DARK WEB: STEVEN HICKEY’S ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO CREEPYPASTA PART 23 – SMILE.JPG
Welcome once again to another to another exploration of the darker side of the Internet.
In the past I’ve looked at some truly iconic Creepypastas — from the posterboy for CP fandom, Jeff the Killer to the otherworldly inhuman Rake, some stories become so big they practically define the genre. When it comes to Creepypasta’s most popular characters and stories, those adopted by fandom as the best that online horror has to offer, this week’s story is up there with Jeff, Slenderman, the Rake and Ben Drowned. It is the story of the insanity-inducing viral image, Smile.jpg, also known as Smile.dog.
The chilling tale of the Smile Dog and smile.jpg, the computer file purported to portray a visual depiction of the entity, is one of the Internet’s older viral horror stories. It’s difficult to ascertain from where exactly the story originated, as it is so widespread around the Internet. However, previous attempts to locate the original post, such as those by the folks over at know your meme (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/smilejpg?full=1) or supernatural phenomenon blog Aether Paranormal (http://www.aetherparanormal.com/blog/the-curious-case-of-smilejpg-by-jml/), posit that the story was first circulated on 4chan’s /X/ board some time in 2008.
This is the time at which the image most synonymous with the story first appeared online. It is an image designed to look like an old Polaroid with bloody fingerprints on it, that depicts a dog, possibly a Siberian husky, staring malevolently into the camera withstand wide, human-like grin. Upon closer inspection it is also possible to discern a human hand, reaching out palm-first on the left side of the image.
Plenty of people find this picture unnerving. The malicious expression on the dog’s face is certainly memorable and pretty unpleasant, even if the image composition isn’t exactly the smoothest display of photoshop skills. Cynophobia (the fear of dogs) is actually a pretty common phobia, with as many as 36% of sufferers of animal phobias reporting that their anxieties were focused on cats or dogs. Dog bites are among the most common animal attacks (no doubt due to the sheer number of dogs living in direct proximity to human beings) and the eponymous nature of dogs in society makes the image that little bit creepier — it’s not entirely unlikely that you’ll cross paths with a husky at some point in your life. The moody lighting (or lack thereof) of the image adds to its horrifying effect, using a murky, shadowy quality that taps into Man’s inherent fear of darkness. Combine that with the uncomfortable juxtaposition of human expressions on a beast, suggesting human levels of intelligence and cruelty mixed with the savage unpredictability of an animal, and It’s certainly unpleasant. However, I’d argue that there are plenty of more frightening Creepypasta pictures out there, from Victor Surge’s Slender Man, to the shocking photographs located by IvySir to accompany his stories The Expressionless and Liars, to the ever-popular Jeff the Killer.
However, it is worth remembering that it is one of the first of these and, while Slenderman has never really had much of a coherent backstory and the Jeff image had multiple shoddily written origin tales attached, Smile.jpg came with a fantastic story.
Due to the sketchy nature of Smile Dog’s origin timeline it’s impossible to know which came first, the story or the image, and different researchers have both discovered evidence which they claim supports either position. The story, titled ‘The Curious Case of Smile.jpg’, has been attributed to a writer known only as JML. You can read it in its entirety at the Creepypasta Wikia here: http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Smile_Dog
The story details a young writer, the aforementioned JML, who hears about the story of smile.jpg as a youngster, then located the only person known to have encountered the image — a woman referred to only as Mary E. It seems that Mary came across the file back in 1992 when she worked for a Chicago-based Bulletin Board System (for those too young to remember the infancy of the web as we know it today, a BBS was a server that allowed multiple users to log-on and exchange messages and files).
When a hyperlink to the file was posted on the BBS, Mary was one of the individuals who opened it. Curiously, she is the only person to have ever spoken about viewing the image. However, when JML makes the trip to interview Mary, she abruptly and hysterically changes her mind, locking herself in her bathroom in tears, rambling on instead about the terrible dreams that haunt her each night. After fruitless efforts to coax Mary out, from both JML and Mary’s husband Terrence, JML eventually leaves without hearing her story.
However, after giving us a brief history of the mysterious file, in which JML also stresses that the original legend spawned plenty of hoax images to appear online and claiming that for some unknown reason, Wikipedia admins have consistently deleted any attempts to post information on smile.jpg. It also claims that the file has appeared online multiple times and each time it has caused mass hysteria, anxiety and epilepsy. Following more attempts to locate the file, JML is thrown a lifeline when Mary E emails him once again. In the message she details her own encounter with Smile.dog, claiming that the creature from the image appears to her in dreams every night. The creature talks to her, tormenting her but offering her a way out — all she has to do is ‘spread the word’. Shortly after first discovering smile.jpg, Mary E received a floppy disk through the post with a single file on it. At the point at which she’d backed out of the interview with JML she had finally decided to acquiesce to the creature’s demands and pass the disk to somebody else. However, at the last moment her conscience had gotten the better of her.
