The back page of Alex Hall's economics textbook was filled with scribbles. Diagrams, notes, story beats, a web that formed an outline for his next update. By day, Hall was a student at St. Louis University, but after class he was writing what would become one of the most infamous internet ghost stories: Ben Drowned, a chilling tale of a haunted Zelda cartridge.
2010's Ben Drowned was part of a burgeoning genre known as "creepypasta." A play on the internet slang "copypasta," referring to text that's been copied and pasted multiple times, creepypasta are internet ghost stories meant to terrify and keep wayward forum goers up at night.
Ben Drowned sits in the upper pantheon of stories, next to infamous tales like Slender Man and Zalgo. The first arc, told across five posts and accompanying videos, is a chilling fiction most recognisable from a demented portrayal of Link and a line from its source material's script:
"You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?"
This post contains discussion of rape, self-harm, and suicide.
Ben Drowned was originally posted on 4chan's /x/, or paranormal, board. It was written in character by an internet user named Jadusable, a portmanteau of Judas and Abel.
While browsing a garage sale, Jadusable is gifted a suspicious Nintendo 64 cartridge labelled "Majora" by a disconcerting old man, with former owner Ben's save data still on it.
As Jadusable plays the game, little inconsistencies begin to pop up. Things aren't as they should be.
At one point, Jadusable finds himself alone in Clock Town, all the inhabitants gone. He can't do anything to make the game advance, can't play his ocarina to change the time or day -- nothing works.
Throughout the town, he hears the Happy Mask Salesman's laugh. Wherever he goes/as he wanders the town/tktk, the pleasant, disturbing laugh of a jovial character rings in the background.
Jadasable finally gets the idea to drown Link in a pond. When he does, Link clutches his head, screaming. The screen flashes to the Happy Mask Salesman, smiling and laughing -- not at Link, but at Jadusable.
The Elegy of Emptiness appears, a statue of Link locked in a state of strange horror. It follows Jadusable's character, moving just outside of the camera's perspective, throughout the town. Jadusable tries to trick it, kill it, but nothing works. Futility would become a pervasive theme of the story.
In desperation, Jadusable turns the camera to face the statue directly. After a while, the screen flashes back to the Happy Mask Salesman and Link, only the latter also turns this time. The Salesman, the statue, and Link, all locked in place, stare through the screen, directly at Jadusable.
When I talk to Hall over the phone, he says he chose to tell Ben Drowned in the creepypasta format because it afforded possibilities other media didn't.
"As a video game, there are only a finite amount of possibilities that the developers have intended to be created and be experienced in the game," says Hall.
"So when something goes off the rails out of its programming and does something that is totally thought to be impossible, it's almost to me this level of surrealism, this feeling of unease. The laws, the rules of what you expected out of a game are suddenly meaningless. That makes you feel vulnerable, in a way."
As the posts spread across the internet, the tale became increasingly distressing. Modified text became new text entirely and new scenes were added as the spirit of Ben led Jadusable deeper and deeper.
Eventually, the spirit within the cartridge starts to make contact with Jadusable, affecting his life outside the game, changing his computer wallpaper and reaching out to him through the chat AI Cleverbot.
Jadusable starts to dream of moon children, of the Happy Mask Salesman holding him down while he's twisted and contorted into an effigy, a statue, just like the one that follows his in-game character.
In a September 9, 2010 chat log between the two, Jadusable begs the question of why this is happening.
User: Answer me, ben.
Cleverbot: Welcome back.
User: What is the point of doing this, WHY?
Cleverbot: Amusing to see.
Cleverbot: Fun to play, fun to toy with you, make you feel safe.
Cleverbot: I wonder how you would have reacted.
User: to what?
Cleverbot: If I hadn't revealed myself and stayed hidden, only doing little things to play with you. Close out your windows, turn off your computer, move your mouse by itself. Little things. Make you wonder if I am there but you never know. Give you little hints that I am.
Cleverbot: I wanted to do something different with you.
The idea of a ghost within the machine was a new kind of thrill for creepypasta writers at the time. Most scary stories involve slashers or monsters, supernatural scares limited to the mostly corporeal world.
Creepypasta preyed on digital age fears instead. Have you ever been using your computer and seen your mouse move, just in the slightest, without provocation? Maybe it was your imagination; maybe not.
A computer is a system, defined, created to operate within certain bounds, but creepypasta turns this familiar machine into something else.
As stories that started and lived on the internet, Ben Drowned and other creepypasta were able to grow and change. They took horror stories away from the campfire and allowed them to be spread to millions of people.
Hall tells me, "When I was a kid, we would go on campouts with all my friends from school, and we'd sit around a campfire and try to scare each other with spooky stories. I feel like this was the next logical progression of that. Being introduced to the internet age and all that, this is where that evolved to. You can connect with thousands, if not millions, of people across the world and just have this experience that resonates with them."
Hall was inspired by another digital urban legend about a game called Killswitch, a game about Russian industrial workers in Karvina that may or may not exist.
