“Ghosts in the Machine” is a column by F Newsmagazine’s Entertainment Editor, Nestor Kok. Here we will take a deep dive into the past, present, and future of analog horror, spotlighting the creators who bring our worst nightmares to life, and unraveling just what makes analog horror’s unique brand of storytelling tick.
Analog horror is a genre that has come to be defined by its tropes — it is a genre whose series start slowly, before unraveling into chaos all at once. A mental health conference is advertised as starting on November 31st, despite the date being impossible. A name you recognize from an early tape appears a second, then third, then fourth time, until the implications of their role in the slowly-unspooling story becomes too clear, too late. A shape you see in the static is dismissed as a glitch, but soon resolves into the terrifying form of the lurking evil beneath the narrative.
These hallmarks of analog horror are oft-replicated across the numerous series popping up today, but can trace their point of origin to the beginning of the analog horror boom in 2016 — in the enigmatic web-series-cum-ARG “CH/SS.”
Premiering shortly after Kris Straub’s revered “Local58TV,” a series which would later shoot analog horror into stratospheric heights of YouTube fame, “CH/SS” drip-fed its mysteries to viewers; most of its early videos lasting only a minute or two. Brought to life by an enigmatic creator known only by the alias Turkey Lenin III, “CH/SS” developed a cult following that continues to grow six years after its initial release, and has been referred to by creators like Alex Kister and horror YouTubers like Night Mind as a pioneering work in the annals of analog horror.
“CH/SS” begins as a series of instructional videos and advertisements for a mental wellness program sponsored by the American government, and slowly devolves into a labyrinth of espionage, corporate dishonesty, and supernatural occurrences. If such a summary seems lacking, it should be a testament to its creator’s masterful writing — it is hard to say much more about “CH/SS” without spoiling part, or all of it. The series’s seemingly impenetrable mysteries are revealed to viewers over an intense slow-drip of information that comes together all at once towards the end, in that most satisfying manner reminiscent of Agatha Christie whodunits — albeit with less old people doddering about and more Russian-speaking, folk-horror-adjacent beasts.
Where its compatriot “Local58TV” focused on longer vignettes reminiscent of ‘80s public service broadcasting stations, “CH/SS” pushed the envelope with its methods of content delivery. In addition to the videos uploaded to its dedicated YouTube channel, “CH/SS” borrowed several other immersive storytelling tactics from the realm of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). Almost all “CH/SS” YouTube installments were released with Mediafire download links in their descriptions, often leading to supplemental story material such as doctors’ transcripts. An in-character Twitter account was also created as the story entered its second and third acts, injecting the series’s YouTube footage with a ticking sense of urgency as a leading character in grave danger stepped out of the screen and into an interactive space, talking to fans about the trials they were facing. Unlike most other analog horror series in the past and present, “CH/SS” was also a work of active, face-to-face storytelling — one that we have not seen replicated even as the genre continues to grow.
“CH/SS” also stands out as one of the only mainstream analog horror works made by a non-American creator. Analog horror is, and always has been, a genre dominated by works both American in their content and origins — perhaps partly because the conventions and common themes running through the genre lend themselves well to post-Cold-War America narratives about paranoia and governmental misconduct. While “CH/SS” is still set in the United States, its creator is a 21-year-old Singaporean university student, who had never visited the US prior to creating the series. To find out more about his unique perspective on analog horror, as both a veteran of the genre and a creator with a different filmmaking background, F Newsmagazine interviewed Turkey Lenin III via email.
“CH/SS” contains a multitude of themes, from mental health, to monsters reminiscent of the SCP franchise, to Cold War espionage. What inspired such a tale? What other media do you draw inspiration from generally?
“CH/SS” was inspired by my love of the Cold War and the whole idea of military secrets and espionage. The pseudo-scientific aspects of “CH/SS” are also inspired by real life US military projects from the mid-20th century, MK-Ultra being the most notable. I used to be part of the SCP Foundation Wiki, and much of the nature of the fiction from that site is also a big inspiration. I also married these themes to the themes of isolation and personal connection that were very present in the ARG and web series scene in early 2010, like “Marble Hornets” and its short-lived sequel “Clear Lakes 44.”
