In the early days of the internet, netizens built 'haunted houses' on their websites to celebrate Halloween.
These experiences were usually created by using simple HTML and image maps. An image map is an image with specific parts that are clickable links. For example, a virtual haunted house might start with an image of the house, with the windows and doors leading to different rooms.
This means the entire experience was built with HTML and links. Each new page the user is taken to is its own webpage. While building a large project this way may make things difficult to manage, it's an admirable feat in the spirit of Halloween.
I wanted to see if I could do a deep-dive using Archive.org to rediscover some projects, and I did find a couple, but after seeing the results that would come up, I realized why so few of these were successfully archived.
While I did find a few websites, they were broken due to the way the site pages were structured (with deep directories of links, only linked to the previous page) so I was limited in how much I could experience.
Instead, I shifted my focus. Some really old websites are still online. Could Virtual Haunted Houses still exist in some corner of the web somewhere?
I got lucky and found Hood Mansion.
According to the dates in the footer, this site is from 2000-2005. At the time of writing this, most old websites hosted on Tripod.com are still around and online, untouched in stasis.
One unique twist this virtual experience offers is 'golden keys'. The instructions say, "You must search every nook and cranny to find all of the keys." The creator adds, "Each key has a secret word to help you keep track of your progress."
The front page boasts, "There are hundreds of rooms, hallways, trapdoors, and secret nooks, creepy and surprising things are hidden everywhere."
Upon clicking the "Enter Hood Mansion" button at the bottom, you are taken to a page with a house. It says, "There are many entrances to this house. Jump on your broomstick and enter any portal."
As is typical with image maps, it's not immediately obvious where to click. Two windows are highlighted, but there are various other entry points to choose. In order to find them, I have to slowly move my mouse over the image and wait for my cursor to turn into a hand.
The first room I enter says "Yikes! There's bats in the belfry! Get out your repellant fast!" Around the text are small gifs of bats that are linked to more pages. The first one I click says, "Darn. This bat didn't drop a key." I click on the pointing skeleton hand to go back and choose another.
It's clear the creator of this website put a lot of care into making many options for the player. There are some dead-ends, like any choose-your-own adventure game. The key-finding aspect adds an extra bit of scavenger-hunting fun to your experience.
The next one I found was Baya's Macabre Manor. The date I could find said 2004, but it's possible that's when it was last updated.
The homepage indicates "This site is 'kinder' friendly" as well as "Best viewed with Internet Explorer".
You gotta respect the time and effort it took to build something like this. The 'rooms' of the manor are webpages with gifs and images arranged in a way to look like rooms of a house. Without CSS, webmasters would usually just put arrange the images in an editor and upload the image to their page.
Some of the images are clickable. When clicked, they take you to a different room or a hidden surprise. There's a library, a DIE-ning room, a graveyard, and more!
Finally, I discovered Frightbytes.
A lot of links on old sites for virtual haunted houses pointed me here, but at first, I was confused - I didn't see any virtual haunted houses linked on the page.
But then I noticed a section on the site named The Stories and I clicked on one that sounded promising - "The House".
It appeared that the 'virtual haunted houses' had evolved to be so much more than just that alone. They were basically interactive fiction.
While most of the stories appear to be fairly linear, there are interactive bits such as finding hidden clickable areas in images. In fact, a lot of it is very similar to a 'hidden object game', a genre of game where you must search for something and click on it.
Unlike many other older sites, Frightbytes is fully intact - meaning, when you visit the interactive page, music actually plays - as opposed to it just downloading a .mid file. It's because the creator still updates it - a heading reads == New for Halloween 2021 ==.
What started as an article for this zine, became a glimpse at someone who is actively, passionately maintaining their old hobby website and creating for it.
FrightBytes recently released a new story - Tenebrous Rift - it appears to be a collaboration between two authors still passionate about the old web.
Sites like these inspire me, because we at Neocities are also bound by contraints- whether it's due to limitations in our own knowledge or the technical constraints of static hosting. Anyone who can make a simple webpage can also make an interactive story.