It supposedly had a very limited release and wiped itself permanently once the player completed the game, preventing anyone from sharing or copying it. The game supposedly tells of the horrors experienced by workers and the death of protagonist Porto's friends and family.
The tale ends with an auction goer paying over $US700,000 ($913,177) for the last remaining copy of Killswitch, promising to open the final play session of the game up to the public for one last look. He later goes silent, except for a final video that shows him weeping in front of the game's character select screen.
Some of the ideas in the story of Killswitch found their way into Ben Drowned. Hall drew on the mixture of text and video, a game that toys with its player, hidden messages and game mechanics used in disturbing ways.
Hall took things one step further by portraying Majora's Mask's world of Termina as inhabited by a malevolent presence that played games with the player.
Jadusable's avatar would drown in water, despite wearing the Zora mask that was supposed to prevent this. He shared video of Link broken at the waist, walking tortuously as nonsense text appeared on the screen.
Familiar locales and scenes would have an air of uncertainty, of something just being wrong. All the time, Ben lurked in the background.
Majora's Mask was perfectly suited for Hall's tale. Unlike most Zelda games, which follow a general Hero's Journey blueprint, Majora's Mask is a story about death, loss, and grieving.
It's filled with horrific imagery, like Link's first transformation into a plant-like Deku. Well-meaning images like the Elegy statue became haunting simulacrum for Ben, or rather, the spirit referred to as Ben.
It would appear at the worst moments, a dead smile silently watching as the horrors played out, the signal that something worse was coming. Hall had to do very little to turn his chosen setting into a playground for creepypasta.
The Elegy of Emptiness statue.
"You knew the world was going to end in three days, and everyone is going through these different stages of grief," says Hall.
"There's been a lot of analysis of the symbolism of Majora's Mask, the metaphors of Majora's Mask, whatever you want to look at with whatever lens you want to. I like the creepy atmosphere of it, and I thought that it would be a perfect fit for this story."
To create the escalating supernatural events within Majora's Mask, Hall used the Project 64 emulator and a ROM of the game to construct scenes for his videos. Poring over backend forums for Zelda modders, he found the triggers for every animation and image in the game.
He learned to dictate strings of code and set scenes in motion, with simple button pushes setting Link on fire, killing or drowning him, or jumping to a new scene.
Looming in the background is the thought that Jadusable and his blog entries are unreliable. At one point, Jadusable's roommate takes over posting entries, saying Jadusable has fled.
The final part of the first Ben Drowned arc closes with TheTruth.rtf, a manifesto littered with hidden messages and retcons, claiming Ben had been altering the text entries and videos, sometimes even playing the game himself.
Jadusable -- and by proxy, Hall -- hid hints to this in earlier entries, in three uses of the word believe (beLieve, belIeve, beliEve) and using certain items like the Lens of Truth in his inventory only when he was actually playing.
Hall wanted players to question Jadusable's reliability, making minor errors to build the sense of unease, a growing dread about which story was the real one.
"You feel like you are not in control," says Hall. "Even when you kind of understood the rules this entity was operating at, you have this distrust. You're wondering how much of this is actually true, there's inconsistencies that are getting bigger and bigger as the story goes on."
"And then when you finally get that last text document called [TheTruth.rtf] and start reading it, my goal for that was to have this huge, stomach-dropping feeling as you're reading through it and think, 'Jesus, none of this matches up with what was being written.'"
The trouble was keeping all these moving parts coherent, because as Hall established the story, he was just another forum dweller. He was in-character in the forums as Jadusable seeking help, and real internet users offered advice.
In the /x/ board and other forums, readers encouraged Jadusable to explore certain areas, talk to certain characters, or investigate different elements of the game. Hall's economics textbook came in handy for keeping everything straight.
"Essentially what it was is that while this was happening, I was asking in-character for advice on where to go," says Hall. "So I was like, 'if [the readers want to] go to the ocean level in Majora's Mask, that's what will trigger the progression to the next big plot point.'"
"So it could take them one or two chapters to get there. Eventually, if they didn't get there, if they didn't suggest the ocean place, I would eventually subtly steer the story that way, but I didn't have to do that much."
In one video, a text screen appears that reads "BEN is getting lonely." Jadusable finds himself at the end of the game, at the tree on the moon's surface. It's the same as the normal game, except there are no children dancing and playing.
It's quiet. Jadusable investigates the base of the tree for any clues before turning and seeing the Elegy of Emptiness statue silently watching him. Then, in a blink, it moves. There's a pause, then it moves again. The screen cuts to the Happy Mask Salesman, his face locked in a demented smile, then to black. A text screen pops up.
"You will be given one last chance…"
"Back to where it all began…"
"Come play with us." A pause, then the Dawn of the Final Day screen appears.
As Ben Drowned developed, it grew in popularity. Kotaku published an article on the story in 2010, and many other sites covered it as well.
Within the first few days of starting the story, Hall was at 100,000 and climbing. "Ben.wmv," one of the more memorable video entries, sits at 3.7 million views on YouTube at the time of writing.
