DARK WEB: STEVEN HICKEY’S ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO CREEPYPASTA – PART 42: THE RUSSIAN SLEEP EXPERIMENT
There are a small handful of Creepypasta stories that have taken on an almost mythic quality with fans. Stories that are so highly regarded, so captivating, that they become an integral building block of the community. I’m not just talking cool characters (which is arguably the appeal of the likes of Slenderman or Jeff the Killer), I’m referring to stories that capture the imaginations of the reader and become a form of internet mythology, actually disseminated as fact by some.
One of the most popular – and chilling – of these is The Russian Sleep Experiment.
The earliest incidence of it online that I can find is this post on 8 August 2009 at Rip&47’s WordPress blog here (https://rip747.wordpress.com/2009/08/08/russian-sleep-experiment-the-best-short-story-ive-read/) However, I have also seen claims that it was first posted on 4chan by a user named Orange Soda in May of that year (http://i.imgur.com/l9znS.png) The story itself details a scientific experiment conducted in Russia in the late 1940s. The subjects of the experiment were prisoners, extracted from jail and promised their freedom in exchange for their participation, if they were to stick at the project for the full 30-day duration.
The doctors conducting the experiment had a simple aim — to test a stimulant gas designed to keep subjects awake and simultaneously monitor the effects of sleep deprivation. Five inmates were selected and sealed within an airtight chamber, where they were observed via a two-way mirror.
The first few days passed without incident, however, the subjects’ attitudes changed around Day Five. First they became irritable, then paranoid as they turned on one another. On the ninth day some of the subjects started to scream, running back and forth gripped with a manic energy. More disconcerting still was that some proceeded to rip the pages from the books provided, plastering them to the two-way mirror using their own excrement. And then they fell silent.
Unable to monitor the events inside the chamber, the scientists were unsure how to proceed. Finally, after three days of silence, they communicated with the subjects via the intercom, saying that they were entering the chamber to test the microphones and, should the subjects comply with the researchers’ instructions, one would be granted his freedom. A single voice replied: ‘We no longer want to be freed.’ Finally, after two further days, the experiment was aborted and the scientists (along with their armed guards) entered the chamber. However, they were not prepared for what they would find inside…
The Russian Sleep Experiment is a fascinating pasta with a lot of cool hooks for readers. Like many early pastas, it was circulated as a true story for some time. There were a number of decidedly unethical medical experiments conducted both during and just after the Second World War, in a host of locations including (but not limited to) the Soviet Union. The film Experiments in the Revival of Organisms depicts a number of disturbing 1940s experiments conducted by Russian researchers, including one which saw a machine used to keep a decapitated dog head alive.
It doesn’t feel like much of a stretch for the experiment described to have been conducted in this era, particularly by a regime notorious for the harsh manner in which it treated political adversaries. Much like Where The Bad Kids Go, it is a story aimed at Western, primarily American readers, and relies a great deal on their lack of experience with the East to boost its believability. ‘Something that horrible could never happen here in the “civilised” West,’ readers might think. ‘But over there, in those dark, cold, alien, lawless countries that have seen such terrible trouble and turmoil? Well, that’s a different matter altogether…’
Except it really isn’t.
The Russian Sleep Experiment is a work of fiction. It’s a clever and well-written one, but it is fiction nonetheless. As well as the flaws its own narrative (the KGB wasn’t actually officially formed until 1954, the number of prisoners doesn’t tally up at the end), there are actual, documented cases of sleep deprivation that have not lead to incidents of superpowered, undead, poetry-spouting uber-monsters.
In 1964 San Diego man Randy Gardner stayed awake for 264 hours (that’s 11 days). He became a little dizzy, had trouble with his concentration and short-term memory and even reported the odd hallucination. He did not eat himself. That same year Toimi Soini of Hamina, Finland, stayed awake for 276 hours, an effort that saw him included in the Guinness Book of World Records right up until 1989, when the entry was removed amid fears that people attempting to break the record could cause harm to themselves. Nonetheless the BBC has since run a blog by Cornish man Tony Wright in his attempt to stay awake for 266 hours more recently (http://www.bbc.co.uk/cornwall/content/articles/2007/05/15/aboutcornwall_sleeplessdiary_feature.shtml), while unverified reports claim that a woman from Cambridgeshire, Maureen Weston, actually went without sleep for a staggering 449 hours (that’s 14 days, 13 hours) as part of a ‘rocking chair marathon’. Not one of these individuals has since been reported as ripping out their own internal organs or speaking on behalf of the darkness at the heart of human nature.
