miles apart.
And the house is calling to him…
The first part of Dionaea House could – and absolutely does – work on its own as a cleverly plotted (and extremely well written) self-contained horror story.
Sure there are some loose ends, some unresolved mysteries, but those only enhance the spookiness of the tale.
Real life doesn’t always give us all the answer wrapped up with a neat little bow, and the unknown, the things that remain beyond our understanding, is always the thing that scares us most. Dionaea House was so well written that soon readers were debating whether the story was actually true – which only enhanced its reputation.
What we do learn is that the house is sentient, predatory and boasts a number of hungry mouths that lead to a single digestive dimension in which victims are consumed alive, much like a Venus Flytrap or Dionaea Muscipula to give the plant its scientific name.
The two characters have distinctly different voices, a key element in making an epistolary story work, and their dialogue has a natural flow which really sucks the reader in. Heisserer is patient in telling his story, never tipping his hand too early, slowly letting the insidious nature of the house reveal itself. By the time Mark ventures within those malevolent walls Heisserer has well and truly ensnared us, making the horrors that subsequently occur all the more terrifying.
Unsurprisingly, the story was a hit, gathering a cult following online – and this cult following soon discovered a seemingly unrelated blog, Adventures In Babysitting, penned by a 16-year-old girl, Danielle, in October 2004. You can read it here: https://ohdanigirl.livejournal.com/264.html
In the blog, Danielle writes about her experiences caring for an eight-year-old girl, Linney, for her decidedly odd parents, the Ellisons.
As the teen’s blog continues, amid the inconsequential minutiae of her life, she also pens a number of clues that suggest Linney resides in a very familiar abode…
As before, perhaps the biggest strength of Adventures In Babysitting is that Heisserer (of course it’s him really) manages to find a distinct and authentic-sounding voice for his protagonist. Danielle’s blog reads very much like any number of online journals you might stumble across, which heightens believability, which emerges the reader in the story even more. Sure fiction is creepy, but could this actually be real? And if so, could it happen to you?
A shorter story than the first ‘arc’ of Dionaea House, it manages to fill in a lot of the blanks even with its brevity.
It cleverly fills us in on the inner-workings of the house as Danielle experiences the predatory abode firsthand. We are shown the methods it uses to ensnare its victims, the bizarre honeypot like ‘second floor’ with its sweet scent, the binding strings with which it entangles prey, and perhaps most frightening of all the mindless drones it releases into the world to capture those it desires.
It’s a cleverly told story because it gives readers information that fleshes out what we already know, all coming from a naive narrator who knows less than us. And that information is dynamite, explaining a great deal – but not as much as the third strand of the story.
The eerie tale of the Dionaea House continues in Eric’s personal blog, A Quiet Space (http://dionaeahouse.blogspot.co.uk), in which he shares information on the further developments since Mark’s disappearance, hypotheses about the house and, more disturbingly, a sinister homeless man who seems to be stalking Eric since he went public about the house.
Another short arc, this branch of the story further examines the house’s diabolical ‘Flesh Puppets’, the brainwashed slaves it utilises to exert its will upon the world.
It culminates in Eric and his buddy Cam discovering an identical house after following the homeless man – then making the foolhardy decision to venture within.
It’s another great chapter in a fascinatingly frightening story, using Heisserer’s considerable writing talent to depict the mental and emotional strain that the house can exert on those unfortunate enough to encounter it, and even manages to bring back the ‘multiple-voices’ technique used in the first chapter of the story by way of comments on each blog post, most notably those by Jen, Mark’s former girlfriend who is struggling to cope with her lover’s disappearance.
As fascinating as this latest chapter is, and as engaging a storyteller as Heisserer is when he’s allowed to write as ‘himself’, it is the fourth arc of the Dionaea House – the story told by one ‘Loreen Mathers’ starting in August 2005 (http://loreenmathers.livejournal.com) – that really sheds light on the nature of the house and its diabolical envoys.
If the protagonists up until this point were woefully unprepared for their encounter with the house, Loreen is not. In fact, she is somebody who has encountered the place before – and she didn’t just live to tell the tale, she killed one of its Flesh Puppets along the way.
A survivor who lives off the grid after her release from a mental institution, Loreen is now breaking her silence to add her voice to the growing forces out to stop the house – and to warn us all exactly what it is capable of.