Now she is contacting JML one last time to implore him to give up his search. Shortly afterwards Terrence contacts him to inform JML that Mary has committed suicide. But the story doesn’t end there. A year after JML’s failed attempt to interview Mary, he receives an email. It comes with a single attachment — smile.jpg. The story finishes with JML struggling with his own conscience, wondering if he could ‘spread the word’ to save his own life. As the story finishes with a familiar image, we discover his answer…
It’s a fantastic little Creepypasta, combining clever storytelling with a plotline reminiscent of Koji Suzuki’s smash-hit novel, Ring, which in turn went on to spawn Hideo Nakata’s marvellous film adaptation and it’s extremely successful American remake. For those unfamiliar with the story of Sadako/Samara, Ring is the story of a cursed videotape, one that exposes the viewer to a vengeful spirit who will kill them seven days after watching the tape… unless they copy the video and show it to somebody else before their time is up.
Spoilers for Nakata’s film follow below, but even more horrifying than the much ballyhooed scene in which the spectral Sadako emerges from a well onscreen before crawling out of the television set to dispatch a hapless victim, is the climax, in which the heroine Reiko finally decides to show the video to her own father to spare the life of her son Yoichi. It’s a desperate, yet also heartless and cold act, and JML’s own decision to willingly expose us, the audience, to Smile.dog echoes this.
The story of a curse that spreads like a virus has been seen plenty of times in genre fiction in recent years, as well the various ‘J-Horror’ films that followed Nakata’s lead (most notably Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On AKA The Grudge) it was also the driving plot device in 2014’s critically acclaimed It Follows.
The story also works best at the point at which we realise that, by reading the tale all the way to its chilling conclusion, our morbid curiosity had brought about our own downfall. ‘Curiosity killed the cat’ is one of the most well-known proverbs for good reason, as children we are often told that reckless investigation and exploration comes with risk — that sticking our noses where they don’t belong will end badly for us. As bad as the horror of being stalked and tormented by some otherworldly entity is, somehow it becomes all the more heart wrenching to know that such a fate is your own fault. The fear and helplessness are bad enough, but soak them in regret and they become that little bit more potent.
As I mentioned before, the story cleverly covers its own tracks, claiming that there are multiple fake smile.jpgs and accounts of the story in circulation (meaning that any investigation of your own that fails to drive you insane or summon a demonic entity can merely be written off as due to you finding a fake image) which aids suspension of disbelief, a vital component in successful horror storytelling.
The references to real world websites, such as 4chan, from which the image is genuinely considered to have originated, are excellent touches. The fact these are legitimate internet pages with which the reader are likely to be familiar works to reassure us of the story’s legitimacy — it talks about things that we know to be true, so surely the rest is more likely to be genuine too? It’s touches like this, as well as some technically proficient writing, that make Smile.jpg that rare thing — an early Creepypasta that is genuinely great. This quality undoubtedly played a large role in the rapid and wide spread of the story (and image) throughout the internet.
It popped up in numerous chatrooms and message boards, often prompting users to ponder whether the image it describes is genuine. What’s more, it was during this spread that a new, heavily photoshopped image of the alleged Smile.dog appeared with the story. Resembling a canine Jeff the Killer, this picture is clearly fake but still utterly unnerving, creating a truly horrifying image and monster. More human in appearance than the original husky image, this picture is missing the hand and other extra details described in JML’s story, instead focusing on the horror of the entity itself against a blank, hellish red backdrop.
This has caused some fans, such as those on the always Creepypasta-friendly art community site DeviantArt to differentiate between the two, yet still incorporate both images into the same mythos. To them the Husky is the original image, the gateway for Smile.dog, while the red image has become Nightmare Smile Dog, a visual representation of the beast that appears to victims in their dreams. Both versions have become extremely popular at DeviantArt with thousands of examples of fanart appearing at the site, many of which (like so many of the creations at the site) are quite fantastic and clearly the work of very talented individuals.
By January 2009 the story was so well-known that an Urban Dictionary entry appeared for Smile.jpg (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=smile.jpg). Posted by user smile.dog, it actually takes a surprisingly level-headed approach, not definitively stating the existence of the file as fact, instead claiming that it might be real. Of course, that element of doubt does little to convince those nervous or ghoulishly curious about the story.
