How well do you know the internet? Until two weeks ago, I thought I knew it pretty well. After all, I spend a good chunk of my day browsing Reddit and 4chan, and I’m always up-to-date with the latest memes and circle jerks. I’ve been a denizen of the internet since the early days of Fortune City pages and IRC channels, and a regular ever since.
Then, about a year ago, somebody introduced me to the “Shadow Web”—a sort of secret layer of the Internet that you will never find by Googling or looking up message boards. There are no “in links” from the surface web to the shadow web. And no, this isn’t the “deepnet”, in case you were thinking about that. Not some website with gore videos of freak accidents, I’ve seen those. I assure you this is something far more twisted.
I never asked what his name was. He was a regular who came to the gas station where I worked as an attendant last year. Every time he came in, he would buy $20 to $50 of UKASH vouchers, which I assumed were for porn subscriptions. I think it was a combination of his beige polo shirts and receding hairline that gave off the creepy vibe of a pervert.
One day, he asked for $300 of UKASH vouchers, and I made the mistake of raising the question: what for?
“Have you ever heard of the Shadow Web?” I remember him asking me casually as he counted $300 from a wad of twenty-dollar bills. I hadn’t, so I shook my head. Then he looked through his wallet and withdrew a little slip, one about the size of a credit card. “If you want to find out,” he whispered. He leaned towards me and slid the piece of paper into my chest pocket. I gave him his vouchers, he left, and I never saw him again.
Not long after, I left the job to return to school. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I came across the old, yellowy uniform with the piece of paper still in the front pocket. When I opened it up and read its content, I immediately recalled my encounter with the creepy customer.
The piece of paper had instructions on how to get to the “gateway” of the Shadow Web. There were a lot of steps, some more sophisticated than others. Unfortunately, I was both tech-savvy and curious enough to follow them.
The first thing you’ll want to know about this “Shadow Web” is that you do not want to go there. I’ve seen plenty of fucked up things on the web, but nothing comes remotely close to the things I saw on the SW. Thinking back, I should have noped the fuck out the instant I saw the front page. I don’t know why I hadn’t. Maybe something is wrong with me.
When I got to the “gateway page”, which resembles one of those welcome pages that pops up when you use the free Wi-Fi at the airport or at the mall, the first thing I noticed was the word “Corpsefucking”. It was underneath a search field among thirty or so other words which I assumed were the most commonly looked-up things on the SW, things like skinning and mutilation. That should have been my cue to X out.
There were a lot of other things, too, other than sexual content and graphic gore footage. Things like instructions on how to make DIY roadside bombs. Things like a craigslist for cannibals and people who wanted to be eaten by cannibals. Things like a marketplace to buy and sell stolen identities, either individually or in bulk.
I spent almost an hour reading up on leaked war documents and diplomatic cables on a site called avenge.shweb. The website looked very retro, if you know what I mean. The layout had frames and each frame had its own scroll bar. When I found myself clicking on links without thinking twice, I realized I had become comfortable on the Shadow Web.
Don’t ask me how I came across this next website. Curiosity got the better part of me, and I clicked on things I shouldn’t have. I’ll spare you the actual name of site because I know some of you will make the same mistake that I did thinking it can’t be that bad. It can.
When I got there, I noticed the UKASH logo at the bottom of the page, indicating that paid services were available. It was in fact a live webcam show, but you only paid if you wanted to be the director. Viewing was free. Beneath the live feed of a webcam was the log-in page to a chat room. It prompted me for a screen name when I clicked on the join button, so I entered asdfasdfg like I always do when commenting on pornhub or xvideos.
As soon as I got pass the log-in, a torrent of messages flooded the screen. Most of the messages were in English, a few were in Japanese, and I think some were Arabic or Farsi. The number of participants in the chat room fluctuated between 150-200 people, but that’s only the number of people who bothered entering the chat. I suspect many more were watching anonymously. The majority of legible messages were “STARTTTTT” or “GOGOGO” or something to that effect.
After about a minute, a man with his face hidden behind a hockey mask appeared on the feed. I remember him having dark brown skin and being really skinny. Like, starving Ethiopian skinny. Shortly after that, everyone was set on mute—everyone except for one user by the name of italiangoat who I figured was the “director” of this show.
