Why the Ambiguous Allure of Ritual Creepypastas Is Chillingly Unforgettable

The Midnight Man (2016)

It’s a warm summer night. You’re thirteen years old, and all of your best friends are spending the night for a sleepover. When you finally run out of gossip to talk about, you land on the inevitable: it’s time to look into a mirror and say some creepy stuff.

Many horror fanatics’ origin stories involve a fixation with being terrified that took root at a very young age. Dark, stormy nights, huddled around campfires or tangled up in sleeping bags painted the backdrops for the beginnings of many a lifelong addiction to the thrill of being scared.

And among the classic ghost stories of hand-hooked men and lifelike clown statues, one story has been keeping us enraptured for centuries: “Bloody Mary.”

“Bloody Mary” is a simple story that has countless variations and interpretations. Even the acts involved in the ritual can vary greatly depending on different conventions. But the core always remains the same: look into the mirror and chant “Bloody Mary.” Though early rituals required you to chant the name thirteen times, modern day rituals let you get away with only three: Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary.

In its origins, young women performed the ritual with the hopes of seeing a flash of their future husband’s face in the mirror. But even though this result seems tame compared to modern interpretations, there were nefarious undertones even back then: there was a chance that instead of seeing one’s future husband, you may see a skull, the Grim Reaper, or the blood-drenched ghost of Bloody Mary herself.

Modern interpretations have dropped a bit of this nuance. Personally, I learned the version where Bloody Mary comes out of the mirror and stabs you in the eye, which sounds like a total party killer.

There’s a reason that “Bloody Mary” has had such longevity throughout history. Not only is the ritual easy to remember and share, but it requires the players to huddle into a dark, quiet space, often illuminated by the flickering light of a candle or the soft glow of a single bulb with the rest of the lights turned off. Pair this with the fact that they must gaze into the mirror for the duration of the ritual, and it becomes a lot harder to maintain your nerve. 

It’s true that there’s something innately creepy about these circumstances, but much more importantly, the power of suggestibility is strongly at play here. Most of the time, if you’re chanting dark names in your mirror at night, it’s after a long evening of hearing disturbing experiences that your friends and friends of friends claim to have had doing the exact ritual. So even though you may believe there’s nothing in your mirror, it becomes difficult not to interpret every flicker of light or movement as the face of a nefarious ghost. 

In fact, a recent study even showed that ten minutes of staring into a mirror was enough for participants to view strange entities. Participants reported seeing “huge deformations of one’s own face,” “a parent’s face with traits changed,” “an unknown person,” or “fantastical and monstrous beings.” And that’s in a fully-lit room while facing the mirror full-on.

The ritual creepypasta is an inevitable manifestation of these campfire stories and rituals, one that can be much more widely spread thanks to the reach of the internet. Because of their anonymous and viral nature, these creepypastas allow writers to build upon common tropes and even regional folklore to weave together disturbing and chilling ritual instructions for readers to follow.

However, a major difference between ritual creepypastas and its bloody predecessor is the fact that the majority of people who read them have no intentions of actually performing the rituals. The rituals themselves tend to be far more complex and require specific materials and are outlined in such detail that the instructions become the story themselves. It allows the reader to fill in the gaps and endings themselves, to imagine the evil creatures they may be summoning or running from, and to imagine them in every passing mirror or flicker of flame for days after. 

Of course, those brave few among us may be bold enough to actually perform the ritual creepypasta and report back in comments, sharing and perpetuating the myths across the internet. 

Though there are numerous ritual creepypastas (of various quality, as is the case with all creepypasta subtropes), today we will be exploring three of the most compelling ritual creepypastas: “How to Play Hide and Seek Alone,” “The Midnight Man,” and the lesser-known “Three Kings” rituals.

“How To Play Hide and Seek Alone”

creepy haunted blonde doll
“Creepy Doll 2” by hill.josh is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Popularized on Japanese internet forums similarly to the poem “Tomino’s Hell,” “How to Play Hide and Seek Alone” rapidly spread to the darker parts of the internet anonymously and, like all creepypastas, may have been entirely fabricated. 

This ritual creepypasta, also known as “One-Man Tag,” requires numerous specific materials, as well as a home with certain rooms and elements. Feel free to play along at home.

The materials required are as follows:

  • One stuffed doll with limbs.
  • Enough rice to fill the doll.
  • A needle and crimson thread.
  • A pair of nail clippers.
  • A “sharp-edged” tool, which may be a knife, a pair of scissors—or, if you’re in a pinch, the author lets you know you can simply grab a “glass shard.”
  • One cup of salt water.

As you can see, even the mere preparation of this ritual creepypasta is prohibitive, underscoring the fact that only the most dedicated would actually try to perform it.