There are plenty of examples of anxious web users asking their peers if Smile.dog is genuine, including this Yahoo Answers page (https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20111222222423AAkPa9U) amid many, many more (https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20111222134109AA76of7 and https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110827233501AAopvgy). The story has been clouded even further by some users claiming that they know for a fact that that Smile.jpg is definitely real. In April 2010 a user named AnonymousEthan created a post on The Lounge forums over at MovieCodec.com, titled The Truth of the Real Smile.jpg (https://www.loungeforums.com/arts/the-truth-of-the-real-smilejpg-84899/).
In the post AnoymousEthan posits that the story re: Smile.jpg has become twisted and corrupted over time. He claims that original image wasn’t of a dog, it was of an unnamed and unrecognisable type of creature. He directly describes the story of the husky and accompanying image as fake, as well as referring to the newer, red Nightmare Smile Dog pic as a hoax as well. He claims to have spoken with people who have seen the true image and goes on to issue a warning to all who would seek it out: ‘If you ever get an email entitled Smile.jpg, DO NOT OPEN IT, delete it immediately. I believe that the image is of Satan itself.’
Elsewhere, yet another version of the image appeared as a part of a video released in November of the same year by YouTuber CAFRex123 that he claimed to be the original picture (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItcYVgjlB8Q) a user of the Unexplained Mysteries forum by the name of Arkitecht created a post asking about Smile.jpg in March 2011 (http://www.unexplained-mysteries.com/forum/topic/202015-smilejpg/).
The story has gained a great deal of traction because of this blurring of the lines between fact and fiction, and as such it is one of the most widespread and well-known Creepypastas. As such it is very popular, and like any other popular CP, it has been adapted and elaborated upon in multiple ways. From works of fanart, to the now ubiquitous readings on YouTube (including this one by always excellent Mr Creepypasta: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgG9v2HEy5A), to film adaptations (such as these excellent examples: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZBMK-EYDdw, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxfqToFa5wE and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usAdnmbw_9w), to spin off stories that expand upon or reference the original, such as DementedEmperor’s impressive My Face (http://www.creepypasta.com/face-2/), Smile.jpg is a genuine phenomenon.
I was able to talk to Sabooom about his YouTube shortfilm adaptation of the story:
UK HORROR SCENE: First, what was it that drew you to the story?
SABOOOOM: The first time I heard the story was when I was staying at a hotel with the group of friends that I eventually made the movie with. It was late at night when one of the guys read the story and then passed his phone around with the infamous picture up on the screen. I think it spooked a lot of us and that’s why it stuck.
UKHS: Are you a fan of Creepypasta? If so, which is your favourite?
S: These days I don’t keep up with creepypastas too much, but some favourites that come to mind from back in the day are “suicidemouse.avi”, the “banned” and incredibly depressing Mickey Mouse cartoon. I always thought Pokemon Lost Silver was kinda eerie, too. I can hear the Ruins of Alph radio music play in my head when I read that one.
UKHS: Why do you think so many people are Creepypasta fans?
S: I think it’s easy to get spooked by creepypasta, reading it on your laptop, late at night in total silence. It doesn’t rely on jump scares, which I really appreciate. A quality creepypasta takes its time building its story.
UKHS: Why do you think Smile.jpg resonates so well with readers and viewers?
S: I think the appeal of this creepypasta came from the picture associated with it. Not many creepypastas have something tangible to go with it like that. It really inserts you into the story. The character in the story can see the picture in her nightmares, and I think some of us probably could after reading it, too.
UKHS: What challenges arose during your adaptation of the story?
S: The biggest obstacle was the fact that everyone involved with the production was in high school at the time, myself included. The whole thing was done on literally zero budget. The most difficult scene to film was the suicide scene. We had to make a convincing brain splatter, which was actually someone sitting in the bathtub throwing a handful of red-dyed oatmeal at the wall!
UKHS: Finally, what can your fans look forward to from you in the days ahead? Will there be any more Creepypasta adaptations?
S: I haven’t made many movies in the last few years. It’s something that I’d like to get back into eventually. I did follow up Smile.jpg the next year with december2010 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUO4sY_QcB8 , a found-footage style movie featuring Slenderman. Keep in mind, this was before Slenderman blew up in the mainstream with The Eight Pages and all that.
Thank you for your interest in Smile.jpg. It’s pretty cool to see that it’s still getting attention all these years later.
Like Saboooom’s film, the story remains popular to this day, for a number of perfectly understandable reasons, and it gains new fans daily. With a fanbase as avid as this, there is no shortage of willing disciples to ‘spread the word’. I just hope that after I’ve introduced each of you to the story that you’ll be able to sleep peacefully tonight.
Come back next time for a look at another story of a terrifying entity that stalks its victim after slumber descends.