The enduring campfire tales of the Sonic fandom

Posted by brilokuloj on May 16, 2024

I’ve been a fan of the Sonic the Hedgehog series for longer than I can remember. As far as I’m concerned, I might as well have been born clutching a copy of Sonic’s Schoolhouse.

That puts my engagement with the Sonic franchise roughly in the second half of the 90s; early enough to have opinions on the decline of the franchise, for sure, but just too late to have been around for the golden era of the games. (Honestly, as far as the true die-hard Sonic fans are concerned, the very first Sonic game was the only good one.)

This also makes me the exact right age to be utterly baffled by the popularity of Sonic.exe, the fandom’s beloved creepypasta since 2011.


Sonic.exe

The premise of Sonic.exe is so stereotypical, it reads as a ham-handed parody of every single video game creepypasta that has ever been written. It’s almost amazing that it’s completely, 100% sincere.

Our lucky narrator, Tom, receives an unassuming CD-R with “SONIC.EXE” written on it… along with a plea from his best friend to destroy the game. Being a creepypasta protagonist, Tom immediately brushes this warning aside and decides to play the accursed game. Oh boy, the cliches start coming and they don’t stop coming. Creepy reversed music! Seas of blood! Yes, it even specifies hyper-realistic blood!

I think you can imagine the rest from there. Sonic is evil, he murders his friends violently, and then he targets the protagonist and escapes into the real world. Sonic.exe ends with a faux-pas committed by many internet stories of its time – the narrator says that he has witnessed the monster in real life, and then the story stops. Maybe a good campfire tale, or some sort of Goosebump, but hardly a story you can pass off as actually having happened to you. And isn’t that the point of creepypasta? Lying about spooky shit online?

A popular meme of Buster from Arthur saying "You really think someone would do that, just go on the internet and tell lies?". The word "lies" has been replaced with a picture of a skull.

Look, I’ve read a lot of creepypasta in my time. It’s been my hobby for as long as I’ve been into the Sonic series and probably even longer. There’s a part of me that enjoys the absolute trash, in the same way that I imagine people are reading enough cheap mystery novels for my local library to be able to afford being overrun with them. All this, and even I think that Sonic.exe is just a bit too shit to even be ironically enjoyable.

And yet Sonic.exe remains one of the most popular and beloved creepypastas of its generation. Some people like to call its modern incarnation (which I’ll get to in a second) an ironic reimagining, but I’m going to have to call bullshit on that, because all of it has always been blisteringly sincere, and it has always been there.


Funkin’ with Sonic

Apparently at some point, unbeknownst to me, Sonic.exe faced a minor revival, about as much as an always-present force can have a revival… in the form of a Friday Night Funkin’ mod.

(This is one of those moments where my age is gonna really show. I am so sorry, Zoomers, you’ve earned the right to give me a swirlie in the skibidi toilet.)

Friday Night Funkin’ is a rhythm game wherein the main character, Boyfriend, must defeat opponents in order to keep dating his (drumroll) (drumroll) (drumroll) Girlfriend. The gameplay is simplistic, with arrow-based controls you’d recognize from any DDR clone. The music has a distinct style where the characters “rap” with clipped “voices”, not unlike the way YTPMVs are often made out of vocal samples sliced into loopable instrument leads. None of it hasn’t been done before, but it’s been repackaged in a way that’s especially palatable and character-driven.

Every rhythm game, big or small, has its own modding scene; this is nothing new to Friday Night Funkin’. I think where it excels is that it encourages a sense of narrative. All mods I have seen are framed with the idea of “what if Boyfriend fought this guy?” Vs. Sonic.exe is no different: the Boyfriend rap battles against the monstrous Sonic while his Girlfriend just chills in the background like nothing’s happening. It’s honestly kind of hilarious and I think you should watch at least a little bit of it if you’re not photosensitive.

Sonic.exe has always been lurking in the background of my life ever since it came out, but admittedly it became even more of a constant at this point. It honestly took me at least a year to figure out it was because of Friday Night Funkin’; creepypasta fandoms come and go, this one especially.

What is it about Sonic.exe that has such staying power, though?

While I do still doubt the irony angle, at least some of it stems from people’s disappointment and frustration to learn that the original Sonic.exe story was written by a groomer. Look, I don’t want to seem flippant by saying I’m not surprised, but the Sonic fandom is one of the biggest hubs of child groomers there is. I would know. And I can absolutely see why people would want to make a “better” version of something that they might still be fond of.

And then there’s just the fact that we’ve been making this story over and over for as long as Sonic fandom has existed.


A fuzzy precedent

Before there was Sonic.exe, there was Tails from the Crypt. This site was a collection of – well, ya know – tales, initially posted to the Sonic HQ forums, then hosted independently by one Mark Stuart on the same site he hosted his small furry webcomic Quacker and Bowen. These stories all revolved around one central antagonist: the Tails Doll.

