Top5s is a young Welsh vlogger who has been on YouTube since 2014. I have been watching his videos week in and week out for more weeks than I can count, and they make profitable viewing for any sticky-fingered middlebrow writer such as I. The lists shuffle the topics of ghosts, UFOs, cryptozoology, conspiracy theories, and gory facts from history. They are always fun and on occasion genuinely scary. You are meant to watch these videos under the bedsheets in the dead of night, which is when they are often uploaded.
Everything in the videos is detailed scrupulously and with a boyishly earnest even-handedness that makes me think of a school report being read out to the class. Top5s used to gabble at the beginning but his voice has since slowed down and become silken and intimate. It is full of personality, but his name, face, and biography are otherwise unknown to his over two million subscribers. He has clearly gone native and become a bit of a phantom himself.
He always manages to cobble together roughly five of everything. I suppose that Top5s must have a pen drive somewhere containing all of the ghost and monster stories that had never made it into the final 5s. This could be turned into a book for Santa to give to disobedient children. A bumper volume of sixth-rate alien abductions, overly peaceful haunted houses, and pictures of apparitions that are even grainier and more inconclusive than the norm allows.
This year’s Top5s Halloween video was entitled “5 Terrifying Paranormal Ritual Instructions & Gone Wrong Stories…” Three of them I can no longer remember, but two of them – the Three Kings ritual and the elevator game – have been playing intermittently on my mind ever since Halloween. The region of my brain that these stories have infested will not be settled again until I have written about them. So how do they function – what is the actual contract with the reader?
The instructions for the Three Kings ritual were first submitted to a Reddit forum in 2012 by the user FableForge. According to these instructions, you need to set up three chairs in a special, windowless room in your house. The middle chair, facing north, will be your chair. This is the throne. There should be a chair to either side of the throne, facing it, and a large mirror should be propped up on each one. These chairs will be for the Queen and the Fool. When you sit on the throne, you should be visible out of the corners of your eyes in each mirror.
An electric fan should be left humming behind the throne. A bucket of water and a cup should be placed on the floor just beyond your reach. With everything set up, you are then meant to turn your back on this room, leaving it in darkness and with the door, importantly, open.
You are supposed to have a helper. They should be briefed on their responsibilities before you go to bed.
Next, you are somehow meant to sleep until 3.30am. You should hug some precious, childhood object in your sleep – you are at liberty to choose what, though a live tortoise or a bouncy castle would be implicitly ruled out as impractical. I have heard of participants hugging a photograph of a loved one and even a Game Boy console. Whatever the item is, this is your power object.
At 3.30am your alarm clock will wake you. You have three minutes to reach the throne, but you must proceed by candlelight, as well as bearing your phone and your power object. If the door is closed (it was previously open) or if the fan is off (it was previously on) or if you don’t make it to the throne by 3.33am, then you basically have to flee the building at top speed. You’ll be sleeping in the park for the rest of the night. Some online instructions for the Three Kings claim that it should be safe to return by 4.44am, but FableForge’s original rules had stipulated that your home would be only habitable again by 6am. This is presumably not an area where it pays to be careless.
If you finally come to be installed securely on the throne, then it can begin. What exactly “it” is remains unspecified. FableForge refers to it as “the Shadowside”:
I won’t spoil what happens next. Suffice to say, you won’t be alone and if you have questions, you’ll get answers. Sometimes in the form of new questions, but hey, that’s the story of humanity eh? Just stay put and try not to move. Again, DO NOT look directly at the mirrors, nor the candle. Just straight ahead, trust me.
After this, the instructions proceed to direct how you can be recovered from your session. You are always able to put some distance between yourself and the Shadowside by gripping your trusty power object. Whatever happens, the candle that you are holding can never go out and you are also not allowed to get off the throne until 4.44am. At 4.44am, your helper should phone you to terminate the ritual. If you are uncontactable by phone, they should enter the room and pour a draught of water from the bucket, summoning you back.