Yet even with these facts easily findable online, the story gained plenty of traction. Some just liked it as a horror story, posting it to the Creepypasta Wiki on 16 August 2010 (http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/The_Russian_Sleep_Experiment), while others have questioned its validity, such as those who posted it to Reddit’s WTF sub multiple times. One of the earliest examples as this post by redditor thatguynamedguy, posted on the evening of 2 March 2010 which drew plenty of speculation from the community (https://www.reddit.com/r/WTF/comments/b8ev3/russian_sleep_experiment/)
In 1 October 2013, YouTuber IReadCreepyPastas posted a reading (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MEwbfnCpKA4&feature=youtu.be) accompanied by a series of spooky black and white photographs, which have become an iconic and intrinsic part of the lore around the story. The most striking of these is that of a deranged, grinning ghoul, said to be one of the subjects of the RSE. This image is often touted as photographic evidence of the horrifying events described in the story. I can understand how it could be quite compelling proof to those already unnerved by a legitimately scary story, but once again, this ‘evidence’ can be quickly discredited.
The picture is actually one of a Halloween decoration named Spazm, which is available here (https://www.costumesupercenter.com/products/animated-spazm-prop) among other places. It’s not quite so frightening when looked at more clearly — a clear example of the power of using a good filter on your images! Despite the overwhelming evidence to disprove the Russian Sleep Experiment as a factual account, the story is still widely circulated and remains one of the most popular creepypastas to this day. It captures the imagination of the reader and, in some cases, even inspires further works of deeply unsettling art.
These range from the usual YouTube readings, such as this classic by the inimitable Mr CreepyPasta (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1EW4r6Kiiw&feature=youtu.be), which has clocked up an astonishing 848,000+ views since it went live on 24 November 2011.
Fellow YouTuber Creeps McPasta loves the pasta so much that he even penned an unofficial sequel to the story, The Russian Sleep Experiment 2, which he narrated on his channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6JvgOsZy54
However, one of the Russian Sleep Experiment’s greatest legacies is that it served as the inspiration for the quite fantastic novella of the same name by UK author Holly Ice, which you can read about here: http://www.russiansleepexperiment.net . Published by Almond Press in August 2015, The Russian Sleep Experiment is a fantastic expansion on the original pasta, one that remains faithful to the source material, effortlessly addressing (and in many cases rectifying) the flaws of the original.
In a very clever move, Ice steers clear of the pseudo-supernatural mumbo jumbo of Orange Soda’s story, instead focusing on the personalities and relationships of those involved in the experiment. The novella is split into three sections, each taking a very different approach to describing its horrors. The first chapter focuses on the subjects, especially the stoic Mikhail and his optimistic comrade Alexei, their lives in a hellish Siberian prison camp and the selection process that sees them taken away to the shadowy Dr Glukhov’s laboratory.
The second chapter is the one that will be most familiar to fans of the pasta, detailing the events of the experiment from both the point of view of the subjects and via Glukhov’s log. The final chapter focuses on one of the researchers, Luka, in the days after he returns to his isolated rural home in the frozen Russian countryside. Luka has been left with physical wounds from his ordeal, yet it is his mental scars that are deepest. Can anybody truly survive the Russian Sleep Experiment?
As a published author, Ice is a wonderful wordsmith and her take on this story is captivating, compelling and very, very disturbing. As a professional writer her product is so much smoother and better-structured than your average pasta, which is often the work of enthusiastic amateurs.
The novella shows intelligence, tight plotting and some genuine emotional heft. In short, it really is a must read. You can buy it direct from the publishers here: (http://www.russiansleepexperiment.net ) or via Amazon for Kindle: (http://amzn.to/2rSczzb)
I was blown away by the novella, so I was delighted when the kind folks over at Almond Press arranged for me to speak with very talented and charming Ms Ice.
Our interview follows below.
UK HORROR SCENE: Hi Holly, Thanks so much for agreeing to speak with UKHS. First, please tell my readers a little about your novella?
HOLLY ICE: The Russian Sleep Experiment novella is loosely inspired by the Creepypasta of the same name. My publisher and I wanted to pay homage to the original story but create our own interpretation of what a disturbing sleep experiment could be like. We wound up downplaying the supernatural angle in favour of the science, for example.
