I’ve always been fascinated by early-internet horror. Before the rise of Slender Man, Creepypastas, and spooky YouTube videos, most people got their occasional dose of online scares from quirky flash games or viral e-mails spreading updated versions of familiar urban legends. However, that would all change in 2001, as the internet would be graced with an iconic scary story that would inspire many more to come, a tale that we now know as the infamous Ted the Caver.
In a time preceding the popularization of MySpace (or even the invention of Facebook, for that matter), customizable web pages were all the rage, with blogging having exploded in popularity all around the world. Several web-hosting sites attempted to cash in on the trend, and it was on an unassuming AngelFire page that spelunking enthusiast Ted began to share his growing obsession with the aptly named “mystery cave”.
Keeping its real name and location intentionally vague in an effort to dissuade curious readers from getting hurt, Ted used the website as a kind of journal to record and reflect on his exploration, describing his first innocent forays into the cave, accompanied only by a strategically unnamed friend (referred to as B in the story) and a disposable camera. Within the cave, he and his friend encountered a small opening that led into an apparently unexplored system of tunnels, and decided to expand the passage in order to reach the cavern’s uncharted depths.
As Ted and his friend go about enlarging the passage through the use of power drills, sledgehammers, and sheer tenacity, the cavers encounter eerie noises, strange feelings and creepy sigils carved into seemingly unreachable rocks. Of course, things eventually take a turn for the worst, as these intrepid explorers unearth something that was best left undisturbed, but I won’t spoil the rest of the story here. Inquisitive readers can (and definitely should) visit Ted’s Caving Page for the full chilling tale, which is remarkably still online after all these years.
Ted’s story would eventually spread to all corners of the internet, becoming especially popular on message boards where users would argue endlessly about its authenticity. Through Ted’s believable insight and handy camera, we’re offered glimpses into the Mystery Cave’s claustrophobic innards, making this one of the most immersive horror experiences available online. A real group of experienced cavers would eventually pinpoint the actual cave’s location in Utah, adding another layer of credibility to the story. Nevertheless, after a few years, the real Ted re-emerged online and ended up revealing (rather anti-climactically) that the blog was a mix of his real-life spelunking adventures combined with some creative embellishment.
At one point, there was some amount of controversy surrounding a short story by Thomas Lera entitled “Fear of the Darkness“, which some internet users shared as if it were a completed version of the original tale. However, Lera’s take on the story was entirely fan-made, having clearly adapted Ted’s blog, instead of the other way around. While not a bad read in its own right, Fear of the Darkness‘ ending went out of its way to explain things that were better left to the reader’s imagination, making it an inferior version of the story.
After several years of internet infamy, an independent film adaptation of the story was produced in 2008, titled The Living Dark: The Story of Ted the Caver. Directed by David Hunt, the film took a whopping nine years to warrant a release outside of the festival circuit. While this is usually a bad sign, the movie is actually a surprisingly creepy retelling of Ted’s adventures, despite taking a few liberties with the source material.
In spite of an obviously insufficient budget, Living Dark manages to retain the original story’s mysterious atmosphere and early-internet charm, even using some of Ted’s original photographs and journal entries within the film. The ending might divide viewers regarding how decidedly unambiguous it is when compared to the original blog posts, but I thought that it served as a satisfying compromise between showing too much and too little.
Even beyond the world of film, Ted’s Caving Page has had a notable influence on internet culture as a whole, having been considered by some as the internet’s very first creepy-pasta. The story also served as an inspiration for countless other infamous online stories like The Dionaea House (a personal spooky favorite) and the SCP Foundation.
To this day, the page remains incredibly popular, with people are still arguing over their interpretation of Ted’s account and what fate might have befallen him and his friends. I think a lot of this success can be attributed to the candid writing style and plausible presentation of an otherwise traditional supernatural horror story. It really feels like Ted is just relating a series of real events instead of authoring an epic tale of Lovecraftian terror (although you can’t deny the story’s Lovecraftian undertones).
Much like what happened to the Blair Witch Project, the scare factor here is significantly reduced now that we no longer have the benefit of uncertainty over whether or not this is a true story. However, again like the holy grail of found-footage films, Ted’s tale stands on its own as an effective work of horror, carrying all the traits of a good old-fashioned supernatural mystery regardless of its format.
As we reach the 17th anniversary of Ted’s first entry, I think it’s worth taking a look back at the grandfather of modern internet horror and appreciating its influence over our favorite digital scares. Luckily for us, Ted’s Caving Page is still open to anyone curious (not to mention brave) enough to enter, and I wholeheartedly recommend that you do so.