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The Elevator Game

the elevator game


Estimated reading time — 7 minutes

The elevator game is a creepypasta ‘ritual’ game evolving from urban legends about elevators that go to unexpected or otherworldly floors, thought to have originated in Japan or Korea.

The game which follows the procedural or instructional format common to most ‘ritual’ creepypastas involves a player pressing the buttons of the elevator in a specific combination and riding to those floors one at a time. The end results is that the elevator and therefore the rider will be transported to ‘another realm’ ‘another dimension’ or in some cases to the underworld or hell.

The instructional version of the creepypasta which outlines the rules of the elevator game (and which exists in various forms with slight variations depending upon the source) often also refers to other entities or presences, most commonly a girl or woman, who will attempt to lure the rider out of the elevator and into this other region.

Ritual game creepypastas

Ritual games are a subgenre of creepypasta that have gained a great deal of popularity in recent years as playgrounds or campfire urban legends spread onto the internet where they can not only be spread with greater efficiency but be embellished and adapted by the participating community.

As with other ritual games, the evolution of this creepypasta follows a pattern of development that encompasses three stages. Outline, account, transgression.

Initially, the creepypasta post or explanation does not begin as a ‘story’ but as an outline of the procedure and the ‘steps to take’. In order to give this first post a ritualistic ‘feel’ the posts often employ repetition of words or phrases to create an incantatory or chanting-like effect and make use of imperative sentences or declarative sentences with high modality.

 In other words, they repeat phrases over and over so that they sound subtly like spooky chanting, they give directions as if they cannot be argued with or negotiated (saying things like ‘you must’, ‘you will’ or ‘Do not’)  and tell you what will happen as if they already know for certain that this is the case (you will.)

The second stage ‘accounts,’ involves posters adopting the rules into their own original stories or narratives and reporting back as if in a first hand account of  ‘what happened when’ they tried it.

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The third stage is transgression with people posting and in some cases making videos of themselves deliberately breaking the rules set out in stage one as a supposed act of bravery, or skeptical inquiry. This third stage sometimes loops back to stage two as fictional dire consequences of not following the steps to the letter are reported and the transgression morphs back into being a fictionalized ‘account’ and cautionary tale.

General fear of elevators

Whilst there is no specified or recognized ‘phobia’ of elevators, anxiety around riding in them is remarkably common. This could stem from mild forms of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia as well as a general fear of malfunction, but also by playing upon a number of common allusions and themes within horror, folklore, and shared anxieties.

These include an innate wariness of boundaries, borders, and crossings, especially in a context where the point of arrival (the other side of the boundary) is concealed from view and only revealed by the drawing back of doors, a process that links the elevator ride to the fear of the concealed.

The vertical travel of the elevator also has in-built allusions to western notions of the afterlife with an ascent commonly being associated with heaven and descent with hell below.

It is the connotative power that leads to the common trope of the ‘evil elevator’ or ‘hellevator’ that can be found in various forms throughout literature, comic books and film, long before the ‘elevator game’ creepypasta evolved.

The Elevator Game Origin

Whilst the elevator game is often been referred to as having originated in Korea or sometimes Japan, (the link between the story and the east asian origin was perhaps emphasized or highlighted in some circles because of its supposed links to and rise in popularity following the death Elaine Lam, who was Canadian but whose family were of East Asian descent) it was not until recently that this real-world origin was investigated to any great degree by Lucia Peters.

Within the mythos, it is never explained exactly who discovered that this ritul or process would bring about these results, or when this knowledge was first spread. Nor is it made clear where this ‘first player’ originated from other than to say that the ritual itself comes from Korea, Japan or somewhere in East Asia.

In reality, the story has indeed been traced back to an east Asian origin with the first occurrence of the myth identified by Peters so far having come from Japan. It is the first in a series of hundreds of posts on Japanese messageboard 5ch (*then known as 2ch) and was posted on November 22nd 2008.

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This first link in the chain was discovered by tracing back from a Gizmodo post from April 2009 that linked back to another message board, which in turn linked to another and so on all the way back to this initial post which notably is in an embryonic form with many of the better-known rules, parameters and consequences only added as the discussion developed over many posts and from various contributors.

