Little Things Lurking in my Feed
My love for horror began at six or seven. I’d watch horror movies with my brothers and then crawl into bed with my parents that night and swear it wasn’t because of the movie. And then there were the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. The illustrations unsettled me, stayed with me for years. The blurry but striking images of bones, ghosts, haunted houses, cracked nails, and bleeding hands invited me to go back to them immediately after I was done.
Even after I watched one horror film trailer, a video with all the hidden ghosts from The Haunting of Hill House, or a compilation that counted down the best horror movie jump scares. My YouTube recommended list has prepared tiny gifts—waiting for me to happen upon them. I see a thumbnail of an older man with his mouth open, face enraged. My eyes scan the details of the video and immediately find “[Short Horror Film]” in the title. It has 2.5 million views and is only three minutes long. Not too much of a commitment. How “scary” could it be? I mean, come on, it’s called “Make Me a Sandwich.” Doubtful this old man will tap into my fears. And yet, I wonder: what does the algorithm know that I don’t? It seems to anticipate my cravings, curiosities, and weaknesses. It watches me as I watch it.
It begins with the old man yelling, “Where’s my sandwich!” to someone off-screen. Predictably, a woman rushes over with a sandwich on a plate. There is a close-up of his mouth full of bread and other stuff underscored by eerie music. He is going to eat something, alright. The woman goes about her knitting, and then the man yells for her again. This time, she angrily adds dish soap into the middle of the sandwich. For the next one, she adds cat feces from an overflowing litter box. Each time, he chows down on the sandwich, seemingly unaware of what’s in it. Something is wrong, and the woman notices too. This doesn’t sit right with me. I sink further back into my couch cushions. Here we go.
There’s something about getting to the end of a horror film. I feel brave, energetic, relieved. Like a final girl. I’m safe on my couch, and my boyfriend is there too. After “Make Me a Sandwich,” we look at each other in delightful disgust, and the algorithm feeds us another: “Other Side of the Box.” This one’s fifteen minutes. Not as short, but the thumbnail of a face peering out of a box evokes mystery, curiosity, and darkness. Maybe this one will scare us more.
Out of focus, a person in dark clothing drives with a holiday-wrapped gift in their front seat. A man and a woman are cooking and flirting, while a record player spins out holiday music. It appears to be their house. Suddenly, loud and rapid knocks disrupt the couple’s conversation. The man says that it’s Sean, and the woman becomes uneasy. Her ex, perhaps. The way Sean’s standing makes me feel like he’s been through something—he’s off somehow. He holds the box up in front of him with his head tilted slightly down. Light from inside the house only shines on half of his face. The two men greet each other. The other man’s name is Ben, who invites Sean inside. The house is dim and full of shadows, yet clean to the point where I ask myself, Where’s all their stuff? Sean looks at a picture frame of Ben and the woman on a side table. He apologizes about everything, and Ben dismisses it—says that “it’s water under the bridge.” Sean asks if the woman is home, and Ben tells him that she isn’t. A smile of relief spreads on Sean’s face like softened butter. That’s a strange reaction. He asks for a favor: for Ben to open the gift. The card will make sense after. Ben laughs, says of course, and opens the gift right away. There’s nothing inside. It’s a box full of black nothing. Not painted black on the inside, no. It’s like a void. Sean leaves quickly, apologizing. What the hell is in that box? Ben grabs a flashlight to look inside, but the light doesn’t catch. He drops a pencil in the box and it falls—keeps falling, perhaps. It doesn’t hit the bottom. When the couple peers inside, their voices turn hollow. “Well that’s odd.”
“No kidding,” Ben replies.
I’ve always been afraid of the dark. I don’t know if it’s because of all the scary Mexican legends I heard as a kid, all the movies, or the books, but I always make sure I have some sort of light in my line of vision at night. The idea of a dark void in a box makes my stomach turn.
Ben remembers the card that Sean left, so the woman opens it. Sean apologizes for everything that happened between them and that he doesn’t know what the thing in the box is, but Ben should never take his eyes off of it. As she reads, the pencil that Ben dropped rolls on the floor and stops near his foot. “When you stare at it, it can’t move,” her voice shakes. The letter ends with, “It wants you to look away.”