That’s when the screaming began.
She was blindfolded and tied to a wooden chair with her hands behind her back. A bigger, darker man dragged her by the hair until she sat dead center on my screen. I watched her try to struggle free from the ropes, but she was so tightly fastened that you could see the bruising. God knows how long she had been tied up like that.
Finally, the bigger man took the blindfold off, and she stopped screaming. When she looked into the camera, she seemed to realize what was about to happen. She started crying and begging the two men in what I think was Arabic. Then a message popped up on the chat.
Italiangoat: lay her sideways on the floor
The director issued his first command. The skinny man saw the message and relayed it to the bigger man in their own language.
Italiangoat: kick her in the stomach.
The skinny man continued with his translations.
Italiangoat: kick her in the face.
The screaming got louder and louder. What the fuck was I watching? That was it for me. I reached for my cell phone, ready to dial 911.
Italiangoat: stomp on her tits.
Italiangoat: tell your friend to kick harder, I paid good money for this.
I was in so much shock at this point that I couldn’t take my eyes off of the screen. The kicking went on for another ten, twenty, thirty seconds. It seemed as if it went on forever.
Italiangoat: now slit her throat.
When I read that last message, the churning feeling in my guts intensified. No, no, no, no, I kept thinking, somebody stop this. I tried to type into the chat, but the input field was greyed-out. The woman cried even louder when she heard the man relay the last request.
Italiangoat: wait, no, not yet.
The skinny man held one hand up to signal his partner to halt.
My breathing returned to normal for a second, thinking the woman was spared. At least for the time being. Then the director continued:
Italiangoat: take out her eyes first
The skinny man stared directly into the webcam. I couldn’t see the entirety of his face, just his eyes and the small patch of skin around each one. In his eyes I searched desperately for the slightest hint of hesitation. Please, put a stop to this, I prayed, but I kept the mouse cursor hovered above the Close button in case they did not.
And then, the skinny man began typing, and a second screen name popped up on the log:
Admin: another $500
My mind froze when I saw the number. $500. This woman was being tortured and possibly killed for a meager sum of $500. I was making as much every other week at the gas station, and I was barely making minimum wage. If I could offer $1000 to stop this, I would. I would empty out my savings account if it meant saving her life. I would, I swear on my life. I’d pay anything to stop this madness.
I quickly shut off the screen before I could see any more. I wish my common sense could have kicked in earlier. I ran out to the yard where I regurgitated about two meals’ worth of vomit. It had been a long time since I’ve felt this sick from watching something. When I was in junior high some friends showed me a clip from Rotten.com. It was the one where a man had his skull sliced in half by the rotor blades of a helicopter he was in the midst of repairing. And then, over the years, I’ve seen many more videos like that one—enough that I don’t get the urge to puke in my mouth anymore. But let me tell you this: seeing a live footage of a real person being tortured is stomach-turning on a whole different level.
When I was done spitting out the last bits of bile in my mouth, I heard screaming coming from my room. It was then I realized that in my haste to turn the monitor off, I had forgotten to turn the speakers off as well.
Her screams got worse and worse, until finally I was able to reach behind the desk and disconnect the speakers from the computer. The silence that followed was unbearable. It was as if by my own hands I had silenced her, killed her.
I felt remorse such as I have never felt before. I killed her, I thought to myself again and again. I KILLED her. The feeling was unreal.
I had to find out if she was alive. As I reached over to turn the screen back on, a voice inside my head begged me to stop. I do not want to see what I’m about to see.
But before I could stop myself, my hand had already acted. The image on the screen was an image I will never, ever forget.
The severed head of the woman sat there straight across from me, both eyes missing from their respective sockets. That face… that warped, misshapen face have haunted me ever since. Even now as I write this, I can feel her hollow eyes glaring at me from behind. I sleep with all the lights on, the TV on, but nothing helps.
Right before I shut down the browser and reconfigured the network settings to access the good ol’ regular internet, I remember seeing one last line on the chat line. It read:
Admin: Thank you for watching. The next show will be in 1 hour.