The slumber party or ‘midnight game’ known as ‘Red Door Yellow Door’, is a bravery test children’s game in which one participant is ‘led’ by another participant into a trance-like state and presented with a visualisation scenario in which they are said to experience supernatural encounters.
In its specific protocol and imagery it seems to be a fairly new phenomena. However, in terms of its structure, dynamics and the manner in which the narrative frame allows the participatory ‘game’ to fracture into a multitude of interrelated urban legends, the ‘Red Door Yellow Door’ story fits into a number of older folkloric traditions and horror tropes that have a much longer legacy. It is the fact that the stories build upon these already well recognised elements that makes them so memorable and easy to adapt.
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It appears that the first mentions of the game in its current and most popular form on the internet are to be found on the subreddit r/threekings. Essentially, the nosleep subreddits that create, house and distribute creepypasta fiction stories presented as true accounts spawned an offshoot. This offshoot, rather than being a full narrative, are, rather, details of rituals that can be undertaken and performed in order to encourage a paranormal experience.
The original r/threekings subreddit which emerged in July of 2012, gave details of a single ritual and was exceptionally popular, with readers and responders creating a multitude of stories based on or around this ‘three kings ritual premise’ and sharing supposedly true experiences. To ‘handle the overflow’ from this glut of new content a further subreddit was set up to accommodate variations of this or other ‘internet rituals’.
The first mentions of Red Door Yellow Door seem to be from early 2015 though some accounts refer to it having existed or been available as early as 2013. In either case, it is clear that the ritual was either created as a variation on the threekings theme as an original ritual designed to entertain others, or else the first posters were documenting a specific variant of the kind of slumber party games that existed long before the threekings subreddit came into being.
Whilst some have asked whether the threekings subreddit created the phenomena of ‘internet rituals’ most argue that this forum only provided a platform for games that have existed much longer but which were previously passed on orally. In this way the emergence of ‘internet rituals’ where step by step instructions are given has taken a similar route to online urban legends in that many were pre-existing stories given an new and far more easily accessible audience or were created and shared using the new medium of internet message boards and social media as a replacement for playground whispers and word of mouth.
The story has many precursors in this genre of orally transmitted ‘slumber party’ or campfire rituals shared in the playground, from classics like ‘Bloody Mary’ to more modern variations like ‘Charlie Charlie’. The most similar such ritual is ‘The Door of your Mind’ of which Red Door Yellow Door seems to be a variant.
The language of legend.
What makes the Red Door Yellow Door process so creepy and suitable for adoption as an urban legend comes down to a number of key elements. These key ingredients many of which are shared by other ‘internet rituals’ include:
- The game’s relationship to long established tropes and motifs, easily recognised and understood by the audience or readership. This includes a number of specific language devices.
- It’s adaptability and how easily it lends itself to plausible verisimilitude (I’ll explain that funky term as we get into it).
- The narrative loop of ritual-report- ritual.
It is always true that things grow best in fertile soil. In the case of a story like Red Door Yellow Door, that means hanging new details on already popular or familiar ideas. By giving a fresh coat of paint to an old idea or building on structural devices and fears that the audience already recognises the stories exploit an established formula to become successful.
The game’s central premise, that in an altered state the participant is able to cross some spiritual divide and make contact with people or entities in another realm or plane of existence is a trope older than literature itself and is in fact a feature of pre-literate shamanic practices in traditions across the world.
What links this and other ‘meditative’ games with a more modern strand of horror fiction and folklore is the ritualistic nature of the procedure and the suggested mystery of the trance state.
Look at any account of ‘how to play’ the game you will find not simply an outline of rules but a very definite sequence of actions to be undertaken in a given order. There are also sometimes directions about the setting and the definite roles of the participants. In this way and in keeping with other purportedly ‘dangerous’ games such as the elevator game, stiff as a board light as a feather and the ‘Doors of your Mind’, the game patterns itself on an existing and well known template, namely that of ‘ritual’ or ‘ceremonial’ magic.
The belief that an adept such as a magician witch or sorcerer could conjure or summon beings from another place by means of special incantations, saying the correct words in the correct order or by following well delineated steps is again a very old one. Even the Hebrew bible features stories of a witch who was able to summon and contact the dead by means of magical rites and of course every religion has practiced rituals meant to bring favour or show reverence.
Most explicitly this idea of ‘ritual’ leading to supernatural phenomena comes with the popular idea of ceremonial magic, a notion that gained much popularity during the late middle ages and early renaissance, particularly as books of ritual magic and astrology known as ‘grimoires’ purported to give the practitioner great power, were circulated around europe and the near east.
