Pale Reflections

A Retrospective on Pale Luna, Creepypastas, and the Mechanics of Horror


You stand in a grassy clearing while the moon shines down upon the uneven forest floor, dirt still staining the hand which bears your shovel. You sit alone, a computer processor running basic with a text parser blinking before your eyes, prompting you to make your next move. You lean forward in the desk chair in front of your family computer, chills rolling down your spine as you read the last lines of the story. The classic creepypasta Pale Luna plants all of these images in your head, simply the recollection of your first experience reading it and acquainting yourself with the genre.

These are my memories, but it is the power of the written word that can convey something so personal through mere implication, and this is the essential power of Pale Luna. If you are not familiar with the story, I implore you to read through it (it’s not too terribly long) before you continue on with this article. I doubt that it will be a life-changing experience for you, but I would still hate to ruin a story that I love for anyone else. If you do know the story, it probably wouldn’t hurt to look over it once more, since there is always more to appreciate on subsequent readings. I’ve chosen to analyze this story because I think it offers a lot in a relatively small package, and I think that I’ve learned a lot about writing horror through Pale Luna and stories like it.

Pale Luna has a plot scenario that, in broad strokes, is similar to many other creepypastas, especially during the time in which it was written. Like Squidward Suicide, Dead Bart, or The Theater, it focuses on a piece of lost media that is somehow connected to a cultural moment, either through its creator or its format. This, in itself, is not a bad thing, and Candle Cove is another one of my favorite stories that also uses that template as a springboard. This reveals the first lesson: there is no need to reinvent the wheel. If you love a certain type of story and find that many of its elements inspire you, then it is totally acceptable to synthesize these elements with your own ideas. It is a sisyphean task to try and create something wholly original, because that is impossible, though that should not excuse ripping someone off. Writing, like all artforms, is a process of experimentation. When it comes to originality, the devil is always in the details.

The exposition explaining the phenomena of people circulating independent games, as well as the context for Pale Luna as a text-adventure game, work in tandem to ground the story before venturing into the unfamiliar. Any short story will involve exposition, usually at the very beginning, and good stories will utilize exposition that interests the reader and draws them in. The first paragraph can make or break a short story, either alienating them with pretentious navelgazing or boring them with a boilerplate set-up. The opening of Pale Luna works because it draws upon the history of computer games and intentionally creates a niche for itself where the titular subject of the story can float in suspension of disbelief. Who’s to say that a game like this never existed, when there are thousands of similar games lost to time? It’s also important to note that the information (or lack thereof) from the beginning does factor into the end. No one knows where the game came from, because its path of dissemination is effectively untraceable.

You can’t prove a negative, thus some research and subtly sowing the seeds of doubt are all you need to pique someone’s interest. If you’d like to see just how deep people are willing to go in order to understand a mystery, I suggest you take some time to watch this video on the urban legend of Polybius.

Once the nameless, almost documentarian narrator begins to recount the content of the game, there is a shift in presentation worth noting. They maintain a somewhat dry, descriptive language, yet this creates an effective contrast against the poetic wording within the game itself. In fact, the very medium of the text-adventure game epitomizes this concept, where barely concealed raw programming prompts the user for clunky operations and keywords, but the pure strength of imagery allows players to transcend the shallow reality. Pale Luna understands the nature of such games; therefore, the plot advances because of the selfsame intrigue that draws people into a text-adventure. The medium is the message. This story never alludes to any paranormal occurrences, yet the repetition of “PALE LUNA SMILES WIDE,” the three artifacts that the player carries with them, and the meta-textual barrier of the game all suggest the uncanny. The supernatural is essential to much of horror, yet the supernatural loses all its meaning when you state it outright. A ghost can become just another mundane aspect of life if we can see and understand it, while the most terrifying monsters lurk in the shadows of our unconscious minds.

Examining a similar tale, Mr. Mix tries and fails on its face to achieve the sort of dread that Pale Luna inspires. It begins in a way that parallels Pale Luna, though with a more informal tone, replacing text-adventure games with educational typing games. There are a lot of small things that make Pale Luna better: the exposition for Mr. Mix is bare bones, the pacing jumps from 1 to 11 with practically no buildup, the ending has little to do with the beginning and breaks suspension of disbelief, the story leans on a creepy image and not creepy imagery, etc. The biggest problem, however, is that the story treats the gameplay mechanics as an auxiliary factor and dives straight into the undeniably supernatural. If anything, the only reason Mr. Mix is a typing game would be because such games are primarily marketed to children, and that is a thread largely abandoned by the end of the story. The reader is not allowed to imagine the game and see for themselves why it’s scary, they are simply told that it is scary, so scary that it made hackers go insane. This story wastes what potential it has, and I recommend that anyone interested check out a piece of horror media that capitalizes on the idiosyncrasies of typing games called David Lynch Teaches Typing.

