Based On A True Story
written by Jacob Geers
In the digital age, the lines separating reality from fantasy have become increasingly blurry. Claims of “fake news” from all directions ensnare our political process, conspiracy theories and legends are given fuel and renewed life on the open internet, and people are largely left to their own devices to determine which, if any, of the endless stories around them, are true and which are false.
On its face, this is nothing new. Legends and gossip are as old as the history of language itself; after all, tall tales and ill-sourced rumors were not invented in the last decade. But there is no doubt that the rise of digital technology and the building of the internet have brought a new power to the spread of information. In the past, the creation of a legend might have been akin to the flame of a single candle being passed to another candle. Now it much more resembles a wildfire: spreading with abandon and out of our control.
Not only does technology make it easier for stories to spread, but, as a society, we seem more susceptible to fictional stories as well. David Shields argues in his manifesto, Reality Hunger, that being surrounded by artificiality 24/7 has led us to absolutely crave “realness.” We are bombarded day in and day out by fake lives on mostly fake social media accounts run by fake people that we aspire to be but don’t even know. It’s exhausting.
Or, as Shields says: “We’re clinging to anything that seems ‘real’ or organic or authentic. We want rougher sounds, rougher images, raw footage, uncensored by high technology and the powers that be.” So we watch more reality TV, we make tweets featuring screenshots of wholesome exchanges and events that go viral, and Hollywood is producing more movies “based on a true story” than ever before.
The nature of storytelling today is much more complicated than simply listening to an engaging speaker. To explore this a little further, here is a legend you might’ve heard around the glow of a campfire: the unnerving tale of the Rake. Sometimes described as a hairless dog, or a naked man, the Rake gets its name from the long rake-like claws it has on its hand. According to the tale, the earliest reference to the Rake comes from a mariner’s log, dated 1691. In it, the mariner claims that the Rake “took everything” and demanded that the crew, which had landed in the New World only weeks prior, leave and never return.
A Spanish journal entry dated 1880 also purportedly references the Rake, saying:
“I have experienced the greatest terror. I have experienced the greatest terror. I have experienced the greatest terror. I see his eyes when I close mine. They are hollow. Black. They saw me and pierced me. His wet hand. I will not sleep. His voice (unintelligible text).”
The Rake began to attract attention in 2003 after reported sightings of the creature in the northeastern United States spurred local media coverage. The vast majority of these sightings seemed to be from Upstate New York, and though there was an alleged one-off sighting of the creature in Idaho, it was said to be native to the Northeast.
In 2006, a group of internet sleuths began working to compile records of the Rake. At one point, the organization claimed to have two dozen documents dating from the 12th century to the present day—including the records from the mariner’s log and the Spanish journal entry. As the story goes, the government ordered a media blackout on the Rake, all media attention ceased, and most of the records were destroyed.
However, sightings have persisted, with people coming forward constantly to tell stories of their encounters of the Rake online. Online forums, with their ability to nurture subcultures, anonymously interact with others, and collaborate across great distances, are the perfect place for stories like this to develop and spread. Message board websites, such as Reddit and 4chan, where individuals can find subsections dedicated to whatever their interests are, no matter how esoteric, are where many of these stories originate.
A user on the popular subreddit r/Humanoidencounters (a subsection of the site dedicated to the specific topic of “real” encounters with paranormal creatures) tells his story from fourteen years prior when he fell asleep in his living room and began to hear weird slapping sounds:
“I hid my head under the blanket and stayed as still as possible. I could see a faint silhouette through the fabric. It looked like a hairless dog with a warped body with long, distorted arms. The creature walked across the floor and crawled out of sight. I could only assume that it had gone up the steps. I didn't sleep at all. I held still and refused to allow myself to move until dawn. My mother had come down the steps confused and a bit aggravated. She had asked me to come upstairs and look at the wall. The walls had been covered with long scratches. The distance between the marks was large. The hands must have been at least six inches wide. We moved within the following weeks and it wasn't until four years ago that I heard of the Rake.”
Another user on the subreddit told a similar tale, saying:
“I woke up at 3 am to the feeling of something watching me. I felt extremely uneasy. I rolled over to look around the room and my eyes locked onto something standing beside my mom. It was extremely tall but looked as if it had a broken back and couldn’t stand up completely. It was slouched over and had extremely pale skin and bones sticking out under the skin everywhere due to how skinny it was. It had long claws hanging from both hands. It’s face was sunken in and eyes were completely black holes. A few greasy hairs were visible on its head. It had no clothes but also no genitals or nipples.”
These stories are downright terrifying, so much so that while reading them I wanted to slam my laptop shut and toss it out the window while nervously reciting a few “Hail Marys”. But here’s the thing:
The Rake is pure fiction.
Not fake like ghosts, or sightings of Bigfoot, where many people are skeptical, yet their existence cannot be definitively disproven. We know for sure the Rake is fake. Like, for certain, 100% fake. It was a group on the message board 4chan that brought the creature into existence in 2005, when one suggested that they work together to “create a new monster.”
