17 min read

The Internet Is The Real Monster

Horror artist Trevor Henderson talks context collapse, escaped creations, and keeping the mystery in horror.
The Internet Is The Real Monster

The flashlight cuts through the dark, picking out the side of a ruined house, the shadowed corner of a hallway. The high beams of a car stab into the murk, and the murk swallows them. You’re in a yard, an alleyway, a suburban street corner. Somewhere the light can’t quite touch. Somewhere the colors bleed and run together, and the unreal creeps through.

Can you feel it? The chill? What’s out there, wading through the night on telephone pole legs, breathing bursts of static numbers through its bullhorn maw? What coils over the street lamps, stretching into an unknowable infinity, horribly knowing eyes peering from its horses skull? What’s out there in the hallway, bending, bending, its smooth, rubbery, many-fingered hands creeping around the door?

Welcome to Heat Death, the newsletter that knows the real monster was the internet all along. I, Asher, am handling the ship today, steering you through the waters of this, the spookiest time of year.

I’ve always enjoyed the internet phenomenon of creepypastas—short tales of terror, designed to function as bespoke campfire stories and urban legends. They’ve been fertile ground for mass media adaptations—Syfy’s well-regarded anthology series, Channel Zero, adapted four such stories during its limited  run—and at least one of them, Slender Man, became popular enough to become a full cultural phenomenon. Even those that don't break onto the mainstream can travel far and wide online, their spread fueled by a particular analog aesthetic—that of the found-footage video, the rambling forum post, the old photo stuck in an older book. Perfect icons of contextless horror.

Which can be a real headache for artists. Just ask Trevor Henderson, a freelance artist, concept designer, and musician. Henderson’s spent the last few years putting out a steady stream of wonderfully unsettling art, including his major claim to fame: a series of upsetting creatures, done via a mixture of painting, old photos, and digital manipulation. He’s also had the singular experience of watching one of his creations—the fearsome Siren Head—be swallowed and transformed by the internet into something beyond his control.

Henderson’s also an internet pal, and graciously came on Heat Death to discuss his process, the dangers of context collapse, what it’s like to have your creations escape into the wild, and the importance of letting spooky shit stay mysterious. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

It’s a special Halloween Heat Death. Stay with us.

A big fella. © Trevor Henderson

Hey, Trevor! Introduce yourself to Heat Death.

I'm a freelance illustrator. I used to work retail--my last job was at a bookstore--and then I decided to go full freelance two months before my store closed down, and then the pandemic hit. It was kind of fortuitous that I made the move when I did, because I would have been kind of screwed, otherwise.

Since then I've just been doing freelance work. Some character design for comics, movies or games, but mostly it's been book cover illustrations for horror fiction--which I love--and variant covers for horror comics series. I've done some covers for Patrick Lacey, who's a very lovely horror fiction author, and some comic covers for Department of Truth, and a lot of work with Steve Foxe, who works with [writer] James Tynion IV on a lot of comics series. The Razorblades horror magazine, covers, interiors. A bunch of stuff like that.  

It's been pretty strong since I fully went freelance. There's only been a few periods where I went 'oh, I have no money."

What's your artistic background?

I went to the University of Toronto for art, and back then I was doing very physical media. I was on the Something Awful forums a lot, though I never contributed. I was in the thread where they came up with Slenderman. But I wasn't really super involved online. I read a bunch of creepy pastas growing up, and those were pretty intrinsic to the way I create art.

There's an aesthetic in your photomanipulation work that relies on developed film from old cameras. Is that largely a practical consideration, or an aesthetic one?

It's definitely become an aesthetic part of the way those look. But a lot of it, honestly, is that it's a unifying factor for integrating a lot of those elements together. If you can match the lighting and tone and shadow when you're drawing some spooky guy into a photo, the grain is one extra fence to keep your eye from sussing out that the drawing doesn't fit. Distortions, degrading the quality of the photo–whether that's a blur, or playing with static--is a big part of the aesthetic of the imagery. But a big part of it is helping it feel like it's really there.

I try and use noise a little more sparingly these days. It can be a little bit of a crutch--you throw too much noise on it, and it becomes too easy to make it work. I'd rather play with light and try and make it work that way a little bit more.

Are there any pieces where you feel like you nailed that balancing act?

Well, when I first started doing these, I was doing three or four or a night. I'd come home from work and they were an easy thing I could do to produce art and flex those muscles. I could do a whole piece without thinking what my background was going to be, what my concept was going to be.