In order to prepare for the ritual, the player must remove the stuffing of the doll and fill it with rice, as well as a few of their own nail clippings. They must sew the doll closed using the needle and crimson thread, and then “tie up” the rest of the doll with the thread, though it’s unclear how it’s meant to be tied.

Next, the player must fill their bathtub with water, return to their hiding place, and place a cup of salt water on the ground.

This ritual is already working on numerous psychological levels that makes simply reading it bone-chilling. The specificity of the required materials suggests there are elements of ancient, occult forces at play. The personal element of including one’s own fingernails in the doll suggests that you are choosing to make yourself a target, and anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie knows that’s not for the faint of heart.

Next, you must name your doll, another personal element. I’m guessing that most aren’t planning to name their dolls “Fluffy,” but regardless of the name chosen for the doll, this clever touch only serves to make the ritual creepypasta feel more unique, more specific, and therefore to make the player feel more personally targeted.

Afterward, the player plays a short game of hide-and-seek where they are the first “it,” and must find the doll. This is performed by putting the doll in the water-filled bathtub, turning all the lights off except the TV, and then counting to ten before retrieving the doll. “I have found you, Fluffy!” the player must say, subbing in whatever name they’ve chosen for the doll. The player must then stab the doll with their sharp object, which I can’t imagine would make a very good first impression.

Then, it’s the doll’s turn to find the player, and this is where things get more intense.

After informing Fluffy that he’s up to bat with a chant, the player must hide.

Though later versions of this creepypasta have expanded upon the inner workings of the ritual, the only following instructions in the original are for how to end the game. The player does this by filling their mouth with salt water and looking for the doll, which is “not necessarily in the bathroom” where it was left.

When the player finds the doll—where they left it, or perhaps hiding under their bed or lurking around the dark corners of their home—they must dump the cup of salt water onto it and spit the water in their mouth onto it as well before saying “I win” three times. 

In a careful choice of words, the creepypasta concludes that this is “supposed” to end the ritual.

Following are a number of rules one must follow that serve to intensify the implications of the type of evil spirit that the player has invited into their home. “Remember,” one of the notes reads, “if you are living with someone, you might put them in danger too.”

The ritual also suggests the player keep all of their doors unlocked and have a friend on call “so that they can come and help at a moment’s notice.” And, perhaps most unsettlingly, it requires that the player keep the ritual shorter than two hours, “or else the spirit will be too strong to remove.”

Much like its “Bloody Mary” predecessor, this ritual creepypasta paints out specific requirements but remains ingeniously vague about the effects and repercussions one might face in performing it. This allows the reader to fill in the blanks, and it’s nearly impossible to do so charitably. After all, why would you need a friend on call if this wasn’t dangerous? Why would the ritual imply the doll might move on its own or become too powerful to exorcise if there weren’t powerful, evil forces at play?

For those brave souls who decide to actually play the game—many of whom have recounted or even filmed their experiences—there is a minefield of psychological elements at play. Similar to “Bloody Mary,” the game requires only the ambient light of a television to illuminate an entire house, which begs the mind to play tricks and create meaning behind the most innocuous of rustlings in the shadows of their home. Leaving all of your doors unlocked begs the question of what you may be inviting into your home, or why you may need to run out the door suddenly.

While “How to Play Hide And Seek Alone” is one of the earliest examples of an unsettling creepypasta ritual, it didn’t breach the amount of fame of one of its close relatives, “The Midnight Man.”

“The Midnight Man”

the midnight man
The Midnight Man (2016)

“The Midnight Man” is a ritual creepypasta of similarly ambiguous origins, but unlike “How To Play Hide and Seek Alone,” it breached into the mainstream after it was interpreted in a 2016 horror film of the same title. We’ll talk about the film later, but here’s a spoiler: it was catastrophically bad.

Much like “How To Play Hide and Seek Alone,” the “Midnight Man” ritual outlines a number of highly specific actions that the player must take, with an underwritten implication that any misstep could be disastrous. The main difference between the two rituals is that “The Midnight Man” is more generous with its illustrations of the evil presence the player will be inviting into their home and the consequences they will face if anything goes wrong.

This ritual creepypasta requires a similarly precise list of ingredients: a white candle, a wooden door, paper, matches, and sea salt. It also requires a drop of blood, denoting that this should “preferably” be from the player.

Before midnight, the player must write their name on the paper and add a drop of blood. Once the clock strikes midnight, the player must place the paper in front of the door and put the candle on top of it before knocking on the door exactly twenty-two times, with the last knock ending exactly at midnight. Then, the player must open their door, blow out the candle, and close the door again, allowing the Midnight Man to enter.

The instructions demand the player relight the candle immediately, lest they suffer a vague “horrible fate.”

