Analysis / Dead Bart

"Dead Bart" is an effective creepypasta because it is predicated on a simple playground rumor: I heard there's a missing episode of The Simpsons where Bart dies. It plays on an unsettling idea hiding withing a beloved cultural icon. Many people on the internet today grew up with The Simpsons, and the first batch of seasons have attained an almost mythic quality. The style came to define a generation. For many as well, the idea of a cartoon for adults was a novel one. As a cultural touchstone, the show is ripe with possibility for urban legends and memetic subversions. It's far from unreasonable to imagine the author of "Dead Bart" being inspired, consciously or otherwise, by an actual rumor.

The creepypasta is, effectively, divided into two parts: The rumor, and the fact. The author opens with an observation: Fox has a semi-arcane system for naming Simpsons episodes. The first episode of Season 1, "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," has the production code 7G08; the next episode, "Bart the Genius," is labeled 7G02. To anyone not working in television, the reasons for this nomenclature are obscure, and banal mysteries are some of the most fertile soil for hearsay. Building upon this observation, the author gives the audience a reason for the oddity: There is a missing episode from Season 1. The episode is unknown to the general public because the staff of the Simpsons do everything they can to avoid talking about it. And why the conspiracy of silence? The reader's first hint that something uncanny is going on comes with the arrival of the revered creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening. According to the author, Groening seemed "nervous and morbid" during the production of the episode in question. We see a similar phenomenon in other "lost episode" creepypastas: The creator of something beloved undergoes a sudden mood shift, implying that either their disposition is affecting their art, or (and for many this is the scarier route, for it denies a clear separation between creator and creation) their art is affecting their disposition.

So, we have the elements of the rumor in play now: There is a missing episode of The Simpsons, Matt Groening was behaving strangely during its production, and the staff of the show desperately don't want to talk about it. This all comes to the author's attention while attending an event featuring Nate Silverman. An audience member asks about the episode, and Silverman abruptly leaves the stage. Not only is this episode unmentionable, but something about it is so disquieting that the conspirators can't even invent a cover story for it. One mystery begets another.

The author, in dogged pursuit of the truth no matter the cost, ultimately corners Groening after a fan event. Somehow he or she manages to get the celebrated mastermind behind The Simpsons alone (Groening reportedly was, at first, not upset, assuming that the author was merely "an obsessive fan.") and takes the opportunity to ask him about the missing episode. This visibly upsets Groening ("all color drained from his face and he started trembling"), but despite this, he still gives the author the next breadcrumb, writing a URL on a scrap of paper, before begging his pursuer never to mention the episode again.

One might wonder why Groening acquiesces so quickly. If whatever is to be uncovered should truly remain buried, as everyone involved seems to agree, what does that say about this tortured man's psyche? Does this belie a conflict in the creator's conscience, between keeping the awful truth hidden and letting his shame out to the light of day? Or is this an act of malice on Groening's part, a way of punishing the author for their insolence? To paraphrase the moral of The Pardoner's Tale, if you go looking for Dead Bart, you're sure to find it. Or, drawing back to the level of craft, perhaps this is a misstep on the author's part, an impatience in the writing process that led to a desire to gloss over the finer details and get to the juicy bits. The truth, whatever it may be, is left as an exercise to the reader.

As mentioned previously, the writing on the paper is a URL, because there is something remarkably unsettling about websites that can't be accessed through search engines. The "Deep Web" holds a dark fascination for many, and it's surely not a stretch of the imagination that a careless surfer of uncharted e-waters might come across something truly horrific. In this case, the address leads to "a site that was completely black, except for a line of yellow text, and a download link." The color yellow symbolizes not only The Simpsons, but also madness (cf, "The Yellow Wallpaper," "The King in Yellow," etc). Coupled with a featureless background and devoid of any reassuring context, the reader's imagination is left to linger in a state of unease. The Simpsons is a colorful riot, every scene bursting with vivid imagery. The door to the missing episode of The Simpsons has none of that. Something here is terribly wrong, but it lingers just outside of conscious thought, like an underwater predator lurking just deep enough to remain unseen to its shallower prey.