This is something I could remember for the rest of my life, I think. Something watching you from the dark, but you must watch it too. It knows you, and you don’t know what it’ll do to you if you don’t.
They both realize they aren’t looking at it, and when they turn, what looks like the top half of a man’s head is sticking out of the box. It’s wet—drenched with water or sweat. It’s staring, like a painting that looks like it’s following you, but its eyes are actually following you. When Ben calls Sean, it goes to voicemail. He urges Sean to call back to get some answers about what the box is. The woman tells Ben to call again, asks what the thing in the box wants, and why it’s looking at him. When she stops talking, the box replays bits of their conversation from when they looked away. The hairs on my arms stand right up. The gift was meant for him, but now that the woman is involved, it’s for her too. Damnit. Doesn’t bode well. The woman stands there. “Rachel,” Ben calls. She stares back, seemingly hypnotized, and convinced that they could look away for a second to see what they’re dealing with. No, they fucked up. Its fingertips are now over the edge of the box.
“What? What do you want?” Rachel yells.
The box, in Sean’s voice, says “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I gotta go… Just Ben… Don’t let him leave the house.” Ben suggests that Rachel stay to watch it as he drives over to Sean’s to get answers.
“Could be harmless,” Ben says. She’s scared. Duh. He gives her a knife to defend herself, in case it’s not harmless. Sure, that’ll help.
As he’s driving, Ben gets Sean’s voicemail twice in a row before calling again to leave a message. Mid-voicemail, Sean picks up the phone in a panic. He tells Ben to repeat himself.
“It told us what you said,” Ben says. Sean doesn’t know how it works, didn’t even know that it could speak. It lied. He didn’t tell it anything.
“Who’s us? Why do you keep saying us?” Sean yells.
“Me and Rachel.”
More panicked, Sean asks Ben where he is, and Ben says he’s on his way over. He yells about how it was only Ben who was supposed to keep his eyes on it. Sean gave it to him—it has to be him. Rachel wasn’t supposed to be there. A heavy drop of silence falls as he makes a U-turn to go back. I stop breathing. I want to look at my boyfriend, but I don’t know what will happen if I look away. Sean yells that Ben cannot go back to the house. He does. Of course, he goes back. They always do.
My feed explodes with more horror shorts. I’ve awakened something, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to sleep anytime soon. Neither am I.
Stories of the supernatural, real life slightly twisted by magic—these are the ones that stay with me the most. When a house isn’t just a house. When a gift isn’t just a gift. When the monster in the closet isn’t a monster at all. One may think that I’d turn away from horror once the fear becomes too real, but it only pulls me closer. I have to learn more and see if it’s something I should be afraid of too. I want to see how much I can take before the darkness of my own apartment becomes frighteningly unfamiliar. I can get closer to what truly scares me because vampires and boogey men and ghosts and demons can only do so much. It’s the fear of the dark, death, never-ending pain, psychological invasion, and complete isolation manifested onto a screen that makes me jump back and curl into myself. Makes me reach for a pillow, wishing for my arm to extend to the light switch ten feet away. I’m addicted to watching one after another because then I can control how much I consume, so I can stop whenever I want. And if they’re bite-sized, then I can consume a little more. I continue because then I’d get stronger. My skin will be thicker, and maybe the dark won’t be so terrifying next time. It’s like a game of tag or cat and mouse where sometimes I’m both the cat and the mouse. The sweet taste of adrenaline lingering on my tongue and dopamine rushing in my head and sparking my body await me every time I take another bite. The algorithm knows all this about me, of course. It knows before I do. So, I watch it, watch me.
Megan Vasquez is a Mexican-American writer born and raised in Southern California. She has a bachelor of arts in English: Creative Writing from Cal State Long Beach and an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. While she writes mostly fiction, she loves reading other genres and practicing her poetry skills. When she’s not working on her first book of vignettes, she loves watching TV shows and films and playing with her Siamese mix kitten. Instagram: @meganomaly_