Beware: Every video clip embedded in this article features a jump scare.
It’s 2005 and you just received an email to your Hotmail account with the subject line “Bet you can’t get out of this maze.” You immediately click the link because you love a challenge and don’t fully understand the internet yet.
The first two levels of the maze game are easier than you thought and you fly through them. By the time you reach level 3, however, things get much harder. The walls begin to shrink and the turns you have to navigate are much sharper. Is this going to be impossible to finish? Is that the trick here? You lean forward to get a better look. Your nose is damn near touching the screen and then…
REGAN FROM THE EXORCIST OUT OF FUCKING NOWHERE!
As Linda Blair’s scarred face and two inhuman screams penetrate every ventricle of your heart, the reality sets in that you just fell victim to one of the most infamous jump scares in internet history.
No one would call the internet of today a civilized place. But believe it or not, it used to be even less…refined. Back when the Space Jam website was built on caveman HTML code and Facebook was but a glint in a horny Harvard creep’s eye, the Internet was truly the Wild West. Into that entropy stepped some of the most diabolical pranks pulled off at a scale not seen since Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast.
Throughout the mid-2000s and early 2010s, the World Wide Web was fit to bursting with PTSD-inducing internet jump scares or “Internet Screamers” as they’d come to be known. “The Maze” or “Scary Maze Game” was among the phenomenon’s first big hits. The game was created in 2004 by developer Jeremy Winterrowd and hosted on his site winterrowd.com (until it was taken down in early 2019, shortly after Adobe Flash was discontinued). Even its creator was taken aback by the simple Flash game’s viral potential.
“I made this game in October of ’04 for Halloween and sent it to a few of my friends in an email,” Winterrowd wrote on Yahoo Answers more than a decade ago. “About 5 months later, someone had sent the same email back to my mother! It had turned into a viral email joke. I was very flattered and figured I should make a website for all the stupid prank games I’ve made.”
Though The Maze was among the first Internet Screamers, it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Screamer Wiki, the unofficial catalog of all Internet jump scares, features over 1,500 examples of online heart-skippers. Among them are what is believed to be the first example, “Kikia,” a clip which originated on message boards in China and features a 17-second serene animation concluding with a terrifying face from the video game Fatal Frame II.
The most well-known Internet Screamers all have one thing in common: they’re relatively old. Though the internet still churns out the occasional unwanted surprise spooky, the fad has largely died off and has entered the second stage of any Internet phenomenon’s lifecycle: nostalgia posting.
Toby Bouchard is a Canadian horror enthusiast who was looking for the best angle to launch his YouTube channel, TobyPasta, in 2019. Long fascinated by modern creepypastas like Slender Man and Jeff the Killer, Bouchard decided to delve into an even earlier internet horror phenomenon with his channel’s first video “Internet Screamers: Remember Those?”
“Out of the blue one day, I was like ‘no one is talking about Internet Screamers’ so I thought that would be a great idea. It’s been awhile since they’ve been circulating,” Bouchard says.
The move paid off with that first video garnering 14,000 viewers and leading to more specific follow-ups on The Scary Maze Game, Zalgo, and more. Still, the most successful videos that Bouchard has produced have revolved around what has come to be considered the GOAT of all Internet Screamers: “Ghost Car.”
“Number one definitely has to be Ghost Car,” Bouchard says. “I was very scared of it and I wanted to share that with everyone.”
A video called “Ghost Car” was first uploaded to YouTube by user mrssmithereen on July 30, 2005. The 20-second clip features a white car gently gliding down a mountain road surrounded by lush greenery. It’s incredibly calming until roughly 14 seconds into the video when a zombie jumps in front of the camera and screams. The screen cuts to black and white text is displayed: “Now…Go Change Your Shorts And Get Back to Work!”