Similar to “Hide and Seek,” the rest of the game is comprised of eluding the Midnight Man. “If you remain in one spot during the game, he will find you,” the creepypasta demands, urging, “Keep moving.”

The candle serves as an indicator of the presence of the Midnight Man. If it goes out, it means that the Midnight Man is nearby, and the player must immediately relight it to prevent the Midnight Man from attacking.

If the player can’t relight their candle within ten seconds, their last line of defense is to draw a circle of salt around them and remain within it until the game ends at 3:33 am. However, the author is sure to chillingly denote the fact that they “can’t promise this will save you.” 

Unlike the presence taking over the doll in “Hide and Seek,” the Midnight Man’s threatening nature is spelled out more articulately. The writer reveals, “It is said that the Midnight Man will create a hallucination of your greatest fear” if he captures you. Disappointingly, it’s unclear whether these great fears will actually take shape in any way, or if they’re simply hallucinations that will end at 3:33—two interpretations that have wildly different implications. 

However, the text does say that leaving the circle means that you will be “lost to [The Midnight Man],” which does imply that there may be, at the very least, a level of incurable psychological damage dealt if he wins.

This creepypasta also includes a number of rules one must follow. The player must not use any electric or battery powered light during the game, nor can they go to sleep or leave the house. It is also unwise to “provoke” the Midnight Man, and it is noted that he “especially dislikes being mocked or unbelievers.”

Funnily enough, both of these rituals seem to offer very little return on investment. Unlike “Bloody Mary,” where at least you might see the face of your future spouse before being dragged under by a witch’s curse, it seems that the only thing up for grabs in completing these rituals is bragging rights.

And in the case of “The Midnight Man,” even performing the ritual successfully has lasting repercussions. The text notes that the ritual opens a “gateway into your home [that] can never be closed,” and while the Midnight Man will only return if he is re-summoned with the ritual, “other entities from the same place are not bound in the same way.” The text urges players to “be prepared for visitors.”

Though many see these ritual creepypastas as cheap ways to make the reader fill in all of the scares themselves, there is something very clever about the combination of highly specific instructions and extremely vague repercussions. Because the rituals are so complex, those who are brave enough to play take full agency in their fates and have ample time to change their minds. Dark rooms and firelight, the psychological suggestibility of warning one’s friends they may be in danger, unlocked doors, and emergency exits set up the mind to see any flutter of movement, unidentifiable sound, or change in temperature as proof that they’re being stalked by an evil spirit.

But most importantly, all of these elements mean that both of these rituals can be compelling pieces of creepypasta even through their instructions alone, meaning that you don’t have to bust out the salt shaker to play along.

Unfortunately, it also means that it’s quite difficult to adapt them successfully into film. We saw this with the 2016 Midnight Man, a film with a paper-thin plot that it simultaneously convoluted. 

In the film, a group of friends summons The Midnight Man by playing the game and must avoid his tricks and the temptations of turning on each other throughout the night. The film ultimately devolves into a generic demon feature, and it outlines the primary reason why these rituals can’t really be adapted into media that require concrete narrative arcs. Much like the pitfall of showing dreaded monsters too early in films, once the demons of The Midnight Man or the spirit possessing Fluffy are revealed and articulated, they become infinitely less disturbing, not to mention less personal. The threat of being tortured by your own worst fears, for example, is infinitely more distressing a thought than being hunted down in the generic ways that were demonstrated in the feature film.

In their original forms, “Hide and Seek” and “The Midnight Man” have become well-known creepypastas, reinterpreted and spread across the internet like any good urban legend. But a lesser-known ritual creepypasta, “The Three Kings,” offers a unique psychological spin on the trope.

“The Three Kings”

creepy mask in mirror
“Mirror mask” by ford is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Originally posted to the /r/nosleep subreddit, “The Three Kings” is a complex ritual created by Reddit user FableForge in 2012. And though /r/nosleep is known to host only fictional content, “The Three Kings” ritual was so popular that it inspired its own subreddit, where users insist that none of the rituals or experiences posted should be fictional.

Like the other rituals, “The Three Kings” requires a number of ingredients and settings. Most importantly, it requires candles, a bucket of water, a mug, a fan, and two large mirrors. 

“Don’t worry,” FableForge notes ambiguously in their instructions. “[The mirrors] won’t be harmed. Or if they are, it’d be the least of your concerns.”

The player must also have a fan, three chairs, an alarm clock, a cell phone, an object from their childhood, and a loved one who is “willing to follow rules and go along with all this madness.” It is quite the grocery list of objects, but each of them is impressively woven into the ritual so as to be completely necessary.

The player should begin to set up around 11 PM, placing one chair facing north in the center of the room, and the two other chairs to the left and right, facing inward to the “throne.” These two chairs will represent the Queen and the Fool.