I had a big folder of images that people donated online, and I'd just pick one and see what was in the photo, and just make it up that way. Strong sources of light, like rim-light or a flashlight casting shadows upward, that can make a more cohesive image. It's a balance in a couple of different ways. I want to show off a creature design, but I don't want to show too much off, because then it's easier to figure out it's just a drawing. (Which everyone knows, but still.)  You want that split second of "...uh..."

If you can get a distinctive photo to start with, that can really help. A lot of times I'll paint something, and then I'll have to delete or erase a big part of it, because I'm showing too much, and it doesn't work well. If you can just do a glimpse, while also showing off a creature design that's distinctive, and then let the brain of the person looking fill in the rest--that's the best. And all of these things have to line up for it to be one I really like.

That's only happened like 20 or 30 times out of the 400 I've done. So a lot of them are not very successful. But one I really like is this one.

Long Horse © Trevor Henderson

Your character design is really interesting — they're very cartoony. You seem to play with a lot of really exaggerated shapes, which makes them really horrific.

When you're already working with a photo of a real environment, you have that baseline level of reality in the work. So if you're adding something in, it's a really fun opportunity to stretch it in the other direction. To me, when something is actually scary scary, it's less threatening and more bordering on ridiculous — where, in a different light, it would be laughable.

I always like creature designs where it's robbed of the sharp teeth or claws: anything that would be definable, especially as to what it would do to you if it got you. It adds mystery.

The Long Horse is a really good example.  

It's a horse skull and a neck. But the neck goes on forever — into non-Euclidean space. That makes it interesting to me. A lot of people really like that one in particular because I've confirmed that he's a good guy. This one can be nice. I'll give this one to you. The rest of them are awful.

Cartoon Dog, whom I do not like at all, © Trevor Henderson 

You also have creations like Cartoon Cat and Cartoon Dog, which are horror creations that borrow the visual language of classic cartooning.

That one came about because I wanted to stretch what I was going with the photo-bashing [Ed note: digital photo manipulation] as far as possible. Can I do a straight-up cartoon and light it, and match the shadows and tone of the photo to make it a real, physical object while still having the aesthetics and physicality of a cartoon? I don't know how successful I was, but that character really took off.

Your most popular creation is Siren Head, a towering, horrible figure whose head is made up of two sirens. Tell us about him.

Siren Head is so weird. I made that character in 2018, when I was at the height of doing three or four of these images a day. I was approaching it like I did with every other one, thinking, what would look cool in this photo? Someone had sent me with a graveyard in the middle distance. A lone tree, blue sky. I'm really into the idea of number stations [Ed note: shortwave radio stations that broadcast codes of formatted numbers addressed to intelligence officers] and I thought it would be neat to do a cryptid or humanoid monster who was the embodiment of number stations. So I drew a big emaciated figure with sirens for a head, and posted it on Twitter.

It got a couple of likes. People said "this design's really cool," and then nothing really happened with it for six months. Then a friend of mine asked me permission to put it in a little videogame demo. Your guy goes out, clicks on some things, and then gets chased back to his car by Siren Head.  

It wasn't until April 2020, just after my birthday, when someone made an animated video of this giant Siren Head looming over a city. And that went viral on Tiktok, an app I don't use, or know how to use.

At the same time, a bunch of videogame YouTubers found that initial game, and were like "who the hell is Siren Head? How have I missed this?" And the viral video is still going around on TikTok. And suddenly he was everywhere across the internet for 3-4 months. And there's still a huge fan base for this character. It's kind of entered the public lexicon in some ways, as the new Slender Man. But there was no way to predict that happening. It could have been any one of a dozen characters I was creating at that time. I like that design, but it's bizarre to me that it took off so well.

Siren Head Mania really interested me. It felt like it exposed a conflict between the character that you create, which got this huge boost from fan work, but also got boosted by people actively trying erase the fact that you created it in an effort to make it an "urban legend."

Yeah, there was... a lot of that. On the one hand, the fan art is incredible. I was deluged with fanart, and that never stops being cool — when someone who's a much, much more talented artist than me is inspired by this character I made up. It starts to get weird, though, when it's people very transparently trying to profit off of it.

In the beginning there was a huge push to make the character part of the SCP Foundation —  an ongoing wiki about a secretive government organization, where people contribute their own entries. They're these very dry, clerical reports of various paranormal entities and supernatural creatures.

They're a lot of fun.

I love it. There's tons of great stuff there. But when something goes onto the SCP Foundation, it's a creative commons license. So it becomes public domain, in a way.  So trying to spread misinformation that Siren Head is [part of the SCP project] is kind of a way of taking that character away from the creator. Thankfully, all the people who run the SCP Foundation were insanely good about putting their foot down, and that kind of squashed it after a while.

