SimsTok and the horrors of domesticity

DIY domestic horror in The Sims

A woman places her neighbor’s pie on the kitchen counter before leading him toward an elevator in the back of her living room. They descend a few floors and walk down a hallway lined with closed steel doors. The woman gestures into an open cell, locks him inside, and leaves the man to starve. He is the latest, but he will not be the last.

You could be forgiven for thinking this was a scene from a horror movie, but it’s a summary of how one TikToker describes her own setup in The Sims.

The Sims bills itself as a goofy sandbox, a life simulator for suburbia, where players build whatever spaces they can imagine for their virtual characters. One part of SimsTok, a subcommunity of Sims players on TikTok, engages with the game quite earnestly. Want to know how to give your kitchen the perfect backsplash? There’s a tutorial for that. Interested in designing an elaborate, multi-level treehouse mansion? Got you covered.

This crafty impulse is familiar to me: I grew up on the Sim series. And not just the main SimCity titles. I used monoliths to try to evolve single-celled organisms in SimEarth. When SimFarm was released, I crop-dusted my oranges. I dealt with finicky elevator traffic in SimTower and tried to figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing in SimAnt. I, too, remember the thrill when disasters became not just a part of the series but something you could actively cultivate. SimCity 2000, in particular, gave a menu of options for triggering wildfires, earthquakes, and alien attacks on your vast city that were a joy to mitigate.

But The Sims seems to tap into a particular lust for mayhem inherent in the human spirit. For every straightforward video on SimsTok, there are dozens of posts from players using the environment to develop elaborate torture chambers. Much of the horror in SimsTok is handcrafted by the community, but a large part of it is built into the game. Electronic Arts released a paranormal expansion pack early last year, which allowed players to dial up the creepiness of their world. But the real energy of SimsTok seems to move beyond the prefabricated spookiness supplied by EA and toward DIY violence. In a follow-up video, she walks viewers through how to build their own murder dungeon in case they want to subject their own Sims to the same grisly ends. On The Sims forums, there is an extremely earnest thread about murdering imprisoned Sims and how to ensure death and captivity. This community does not just partake in horror—they want to create their own. Like the titular Jigsaw from the Saw franchise, SimsTok wants to play an intensely engineered and violent game of their own creation.

Another clear spiritual predecessor from film for the kind of horror taking place here is Poltergeist. Not all the horror in SimsTok is self-crafted, after all—there’s an element to the community that fixates on the terrors of domestic suburbia, of a certain element of the American dream. In Poltergeist, the unexamined violence and trauma1 of white, suburban America causes the house to implode upon itself. Similarly, baked into The Sims is an element of glitchy horror that is about as subtle. The game is full of rendering glitches that send the game cratering into the uncanny valley. If you want to bring jump scares into your game, you might not need to work too hard. Your Sim might lean in to pat the family dog only for the pet’s bones to twist and crack back into an unnatural, werewolf-like form. Or your family’s toddler might come out looking like a Croenenbergian nightmare

There's a certain level of inevitably to the horrors of SimsTok. Even if you go looking for some normal Sims content, like a monster lurking just out of frame, the weird finds you. When searching for general home construction game tutorials to provide counterexamples for this piece, I came upon a video titled “A Grim Love Story,” which depicts a female Sim romancing the Grim Reaper. I can think of no better encapsulation of the gothic obsessions of the SimsTok. Death comes for us all, but SimsTok wants to help it along. To seek it out. On occasion, to bear its children.

“A Grim Love Story” ends with the Reaper tossing their newborn child into the air. Maybe SimsTok has devoured my brain, because I immediately started wondering about the eldritch future in store for this infant. How long until that baby grows into a lanky, Slender Man-style monster? Or until it schemes to capture and murder its own lovers? How long until the lovers of death’s children cinch up on their own hind legs and stretch out for a hug with their scarecrow arms?

Brandon Walsh is head of student programs for the Scholars’ Lab of the University of Virginia Library and a member of the Hard Modes. His cat Pepper is a Wordle addict.

  1. Literally—it’s about burial grounds.