Naturally, the author clicks the download link. For an unexplained reason, the downloaded file contains "the worst virus [they] had ever seen." The author has to do a full reboot of the corrupted computer. Although the author never mentions what is stored on the computer, anyone who's grown up in the pre-Cloud Information Age can understand that they have most likely lost a great amount: music, videos, games, documents, the accumulated ephemera of a lifetime of computer use. Already they are being punished for their curiosity. There is no other reason for the virus to exist; it is a cautionary tale as old as Genesis, upgraded for our modern era.

But this virus is just a symptom of the true horror. That has yet to come.

Now we come to the factual side of the story. The author manages, by a stroke of luck, to copy the file onto a CD, and plays it on their newly-wiped machine. It is, indeed, an episode of The Simpsons, but something is very wrong.

The first thing the author notes is the poor animation quality, alluding to the infamous Season 1 episode "Some Enchanted Evening," whose shoddy production almost killed the series before it even started. That the missing episode is even worse suggests either that the work is far from finished, or that its purpose is not to be aesthetically pleasing.

Secondly, the personalities of the Simpson clan are all exaggerated, their worst attributes brought to bear. Homer is angrier, Marge depressed, Lisa anxious, and Bart, whom we know from the title to be the centerpiece to this story, full of "genuine anger and hatred for his parents." How these unbalanced humours manifest is never described, letting the reader fill in the blanks. That which already exists within the mind is far more powerful than that which is imposed upon it from outside.

With these two incongruities out of the way, the author tells us the plot: The Simpsons are going somewhere by plane. Their destination, as we shall see, is irrelevant. Bart is causing a ruckus, as one would expect, but this time around the consequences are more dire than a mere cartoonish paternal strangling. Bart breaks a window on the plane and is sucked out, and the meaning of the creepypasta's title is finally resolved. Bart dies.

This is shocking to the reader. Syndicated television shows, especially cartoons, don't kill off main characters. In its entire run, only two characters on The Simpsons can be said to have died for good: Frank Grimes (who appeared in only one episode and whose short, unhappy existence was spent underscoring Homer's happy-go-lucky idiocy), and Maude Flanders (a minor character who is relevant only insofar as her death actually sticks and has reaching effects on the inhabitants of Springfield). The creators might take out an irrelevant character, one who shows up just long enough to realize they're holding a stick of dynamite, but to kill Bart Simpson, the preeminent bad boy of the 90s? That only happens in urban legends. In this moment, the reader has received the ultimate signal that something is very wrong. It is only after Bart is sucked out the window of the airplane that the truly horrific and surreal shows itself.

The revelation of Bart's corpse (and of course there is a revelation, for what use would there be in hiding it? That's what we've come here to see.) is put into context with a statement supposedly from Matt Groening himself: That the animated style of The Simposons represents life, and that death in turn would be represented by a more "realistic" imagery. Anyone who has read a Lost Episode creepypasta before knows where this going, although I believe Dead Bart might be the ur-example, the Echidna from which all other stock suddenly-horrific cartoon tropes sprung forth, that nearly meaningless compound adjective we've all come to loathe in our fake internet spooks. Bart's corpse is described as almost "photo-realistic" in its execution, so we're still a few iterations from the transmutation into "hyper" that would come later down the line, but we can see, the seeds have been planted. Life is the colorful, cartoonish dream; death is the realism to which we all must eventually awake. Whence came Groening's philosophy is never addressed, but we are shown its consequences. Bart's "photo-realistic" corpse is a signifier that the world as we know it is fundamentally broken. It is, fittingly, the end shot of Act One.

