The story of how a 40-foot creature and its five-minute indie game captured the hearts of the gaming community
Siren Head doesn’t feel like a full game, so much as a playable teaser for a creature feature. The indie horror game takes less than five minutes to complete: A walk down a forest path, a strange shape moving over the trees, an eerie noise, and finally an encounter with a horrifying, skyscraperlike beast.
It’s insubstantial, but it also leaves you wanting more – which may be why the game, from one-man developer Modus Interactive, has become an unlikely sensation.
Before its starring turn in the game, the titular Siren Head – a skeletal, 40-foot-tall nightmare crowned with two megaphones that emit snippets of public broadcasts and air raid sirens – lived exclusively in the artwork of Trevor Henderson. The Toronto-based horror illustrator has earned a considerable following for his found footage-style illustrations of various creepy creatures. (Full disclosure: Trevor and I have known each other since about 2008.)
Since its debut in 2018, Siren Head has enjoyed popularity among indie horror fans and creepypasta aficionados, earning status as something of a modern urban legend (along with Henderson’s other most enduring creation, a bony critter named Long Horse).
Sirenhead Facts! pic.twitter.com/1etaDmv5Mo— 👁️Trevor👁️ (@slimyswampghost) October 6, 2018
Modus’ brief game, the result of a PS1-inspired game jam, was released in late 2018 but didn’t get broadly played right away. Instead, a popular mod for Fallout 4 released earlier this year, in which Siren Head’s eerie PSAs and sirens warble across the foggy landscape before its massive frame materializes through the fog, has finally catapulted the “horrible human-eating Eldrich thing,” as Henderson lovingly refers to him, to indie gaming stardom.
In recent days, Siren Head has been the subject of Let’s Play videos (and gushing commentary) by some of YouTube’s biggest personalities, including Markiplier and Jacksepticeye, along with countless other channels, giving the creature a broad new audience.
We spoke to Henderson about the finer points of monster design, creepy 90s video game aesthetics, and suddenly having a lot of 12-year-old fans.
What were the origins of the character?
In 2018 I did a doodle that was all digital art. The idea was, what would it be like if I could do a moment in a found footage horror movie, with VHS texture and stuff? It did very well, so I was like, maybe I can cut out the middleman and use photos. People started sending in their own photos – like, “send in a pic, get a spooky guy drawn in the corner.”
I don’t even know where he came from. I just drew a creature in this photo and then wrote up a vague blurb about it: “There’s this creature, it can announce different regional broadcasts.” Something about the design hadn’t been quite done in that way before, and it just resonated.
Over the next year, it became one of the most popular guys I made. I think he fits into the vibe of a Slenderman-type character, so it was easy for people who like that vibe to pick up on. Slenderman was created in a very similar way on the Something Awful forums, with someone editing photos and just making up a spooky story.
In terms of the design of the creature, I’m scared of stuff that isn’t a person, but can use somebody’s voice. Using human emotion or language, but realizing there’s nothing behind it, is really scary to me. When you take the features away from a monster like H.R. Giger’s Alien – it specifically has no eyes, to try to keep you from relating to it.
Were you involved in the production of the game?
No! (The developer) came to me and was like, “I really like this thing, here’s a Steam code for another game I’ve made, can I make a game?” I didn’t have any say in the level or the design.
I usually say, just credit me where you can — as long as it’s not done for money. Now I’m getting a lot of emails from 12-year-olds in Ohio and Wisconsin, asking if they can make a movie about Siren Head, or if I can answer questions for a school essay. I’m just like, “I’m just a guy in Toronto.”
I actually noticed that one of the Google autocomplete questions is “Is Siren Head real?”
That’s amazing. I guess that’s super flattering in terms of how well-done the Photoshops are. There were a couple YouTubers who made a 12-foot-tall model in the woods out of PVC piping and foam. It was wild.
Could you imagine if they rigged it for sound?
Oh, you have to. That’s the next logical step.
The game is built on a PS1 engine. How does that visual style play into the found-horror aesthetic?
There’s this whole PS1 movement right now. I really like the aesthetic of that “lost PS1 game” thing, like Petscop – it had people going for a long time about whether that was real or not.
It naturally leaves just enough for you to fill it in. If you’re, say, drawing a monster, you can use it to your advantage by not showing a lot of things, just focusing on key things. It’s very forgiving – both the PS1 aesthetic and the VHS frame. They both lend themselves to being spooky.
The game came out at the end of 2018. Why do you think it suddenly caught this second wind on YouTube? What was it like seeing people be so instantly taken with the creature design?
I know Mark (Fischbach, aka Markiplier) has done a series of scary indie games, ‘cause there’s a billion of them. I was watching in the start of 2019 to see if he’d pick up on it, and he didn’t. But just having him pick up on it and do it now is insane.
I think he mentions in the video – Jacksepticeye as well – that in February of this year, there was a mod for Fallout called Whispering Hills that someone put Siren Head in, along with a bunch of Silent Hill monsters, and I think that might be where it’s coming from.
It is so, so flattering that instead of playing through this pretty short game and moving on to something else — which would be the natural thing to do — that the character design managed to hook Mark enough that he spent a 15-minute video going through my Twitter, my Instagram, the Villains wiki. It’s beyond flattering.
Have you talked to the developer from Modus lately?
I was thinking about reaching out and asking if he wants to do a longer version, cause this game is really resonating with people, especially right now. It’s nice seeing him get some focus on his stuff, too.
For how short the game is, I do think it’s really atmospheric and cool in a really economical way. It’s all about the buildup, the reveal, you run back to the car – and it’s over.
What’s next for Siren Head?
I’ve wanted to do a lot with him for a while — at the very minimum, some comics or other narrative form stuff. For a while I was working on a book project that was going to feature that character, but I think that’s fallen apart now. I do want to do something with Siren Head, Long Horse, another couple of monsters. I’d like to be using this (COVID-related) downtime for bigger projects – but honestly, it’s all been so anxiety-inducing it hasn’t happened yet.
I’d love to see it made into a mediocre Blumhouse movie where a bunch of sexy teens get picked off. Not even a good one. It has to be mediocre-to-bad.