This is a rich meal, a brilliantly imaginative and thrilling story, and it is easy to see how it has swept countless teenaged minds before it across the internet. Yet part of its appeal is that the instructions, despite requiring an array of ordinary household items, are just very slightly too irksome to be ever a contemplatable prospect. In truth, these supposedly user-friendly instructions map out something of an odyssey to the spirit world. Most of the people who are young and foolish enough to be attracted to the ritual will end up being deterred by their own lack of organisational skills.
You need to be old enough to live in a house or a flat by yourself, which immediately sets the bar too high for most young people. It is scarcely possible for a young person to set up a Satanic seating arrangement in the middle of their family home at night and not expect an invasion of dogs, cats, derisive siblings, and infuriated parents. For older young people, there must be no annoying flatmates around to play such pranks as, say, leaving a whoopee cushion on the throne. The player’s helper also needs to be peculiarly devoid of curiosity and wait outside the room for over an hour. The kind of household where the Three Kings can be played will be therefore psychologically elusive to many.
A windowless room is hard to come by in the average UK suburban home, though it is different with Edinburgh’s tenement apartments. My own box kitchen would qualify – I am always comparing this dingy, claustrophobic space to the common room of a submarine.
Next, there are more practical challenges. I suspect that over ninety per cent of players wake up at 3.30am, think “nope!,” roll over and return to a far less onerous dreamland. For many who persist, there will be a certain matter-of-factness to being awake at 3.30am, to feeling cold and impatient, which is at odds with the suggestibility that is meant to fuel the game.
If the player makes it as far as the throne room, they will discover that this game is mined with abundant opportunities for self-sabotage. Firstly, and most obviously, the door may be closed. Doors that are left open tend to close by themselves for all sorts of tiny reasons. Even if the door is still open, the adventurer may take fright at the coolness of this refrigerated room (there has been a fan blowing inside for several hours). The fan may blow out the candle, especially if the player is unused to handling candles. Those heavy mirrors are leaning on chairs that were never intended to take their weight, and brushing against them, or some subtle pressure on the floorboards, could lead to them losing their purchase with a bang. The sleepy player need only activate any of these trip-wires and they will be left scampering in panic, straight back to the warm bed that this game has left yawning helpfully as a bolthole.
But what reports have come back from the spirit world?
Nothing has ever really stuck, or at least the democratic complexion of Reddit’s forums means that no account has ever managed to stand out from amongst the others. Various stories were eagerly posted on Reddit after FableForge’s original submission and there quickly emerged the same vibe as the Slender Man mythos, which was woven out of that half-competitive, half-collaborative online storytelling that is generally known as “creepypasta.”
FableForge’s post invited further stories and prescribed the format for them. He introduced his post by joking, “this is not creepypasta (at least not yet).” He duly set up a subreddit called Three Kings Corner, which to date has 884 individual posts, a proliferation of “experiences,” inquiries, discussion, and arcana about further rituals. These posts are initially readable and the stories are sometimes judiciously plotted, but the overall effect is rather a drone. Maybe the next M.R. James is somewhere on this forum but you would have to read through deserts before reaching such an oasis.
The rules of the Three Kings are apparently so strict that breaking them will send you to hell, or thereabouts, but they otherwise seem to be frequently bent whenever a story would benefit from it. For instance, Top5s has a cup of water being poured from the bucket to call back the player, which sounds like an ancient device from witchcraft lore, whilst Reddit’s storytellers tend to have the water being thrown all over the unresponsive player, which is obviously sexier.
Of course, flouting the rules will never fail to tip a good dose of suspense into your narrative. One of the greatest liberties to be taken with the game’s paraphernalia is to introduce a video camera. Originally, the player was meant to be alone in the room – even the helper was not allowed to enter until 4.44am – but several players have taken recording equipment in with them. This is potentially licensed by the allowance of the phone, but setting the phone up at a filmable distance would err from the ritual’s meticulous floorplan.