There were also people doing really weird fan stuff, giving the character a different origin or feel than I would have if I was doing it. That can be a little bit frustrating.  
It's become a very big kids thing now, apparently? It's all across Kids' YouTube in these weird animated videos. If you search Siren Head on YouTube, the stuff you'll find is so bizarre. Entire families making little papier-mâché baby Siren Heads, then videos where they go into the woods, "find" it and adopt it. The whole family filming themselves play-acting around it. Weird animated videos from Russia where the Incredible Hulk fights Siren Head, Spider-Man fights Siren Head. It's really, really weird.

I'm planning on eventually doing something with the character that'll be official, from the creator. Like, "here's the idea I had in mind for it." But I'm just going to have to accept that that version of Siren Head is out there on YouTube and other places. I try not to let it touch me.

Do you remember what the video was where you decided "I have to stop looking at this?"

There was a whole animated video series about Siren Head, about where he came from, a whole origin story. A mad scientist in the woods made a helper robot that became Siren Head. I didn't like that very much. At that point I was like, ok, this is beyond my control at this point.

The last thing that weirded me out was — do you know what Epic Rap Battles are, on YouTube?

[Ed note: a genre of youtube video inspired by particular project pitting historical and pop-culture characters against each other in — you guessed it — rap battles.]

They did a Siren Head Epic Rap Battle?!

It's weirder than that! It wasn't the official site, mind you. It was a different creator. But they did one that was me rap battling. Me as a person. Me versus some guy named Corpse Husband. I don't know who that is, really. But they had a guy dress up in a shirt I often wear, and put on glasses that kind of look like what I wear, and do a whole rap. And I didn't like that at all.

I can't imagine you would!

It's extremely weird! I'm a person, not a character.

That sort of raises a separate point: the degree to which "Cursed image" and Creepy Pasta culture is build around intentional context collapse.

Yeah, it is. On the one hand, I can see how it adds to the mystique that artists are going for, or that I was going for in the beginning, which is the found footage aesthetic. But it became a really handy way for people to divorce legitimate art from its creators. And it's still happening to lots of other people who are doing similar things.

The big thing you'll see is someone posting some original horror art, and you'll see a dozen people in the comments asking "what SCP is this," or calling it a new SCP. It ties into this idea that scary art on the internet — less so than other art, which is really weird — falls into this specific lane where it's instantly the internet's. The process of divorcing it from the person who actually drew it seems to start immediately. I don't get it at all. But it's a fact of the internet, it seems.

Siren Head and Cartoon Cat have been turned into these plushes — these terrible, terrible plush toys by overseas companies. I'll get constant direct messages from people that they were in this store in Arkansas, or a mall in Europe, and there'll be a stand covered in multi-colored Siren Head plushes. And there's not a ton I can do about that, even if I spent my entire day, every day, trying to knock these things out. I've knocked down a few but they just come back.

I just look the other way now, more or less.

Redstrings © Trevor Henderson

It seems like the aesthetic of a lot of current creators falls into the trap of being "just a photo," and everyone online seems to believe that photos online are free. People don't seem to grasp that someone made it.

I think that there's a natural inclination to believe that a piece is a spooky creepypasta. People think that creepypasta are just free-floating internet rumors, or internet stories, so it's easy for even people with good intentions to think it's an anonymous internet story. And it's very easy to divorce the creator from that.

But there are a lot of people acting in bad faith, who want to profit off this art. Anything that's horror-related art online becomes a creepypasta, which people claim is supposed to be anonymous, or is presented as being anonymous. Which becomes an excuse to say "LaLaLa, I don't see the creator, it's creepypasta, I can do whatever I want with it. It's the internet's now." Grouping horror art in with creepypastas just makes it slightly easier to do what they try and do with all art, I think.

There's also an interesting push and pull between knowability and unknowability in the fan response. The difference between "what is this strange form in this photo" versus the need to build up lore.

People get angry when you just want to leave something mysterious. When a character I've done becomes popular, it's like "you have to do the lore. What are you even doing?" Well, maybe I just wanted him to be a spooky guy in the woods. It can stop at that, you know. Often when they find out everything about something, if it's horror-related, often they're like, "oh, it was scarier before I knew." Yeah, I know. That's the point. It's you connecting the dots in your head and going off the very little information I purposefully left you, which is a tweets' worth of words and one image.