The two large mirrors must be placed at ninety degree angles facing the chairs so that if the player sits in the throne, they can see their own reflection in the two mirrors out of the corner of their eye without having to turn to face them. The player must place a fan behind them, turned on. If you’re playing along at home, your room should look like this diagram created by Reddit user SwoccerFields.

The player then must plug their phone in to charge, setting the alarm for 3:30 AM, and go to sleep holding their personal object.

One of the most genius elements of this ritual creepypasta’s construction is the large quantity of fail safes that are in place. The number of warning systems and protective features that the text denotes implies a high level of risk were any part of the ritual to be completed incorrectly, or if one accidentally summoned a dangerous force.

For example: upon waking to their alarm at 3:30 AM, the player must ensure that their phone was charged and their alarm went off at 3:30 AM exactly. They must ensure that the door to the set up room has remained open, and that the fan is still on. If any of these is not the case, they must “abort the mission.”

The text notes that if any of these things happen, the player must leave the house with their loved one. “Go to a hotel or something,” the text urges, saying that it won’t be safe to return until 6 AM. The reader is left to fill in the blanks of what kind of entity may have changed the alarm, closed the door, or turned off the fan, and why.

But unlike the other two rituals, this one actually has a payoff if you manage to survive it.

If none of the red flags go off, you are free to “take your throne” in the middle of the other two chairs, with the candle lit and the fan on behind you. The candle seems to be the conduit to access what FableForge refers to as the Shadowside, which means that if anything were to happen to the player and their body falls or is moved from the chair, the fan will extinguish the fire and sever the connection.

The player is to look straight ahead into the darkness, seeing the mirrors which house the Queen and the Fool only out of their peripheries. At this point, the instructions get similarly vague: “Suffice to say, you won’t be alone and if you have questions, you’ll get answers.”

They also note that, “Eagle-eyed readers surely noticed I didn’t say during setup which chair was queen and which chair was fool. That’s because it’s your job to find out. And from their point of view, you are either their queen or their fool, too. Hence three kings.”

Adding to the intrigue and concern, there are even more fail safes in this ritual creepypasta. The player’s loved one must come in at 4:34 to call the player’s name, or their cell phone if they don’t respond. The glass of water and bucket are there to extinguish the flame if the player can’t be pulled out of the ritual. The personal artifact is also implied to be a way to pull the player from the Shadowside, though the loved one must be sure not to touch the player, which would be considered “a rookie mistake.”

So what’s the payoff for performing this ritual correctly? Well, luckily, there are innumerous accounts of doing just that on the ritual’s subreddit. Though it’s now largely filled with homegrown rituals that read as much more fictional, the early days saw many users sharing their genuine attempts to perform “The Three Kings.”

It’s not common for users to report seeing dark entities or even deceased loved ones in the place of the Queen and the Fool. Many of them ask questions. Many experience strong emotions and break into tears for seemingly no reason. Many are tempted or even begged by the entities to look at them full-on, which is a big no-no. 

Many more are simply left confused, like one Redditor who asked the community, “What the hell just happened? Did I talk to god? Am I nuts?”

But the originator of the “Three Kings” admitted that he doesn’t believe the entities are really spirits or ghosts. “In my experience, Queen and Fool are simply alternative points of view within yourself…not necessarily ‘good’ or ‘evil,’” he shared in a follow-up post.

What’s most interesting about the discussion of the psychological origins of “The Three Kings” is that it doesn’t seem to stop users from wanting to participate. Many users openly talk about the Queen and Fool as parts of their mind, and use the ritual as a means of exploring their own psyche. However, this doesn’t necessarily make things any less disturbing—especially since it implies that there are parts of your mind that may actively be trying to kill you. 

However, as one Redditor points out, just because this ritual creepypasta is psychological, “that doesn’t mean you couldn’t summon something unintentionally.”

Though “The Three Kings” differs from the straight and narrow in a few key ways—avoiding some of the most common ritual tropes and admitting its psychological intentions—it’s easy to see how each of these rituals not only rely heavily on the power of suggestibility but also take advantage of common ways to prime the human mind to hallucinate.

So the next time you’re feeling a little bored, and the clock happens to be about to strike midnight, just remember that you never have to be alone in your own home if you don’t want to. And if you happen to try one of these ritual creepypastas out, be sure to let us know how it goes—that is, if you make it out in one piece.

Looking for more on creepypastas? We’ve got you:

“Three Creepy Creepypastas for Halloween”

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Written by River Vignaud

River is a writer from New Orleans who has been fascinated, disgusted, and obsessed with horror from a young age. When she's not watching b-movies, she writes fabulist fiction.

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