From fictional characters such as Faust to real life characters such as John Dee, the horrors of the european and north american witch trials and figures like Alestair Croiwley, the notion that ‘ritual’ actions performed in a particular way and following certain strict boundaries could produce paranormal results has long been established within the western consciousness and runs through fiction and film.
Additional to this is the element of ‘inadvertent’ or accidental conjuring or overstepping of boundaries, where the participants, particularly children or the inexperienced, perform the ritual as a joke or game only to suffer some horrific consequences. Basically the idea that fooling around with ceremonial magic and ritual by those who do not know what they are doing can be inherently dangerous is an old one that can be found in the work of James, Wheatley, Lovecraft and King to name but a few and is a common trope in horror movies, featuring in everything from The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity to Pumpkinhead and Candyman.
The second old trope played on by the Red Door Yellow Door story is the fear of hypnosis or trance, particularly the suggestion that entering such states can lead to a blurring of boundaries between the living and the dead or can lead to encounters with those on the other side. This trope can be traced back at least as far as the early days of hypnosis when it was still referred to as mesmerism and to the story ‘The Facts in The Case of M. Valdemar’ by Edgar Allan Poe, a story that played so easily upon these fears that when it was initially released it was published anonymously and taken by many to be a true account of a man who had died under the influence of hypnosis and could then speak to the gathered individuals from beyond the grave.
This paranoia around hypnosis (which most psychologists will confirm is entirely unnecessary) persists even up to the present day and, knowingly or not, is cleverly exploited by the Red Door Yellow Door ritual. The initial stages of the Red Door Yellow door ritual mirror the hallmarks of an induction process, with the subject being brought into a ‘trance’ by achieving a state of relaxation. The use of the repetitive temple massage adds to this.
The hypnotic element may also have a degree of truth to it as the very few individuals who genuinely believe they experienced some kind of paranormal encounter whilst playing the game likely experienced a mild form of hypnosis and saw what they did because they had truthfully entered a trancelike state that made them more suggestible.
Without getting too English class 101 about it, it is also interesting that the words in the phrase that is repeated is so full of assonance and alliteration. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds ( A,E,I,O,U) and alliteration the repetition of consonants. In Red Door Yellow Door it is the assonance that plays the key part. Essentially, there are a lot of repeated sounds within the words, so in the case of assonance it is the repetition of the ‘o’ sound. “Red door yellow door any other colour door”, the effect of repeating this phrase over and over is to get a repetitive ‘uh’ sound which makes the whole thing sound like a chant or mantra of the kind used by those performing religious or magical ceremonies.
Interestingly, the inclusion of a chant or mantra and quirks of language like repetition, assonance and alliteration in those mantras is a common motif of these slumber party games and ‘internet rituals.’ Bloody Mary for example has assonance of the e sound created by the ‘y; whilst ‘Candyman’ repeats a lot of sounds made at the very front of the mouth which adds a demonstrative element when saying it into a mirror.
One feature that makes the Red Door Yellow Door ritual so popular and the reason why it was so easily adopted by and spread on tiktok is the fact that it provides a ‘frame narrative’.
As long as the first elements are included in a Red Door Yellow Door story (i.e. the ritual is performed) then the writer of any story about the ritual is then free to include whatever they like as the consequence and relate their paranormal experience. The result is a wide variety of stories and creepypastas of varying degrees of quality and with wildly different stories all beginning at the same point. The ritual then becomes the equivalent of ‘once upon a time,’ a familiar format for the introduction of another story that builds upon a similarly familiar premise. Piggybacking on the Red Door Yellow Door format means that the story is more likely to be seen/read.
The other advantage of using this ‘frame narrative’ is that it contributes to the ‘verisimilitude’ which is a complicated way of saying that it ‘makes the account sound more believable’. By putting the story in the first person (telling it as if it happened to them) claiming that it is true and presenting it as the consequence of ritual that people are familiar with and may even have tried themselves, writers can make their accounts seem more plausible, which in turn makes them seem much more believable.
Finally, the fact that the story can be easily adapted and adapted into a creepypasta narrative means that interest in the ritual increases and the myth solidifies, with new narrators claiming to have known about the ritual for far longer than its online presence suggests.
The sequence then becomes circular- the ritual is outlined on one site or forum, not in a creepypasta or narrative form but simply as a guide to the ritual itself, it is then used as the basis for a new first person account of an experience. Those reading these accounts become interested in the ritual itself and either look up the guide and start the process over by creating their own narratives from it, or experiment with and actively participate in the process making what might initially have been a fictional practice a real one because people have now genuinely participated in it and so the circle continues.
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