The story of Pale Luna does focus in on the perspective of Micheal Nevins, but this shift mainly works to better cement it as a historical archive. When mimicking non-fiction media within fictional media, it is absolutely vital to familiarize yourself with the beats that characterize their form. Perhaps my favorite non-creepypasta, short horror story is Thomas Ligotti’s Notes on The Writing of Horror, which also apes the style of an article. Ligotti so successfully parrots the trappings of an informative essay (until the very end) that the subtitle “a Story” had to be appended in order to clue readers in. For Pale Luna, the first half covers information that would be publically available thanks to anyone with a copy of the game, while the second half discusses information discovered by a specific investigator. The story lampshades the fact that Nevins invests so much time and so many resources into a seemingly broken game, yet this process of investigation is not uncommon in real life. If there is some community for any game, whether it be Dark Souls or Bubsy 3D, at least one person will spend hundreds of hours and hack into the game to find all the content they can.

Once he mines all the content of the game, Nevins discovers a set of coordinates that lead him deep into the woods. His actions in the real world sync up to that of the game, following the same paths while equipped with three items essential to completing his task. The twist, of course, is that what the game described as gold and that Nevins assumed to be his reward, instead reveals itself as the severed head of a little girl. Described in this way, this twist seems typical of any creepypasta or campfire story, yet there are many factors that make it both effective and memorable.

First, the twist is foreshadowed from the very beginning, and this foreshadowing becomes a motif throughout the entire story. Perhaps the most subtle indication is that the story begins by juxtaposing the contemporary ubiquity of digital information with the relative obscurity of the text-adventure era. One would assume that the author includes this simply to explain away why you have never heard of the game, yet there is a hint of something sinister in the fact that no one has really attempted to preserve it and may have done just the opposite. Next are the recurring symbols of the GOLD, the SHOVEL, and the ROPE, which could at first appear as the respective haul and tools of a treasure hunter. However, it becomes apparent that the player is not searching for treasure but hiding it, that the phrase “reap your reward” either refers to hiding the treasure or does not refer to the player character, and that the rope is never used in-game. There is also the engenius matter of the game’s namesake, which is always implied to refer to the full moon exclusively until you discover the twist. The message of “PALE LUNA SMILES AT YOU” is already ominous, but you can ignore it as just setting a scene; consequently, it curdles your stomach once you discover that the “smile” is literal. A twist alone does not a story make. The twist works because the text gives you the clues you need to figure it out yourself, yet you need the end to confirm it and, in doing so, reframe how you see the entirety of the story. It is not a twist thought up at the last moment as a means to finish the plot, which is the kind of twist that ruins a story instead of elevating it.

Second, the twist signals an abrupt change in tone that is not completely unexpected, though it still evokes visceral disgust and horror. Most people who will read Pale Luna have certain expectations going into it, and the story was likely written with that prior knowledge in mind. Readers neither expect nor want Pale Luna to be a generic text-adventure game that is only notable for being forgotten, but what the individual reader expects and what the reader wants are often not the same thing. The story spends most of its word count with its ace up its sleeve, leading the reader to believe that Pale Luna is some sort of treasure hunting puzzle that may lead to a real life discovery. It is a compelling facade and, once Micheal Nevins is introduced, you empathize with him and a part of you genuinely wants Nevins to find the treasure that he is after, though another part knows that something has to go wrong. In the leadup to the twist, the reader’s feelings reflect those of Nevins, a sense of excitement and possibility, all of which are dashed upon the truth. The twist is the climax of this story, and the resolution bookends it with a dry description of the information surrounding it. The ending neither passes you by nor lingers on to rubberneck, leaving you with just enough that this lack of closure transforms into further curiosity and not dissatisfaction. For horror to succeed, your mind should do most of the work during and after your experience.

In conclusion, these are the elements I see in Pale Luna that not only make the story great in itself, but inspire me to emulate them in my own way. If you have different reasons as to why you love the story, or even hate it, then they are no less valid than mine. Moreover, were every creepypasta to just replicate these elements, even improving on them over time, I would likely grow tired of the genre very quickly. Today, there are still very few stories that feel just like Pale Luna, and that’s really the greatest reason why I adore it. A story can have all the bits and pieces needed to make it something great, but, without that spark of something unique, all of that kinda falls to the waist side. There are stories both better and worse than Pale Luna that I value because they teach me something new that I never considered on my own. My love for art, and especially horror, centers around that sense of awe that fills your mind once you discover something both beautiful and terrible.

Pale Luna is credited to Mikhail Honoridez.