A lot of fans and content creators within the community, such as Night Mind, are calling “CH/SS” the first-ever analog horror series. How do you feel about being able to claim that you, arguably, invented analog horror? Is it a title that sits well with you?
It’s flattering to be named the genesis of “analog horror”, but I just view myself as someone who just took the VHS effect and made a series with it. The VHS aesthetic has already been used a lot before, like the aforementioned “Clear Lakes 44,” “KrainaGrzybowTV,” and the defunct ARG “Awake,” whose aesthetic I was inspired by. The famous “Local58TV” was only 2 episodes in, the 2nd one only released a few days ahead of my first video, so I understand the argument that “Local58TV” was actually the first, and I see myself agreeing with that notion sometimes. This title of being the first is not something I’d wear as a crown, seeing as there have been many series after mine that have a larger cultural impact.
Analog horror creators who do not stumble into the genre through experimental filmmaking often set out to adhere to its tropes (such as grainy VHS aesthetics, ‘80s and ‘90s-inspired sound design, and dark, lo-fi jumpscares) when creating a series. As a creator who stands apart from that crowd due to your early entry into the genre, what drew you to create “CH/SS” in that style?
The whole aesthetic came about not because I wanted to make something look old just so it’d look spooky, rather, my story demanded it. I wanted to tell a story that took place decades before my time, and to tell an immersive story, I needed to emulate the technology of the times. Watching old videos and recordings from the ‘80s and ‘90s informed me on my decision to pursue the aesthetic and project as a whole. Just so happens that the VHS aesthetic is wicked cool, so lucky me, I guess.
“CH/SS” was created in 2016, which means that you would have been 15 years old when you created the series. Was it daunting to create a project so large at such a young age? Alternatively, would you have done anything differently with the series if you had created it today?
Obviously as a 15-year-old I didn’t have the grasp on the scale of what I was going to create. I made the first video during a break period between classes, just to see if I could. However, even before that I had some experience in writing (I had co-written a page in the SCP Foundation Wiki and done other writing projects before) so when my series took off, I was able to pace myself, creating and living life as a 15-year-old. I really can’t tell what I would’ve done differently if I created it today, other than perhaps using a better program or planning my story arcs a bit better.
“CH/SS” exists beyond its YouTube channel — there was also an in-character Twitter account, an unused Geocities site, and various image files uploaded to Mediafire that further expanded the lore behind the series. Some would say that this pushes “CH/SS” into the realm of ARGs (Alternate Reality Games). Others are content to call it a web series, given that most of its content is hosted on YouTube. What would you personally classify “CH/SS” as, six years on?
“CH/SS” is a web series with ARG elements. While the story moves along without viewer input, there were places where interaction via Mediafire puzzles or the Twitter page enriched the story. I planned everything so that if a puzzle wasn’t solved it didn’t affect the story line too badly. However, this has come at the cost of simplicity. There’s always going to be a sacrifice between telling a rich story and allowing accessibility to new viewers.
Much like many other analog horror series out there, “CH/SS” revealed the pieces of its puzzle slowly but surely, with answers only coming towards the end of the series. However, where most fans would congregate in the comments section to discuss their theories and conclusions, you made the unprecedented decision to turn comments off on all “CH/SS” videos. What was the intention behind this?
It wasn’t unprecedented to me, however. “Marble Hornets,” when it was popular in my time, never had comments enabled. It felt like a natural thing to do; immerse the audience by separating them from others, forcing them to view the content without the influence of others. I did however enable comments for the few videos which had a mediafire puzzle, so I could allow some problem solving discussions.
“CH/SS” is set entirely in the United States — a country that you had never been to at the time you created the series. What were the challenges you faced creating content in a culture and country totally unfamiliar to you at the time?
