We all have a tiny bit of familiarity with creepypastas, right? Those errant rumors and legends that float around the void of the internet, spawning such things as Slenderman, the Midnight Man and more “they were dead the whole time” theories than can be counted. Most of the time, these legends and tales range from actually creepy to downright silly, yet some do provoke some thought as well.
So, let’s discuss Jeff the Killer. If you aren’t familiar with this pasty-faced Joker rip-off, Jeff the Killer was a creepypasta that spawned from a creepy image of a white, almost featureless man with red lips, wide eyes without eyelids and black locks. This picture got quite a few theories churning and a good bit of people calling Photoshop as well. Either which way, Jeff is a more well-known creepypasta, and his popularity has been the subject of a few indie game adaptations. Urban Legends, recently released on Steam and developed by several independent Steam goers, features old Jeff in an expanded story and survival mode.
The game promises scares, an interesting and rich story and a tense environment. A game based on a creepypasta is not the worst idea ever, after all. Slender saw amazing success in several adaptations and mods and Five Night’s At Freddy’s almost plays like it was birthed from a creepypasta, doesn’t it? In short, an urban legend can give decent premise for a game.
What was it that made things like Slender or Midnight Man work? I want to go back to P.T and how it grasped the true meaning of horror, as sad as I am to open a fresh wound. P.T understood that fear comes from establishing an atmosphere, giving horror time to build up and being helpless and facing down the unknown with knowledge only that it wants to cause you harm is frightening. Similarly, Slender is almost pure atmosphere in most cases; he is a complete unknown, players having no idea what his motivations or intentions are.
Let’s compare this to Jeff. He’s a creepy-faced, pale, black-haired guy with a butcher knife.
OK? I hate to say it, but I don’t see the big deal. For me personally, the things that are intangible or mysterious in intention have always been more frightening than grotesque or violent antagonists. Does the game implement that unknown intentions idea? Well, sort of…but, to be honest, so does Jeff’s apparent backstory.
From what I understand, Jeff and his family moved to a new neighborhood and it was good for a bit. They ran into a school bully that could make the most cliché of bullies in the media cringe. Said bully and his cronies decided, almost randomly, they were going to beat up Jeff and his little brother. Jeff fights back and does some significant damage, the cops come, things are shite and his younger brother takes the fall for beating up said bullies and gets sent to juvie. Meanwhile, the bullies come back and light poor ole Jeff on fire, sending him to the hospital. Somehow, and I do mean somehow, this makes his skin white and turns his hair black. I…don’t think that is how fire works. Fire usually turns hair to a crisp and it sort of falls out, it doesn’t decide at random to make you a weird version of L from Death Note. Unless the “rich story” in Urban Legends is that your character was actually Light Yagami the whole time, that’s nonsense.
Anyhow, Jeff gets sent to the ER, his face is messed up and seeing it drives him batty. His brother gets cleared because reasons and Jeff comes on home, nuttier than a Macadamia cookie. Said nuttiness leads him to burn off his own eyelids so he can always see his “beautiful face”. In a fit after his mother rightfully freaks out, he apparently stabs her and his father via the disembowelment bull-charge technique; what a jerk, yeah?
His poorly written fanfiction of a backstory ends with him stabbing his brother after telling him to “go to sleep”. This is the same brother that he almost died protecting, the brother he raged and sobbed over taking the fall for him. We can go the insanity route here, as insanity runs on logic that does not fit with a set moral compass or typical logic. One could argue that, if Jeff thought he was helping his brother or parents by killing them, that might constitute insanity. But here’s the big question: what is his reasoning behind going around and killing other people?
Therein lies the issue: the game, and Jeff, do not make the unknown intentions bit work properly. There’s a way to do this and not lose all credibility or reason within your own plot. We know Slender is after you because he’s a paranormal being, and that is all that we need. Jeff the Killer is just a human by all reasoning, right? Insane or not, I’d think he’d be susceptible to bullets or getting caught or socked in the lowers. If this is some kind of Invader Zim logic where everyone in his world is an idiot, there would still be one or two people going “Hey, wait a second…you’re holding a knife there.”
Urban Legends sets up that you’re a detective trying to figure out the murder of your wife and daughter. Fine, OK, a bit cliché but alright. So you go to a hospital where the atmosphere is immediately non-threatening, get a few scares out of the way and then Jeff shows up.
