Fear — real fear — is generally caused by something subtler than blood and guts and a maniac with a knife. Is it a shape seen out of the corner of your eye? A shadow you could swear wasn’t there a moment ago? Is it something that sounds so peculiar that it couldn’t possibly be true?
What if it is?
Because we don’t just need fear in order to avoid pain, or as a part of the evolutionary instinct for survival. We wouldn’t have horror movies if we didn’t experience fear for other reasons. We wouldn’t read freaky books. We wouldn’t go on roller coasters.
And you wouldn’t be reading these words.
So pull up a chair. Let’s spin a yarn or two. What’s the worst that could happen?
It starts with a phone call.
You won’t call them. They’ll call you. When your phone rings, you’ll pick it up; but before you have the chance to speak, a voice will come through the earpiece: “Welcome to Boothworld Industries. My name is Samantha and I will be your operator for today. Name?”
Your operator’s name may or may not be Samantha; whoever it is, it will be an innocuous name. Forgettable.
It sounds like a customer service call, although you can’t recall having had any dealings with a company called “Boothworld Industries” before. Did Time Warner start outsourcing their Internet services? Unlikely. You consider asking your “operator” — whatever that means — to add you to their DNC list.
You don’t, though. You’ll admit it: You’re curious. Boothworld Industries already knows who you are, they tell you. So you’ll give the name of someone you know — an old flame, an ex-friend, your next-door neighbor. You’ll say something like, “Nathan Miller.” Why? You have no idea. Why not?
“Nathan Miller,” your operator will repeat back to you. “Remodeling is scheduled for December 9. Would you like to reschedule?” Again: Why not? You’ll reply in the affirmative. You will hear typing on the other end for a moment — heavy typing, pounded out with a heavy hand — before your operator tells you, “I have a Tuesday appointment available. Will that work?” Again, you’ll reply in the affirmative.
The last thing your operator will ask is, “Would you like a courtesy call?” A courtesy call? That sounds nice. For the third time and final time, you’ll say yes. “Wonderful,” your operator will tell you. “We at Boothworld Industries say thanks and welcome to the club. You have a marvelous day.”
On Tuesday, you will regret your request for a courtesy call. “This is Samantha with Boothworld Industries,” your operator will say when you answer. “Your courtesy call begins now.”
What follows is several minutes of Nathan Miller’s voice pleading and begging before being choked off into a wheeze. A slight rustling; more wheezing; and finally, silence. A new voice will then appear on the line. “The scheduled work has been completed,” it will say. “We at Boothworld Industries say thanks and welcome to the club. You have a marvelous day.”
So that’s what remodeling is.
Or maybe you find the number yourself. More fool you, should you choose to call it, for you have no idea the sort of rabbit hole you’re about to fall down. You might think you do — but you don’t. Not really. You wouldn’t have called it if you did.
The conversation proceeds much the same way as it would have had Boothworld Industries made first contact — except this time, once the “remodeling” has been rescheduled, your operator will ask you something new: “How would you like to pay for this?” Pay?
“Yes, ma’am. When you schedule a remodeling, the scheduling is final unless another member shifts the scheduled date. We expect payment in full before service is rendered.”
The price, you are informed, is your daughter. “If you do not pay, we will have no choice but to repossess what is due,” your operator tells you. You say that Boothworld Industries can’t have your daughter. “Wonderful,” your operator replies, as if you hadn’t spoken. “Repossession is scheduled. We at Boothworld Industries say thanks and welcome to the club. You have a marvelous day.”
Or maybe it begins with an email. It will be addressed to someone other than you, and it will read as follows:
You’ve been selected for a complimentary remodel from Boothworld Industries! Because you do not have active phone lines, we are contacting you through email to assure you are aware of your upcoming appointment. Your appointment is scheduled for: February 19. If you would like to reschedule, please call Boothworld Industries at 630-296-7536.
Please ensure that you are ready to pay prior to your appointment. If you do not, we will be forced to repossess what is due. Please submit the following person(s) and we will handle the rest:
The name on the next line is yours.
The email concludes, “We at Boothworld Industries say thanks and welcome to the club. You have a marvelous day.”
Or maybe you stumble upon a building. Maybe you’re starting a new job, and on your first day, you arrive a little bit earlier than expected. Your office will feel uncomfortable, although you may not be able to put your finger on why. As you settle yourself in your cubicle, you will hear snatches of conversations rising from your co-workers:
“…welcome to the club…”
“…a remodeling has been scheduled…”
“…you have a marvelous day…”
You will then realize that although you are indeed on the third floor of your building, you are not on the same third floor you interviewed on last week. You will head for the exit; and as you do, you will see a sign by the elevators: “BOOTHWORLD INDUSTRIES. Established 1888, Whitechapel, London.”