Another strong entry in the saga, Loreen stands out from the other protagonists because she is, quite simply, a bad-ass. This is a woman who when the house started to screw with her, took an axe to the ceiling and caused it to bleed. Yes, you read that right, she made a ceiling bleed.
When the house sends Flesh Puppets to take her down, Loreen strikes first – and it does not end well for the Flesh Puppet.
What I particularly like about the Loreen Mathers chapter of the story, is that it is the one with the most distinct voice. Loreen’s hard as nails personality is always evident in her brusque, no-nonsense tone and she presents the information she has gained (such as that on the genesis and classification of House prey/Flesh Puppet) in a similarly matter-of-fact manner. She isn’t telling a story, she’s teaching her readers how to survive.
The only real negative I can take from this fourth arc was the manner in which it ends so abruptly, feeling almost as if it were truncated by outside influences.
This may well have been the case, as it was reported at the time that Heisserer’ story had caught the eyes of movers and shakers in Hollywood, with news breaking that Warner Bros had optioned the story of The Dionaea House for a motion picture adaptation (https://web.archive.org/web/20051226164715/http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr/film/brief_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1000913874).
Sadly, this eventually fell through, but it served to help Eric Heisserer gain considerable attention in Tinsel Town. Since then Eric has worked on major genre movies, including the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street, the fifth film in the Final Destination franchise, the prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing and the movie adaptation of critically acclaimed horror short, Lights Out.
Yet as busy as the very successful Eric Heisserer may have become, he never forgot his roots as a writer of web fiction, and how the Dionaea House was so warmly received by connoisseurs of the art form.
And in September 2006 he rewarded some of the most appreciative and discerning of those – the readers of Reddit’s NoSleep sub.
For those of you unfamiliar with NoSleep, it is a rich and fertile source of some of the very finest horror stories on the internet.
The rules of the community are simple – everybody must treat each story as if it is true, whether you believe that to be the case or not. It’s a nice touch, ensuring that the stories feel that little bit creepier as you read the multiple comments addressing the horrors of the story with a suitably realistic level of dread, sympathy and despair. It enhances the suspension of disbelief – although in some cases very little assistance is required.
Eric Heisserer’s post, Information I’m dumping here for safekeeping (https://www.reddit.com/r/nosleep/comments/2hi7e6/information_im_dumping_here_for_safekeeping/), written as himself and including multiple true details about the more recent events of his life was one such post.
In it, Heisserer describes how his reputation as the ‘horror guy’ has caused a number of individuals to share their own true creepy stories with him. One of these, however, had struck a nerve.
Heisserer details the story of Kevin, a friend-of-a-friend whose sister, Gwen, had recently vanished. Gwen’s disappearance came after that of her young son, Dash, who was seemingly abducted from his bedroom one night, a crime that left no clues.
As Heisserer and Kevin investigate, often at loggerheads with Gwen’s estranged husband Robert, who has become a person of interest in the case, Heisserer shares some unsettling evidence they uncover. He includes photographs and scans of an old journal, which seem to tell a familiar story of a house that is more than it appears. A house with eerie cold spots and impossible geography of doors that lead to places that shouldn’t be there…
It’s a great story (and for those wondering, no, it’s not true, it’s just brilliantly told) and it manages to both enhance Heisserer’s infamous prior creation, yet stands on its own two feet as a superb horror tale in its own right.
The addition of cleverly created images presented as evidence really elevates the already fantastic material, it introduces some brilliantly creepy new mysteries (‘Long Fingers’ anyone?) and, perhaps best of all, suggests there is still plenty more mileage in the story – provided, of course, that Heisserer is able to pry himself away from his Hollywood day job to pen them.
Eric Heisserer was kind enough to do precisely that when he agreed to give me a short interview about his chilling, classic Creepypasta creation, which you can read below.
STEVEN HICKEY: Hi Eric, Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.
Ok first, can you tell us a little bit about Dionaea House in your own words? What was your inspiration for the story?
