Around six years ago, Jake Karns had a truly frightening experience.
He was 12 at the time, and he and his sister Kate had recently moved back in with their mom and their grandmother in Victorville, Calif. after years of living with their dad. It was a safe neighborhood, a gated community where very little seemed to happen.
Moving back in with his mom meant the food budget was upgraded. One day, they went to the store and bought about a month’s worth of food, mostly after-school snacks and sugary treats. But as the days passed, Jake noticed that things were mysteriously going missing. Candy bars disappeared. Ice cream tubs were gone, as was the chocolate syrup. Sometimes, whole cases of water were there in the evening, gone in the morning.
It was weird, sure, but young Jake blamed Grandma, a “notorious” midnight snacker.
The strange thing was that even when Grandma went to visit family in Texas, the food kept disappearing. Jake told his mom, who checked the house for any signs of an intruder. There were no red flags. But Kate was suspicious, too. She’d hear noises coming from the kitchen late at night.
Jake’s mom decided to install a security system. “From there, we saw it,” says Jake.
The camera showed a stranger, no older than 60, climbing down the ladder. He’d make his way to the kitchen, eating all the food he could before scurrying back into his attic lair. “After reviewing the footage, we moved and called the police,” says Jake. “But, to not know how he got up there, or even to think about what he could have done to us while we slept? Scary thoughts.”
The man was arrested, but Jake doesn’t know what happened to him. These days, Jake checks his house for intruders every few months. “I am definitely more freaked out about attics and what could be up there,” he says.
This is one of 132 real-life horror stories that landed in the inbox of 19-year old game designer Mukul Negi after he solicited real-life horror stories to inspire future chapters of his popular first-person horror game Fears to Fathom.
Negi lives in New Delhi, India, part of what he describes as a fairly middle-class family. At the age of 10, Negi would sit and watch his uncle play Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for hours. At 12, a kid from his neighborhood told him about Scratch, a kid-centric programming software for creating animations and games.
After spending hours mastering Scratch, Negi began creating mobile apps for his friends and making mini-games to impress his high school crush. He won awards, picking up the student game of the year accolade at the 2017 India Game Developer Conference for his mobile puzzle game Loopables.
In July, under the pseudonym Rayll, Negi released the free game Fears to Fathom - Home Alone, the first in a planned four-part series. For the first chapter, he turned to stories found on the YouTube channel Mr. Nightmare, which posts real-life horror stories and unexplained mysteries caught on camera, to craft F2F’s narrative.
While completely unrelated, the game’s story is not too dissimilar to Jake’s. You play as a child left to their own devices in the family home one night. But there’s something amiss. The graphics are grainy — the game’s got a 1980s VHS tape aesthetic — and your surroundings are dark, almost too dark, at times. Brooding music follows you through the home. Strange noises are echoing from somewhere in the house. Glasses smash. Figures appear in dark corners. There are some serious jump scares.
Negi didn’t expect anyone to be interested in the game. “I was about to shelve my game-development career after I realized episode one,” Negi says. But since its July release, F2F has been downloaded on Steam more than 140,000 times and boasts an 88 percent (“Very Positive”) gamer rating. Broadly speaking, indie games are considered a success if they reach 20,000 downloads.
Negi isn’t exactly sure why the game struck a nerve, but he has a theory. “It definitely had something to do with the relatability factor,” he says. “Home invasion is such a common fear that can happen to anyone in real life.” Whatever the reason, Negi’s creation is scaring the crap out of gamers and YouTubers alike.
Future episodes will all have unique narratives and draw from similarly everyday fears. The second installment, named Fears to Fathom - Norwood Hitchhike and set for release on December 10, centers on a 19-year-old woman named Holly Gardner and the unusual occurrences that lead to an unplanned stay at a roadside motel.
Negi hasn’t yet decided what the remaining two stories will be about. That’s where the fans — and their personal tales of terror — come in.
Truth vs. fiction
Negi asked fans of the game, who gather on Reddit forums and Discord groups, to send in their stories through an email address he published on the title screen of F2F’s first chapter. Responses came from all over the world, including the U.K., Australia, and Brazil.
In addition to Jake’s attic-dweller story, Negi received a tale of a knife-wielding maniac stalking children in a swimming pool late at night and a terrifying tale of demons gathering in the writer’s garage to light their house on fire — with the owners still inside. (Negi, for his part, says he isn’t always sure which submissions are true and which are concocted.)
One story was sent in by Aydan Williams, an 18-year-old from the U.S. He remembers finding a wooden hut in a patch of tall reeds. Poking his head inside, he discovered a nest that was housing bones. There was part of what he thinks was a rodent skull, plus a spinal column, a shoulder blade, and many, many sets of ribs. Some of the bones had been picked clean, but there was not a drop of blood anywhere.
While most of the bones looked like they were of animal origin, Williams couldn’t identify all of them. “I don’t think they were human bones,” he says, a little uncertain.
Negi says the insights he’s gained into the psyches of everyday folks have inspired episode two’s storyline and how the game plays. “The stories I’ve received have had a major impact on the narration of [future] games,” he says. “These people have actually experienced life-threatening situations, and have been through trauma. When you read hundreds of such stories, you get a clearer sense of how it must feel to be in their situations.”
I ask Negi if reading these stories has messed with his head or at least given him a bleaker outlook on the world. “I've heard way worse on the internet before,” he says bluntly. “Hearing such stuff almost doesn't surprise me anymore. But — and don't take this the wrong way — it was interesting to hear such incidents from people firsthand.”
What compels gamers to share their most frightening, traumatic moments with a stranger? Some simply want to share a crazy story. For others, it’s cathartic.
Take Amber, a U.S. woman who asked that Input not use her last name. When she was 16, Amber was working a night shift at McDonald’s when a hooded man entered. It wasn’t unusual for that sort of thing to happen, she says. But he waited outside, and then chased Amber home. “Thinking about this story again is hard, but getting it out might help,” says Amber. “Even if it’s just a little bit.”
“F2F didn’t make you feel like you are in a fictional world. It really triggers your greatest fears.”
Amber says that most people she’s shared her story with have disbelieved her, dismissing her experience as if it were the product of her imagination. “I sometimes do wish it were just a story I made up,” Amber says.
Amber is a huge horror fan, she says, and was drawn to the game not because it relies on “ghosts and ghouls” but everyday anxieties. “F2F didn’t make you feel like you are in a fictional world,” she says. “It really triggers your greatest fears.”
This is a common thread Negi has discovered through the F2F fan community: that real life is often more frightening than what Hollywood scriptwriters dream up.
“I’ve noticed a pattern in these stories,” he says. “People in these situations say that things are always ordinary, until they’re not. I repeatedly hear people say ‘I brushed it off’ or ‘I didn't think much of it at the time.’ We assume everything is alright — until an eerie realization strikes.”