Or maybe — just maybe — you simply fall asleep. And when you do, you dream. You will dream of yourself doing unspeakable things to people you know, but of whom you are not terribly fond. You will awake knowing that you were merely doing your job. After all, they were all scheduled for remodeling.
As you may have predicted, Boothworld Industries isn’t real. But you kept reading anyway, didn’t you? Why? And why did you want so badly for it to be real? Let’s explore. For science.
Boothworld Industries is a Reddit creation. One of my favorites is the Nosleep subreddit, from whence Boothworld hails. As is the case with any forum based on user-submitted content, Nosleep goes through phases during which it’s chock full of terrifying stories, and phases during which it’s… well, not. The one constant, though is the following rule: Everything is true here, even if it isn’t.
One of the more intriguing phenomena that Nosleep occasionally gives rise to is a sort of hivemind take on the terrifying. I kind of think of it like the Internet version of those “Round Robin” stories we used to do in elementary school — the kind where one person writes a paragraph, folds the paper over so that all you can see is the last line, and then passes it on to the next person to continue the story.
The way it tends to work on Nosleep is this: First, someone will post a particularly successful tale. The central idea of that tale will then get picked up by another writer, who will submit their own story based around it. One thing leads to another, and bam — the next thing you know, you’ve got a collectively-generated world of spookiness. It’s the world’s biggest campfire.
By and large, it’s pretty easy to weed out the totally made-up Nosleep stories; the ones that skirt that hazy line between truth and fiction, however, are a whole ‘nother can of worms. So: What makes Boothworld Industries so believable and therefore so successful? For me, it all goes back to Freud’s (I know, I know — Freud was wrong about a lot of things, but I think he’s onto something) definition of the uncanny — that is, “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”
We’ve all dealt with customer service phone calls; we’ve dealt with weird-looking spam; we’ve called random phone numbers just for kicks; we’ve accidentally stepped inside the wrong building. Most of us, however, have never had any of those occurrences end quite the way an encounter with Boothworld Industries does. It starts somewhere mundanely recognizable, and then goes…elsewhere. Nothing is scarier than the familiar made strange. (See? Truth!)
Oh, and don’t forget to add to that the fact that you’ve got thousands of people — the subreddit has 175,000 followers and who knows how many other lurkers — all reading along and contributing to this mythology. The suspension of disbelief can be pretty powerful, and when you’ve got that many people all suspending their disbelief at the same time, it grows. Fear feeds on fear, after all, and thanks to the scope of the Internet, the subreddit easily becomes one of those things you probably don’t want to read alone late at night.
(This is what I did when I first discovered Nosleep. Trust me. Don’t do it.)
I would argue that the earlier Boothworld stories are the most effective; the way they open the world up and piggyback off of each other just makes them even better. In the case of the original tale, for example, the writer eventually learns that Boothworld Industries is unable to schedule a remodeling on his behalf for Thursday, as he himself is due for a remodeling on Wednesday night. They can reschedule his own remodeling, of course; all he has to do is recruit several new members to the club. One thousand members, to be exact. What better way to reach that many people than through the Internet? You can help him. Just call 630-296-7536.
Also ranking up there on the believability scale is the story of the curious parent whose daughter was scheduled for “repossession.” After she hung up the phone, she ran into her daughter’s room, where the little girl had been eating a bowl of cereal. The bowl of cereal was still there, but the little girl was gone. Sitting in the milk was a business card — and she shared a photograph of it.
And then there’s the “wrong building” tale. Although it gets a little more outlandish when you read the whole thing, the sign in the building itself does something quite strong by pinning Boothworld to a very real event in history: 1888 was the year that Jack the Ripper took the lives of five prostitutes in London’s Whitechapel neighborhood. Were Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth “Long Liz” Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly Boothworld’s first “remodeling” appointments?
The implication is that they were, although the connection brings up more questions than it answers. Who scheduled them for remodeling? Why? Was the company founded by the Ripper, or was he merely a cog in its bloody, terrifying machine?
Speaking of machines, I called the number. 630-296-7536. An answering machine greeted me: “You have reached Boothworld Industries. Your number has been logged and traced. A service representative will be with you shortly for remodeling.”
If you never hear from me again, I have been scheduled for remodeling.
You have a marvelous day.
Lucia Peters is endlessly fascinated by creepy things, both real and imagined; she writes about them regularly at The Ghost in My Machine. Her work has also appeared on TheGloss, Crushable, Bustle, and BettyConfidential