The story can also be found circulating with some popularity in Korea on social media sites Daum and Naver in 2010/11 with the earliest posts being from July 2010, though these posts seem to reference the instructions having existed on the internet prior to their posting. Interestingly, by 2011 the posts on Korean social media relating to this topic had already moved from being simply instructions to the ‘account’ stage.

The story seems to have become popular in the west toward the end of 2011 and into  2012, with notable translations and versions being on Haekis Scary Stories blog in Oct 2011 and Saya in Underworld’s translation in 2012.

In the sort of unfortunately ghoulish crossover with the reality that has impacted other creepypasta stories such as Slenderman and Jeff the Killer, the popularity of the elevator game as a creepypasta and an internet search, shot up following the tragic death of Elaine Lam and the suggestion in some quarters that her death, in admittedly unusual circumstances, was somehow related to the fabled ‘elevator game’.

Ms Lam’s death, which has been the subject of several television dramatizations, fictionalized adaptations and documentaries, including a popular example released as recently as 2021 on Netflix, is widely documented and does not need to be rehashed here.

Speculation around her cause of death coupled with the surveillance footage of Ms Lam prior to her death behaving erratically and in what appears to be a highly paranoid fashion whilst standing in the hotel elevator, led some to conflate the circumstances of her tragic demise with the urban legend, to the extent that the two things – one a real life tragedy and the other a fictionalized game- are often spoken of together or as if there is an explicit link.

Putting aside the fact that the surveillance footage clearly shows that Ms Lam did not perform any of the steps mentioned in the ritual and indeed has no stronger link to the story than the fact that she happened to be in an elevator prior to her death, the link which some make and exploit for dramatic effect is tenuous at best and grossly distasteful at worst.

The link is however mentioned here, as it was undeniably a factor in the game’s popularity and spread as the association between the fictional story and a real-life event bolstered in notoriety and appeal with some audiences. Hopefully, the correlation of one with the other will diminish in the future as people realize that there is no real link between the two things and creepypasta creators shy away from trying to create one.

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Folkore and influences of the Elevator Game

A widespread urban myth relates the story of a woman who in a dream is invited into an elevator full of people by Death, who beckons her with the phrase ‘room for one more’. Later, she sees an elevator in real life crammed with people and is beckoned with the same phrase. She does not ride the elevator and a tragic accident kills that inside, meaning that she escapes due to her premonition.

This ‘elevator’ tale is in itself likely based on an earlier 1906 story in the same mold by the ghost story writer E.F.Benson named ‘The Bus Conductor’ which follows the same structure but involves a bus ride rather than an elevator.

The idea of a hidden, forbidden or otherworldly floor also plays on the numerological superstitions in some cultures and the removal of such numbers from the listings in elevators. For example, in many countries with Chinese-speaking populations, the number 4 is removed because of the superstitious beliefs around its association with death. The fourth floor is often replaced with 3A or removed entirely so that the sequence goes 2,3,5.

The same process used to also be common practice in hotels with more than thirteen floors with the supposedly unlucky number 13 being replaced with 12a or missed out entirely. These ‘missing floors’ naturally provide fertile ground for speculation as to what could be on them or ‘where’ exactly a passenger alighting at that floor might end up.

It is also worth noting that both the Taipei City Hall in Taiwan and the Pennsylvania Hall in the Gettysburg college, have elevators that are rumored to open up to otherworldly dimensions. In the case of the Taiwanese elevator, opening on the supposedly non-existent 4th floor to a scene of the netherworld and in the Gettysburg example, opening in a sub basement floor to scenes of civil war soldiers writhing in agony.

As mentioned above the notion of the ‘hellevator’ an elevator that takes you to places other than the intended destination, is a long-established trope in literature, television and movies.

Notable examples would be Ogden Nash’s poem in which a would-be murderer is taken to a floor that shows him an afterlife in which murderers are chained to the rotting corpses of their victims, or the existence of the ‘Twilight Zone Tower of Terror’ ride at Disney, supposedly based upon a missing episode and which involved a long drop ride where the elevator doors were said to eventually open out into the ‘Twilight Zone’.

The 1973 film ‘Vault of Horror’, an anthology horror movie based upon tales from the EC horror comics (though hilariously none from the actual Vault of Horror series) involves a frame narrative in which the tellers descend in an elevator to a floor that shouldn’t exist and opens out into an unknown space. At the end of the movie it is revealed that this space is actually the afterlife/underworld that these villainous narrators have traveled to and are condemned to occupy.

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