On the radar: spoopy
If you’ve visited one of the sillier parts of the Internet in the last month or so, you may have seen someone use the word spoopy. If you see it just once, it’s easy enough to write it off as a typo for spooky – which it is, technically. But when you start to see two, three, four different people all making this same typo, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that something else, something rather weird, is going on – which it is, technically.
We owe the word spoopy to the grand Internet tradition that delights in amplifying the intrinsic absurdity of everyday life. The same irreverent sensibility that translated the Bible into lolcat, demanded respect and appreciation for the babadook’s LGBTQ journey, and successfully compelled the British Natural Environment Research Council to name one of its underwater research vehicles Boaty McBoatface, is also behind the practice of deliberately misspelling the word spooky, a trend that seems to be growing increasingly popular every Halloween.
So, what, if anything, makes something spoopy instead of spooky? To answer this, we first have to investigate where the word is believed to have originated. According to the website Know Your Meme, it all began with this photo which appeared on the photo-sharing site Flickr in 2009:
Clickfarmer / Flickr.com
Unsurprisingly, the Internet was delighted. Clearly a decoration intended to contribute to an eerie Halloween atmosphere, whatever power to unsettle or frighten this sign would otherwise have had was entirely undermined by the outrageousness of the indelible misspelling. A couple of Halloweens later, the same sign was rediscovered by someone else and posted on Tumblr. Soon Tumblr and Reddit users were free-associating as only they can, collectively dreaming up dozens of macros and gifs to celebrate, revise, and refine what exactly is so funny about this one sign.
Linguistically, there is, in the first place, the fact that spoopy is entirely composed of sounds that English speakers find funny. Because we use such short, unstressed vowel sounds most of the time, the ooh and ee sounds of spooky are already silly. But when the hard k sound is swapped for a p, speakers of the word suddenly find themselves uttering English’s most childish words for both excrement and urine in quick succession. By itself, such a slip is amusing, but there is also something so specifically improbable about this particular substitution, about the idea that you would make a plosive p sound at the front of your mouth instead of a velar k sound at the back, as to suggest a truly remarkable, almost sublime level of idiocy, a kind of madness that is only reinforced by the expectorant sp- sound at the word’s beginning and the mistake-flagging oop sound interjected at its end. From start to finish then, spoopy just sounds stupid.
If it has broader resonance in this particular moment in pop culture though, spoopy is undoubtedly linked to a renewed interest in the intersection of horror and comedy – what is funny about scary things and what is scary about funny things. On the one hand, as vampires , zombies, and other supernatural figures have stopped being as cool as they were a few years ago, they seem to have gotten quite a bit funnier. There is, for instance, the not-quite-solved mystery of whether Vice President Pence’s daughter is a vampire. Or Saturday Night Live‘s deliberately baffling creation of David S. Pumpkins, whose authoritative claim to scariness is very much in doubt.
On the other hand, quite a lot of things that were once presented as standard comedic fare – casual misogyny and racism, incompetent leadership and authority, even online pranks and practical jokes – are all starting to be recognized for how frightening they are as well. One spoopy sign is funny, for sure. Dozens of people using it without apparent irony or explanation is pretty funny too. But mixed in that funniness is also a darkness, a sense that things aren’t quite right and you can’t be sure exactly why.
Of course, the existential menace of a word like spoopy should not be overstated. Once you know the joke, the word provides the cathartic, comic relief of not really being scary in a way that, I think, represents the best part of how Halloween is celebrated today. It is not really a time to contemplate the horror of death and the afterlife, as it is so often presented. Rather, as a holiday meant for experiencing the thrill of disguising ourselves as people and things we are not, Halloween is a time of revelry in the face of death, an occasion to transcend who and what we think we are and momentarily let go of the idea that there is something frightening in the fact that we will eventually stop living and our bodies will decompose. And surely one of the best ways to do this is to make fun of how absurd, even foolish, the reality of death and our fear of it ultimately are.