It is always a lone male adult who is documenting the mission and an hour or so of a grown man sitting talking to himself at four in the morning does not, I should add, make for electrifying viewing. He soon looks bored and disenchanted. You expect him to break into piteous self-recriminations – “Why am I doing this? What am I doing with my life?”
Squabbling over whether the rules are being followed correctly is already a substantial feature of the Three Kings experience. But in the only story that I can find in which FableForge describes playing the game himself, it emerges that the instructions were never in fact delivered whole from any supernatural authority. Instead, they were largely invented through a process of trial and error. His story is called “The origin of the Three Kings” and the setting is a Mexican juvenile detention centre where a gang of youngsters are experimenting with the Shadowside. FableForge recounts that he had set himself up as a sort of shaman to achieve prestige amongst the other Artful Dodgers:
I started by offering dream interpretations -that netted me some protection. Then I started giving advice on simple rituals, things I had read about and sometimes done myself like…. staring at your own reflection in the dark for half an hour. It’ll start to morph and look foreign (there are studies about this). I gave people tips on how to achieve lucid dreams (keep a journal, look for triggers, etc etc). At first it was meant to merely keep me from being mugged, but eventually it grew into actual power.
In a subsequent comment, FableForge disparages the usage of cameras:
I think the camera would not capture anything out of the ordinary. My theory is that these entities do not actually change the physical properties of light and sound, but just our perception of them… The camera would capture the actual scene, which would be very different from the visuals you’d be processing via your eyes at the time.
Taking a camera into the ritual is potentially such a serious breach because the camera is in danger of itself becoming a third mirror and a fourth king. If you believe that you are invoking malevolent spirits, then this will rile them up a treat. If you alternatively think, as FableForge sometimes appears to do, that the Shadowside is more of a psychological than a spiritual phenomenon, then the danger is that the ritual will just not work. The detachment that is your due from constantly commentating upon what you are seeing, as if you are presenting a live television programme, will undermine all of the necessary sensory immersion.
Although access to the supernatural is implicitly promised by FableForge’s original post, it often reads like meditation instructions. There is, for example, the warning not to perform the ritual under intoxicants. You begin to wonder whether something has been skilfully built into this ritual for the player to unlock. Perhaps the irksomeness of setting it up and going through with it all is supposed to weed out those without the required suggestibility, in the same manner that hypnotists can only work with certain mentalities.
For this reason, my research has not ranged to me completing the ritual myself. I would never submit to hypnosis or meditation – I have never taken hallucinogens such as LSD – simply because I shrink from these unreal states as a cat does water. The gift of healthy perception should be never regarded as a chip that can be traded away in pursuit of entertainment or selfish gratification. Yet I can well imagine how someone might get themselves into an unreal state using the Three Kings ritual.
Experiencing the illusion of a presence at the fringe of your vision can be a symptom of autoscopy, or the hallucinogenic shifting of perspective from your own body. In laboratory experiments, neurologists have manipulated amputees into attributing a desired sensation to an image in a mirror as if it was their own missing limb or digit. Throw in the potent suggestibility of candlelight; the “white noise” of the whirring fan that could easily serve as a meditator’s mantra; the paranoid consciousness of presences that you are not allowed to look at in your peripheral vision; and the terror of taking part in a ritual alone in the middle of the night; and your brain will surely cook up something pretty amazing. No wonder that FableForge refers to the Three Kings as “a recipe.”
Nonetheless, I started out by inquiring how the Three Kings ritual functions as a story and my conclusion seems to be that the instructions are in themselves a story and a first-rate one at that. Moreover, all of the following stories in Reddit’s chain ultimately pale in comparison because they cannot convey the hugeness of what is promised by FableForge’s complicated, multi-sensory psycho-sorcery. You sense that something terrible should show itself in those mirrors, something so terrible that you find your imagination is not quite up to specifying what. These small, plastic Reddit stories, which all have a go and are all as equal as frogspawn, never get near to describing what should rightfully flash up out of the Shadowside.