As it has been mentioned on my Twitter bio, I do not live in the States, nor am I a Westerner, nor have I ever lived in the States, but I have had exposure to American culture through my education. “CH/SS” was a very unique challenge; set it in a country I’ve never been to, making sure I do proper research on certain aspects of American life, yet keeping it vague enough to allow myself some level of plausible deniability. One challenge I had was that I had a slight accent, which some have correctly identified as Singaporean. In the first few videos I had quite a few negative feedback over my voice, something which I took quite badly. Since then I have rarely used my voice in anything, but over time it’s something I’ve come to grips with. Another challenge was that I wanted to incorporate some Russian language into my series. After some translation issues, I got some help from user Mk2k, someone who knew the language and helped me in the latter half of the series to provide proper translation. Other than keeping settings and places vague, the fact that I didn’t need to incorporate filmed video footage or actors allowed me to remotely place my whole setting in the United States without much fuss.
Today, in 2022, analog horror is now a thriving genre mostly dominated by American content creators and narratives. Despite “CH/SS” being set in America, you nonetheless still stand out as a creator working outside the US, and outside American culture. How do you feel about the largely American creator-base and fanbase in analog horror, or, conversely, the lack of diversity in the genre? Do you believe this sets analog horror back?
Helped me a lot in pin-pointing what sort of common interests or knowledge were present in the community, at the time. Nowadays, I’ve actually seen some Thai and even other Singaporean analog horror videos, which shows how much the medium has been spreading. I think the nature of the current demographic forces creators outside America or the Western world to lean towards Westernized content in order to be recognized or understood. English will definitely be the lingua franca for widely recognized content, but I think that’s not a fault of the analog horror fanbase, but rather the Internet as a whole. There are definitely local versions of analog Horror out there, but cultural divides will still separate them from those not from the same background.
Besides “CH/SS,” you produce various other analog horror and ARG-adjacent content, and you are currently producing the analog horror series “Good Old Days” on YouTube. How do you feel your work has changed and evolved since “CH/SS?”
There’s a lot of soft skills that I’ve gotten just from experimenting around. It’s hard for me to pinpoint what I’ve learned other than technical skills and methods for creating videos. If I had to say one thing, it would be the storyboarding and pre-planning process in story writing.
What software and/or hardware do you use to create your videos?
I edit on a PC, with a copy of Sony Vegas 13.0, and have been for the past six years. I have also used a variety of free programs to help me edit images and sounds, like the online Photopea and Audacity.
Analog horror is a genre defined by its “low-budget look” and grainy, VHS-style editing. Do you like this stripped-back production style?
One thing’s for sure; it’s cheap, and you can easily emulate the style to a certain quality if you know how without any need for 3rd party paid addons or programs. This sort of low-cost production effort has allowed me to just let my creative juices flow without worrying about budget. I find the challenge of working in this way fun and enriching.
Analog horror, and YouTube content in general, tends to be self-funded or fan-funded, with most creators today running a Patreon or Ko-fi account to accept donations for their work. “CH/SS,” however, was created entirely without any kind of outside funding. Do you think that creating “CH/SS” before the big public advent of crowdfunding independent content locked you out of certain options and/or opportunities for the series?
“CH/SS” would have benefited from some budget, but from what I can tell, only in the quality of the final product. Certain paths, like a website-based ARG path or voice actors for certain roles, might have opened for me with some money.
If given the chance to obtain a big budget for your content, whether for a remake of “CH/SS” or an update to “Good Old Days” and your other videos, would you take it? If so, what would you change? If not, why?
Honestly, I wouldn’t like a big budget to remake or update anything. I guess I could get better equipment or hire voice actors or buy newer software, but there’s something special about solving problems with limited budget or resources. Sometimes putting yourself in a box forces you to think outside of it, and something interesting might come from it. CH/SS is complete, with all its flaws and shortcomings, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.
Is content and narrative creation a full-time job for you, or do you have another occupation? Do you ever see yourself creating analog horror and/or other original video content full-time?
Content creation is a hobby of mine, done for no profit at all. I am currently a university student. I don’t see myself being a content creator full time in the future, but I know I will still be creating in the years to come.
What are your future plans and hopes for content creation?
Other than my current story series, I’d like to collaborate with other creators and expand my horizons. Art is a passion, and I hope to find new things to create in the future.