Internet memes—those bite-sized, ephemeral cultural artifacts that are shared and remixed over the Web—seem to be evermore pervasive online and offline. Many of them feature reoccurring characters, like Courage Wolf, Good Guy Greg, and Business Cat. They are "characters" in the sense that they are defined by a single unwavering archetype, but what sets them apart from traditional literary characters is that they aren’t attached to stories.
For the most part. Because if you dig deeper, past the most popular memes, you'll find characters with more depth do exist. Their background stories might give you the creeps (many are the product of collective horror storytelling), but that's what makes them great for this time of year—Happy (open source) Halloween!
Take, for example, Slender Man, described by Know Your Meme as "a mythical creature often depicted as a tall, thin figure wearing a black suit and a blank face" who "can stretch or shorten his arms at will and has tentacle-like appendages protruding from his back." While Slender Man has a definitive source, a 2009 Something Awful forum post, Internet communities have collectively created his legend, contributing attributes, sightings, and history to the horror character. Since 2009, the Slender Man myth has been the subject of blogs, fanart, a YouTube mini-series, and even a freely available Slender computer game (play it with the lights off, I dare you).
Similarly, the SCP Foundation is a website centered on a fictional secret agency and containment facility dealing with anything that is "an extra-terrestrial, extra-dimensional, and extra-universal threat." Contributors add notes to the wiki about different creatures and phenomena observed by the agency. The results range from hilarious to nightmare-inducing. The widespread web meme genre, Creepypasta, also adds to the online gambet of short fictional horror stories.
Collaboratively-produced online horror tends to rely on psychological discomfort and repressed fears. Perhaps this is because when so many people are playing along with the story, one wonders whether or not the existence of such horrors are in fact possible. Unlike blockbuster horror flicks, where the objective is clearly to exchange scares for dollars, the motives of the authors in online collaborative horror are not always apparent because it’s done for fun and not for profit. The mysteriousness of the source only adds to the "creepiness" of the fictional stories and characters.
Offline, the horror genre has historically relied heavily on the values of openness. A great majority of classic horror tropes exist because the originals have been left open to remixed derivatives. The influence of characters from nineteenth-century horror novels still resonates in contemporary media. Consider just two of this year’s kids Halloween films: Frankenweenie, tracking back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and Hotel Translvanyia, borrowing from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
More broadly, mythical horror creatures like zombies and werewolves persist through a variety of media because they can be reinterpreted and appropriated for different cultural and social climates. So, whether you’re looking for some new spooks this Halloween or would rather stick to the classics, look to the open source way for providing the chills and thrills you seek!