It was exciting for me to explore the idea of human experimentation within the cold war, as I have family from that region of the world and had read a lot about the history of the area during the world wars. I wanted to get into the setting and explore the areas this experiment could have taken place in, plus the characters and character conflicts which may have arisen. As a result, the focus is on the psychological impact on the characters more than the horror of the sleep experiment itself. Because of this, I explored the narrative in terms of before and after – where the characters were coming from and how they put their lives together after the experiment (or didn’t). This required my characters to have families, loves, hopes, and their own motivations to participate in the experiment.
There’s a greyness about everybody, from the scientists to the labour camp prisoners and the experimentees. There’s no pure evil here. It’s human decisions and failings behind this experiment.
UKHS: Why the Russian Sleep Experiment? Were you familiar with the story before you started the project?
HI: I was actually approached by the publisher. They wanted to support a novella loosely inspired by the short story and came to me with the brief as I had worked with them before. It was a bit of a departure for me. I had previously written sci-fi, romance and fantasy stories but this was my first in-depth foray into horror fiction. However, while writing the book, I realised horror gets at the core of what I love to write about – the unknown, and the magic, or trepidation, it so often brings.
UKHS: By focusing on different narrators, each of whom plays a different role in the experiment, you were able to give a very human face to an otherwise quite out-there horror tale. Was it this element of the story that most fascinated you? What was your motive behind telling the story in this way?
HI: Thank you! Yes, it was this element which most inspired me. The human angle was not fully explored in the short story because the focus was different – a philosophical, internal message questioning the core of what a human is. For this message to work as well as it did, the short story author needed the characters to represent everyone that read the story, and so they avoided giving too many individual character details. I wanted to explore individual lives and motivations, the real-life story behind what these people may have experienced in the historical context, and the implications of this story never getting out into the history books.
UKHS: Are you a fan of Creepypastas? If so, are there any others that you like?
HI: I think Creepypastas are generally great reads. Many create or perpetuate urban legends, and most are atmospheric encapsulations of horror that are perfect for an evening read – if you’re not too keen on sleep! I don’t have any particular favourites as I’m still relatively new to the horror genre and have much more to read.
UKHS: Who are your favourite writers? Who inspires your style most?
HI: That’s a really difficult question, particularly because I came to horror late. I was inspired to write by fantasy and crime, so my favourite authors are people like Naomi Novik, Laurell K Hamilton and Enid Blyton, but my years in university instilled a great love for the Gothic. Henry James’ Turn of the Screw was a particular favourite for me during my GCSE and A Level years. I also really enjoyed Carmilla, one of the first interpretations of the vampire story. I have no idea who I most resemble in terms of my writing style. I don’t consciously try to imitate anyone, so much of this will come down to my subconscious mind and the associations readers bring when they come to my work.
UKHS: Which work of your own are you most proud of? Why?
HI: I’m most proud of my current work in progress, a fantasy series loosely inspired by old Welsh poetry which refers to King Arthur as a soldier involved in a supernatural world rather than a King. I’ve mixed this loose idea with Arthur rising from the dead into the modern world. This event coincides with a number of deaths in rural Britain which may be linked to the Fae.
The first book in this particular series, While I Slept, is one I have been working on since 2012, on and off. I’ve learned a lot in the production process, particularly about structure, and am proud of the progress I have made as a writer. I’m also really enjoying blending cultures and creating societies. It’s a complex process but one I’ve become fully immersed in. I’m hoping it comes together as I want it to in the next year or so, and I am hopeful the sequel will come together much more easily. I tend to move on from pieces once they are published and put my passion into the next project on the horizon, so this favourite will likely change in future!
UKHS: Would you consider returning to the RSE story in the future? Or possibly adapt another online horror story?
HI: I don’t think so. For me, the story came to a logical end in the Siberian wilderness. I also don’t think I would reinvent another online horror story unless something really hooked my attention. As much as I enjoyed the experience, readers come to reimaginings or reinventions with expectations based on earlier editions. That’s completely natural and expected, but I’d like to focus on other areas going forward, and not in the horror genre exclusively. As well as the fantasy series, I’m currently working on a number of horror short stories which (fingers crossed) will be out in the next year or so.
UKHS: Where is the best place for my readers to find out more about your work and upcoming projects?
HI: Readers can find my published works on Amazon, with my novella available on a number of other online retailers, including ibooks and kobo, with PDFs available direct from my publisher’s website for the book here: http://www.russiansleepexperiment.net/
To keep up to date with upcoming projects, readers can check my author website’s work in progress page http://www.hollyice.co.uk/works-in-progress
The site has a mailing list to update readers on new publications here: http://www.hollyice.co.uk/mailing-list
I’m also on a number of social media sites, including:
UKHS: Thanks so much for speaking with us!
