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How a Reddit horror story hit Hollywood

Using r/nosleep as a launching pad, author Dathan Auerbach turned his short story from a single post to a successful Kickstarter campaign and potential movie. 


Mike Fenn


It started when he was six years old, a series of unexplainable footsteps—“muffled, rhythmic beats” gently thumping on the carpeted floor. They woke him up every night, jolting his childish imagination and bringing him “back to consciousness, terrified.”

That’s the scene that Dathan Auerbach set on on r/nosleep, a section of social news site Reddit dedicated to original scary stories, both fictitious and real. The subreddit, which was started in March 2010, is the digital equivalent of a campfire ghost stories, with roughly 100,000 users posting and commenting on stories.

Auerbach posted his original short story “Footsteps” in Sept. 2011. It was well-received by the community, receiving nearly 3,000 upvotes—Reddit’s way metric for approving of submitted content—and it’s taken on a life of its own, well beyond the realm of Reddit.

“I just watched the comments roll in,” Auerbach, a 27-year-old philosophy teacher from Florida, told the Daily Dot.

While Auerbach intended “Footsteps” to be a standalone piece, he conjured up a second part upon seeing the response. A few days later, “Balloons” was posted. Not only did the story earn him another 2,000-plus upvotes, it also won the subreddit’s coveted monthly writing contest in October 2011.

“The reception that I got from ‘Balloons’ was so tremendous that I knew I had to continue,” said Auerbach, who cited Goosebumps author R.L. Stine and Lord of the Flies as two of his early inspirations. “I think the fact that I didn’t have the whole story waiting in the wings helped me, since it was the feedback of the readers that not only made me continue, but also made me want to improve.

“Reddit as a website gave me the opportunity to get my stories in front thousands and thousands of people, but more importantly (and more meaningfully) the people on Reddit (specifically r/nosleep) are who encouraged me to keep going while also showing my stories to their friends.”

Reddit has long been a career springboard for aspiring artists. Bands often utilize Radio Reddit to develop their early audience, and one user managed to turn a single post into a motion picture deal. Reddit even helped one film extra boost his IMDB rating to that of A-list level talent.  

Successful for Auerbach came in smaller increments. First, he found a way to parlay that feedback into fundraising dollars. Through a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign, he turned his work into the novel Penpal.

And before Penpal even went on sale, the book attracted the attention of film producer Rich Middlemas, who won an Oscar for his documentary Undefeated.

“The Internet has opened up doors that were seemingly hermetically sealed for a lot of people,” Auerbach said. “This means there’s a lot more content out there, for better or worse, but the fact of the matter is that for the first time in a long time the public has tremendous control over what gets seen and what rises to the top, and there’s no way that’s a bad thing. There are a lot of talented people out there without an agent or publisher, and now they have the ability to get their work in front of people whether a publisher thinks it’s economically viable or not.”

Auerbach has since entered into a development deal with Middlemas.

“He asked if I would mind sending him a copy, and I had some extra copies for reviewers laying around, so I sent one out to him,” explained Auerbach, who suggested Pierce Gagnon (Cid from Looper) and Jon Bernthal (Shane from The Walking Dead) as ideal casting. “We chatted back and forth for a couple weeks and I realized that he’d be a really great person to work with in trying to get a film made.”

Penpal isn’t the only work you can expect to see from Auerbach. Regardless of what may or may not happen with it, Auerbach hopes to continue writing stories that people want to read—and testing the waters on Reddit.  

“I didn’t post the stories [to r/nosleep] to begin this process, but had I not posted there this process wouldn’t have had a beginning,” he said. “There have been a lot of people who have said that I’ve inspired them to pick the pen back up and write, and I really hope they do. Moving from the first story to where I am right now was a long process (even if it didn’t take a long time), and comments like those are what pushed me to keep going. I very well may not have finished if it weren’t for messages like those.”

Photo via Joshua Mayer/Flickr

The Daily Dot