ERIC HEISSERER: Dionaea House started when I moved to LA from Houston, and was struggling hard to make a career as a writer. I’d started to turn into a hermit, rarely leaving my apartment, so to break out of that cycle I went to a party a friend (in the vague sense of the word) was holding in Burbank. On my way there, I got lost and drove past a house that looked exactly like one I used to drive past on my commute in Houston. Down to the roof damage. Unsettling, but I didn’t know what to make of it. A week later, I was up late in a bout of insomnia and caught a late-night program on the Discovery Channel about carnivorous plants. The Venus Fly-trap, known as Dionaea Muscipala, was different than I’d imagined it. It’s these dozens of identical “mouths” from the same base plant, about as big as my computer desk. The narrator said something like, “Disguised as shelter for insects…” and I thought, Oh no, what if WE are the insects? What if there are dozens of identical houses around the country, and people go in, but either they never come out, or they run screaming in terror and drive off, or they come out CHANGED like they’re not what they were, and they hunt down and kill the ones who drove off? That was the basic DNA of the story.
SH: You utilise a very clever and very convincing epistolary format for the stories. Why did you decide on this? And what challenges did it pose?
EH: I didn’t have an audience or access to publishers, but I had learned some basic web design while I was in Houston, so I chose to write it as an online narrative. I think the fact that it was to be presented online led to me embracing the idea of it as an epistolary story via email. But midway through, I realized I wanted more characters, and I should embrace more corners of the Internet, so I began to populate other sites. I developed an Excel spreadsheet that tracked the typing habits of my characters, and ways to differentiate them. One overused ellipses. One had trouble with possessives. Another tended to be inconsistent with capitalization. That sort of thing. This helped me keep their voices different in my head when I wrote them. I ran into trouble just with the format of some sites. LiveJournal always posts the most recent entry first, so you have a story told in reverse-chronological order. And readers who know this know to scroll and start from the bottom, but those who don’t end up having the climax of the story spoiled for them at the start of their read. It was difficult to control where the reader went, with my limited knowledge of the various sites/apps.
SH: Your story is one of the most popular web horror tales of all time. Why do you think this is?
EH: I had no idea it’s one of the popular web horror tales! Is this true? I’m glad it still finds its audience.
SH: You write for a living, yet you still published your latest chapter of Dionaea House to nosleep. Do you enjoy the process of writing? Is there something about the Nosleep community that draws you back?
EH: Yes, I published a story for nosleep because I’m a fan of the work that’s done there and writing for a medium outside of screenwriting is a good way to work new muscles. I do enjoy the process, it’s a discovery, and when it works, I feel like the story ends up transcending the vehicle for which it’s written. At times I can mistake an old /nosleep story for a real memory because reading it gave me such an authentic experience.
SH: Are you a fan of flash web horror fiction? Or creepypastas? If so, which are your favourites?
EH: I’m in awe of what some writers can do with flash horror fiction. The way they can establish dread so quickly, and get me to connect with the character(s) in the situation immediately — that’s a talent. I try to keep up with this but it’s hard to find great horror microfiction.
SH: How does it feel to know your story was so well written there are people out there who believe it may be true?
EH: I think the best compliment a writer can get is that a reader or viewer believed it was true. That means you spoke enough truth around the events that the impossible within your story was accepted along with it. That’s the highest praise, in my opinion.
SH:I loved the meta quality of your more recent nosleep continuation of the story. What inspired your decision to take the story in that direction?
EH: I wanted a good piece of meta-fiction that felt like a proper nod to the meta of Dionaea House, to properly celebrate the tenth anniversary. That’s initially why I wrote the nosleep piece – to return to the world where I had first gotten my break.
SH: And finally, is this the last we’ve heard of the house?
EH: I hope it isn’t the last we’ve heard. I may have… plans for it. Muahaha.
SH: Thank you once again.
Eric Heisserer’s Dionaea House is a wonderful example of what the world of online flash horror fiction has become.
Moving on far beyond the limitations of simple and often rather silly stories such as Jeff the Killer, these stories are penned by authors so talented that they go on to see their works published or (as in the case of Heisserer or NoEnd House’s Brian Russell) snapped up by Hollywood to create the next generation of spine-chilling horror movies.
But more importantly, these stories are good. They are clever, legitimately frightening tales written by gifted talented writers who are fans of the genre FOR the fans of the genre.
Come back next time when I’ll be returning to the deepest darkest depths of nosleep for one of the scariest stories the sub has ever seen.