As well as literature, the Russian Sleep Experiment’s very visceral visual nature lent itself to film adaptations.
One of the most highly-regarded of these is Let Me Out, an italian web-series that actually sticks pretty closely to the original plot of the story. You can find the first episode here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAUFAB8ID2g&list=PLS1tY8LybT6Tjck9G6QaqyqoDjJLsYBMs
However, arguably the finest cinematic adaptation of the story is Framed Pictures’ The Russian Sleep Experiment, which you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zr4C_cLgXR0
Helmed by talented director Timothy Smith and starring a great cast of actors including Gary Brunner, Michael Bugard, Zach Ross and Brett Solferino, the 28 minute short film looks fantastic and manages to tell a story that, while it differs in some aspects, absolutely nails the tone of the original. Originally released early last year, the film has recently been posted to YouTube to watch for free and has already racked up nearly 50,000 views.
I’ve become quite the fan of Horror Shorts in recent months, and Smith’s film is a sterling example of what the ambitious filmmakers currently plying their trade on the scene are capable of.
I was lucky enough to speak with Timothy Smith about the creation of his film. The interview follows below.
UKHS: Hi Timothy, and thank you for agreeing to speak with UK Horror Scene. So, what drew you to The Russian Sleep Experiment?
TS: I wanted to make a film about The Russian Sleep Experiment because it had so much interesting content for a story. Since it was written in log forms it left a lot of creative freedom to develop characters.
UKHS: Why do you think fans enjoy the story and your adaptation of it?
TS: I think what draws fans to the story (as well as what drew me to the story) is that RSE is a unique approach to the psychological thriller genre. While the blood and guts are a staple in the genre, the setting of a post-WW2-era Russian experimentation camp is a bloody playground that may have never been explored in a horror film before.
UKHS: Are you a fan of Creepypasta? If so, what are your favourites?
TS: I’m a huge fan of Creepypasta, RSE attracted me to the following years ago. My favorite Creepypasta currently is The Song and Dance Man.
UKHS: Your adaptation is very faithful in terms of tone and feel, but there are some plot changes. Would you care to explain your decision-making process?
TS: Probably the most notable change I made for the film from the story is regarding the prisoners. In the original story they were Russian prisoners of war held by their own country. I personally found it to be much more interesting to make the prisoners Nazi war criminals as it adds a bit of irony to their torturous capture. I also wanted to avoid the cliché of the purely evil Nazi and made them a bit more humane which I personally find more terrifying. If we can sympathize with monsters then what does that say about us?
Another change I made regarding the prisoners is that there are three instead of five in the original story. I chose three for aesthetic purposes and since none of the characters in the original story had names or characteristics it was an easy decision to make.
UKHS: What were the major challenges of adapting the story? And what were your favourite moments during the filming/editing process?
TS: The major challenge in filming this short was the planning. We had a very tight budget and had to stretch the money as far as we could. Since time is money in film (and everywhere else) we had to shoot the whole 28-minute film in two days. It was a sleep experiment for the cast and crew as we stayed awake for 2 days straight to get everything we needed. The shooting process, while exhausting, was by far the funnest and most enjoyable time I’ve had onset. Despite the dark melancholy content of the story, we had lots of laughs and ridiculous banter on set. Maybe we were getting slap happy from the sleep deprivation?
UKHS: Do you have any plans to adapt any other creepypastas into short films?
TS: I would like to make another short based on another Creepypasta in the near future. The fan-base of Creepypasta has been very supportive and being able to contribute to such a wonderful community is incredibly rewarding. I’m currently working on an original short film that is currently in the pre-production phase.
UKHS: And finally, where is the best place for my readers to find out more about your work and upcoming projects?
TS: You can follow us on our youtube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCK4qB18nDgz17UZZV8wonBw) and Facebook page
UKHS: Thank you once again.
TS: Thanks so much for the questions. I’m incredibly grateful for the morbid curiosity!
Even today, The Russian Sleep Experiment is finding a new audience and collaborators. On the IMDB there is a listing for a Russian Sleep Experiment movie, currently in production in Australia, due to be released this Halloween. Perfect for viewing after you’ve finished setting up your Spazm decoration!
A strong story that has inspired arguably greater works of art, The Russian Sleep Experiment looks set to remain popular for many years to come.
Join me next time when I shall be covering not just a story, but a whole lore adopted and embraced by the pasta community.
Until then, sleep well.