To say you want how Siren Head was made, and where he was first sighted, and what are all his special powers and does he have a weakness...you don't want to know if you can defeat Siren Head! There's no answer to that question that makes you A.) more scared of the character and b.) happier for having known it. It just weakens the very fragile mystique, I think.

Siren Head, who is unknowable. © Trevor Henderson

I was looking through your FanWiki, which must be a wild thing to have —  

It is, yeah. That's all other people. I'm not on there very much at all.

— and I just thought it was interesting that there was this dedicated effort to compile everything you've said, so that you can put together an explanation of what these characters are.

I mean, I get it. When I watch a movie or read something with a character I like, that impulse is there to know everything about them. But I think in this particular situation, a lot of times with horror creators, you're just shooting yourself in the foot.

It's just weird to see people go through and collect the one-off, half-jokey comments I've made on Twitter to be spooky, and now they're "canon," forever, on a wiki I didn't make.

I suppose it'd be one thing if you were releasing your Siren Head story — an actual story — but these are art pieces. The notion of trying to enforce what concepts count and what don't for a piece of visual art feels antithetical to the purpose of the medium.

Yeah. Some canon stuff has built up, because when people fall in love with a character, I'll revisit it. Then you have the fun of doing the corkboard of photos with the red thread between images. You get to build a bit of the world behind the scenes. But it's really important for me to always leave two questions  for every answer you give.

There's Siren Head stuff out there beyond the art. I wrote a little two-page story on one of those posts to put slightly more lore out there. But even that was still really mysterious, and didn't address a ton of stuff. Because there's just a lot of stuff I don't want to answer, and I don't think people actually want it answered either.

How do you prefer to approach parceling out that information?

I think you can build up the world around these characters — Siren Head and Long Horse, and these people. You can add characters in to interact or be antagonized by them. But if you start focusing that lens on those character's you're just going to diminish them. I think that they work better as an evocative image or design. A way of feeling a particular kind of way, looking at them.

But giving them a whole..."oh, this is his favorite dance move, and his favorite Mexican dish," is not gonna help anybody. It's not gonna be good. If you ask me where Siren Head came from, I can give you a very vague answer. But if you really sat down and tried to map it out, it's not going to be good. It's going to be ridiculous. Because a lot of my favorite creature designs, particularly the ones I've made, are patently ridiculous in some ways, because I find that scary.

You can make the stuff in the photo more real, as long as the art isn't. That's the aesthetic, right? This is a real photo, and here's the thing that's patently unreal. And the viewer has to sit in the disconnect.

Exactly, yeah. You can work around those mysterious spots. Making something unreal more clearly defined just doesn't do the work you think it does.

It feels like some people just want to strip the photo out and leave the monster.

And look: that feels great. That happens because they love the character so much, which is awesome! It's a great problem to have. I don't want to make it seem like I don't appreciate how much the characters resonate with people. I love all that. The fan-art's amazing. I'm just more interested in seeing the effects a character like Siren Head has on the real world, or in our world, rather than giving our real-world rules to that character.

The fact that it's caught on so much with kids — I get so many emails. It's insane. Kids love Siren Head so much. I never would have thought about it. I didn't design the character with kids in mind. But I think if you try and design a character that'll catch on with kids, it's a losing battle. It has to be designed to be interesting, and kids will naturally attach onto it. But I never would have suspected that this big skeleton with biomechanical horns on its head that I drew four years ago would be a big kids icon. Kids are dressing up as it for Halloween, Dads are making papier-mâché Siren Heads to put in their yard.

I think what happened when it blew up in 2020 is that it got taken by the YouTube algorithms. I think they literally see how many Google searches are happening for a particular character, and then they churn out these procedurally generated videos where they're fighting superheroes and stuff. There are Siren Head short films on YouTube that have 200 million views. And it's all got nothing to do with me. I've not been involved in anything.

I'm actually not a big creepypasta guy. It was one in a long line of spooky dudes standing in various photos, partly as an exercise I was doing at the time, and partly because they got a better response for me as an artist than anything I'd ever posted before online. I just had no idea it would happen like that. It's very weird.

Thanks so much, Trevor.

My pleasure.

That's Heat Death this week! You can find Trevor Henderson’s work online at his website, or follow him on twitter @slimyswampghost. If you've enjoyed this interview, or any of the other work we put out for you each week, you can subscribe for free or sign up for a paid membership for just 5$ a month.

Wait. Who's that knocking at the door?

What awful step is that in hall?

Is it?

Could it be

Houseman, whom I also do not care for, is © Trevor Henderson

Take care everybody. See you next week.