Jeff. Is. Not. Scary. He’s got the voice of what everyone pictures a serial killer would have straight off the bat – quiet, effeminate and a bit droll. I’ve heard that voice being used for fan-readings of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. With an appearance, stature and basis like he has, rushing the player like that, especially with such a random AI and poor coordination feels more pathetic than it does threatening. The elephant in the room here is that the environment tries to convince us repeatedly that Jeff is spooky-scary, with things like an upside down, naked woman being hung in a random room with a pentagram of blood beneath her. OK…but why?! What is the motivation here? Am I to believe Jeff is a demon now, or worships Satan, or is a big Ozzy Osbourne fan? Why did he hang a baby from its umbilical cord to bap you in the face when you open a door? His actions make him seem more like an idiot trying to be as hardcore as possible than someone actually insane.
A human antagonist can be very difficult to write, granted. In the case of Jeff, I look at it from the standpoint of someone who enjoys writing fiction, who enjoys writing horror, and I wonder if there is a way to make him really scary. Earlier, I called him a Joker rip-off. Now, why is the Joker scary? Because his logic, the lengths he will go to, the twisted morality and absolute lack of empathy make readers see what humanity is capable of. The Joker is something of a metaphor for the darkest parts of the human condition, yet, many of his plots involve him releasing gas to make people laugh and smile. In a sense, he believes he is helping. He’s still as much a criminal as he was before his accident, mind, and he still takes part in robberies and schemes to fund his fun and games – and that is what life is to him, a game, a joke, a reality in which everyone who isn’t smiling needs fixing.
Another, calmer version of this mentality, is the Zodiac killer portrayed in the move Se7en. The tranquility, the pitiless, emotionless voice and absolute brilliance in each action, each deliberate crime presents him as a nemesis and a nightmare most of us would never want to meet. He is that seemingly normal neighbor that keeps to themselves and only years later do you realize what he was doing next door while you drank your tea. You might even ponder if it could have happened to you. Or Anton from “No Country For Old Men”, who is one of the best examples of a psychopath in the media.
With lines like, “Don’t Run!”, “I found you!” and “Go to sleep” being shouted by Jeff, I still cannot piece together what this character is meant to be or why he is doing things. The “he’s just crazy” excuse doesn’t work for me, it’s too flimsy and doesn’t fit with the minds of real serial killers, real people that use that twisted logic, even cannibal killers. There’s a consistent pattern of that odd logic or that patient, manipulative intelligence in many of them. They tend to be seem normal, sweet, charming outwardly but holster a lack of empathy, or a primitive lust or anger. They’ve been noted as feeling no pity for their victims, relishing in the pain of the families they’ve hurt, torturing small animals or powerless people and delving into animalistic, predatory patterns when hunting for a new victim.
Where does Jeff fall into this? I suppose, if I had to wager, he’s in the same vein as Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. Even Jason, and his mother, displayed SOME sort of motivation for their crimes, however. Jeff is just hanging out in an abandoned building. Does he eat, does he sleep? How does he even do anything never being able to blink? Did he somehow acquire eye drops without anyone losing their shit? Too many plot holes, too many confusing questions and nothing but Jeff chasing you around or staring at walls. He never develops because he only has a few set lines, he never tries to outsmart you or even bait you with the murder of your family. This game was written by potatoes and his creepypasta origins were written by avocados.
I don’t mean to sound critical of Urban Legends. It’s an indie game put together by a Steam crew of developers – it’s arguably a labor of love and an attempt at the, aptly named, urban legend. I admire them for their efforts and this article is not to personally criticize them – but the promised rich story aspect has definitely fallen short. I’ve seen legions of horror movies from the black and white classics to modern, psychological thrillers, and I’d like to think I know a thing or two about what makes horror work. Even the Outlast approach wouldn’t work for this game, I fear. It’s just you and Jeff and a couple of gross surprises that made me roll my eyes more than anything. I’m sure the baby and pentagram woman will be a real fright to some, but I just found myself snickering.
Jeff just doesn’t have enough to work with. He’s not grotesque enough, he’s not smart enough or intimidating, the environment and atmosphere are too generic and silly and there’s just no motivation in anything. He can half-assedly stab you ten times while you stare at his silly face before you’ll go down, and then when you get back up, you’ll find him just staring at a wall. It’s a shame that a project that could’ve been expanded upon falls into the exact same pitfalls as the original backstory. There was so little to work with from its origins that the potential is completely wasted. Maybe it’ll get better, maybe someone will do better, but as it stands it’s just left my eyes permanently rolling and my heart sad for P.T.
Because Jeff is a creepypasta, several of the images are fan made. All credit goes to the artists who designed and drew those pictures and a big thanks to them for adding to the legend.