“Ghost Car” has every element that makes an Internet Screamer a hit. It is short, relaxing, and then unbearably shocking. Since its uploading, it has generated nearly 38 million views, and many more reaction videos, homages, and parodies. What’s particularly interesting about “Ghost Car” is that, while many Internet Screamers and other urban legends have mysterious origins, the source of “Ghost Car” is both crystal clear and surprisingly mainstream.
The video that was uploaded to YouTube in July 2005 was actually a slightly edited version of a TV commercial that first aired in April 2005. The ad that would become the viral “Ghost Car” video was from German caffeine company K-Fee. It was part of a series of nine 20-second long ads with similar premises. Viewers would be presented with a peaceful quiet scene that would be interrupted by an actor in zombie or gargoyle makeup jumping out and screaming at the end. Each ad would finish with text in German or English that promoted its canned coffee product. In the case of “Ghost Car,” the text read “Ever been so wide awake? Canned caffeine with coffee.”
The facts surrounding K-Fee’s shocking ad campaign have floated around the internet for roughly as long as the Screamer it produced. Earlier this year, however, the full story was compiled into a 43-minute documentary from British YouTuber Rhys Lapsley. Lapsley’s documentary features the complete saga of K-Fee’s infamous commercials from conception to execution to eternal memedom. Lapsley says he first encountered the video when he was six years old thanks to his father, and the experience led to a lifelong fascination with the clip.
“He showed me the video on his phone and I screamed. It was awful,” Lapsley says. “Then I just wanted to know more about this video.”
Lapsley’s research included interviews with Brad and Adam Johnson, brothers who portrayed the zombie and gargoyle respectively in the series of ads. The brothers address the rumor that the ads caused cardiac episodes in some viewers, though that’s never been corroborated.
“That wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that,” Lapsey says. “On Reddit there were rumors that some older people had heart attacks but no one really knows.”
Lapsley also uncovered that there was a series of radio advertisements from K-Fee that feature audio jump scares. That was perhaps a bad idea, given that most people listen to the radio while driving.
In addition to its massive impact in the online space, “Ghost Car”’s traditional television origins make it the most interesting Internet Screamer. It’s easy to understand why jump scares would be pervasive in the anarchic early years of the Internet, but on television there is considerably more regulatory red tape to clear. The fact that K-Fee cleared that red tape makes it something of a minor miracle.
“Ghost Car”’s success in the pre-internet era also begs the question as to where all the Internet Screamers have gone now? Jump scare pranks will certainly persist for as long as there are innocent internet users to be taken in by them, but the fad is certainly many years away from its height. Both Bouchard and Lapsley have similar theories as to why the Internet Screamer era has fallen away.
“I think people got tired of it,” Bouchard says. “It’s the same schtick over and over again. That’s what I’ve noticed as I’ve been making videos on my channel. A lot of people now expect it. If a video is too good to be true they think ‘oh yeah, this is a jump scare.’”
“There aren’t many originals,” Lapsley adds. “I gave [making one] a go myself for the documentary. It didn’t go well. It got no views and I’m quite glad it didn’t.”
Inoculation is certainly part of it. When savvy internet users begin to recognize the telltale signs of an Internet Screamer, they are less likely to see a video through to its terrifying completion. Another aspect that cannot be ignored, however, is that the internet itself isn’t as much of an unchartable frontier as it once was.
Moneyed interests like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and more have bought up a considerable amount of online real estate and they have a vested interest in ensuring that the visitors to their many sites aren’t viewing them with their hands over their eyes. In 2018, New Line Cinema produced ads for its Conjuring-verse horror film The Nun that featured a jump scare. After receiving some user complaints, YouTube reported that the ad violated its “shocking content policy” and removed the official video, though the clip lived on through countless other bootleg uploads.
There’s possibly a third reason Internet Screamers have declined though. Perhaps we all as Internet citizens came to an implicit understanding that enough was enough and we would no longer attempt to scare one another. Call it an Internet Screamer cease-fire if you will. Is it possible then that the people of the internet have become more sophisticated and conscientious than ever before?
Yeah, no. It’s probably the money thing.