Act Two is nothing but the surviving family members sitting around the kitchen table, crying. As the shot progresses, their wailing grows increasingly despondent and "realistic" (death once again intruding into life). The animation, we are told, decays even more. Characters stretch and deform, blurring into indistinguishable shapes, while indescribable faces flicker in the window. Anything could be happening, the meaning of the faces is up to interpretation. Is it just another consequence of the animation, or do the faces represent an outside, possibly (probably) malevolent force? Additionally, the increasing deformities bring to mind post-modernism's rejection of formal classifications. The Simpsons has in the past been held up as a perennial artifact of post-modernism, a cartoon meant for adults rife with intertextual references to movies, literature, pop culture, and countless other interlocking signs of the age. Here the art itself is subject to the show's ultimate destiny to blur all lines. Not even the gods are immune to deconstruction. This is reinforced when, one year later, according to the title card, skeletally-thin Homer, Marge, and Lisa (Maggie and the pets, we are told, are missing entirely. It is implied they have died from neglect, tossed aside in a single sentence.) walk through a deserted and desolate Springfield to visit Bart's grave. When the series began, before Homer's antics stole the show, Bart was envisioned by the creators to be the true protagonist, the one with whom viewers would be the most familiar. As goes Bart, so goes the rest of the town.

When the family reaches Bart's grave, we are told that his body is lying in front of his tombstone, looking exactly like it did when he fell out of the plane. The revelation of a dead Bart cannot be covered up; it has fundamentally changed the world, and his death imagery, like Christ at Golgotha, becomes a symbol of that change. But Bart is the son of Homer, not God, and there will be no resurrection for this authority-undermining scamp.

At this point, after some more weeping, the author tells us that the camera zooms in on Homer's face. According to "summaries," which have never been mentioned before, and will never be mentioned again, Homer tells a joke, but it is inaudible, and his lips are not on screen to be read. This, again, serves to remind the reader that everything they had thought they knew has changed. The Simpsons is a comedy, but there is nothing funny left; any joke would be hollow, acting only as a joke-signifier and nothing more. It's one last desperate gasp by whatever is good and Apollonian in the world of The Simpsons to make some sort of return to the old order, but that too died with Bart.

The camera then zooms out to a field of graves. Appropriate, since we are in a cemetery, but these graves are special. They bear the names of every guest start to appear on The Simpsons, including ones who had at that point yet to be featured, as well as those who had not even ascended into fame in 1989. Every grave has a death date. The author then begins a slow reveal into what is meant to be the final horror of the tale: Firstly, that the graves of those guest stars who had already died at the time of viewing (such as Michael Jackson) were inscribed with the actual date of their deaths. We are then given a brief interlude: The credits, for some reason, are handwritten, and the final scene of the episode is an image of the family sitting on their couch (like in the show's famous opening-sequence gags), but they are all drawn in the realistic death-style, completely still, absolutely lifeless. All Simpsons must die someday.

It is then the author closes the loop, and the story itself, in revealing that, when examining the tombstones, the dates for those stars who have yet to die are all the same. Bart's death heralds the Apocalypse. He is the pale rider on his skateboard.

What does this mean, then? That Matt Groening had a vision of the end of humanity, and incorporated it into an episode of The Simpsons? Most likely, that is the conclusion we are to draw. Something horrible lurks in the bosom of something beloved. This is a common notion among creepypasta. What's worse is that it was covered up, never to be revealed. Only Groening and a select few know of what's to come. Knowing that one will eventually die is not on its own necessarily scary, but knowing that there is an exact date attached to one's death adds a level of urgency, something to dread.

Dead Bart is, at its heart, symbolic of the fear of learning something we weren't meant to know, something that upends everything we thought we knew. There is a lost episode of The Simpsons in which the protagonist dies, there are no jokes, the art style is completely different, and it predicts the end of the world. It is total subversion of all values, predicated on an unconscious desire, spread through rumor. It's completely plausible that an urban legend might spring up about a missing episode of The Simpsons where Bart dies, that was cut for obvious reasons and that no one wants to talk about. The Simpsons subverts so much already that we want to see it reach the final conclusion and subvert its very nature.

Bart is dead, and we killed him.