In fact, the Rake’s invention is so well documented that we even have some notes of the creature’s creation. For example, we know that the group originally toyed with different names for their new terror, including “Operation Crawler.” As time went on, the monstrosity began to resemble what we know today as the Rake:
“Here's what we've got so far: Humanoid, about six feet tall when standing, but usually crouches and walks on all fours. It has very pale skin. The face is blank. As in, no nose, no mouth. However, it has three solid green eyes, one in the middle of its forehead, and the other two on either side of its head, towards the back. Usually seen in front yards in suburban areas. Usually just watches the observer, but will stand up and attack if approached. When it attacks, a mouth opens up, as if a hinged skull that opens at the chin. Reveals many tiny, but dull teeth.”
From there, the “experiment got out of the lab” so to say, and it began slowly spreading across the internet. The Rake’s copypasta (a story that is copied from one internet community and pasted in others) began circulating on LiveJournal (another online message board and journaling service), and eventually returned to 4chan in the section dedicated to the paranormal. By December 2010, a Tumblr account was created in order to document sightings of the Rake, and though it appears the founder of that blog was aware the Rake was fictional, not all of the readers were.
Stories of the Rake continued to be shared, eventually making their way into more mainstream horror communities like CreepyPasta, and Unexplained Mysteries, both websites dedicated to sharing horror stories and digital urban legends.
4chan users had done it. They had created an irresistible monster, and the Rake began to transition from verifiable fiction to urban legend.
So if the Rake is so obviously fake, how do stories about it continue to circulate around the internet? Even on some of the previously mentioned r/Humanoidencounters, people pointed out that the Rake wasn’t real, but the original creators pushed back to some degree, because the resemblance to their made up monster was apparently so uncanny.
If there is an answer, one might find it in the community that lives at r/nosleep, a Reddit community that shares the most terrifying, horrific stories wildly ranging in plausibility. The members on the subreddit have just one thing in common: they love reading and writing terrifying stories. The platform, which is typically something of a hobby, has led to the springboard of several successor horror writers. However, the subreddit has one major rule: you cannot hypothesize on whether the stories are true or not. When you enter, you must suspend disbelief. Everything is true. Had the subreddit existed a decade ago, it would’ve been fertile ground for a fictional tale like the Rake to go from fairy tale to believable legend.
Horror writer Seamus Coffey is a frequent contributor on r/nosleep. In 2015, he wrote a post on the platform that was later reposted by a digital publisher under the title: There’s A Town In Kentucky That You Won’t Ever Be Able To Find On A Map, And For Good Reason. Today there are Reddit threads that discuss mounting an investigation to the area, and the website Only In Your State cites the story as a creepy true happening from Kentucky.
“I blame social media,” Coffey says. “A lot of people read it as a first hand account and wanted to believe that it was real. After it had been shared by enough people and viewed enough times, it became like the Blue/White Dress or Yanny/Laurel. Either you believed it or you didn't, but enough people were talking about it that it had entered the public consciousness.”
The very fictional story that had been written by Coffey “fueled entirely by energy drinks and insomnia” has now been viewed over five million times. It is a good example of what could be considered a “cultural virus,” a story that has drawn on the subconscious fears and narratives of our society and blurred our conception of reality.
“I think a lot of people read it as a first-hand account and wanted to believe that it was real,” Coffey concludes.
“Things are always more frightening if we believe them to be true. If you're actively seeking out a scare, then there has to be some element of believability in order for it to send that shiver down your spine. There has to be something you can relate to in order for it to crawl under your skin,” popular r/nosleep writer Elias Witherow told me.
Witherow has written countless stories on r/nosleep, and has even published several successful horror books. Witherow says it’s the “little things” that transform fictional writing into urban legend: “Dates, specific locations, names or brands people recognize. Because each of these things is another wrung the reader can grasp and understand.”
The tale of the Rake is filled to the brim with detail, and was expertly engineered to be a terrifying creature. The story meets many of Witherow’s standards for a story that’s primed to become legend: specific artifacts, like the mariner’s log and the letter from the Spaniard, a creature that is described in great detail and intensity, and a relatable spot of origin in the northeast United States. The claims of initial media coverage but eventual censorship by the government feeds into our more conspiracy-prone side. These specific details were things people could cling to, and would be used by those unfamiliar with the Rake’s fictional origin to convince themselves that they’ve seen the beast themselves.
These rules aren’t just applicable to horror stories, of course. Other internet conspiracies tap into the same type of energy. Looking back to #PizzaGate, which was also born on Reddit, the conspiracy had many specific details (even if untrue). It was those “little things” that kept pulling people in until they had bought the story completely. It felt like raw footage, and people wanted it.
In that sense, maybe people believe in the Rake because it’s just a really, really good story. “I think it's the same reason we go to amusement parks,” Witherow tells me when I ask why people seem so fixated on horror stories and scary legends. “We're looking for a thrill, an adrenaline rush. It's fun to experience terror when in actuality there is no threat at all.” So the truth may just be out there, as long as we keep suspending our disbelief.