Making its big debut in Sonic R, a lesser-known spinoff racing game for the Sega Saturn and PC, the Tails Doll was an unlockable character with the worst stats in the game. Sonic R was released at a point in time where Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles were the core cast, and Sonic’s many friends had yet to overtake the series. Instead of digging into the well of less-identifiable Sonic content, Traveler’s Tales fleshed out the playable cast with Metal Sonic (a pre-existing character), Mecha Knuckles (a pre-existing character), and… the Tails Doll.

A creepy plushie version of Tails from the Sonic series.

Aww, look at that little thing! It's so cute and totally not soul-sucking, right?

An original invention for Sonic R unlike every other character in the game, Tails Doll was instantly identified as a creepy and inexplicable addition. But it wouldn’t be until 2005, nearly 10 years later, when it would earn its status as a meme. A forced meme, as well! Mark Stuart himself admits to making up the stories to derail discussions on the once-populous Sonic HQ forums.

Being a pre-Creepypasta Wiki invention, and one that circulated largely through word of mouth rather than a single codified story, the tale of Tails Doll varied wildly. So I’ll tell you the rumor I knew and personally believed in: supposedly if you were to play as Tails Doll (one of the slowest characters in the game), select the “Tag” game mode, and then tag Super Sonic (the fastest character), then Tails Doll would become real and… uh… haunt you?

Yeah, I don’t know. Perhaps taking “the scariest thing in horror is what you can’t see” a bridge too far, the story just ends there. Some iterations tied appearances of Tails Doll to the song Can You Feel the Sunshine?, the very upbeat song featured in the first stage. This association was enough to make the song dread-inducing for many kids, despite it being a song literally about having fun and being happy.

God, I was obsessed with this stupid-ass story. One of my very first serious fanfiction writing projects was a Tails Doll story I never published. I haven’t read it in years out of sheer embarrassment, so I can’t remember what unique ideas I brought to the table, if any. What I do remember is that I sincerely wanted Tails Doll in my house. I was a lonely little kid; the idea of living with a sentient, if creepy, stuffed toy was more than fine by me.

This was even the start of me getting into DOOM as a franchise for realsies, entirely because of a popular meme page that featured a picture of the doll soaked in blood – set to the DOOM credits music.

I already liked Sonic R, don’t get me wrong. It was one of my first Sonic games, I had a copy of it on PC that I played periodically. But my enjoyment of the game became an obsession at this point. Perhaps it was my already-existent tendency to fixate on the most obscure and disliked entries in any media franchise, but Sonic R quickly became one of my favorite Sonic games, to the point of me once making a deviantART fanclub with maybe one or two other members.

Did I like Sonic R because of its association with horror? Or did I already like it, and the creepypasta was just a fun bonus? I will never, ever know.

This is an excellent moment to diverge and talk about a perplexing truth when it comes to creepypasta by and for children. Kids genuinely do not give a shit what is real and what is fake. In fact, many kids I knew readily acknowledged a dissonance they experienced daily: they knew fully well that something like Tails Doll wasn’t real, but the fascination with it was so deep that it might as well have been. It was manifested into reality, all from our collective anxiety about this really, really stupid story.

We all grow out of this as we learn critical reasoning skills… for the most part. Other than your Twitter friend who keeps sharing posts from obvious rage-bait satire accounts and then going “Oh, I know it’s probably fake, but it’s fucked up, right?”


History repeats itself

There are some clear parallels between these stories. Sonic.exe and the Tails Doll both focus on the idea of a familiar Sonic character, just subtly warped. Their stories use speed, or the lack thereof, and the core gameplay of Sonic, all to their advantage to create the idea of an enemy you can’t outrun. The original Sonic.exe story even ends with the twist that a Sonic plushie has manifested in the protagonist’s house.

So what is it about Sonic.exe that I find so uniquely annoying? I don’t know. Honestly, they’re both tropey and awful. I guess I just dislike Sonic.exe for its complete lack of respect for how video games work – its lack of understanding of hardware is right there in the title. But couldn’t that be said about Tails Doll as well? How does playing a shitty character invite a demon into your house?

And why does the Sonic series spawn so many long-lasting and infamous horror stories? Even the YouTube-beloved Baldi’s Basics was derived beat-for-beat from the idea “what if Sonic’s Schoolhouse was actually horror?”

Nowadays, Mark Stuart (the creator of the Tails Doll meme) apparently works at Insomniac now, disrespecting his female coworkers and busying himself with trying to put titties on Ratchet. Hardly a surprise for a guy whose personal website had many running gags about how he wants to fuck Rouge the Bat.

History repeats itself and life moves on. Sonic.exe is still as popular as it’s ever been, to the point of spawning bootleg plushies in children’s homes.

Wait, uh oh

Three Sonic.exe themed plush toys.

Categories: gaming horror

Tagged: creepy gaming creepypasta indie horror internet archive sonic r sonic the hedgehog