Hall became obsessed with the story, mentally mapping out new developments during classes. He tells me he remembers thinking, "I've really caught onto something here, I need to keep writing this."
TheTruth.rtf ended Ben Drowned's first arc, leaving Jadusable's whereabouts unknown after he ran off to dispose of the cart forever. Hall would soon develop a new story in the same universe called Moon Children.
Moon Children was based around a fake cult website and was more of an ARG than a creepypasta. But Ben Drowned was regarded among the best stories told in the medium, and still is to this day.
But stories don't end when the author types the last word.
In December 2016, Hall was lying in bed with his girlfriend. She was reading on her phone about a 12-year-old girl named Katelyn Davis. Davis had streamed her own suicide on Live.me, and the video was spreading like wildfire across social media.
Hall recalls not thinking much of it at the time. He said it was awful and left it at that, going to sleep.
Several days later, Hall saw Davis on his news feed again thanks to a fan. Davis had a history of self-harm and, a tough home life according to her blog, including allegations of abuse, assault, and attempted rape.
She was also a fan of Ben Drowned. According to a blog post, Davis was in love with someone claiming to be the real Ben Drowned. In that blog post, accompanied by fan art, Davis wrote:
I NEED his love. I NEED his warmth. It has been several months since I last spoke with him. And one of those months I actually tried to kill myself by overdose because I couldn't take the pain anymore. I just NEED to find my love.
[...]He went by Ben Drowned. He claimed that he was the real Ben Drowned. Right now, I don't care.
Hall's story was just a tale of a haunted Nintendo 64 cartridge meant to keep readers up at night, not something that might have a real world impact. He even tells me he went out of his way to avoid too much mention of human-on-human violence in Ben Drowned, keeping the story limited to a program-slash-spirit toying with a human.
This wasn't the first time creepypasta has come up in the national dialogue. After two Wisconsin girls stabbed a friend 19 times in 2014, inspired by the internet myth of the Slender Man, Hall says he wondered that since it happened to Slender Man, "it's probably not too far off of happening for me and my story."
But up until Davis' suicide, Hall had mostly heard positive things from fans: many had told him they'd been encouraged by his work to pursue their own goals, to write and create.
Hall tells me about how artists and writers have crafted new works and fan fiction around his characters, taking the wheel of his dorm room pet project.
Some have made Ben, the ghost and titular character, a sympathetic figure, something he never intended. But, he tells me, the fandom having a darker side seemed inevitable.
"It's always kind of a hard thing to suss out," Hall tells me, pausing for a moment. "Because I've been asked this question before, like, do I feel responsible for it? I don't, now. I don't feel responsible."
"I feel like if it wasn't my story, it would have been something else. Someone would have impersonated someone else or whatever, from another story, to lead her down that path or whatnot.
"But I think that the sad truth of it is, and you kind of have to just sort of look at it in a black-and-white perspective. At some point when you put something out there of your own to a wide enough audience, if you threw a big enough net out there, eventually there's going to be some negative connotations associated with it."
"I've had people tell me how much Ben Drowned has made a difference in their lives, or inspired them to write or inspired them to create. So naturally, I guess, it's an inevitable law of the world, the universe, where if it's reached a big enough fanbase, there would be some sort of negative connotations with that... It's an inevitability, I guess. It doesn't make it right, it doesn't make it better, it's just sort of a law of nature. It's a difficult subject."
The future of Ben Drowned is now, largely, in the hands of its fandom. When asked about his real, physical ownership in a dollars-and-cents manner, Hall says he's thought about monetising the story before but has always decided against it.
He says he's talked to movie studios about adaptations, but in terms of the original story, he sees it as no more one person's property than any other campfire ghost story.
Nowadays, Hall is working on several freelance production projects while also trying to put together an independent film of his own. This one isn't a creepypasta, but rather a story about growing up and chasing dreams.
He tells me he's typically an all-in kind of person, and so adapting his workflow to a team-oriented project has been a little difficult.
The Happy Mask Salesman.
"I liked Ben Drowned because I could do everything myself. But with film, making that sort of stuff, I have a sense as a director. I don't know anything about lighting. I don't know how to set up any kind of lighting."
"I have a general idea of camerawork and that sort of stuff, but there are people who have dedicated their scholastic career to being professionals with that, that I just don't have. And when you get people together for that sort of thing, you're talking about working with a team of 20, 30-plus people, and there are so many other real-life factors that get in the way."
Even though Hall has moved to other projects, Ben Drowned persists. The Elegy statue has become permanently linked to the story of Jadusable and his haunted cartridge, a copy of Majora's Mask that inspired nightmares of masks being sewn to faces and terrible, terrible fates.
Ben Drowned lives by the virtual firelight, as each new whisper, tweet, or forum post sends chills down a new reader's spine. Creepypastas are the ghost stories of the digital age, changing with each retelling and reimagining from its fandom. Though Ben Drowned owes its legacy to Hall, its future lies in the hands of anyone who might take to their keyboard to add a new page.