If you’re anything like me—a Millennial, a horror fan, tech-savvy—then you’re probably also a Creepypasta addict. Heaven knows I’ve spent countless hours on car trips, in waiting rooms, and random down-time consuming all manner of Pastas, from those concerning cryptids to government experiments to occult party games. There’s one particular subgenre, though, that struck my imagination in a profound way—and, from the number of them floating around out there, I’m going to guess that, once again, I’m not alone in this fascination. I’m talking about what’re popularly known as “Lost Episode” Creepypastas.
In the unlikely event you don’t know what I’m talking about, Lost Episode pastas are supposedly true stories recounting individuals’ experiences watching disturbing episodes of popular TV shows that either never properly made it to air, or were only broadcast once under limited, dubious circumstances. The episodes usually involve either an overall mordant tone, characters acting in incongruously disturbing or morose ways, or prophecies of some future, catastrophic event (or all three). The progenitors of the subgenre appear to be a pair of Pastas called Dead Bart and Squidward’s Suicide. The former concerns an episode of The Simpsons supposedly produced very early in the series’ run, in which an unusually disruptive Bart accidentally kills himself after opening the door on an airplane. The next act of the episode is dedicated to an uncomfortably long sequence of the surviving family members in a state of grief, after which they travel to a cemetery to pay their respects to Bart’s photo-realistically drawn corpse. Squidward’s Suicide, meanwhile, proposes to tell the story of a Nickelodeon intern who was invited to watch an upcoming episode of Spongebob Squarepants, only to realize—along with the rest of the horrified staff—that a hacker had replaced the episode with his own dark creation, featuring a depressed Squidward blowing his brains out, interspersed with clips from a child snuff film. (An even earlier pasta, suicidemouse.avi, is commonly included in lists of Lost Episode pastas, though I’m not counting it here since it deals with a Mickey Mouse short as opposed to a TV episode).
The rest of the stories in the subgenre take similar tacks, ranging from a mordant episode of Friends allegedly written by a suicidally depressed Matthew Perry to an aborted ALF series finale only available in Japan, depicting the gruesome autopsy of the eponymous alien. (A popular spinoff of the subgenre features writers creating their own original abominable TV series; the best written and most well-known of these is undoubtedly Candle Cove, which struct enough of a nerve to be optioned for an equally creepy TV series). Lost Episode pastas range in quality from “drunk Reddit thread” to “next Clive Barker,” and cover every possible type of TV show from sitcoms to dramas to pro-wrestling. Next to Slenderman lore, they’re one of the most ubiquitous types of Pasta, to the point that the Creepypasta Wiki has blacklisted any future submissions in the category do not just to their sheer dearth but to their increasingly cliched and unimaginative quality. As more and more people began writing their own Lost Episode pastas, so too did the overall quality of the subgenre decline; for a while, it seemed that, if you were an aspiring Creepypasta author, you were going to write a Lost Episode sooner or later—often sooner, with the spelling mistakes to prove it.
Why the popularity of this one subgenre, though? What is it about the idea of warped iterations of beloved cartoons and sitcoms that so captured our collective imagination, and kept writers going back to that well so often that the well ran dry?
A common thread in Lost Episode pastas is that they tend to deal with the programs Millennials grew up watching. While older and contemporary shows are occasionally featured, late-80s and 90s programs are the most common fodder, indicating that the people writing these are Millennials themselves—judging by offhand remarks and personal information freely given in the comments sections, Millennials also make up the primary consumers. This generational profile, I believe, explains the place that Lost Episodes occupy in the collective subconscious; and the reason for that lies with the network at the heart of one of those early Creepypastas: Nickelodeon.
For Millennials—especially the first wave, born in the mid-to-late 1980s—Nickelodeon formed a humongous part of the childhood experience. There were shows to cover every age range. From Pinwheel and Magellan’s Castle for pre-elementary tykes to Pete and Pete and reruns of Looney Tunes for older kids to the SNICK programming block for tweens and teens, we literally grew up with the network. Regardless of your age, though, there was one type of show that every viewer indulged in: The Nick Toons. Arguably what made Nickelodeon the force in children’s entertainment in the 1990s, the Nick Toons were well animated, intelligently written, and engaging on multiple levels. They were smart enough to keep the attention of older kids, broadly comic enough to entertain children who didn’t know what the hell they were watching, and often surreal enough to capture the imaginations of channel-surfing stoners of all ages. There was something for everyone, from the surrealism of Ren and Stimpy to the innocent antics of Rugrats to the John Hughes-esque growing pains of Doug—though, if you were anything like me, you watched them all, even if the relevant bits didn’t hit you til years later.
And there was something just a little bit fucked up about all of them.
Here’s a clip from a vintage episode of Ren and Stimpy:
Now, here’s one from Rocko’s Modern Life:
That’s… kinda messed up, right? For a kids show?
Although Ren and Stimpy was most guilty of it, there was a pattern in most of the Nick Toons of incongruously adult, darkly sexual humor randomly injected and then quickly forgotten. For most of the younger kids, it went over our heads, though talking to other Millennials I’ve heard the recurrent story that while we didn’t quite get what we were seeing, we knew on some base level there was something wrong with it. That this was something forbidden or deranged though we didn’t quite know why. Even the seemingly benign Rugrats got in on the action: In one episode, Tommy says he “needs something hard and thin” to break a finger trap, then stuffs his hand down his diaper and begins rummaging around before pulling out a screwdriver; and there was that episode where Chuckie discovers he enjoys it when a girl named Megan hurts him, and then becomes despondent when he catches her pinching another boy (is it any wonder we all grew up to embrace Fifty Shades of Grey?).
While the Nick Toons, I feel, bear the brunt of the responsibility, they were either guilty of fine-tuning an extant trend or sparking off one that spread to other media—ABC’s Dinosaurs contained some pretty weird stuff (what are the implications of Earl putting Baby Sinclair to sleep by performing the mating dance, when the episode earlier implies that this universe’s equivalent to STDs are “mating dance related injuries”?), and there was that episode of Punky Brewster where she fights a Native American demon that murders her friends one-by-one that just might be the ur-Lost Episode. That disconnect between the general innocence of a given program and the occasional sharp left turns into the taboo, I think, gave the Millennial generation a finely tuned sense of (and love for) the uncanny—fear generated by the familiar suddenly being made unfamiliar. It’s why—behind a child-eating cryptid—the most popular pastas aren’t about demons or monsters, but about something so simple as TV episode that has something wrong with it. We were trained, as a generation, not to see fear in the unknown, but in something being off with the known.
For whatever reason, people making kids programs in the 80s and 90s couldn’t help but inject randomly inappropriate things into their work. Maybe the saccharine nature of the decade took an emotional toll and they had to let some inner darkness slip out to fight against it. Maybe it was sheer boredom. Maybe kids shows were all written and run by sick SOBs for fifteen years. Who knows? The result, though, was undeniable: an entire generation trying to reconcile an aspect of their childhood through scary stories. Read from this perspective, it casts a fascinating new light on the Lost Episode trend, and explains why so many Millennials are fascinated by the idea of Lost Episodes: In a way, we grew up watching them.