It’s pitch black – the kind of darkness that presses down on you like a heavy, hot quilt – as the torch flicks from side to side along the overgrown pathway. There is no street lighting here in the woods, no residual sun or moonlight, so each time the light falls away, the darkness gobbles everything – the trees, the brush, the weeds, the rubbish – up again.
When a group of intrepid explorers first set out, the air was thick with giggles and banter. Now, they speak in hushed, urgent tones as the camera first pans across the distant splash of red buried in the undergrowth. Someone off-camera says “there’s a fucking cross there, boys” and someone else guffaws. “Fuck off,” the guffawer says, and the pair share a short, unhappy laugh.
The camera moves closer, twigs snapping beneath the weight of the cameraman, and you realise Unhappy Voice #1 was right; there is a cross there. It wasn’t, however, the splash of red you spotted a few moments ago. It’s crudely made – just two pieces of snapped plywood inelegantly nailed together – with Chinese symbols scribbled at the bottom with Sharpie. The writing on the horizontal plank is less distinct, but that doesn’t matter really, because your eyes are instead drawn to the offering nailed onto the cross.
It’s a cheap plastic doll, its face and limbs spray-painted red. Nails protrude from the doll’s wispy scalp, ears and mouth like a knock-off Hellraiser toy with an inverted cross stamped onto its forehead. There are more symbols here – a trident, a pound sign, a female gender symbol, I think? – and the left arm is severed completely, the hand nailed to the backboard and clumsily reattached to the torso via a twig. Its extremities look charred.
After poking it with a stick for a bit, the team turn to walk back the way they came, breathless and a little hysterical. No-one really talks about what they’ve seen, but just inches from the car there’s a sound of a bottle smashing and all five of them yelp and frantically paw at the handles, telling each other to lock their doors once they’re in. As they speed away, their words overlap as every one of them swears to the other that no, they didn’t throw any bottle. Honest.
Immediately, the cameraman pulls out his phone and opens the app that directed them to that doll in the first place. Randonautica – an app that promises to take you on “a journey of true randomness” – might be new to you, but it’s currently entertaining millions across social media, flooding YouTube and TikTok with the experiences of would-be Randonauts that caption their videos in block-caps and dire warnings. “WARNING NEVER DOWNLOAD RANDONAUTICA,” says one. “RANDONAUTICA IS NO JOKE WE FOUND A CRIME SCENE AND THE POLICE CAME,” screams another.
This pair of Randonauts were taken to an abandoned shopping mall where outside, they found a motionless body that they couldn’t quite discern was alive or not. The same guy later took a flight cross-country where a different Randonautica adventure led him to a box in the Nevada desert that housed nothing but a China bell commemorating the doomed (and alarmingly topical) 1986 marriage of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. “DO NOT TRY THIS APP” the video title sinisterly declares, although the Randonaut clearly doesn’t value his own advice – six of his last 10 videos are Rando-related.
A TikTok video, this one emblazoned with the legend “please don’t go randonauting”, kicks off with a hysterical girl whose “intention” – the word or phrase or emotion each player is asked to think of just as they boot up each “mission” – was “death”. Weeping into the camera, she shares how she’d stumbled upon a man lying in the gutter, his partner cradling him, bleeding from a gunshot wound inflicted by a drive-by shooting.
The developer states the app – which is something of a mysterious Pokemon Go/Ouija board mash-up and listed as a simulation game on app stores – has been downloaded 8million times and clocked up 400million views on TikTok.
It’s been aided in no small part by the most infamous tale in Randonautica’s annals in which players unwittingly followed coordinates to a washed-up suitcase that housed the grisly remains of not one but two dismembered corpses. It’s probably not that surprising, then, that these kinds of “coincidences” are the ones clocking up the most views, encouraging some (read: many) content creators to leap onto the hype train with stories of their own.
In the very broadest sense, of course, the grave warnings are right – Randonautica isn’t safe. The “random” coordinates generated by the app can be anywhere at any time, and not only lead you to unsafe locations with unstable buildings, but they can lead you straight into a heap of trouble if you trespass, too.
Picking through abandoned trash is never recommended (please don’t put yourself in a situation where you might accidentally stab yourself with a discarded needle), but even as the YouTubers’ heap warning upon warning in their intros – don’t play at night, don’t play alone, don’t be followed home – they themselves are playing at night, playing alone and occasionally insist they’ve been followed home, too.
Some theorise that the game uses your smartphone’s mic to “hear” intentions voiced aloud. Others intimate that given the app requires you to follow the coordinates on a map using GPS, this is how – and why – some players are being followed home. It doesn’t seem to stop them playing and uploading it to the internet, though; Randonautica might be terrifying, but it seems to be terrifyingly lucrative, too.
The app’s about page gives a spiel about “pseudo and quantum entropy sources” – I remain unconvinced – and players are asked to select a new location with an “intention” in mind. The results seem to vary wildly from stunning to the stunningly mundane, and we are, as humans, hardwired to seek out patterns and correlations where there are none.
It’s clear the red-daubed plastic doll was not coincidental, though; either the lads themselves planted it or, admittedly less likely, a team working for the app did. Hidden in the weeds and at the end of a footpath as it was, there’s no way I can accept its discovery was accidental.
I can’t help but admit that Randonautica creeps me out in much the same way Ouija boards do. I can imagine it draws the same kind of ire and scepticism, too, with some maintaining it’s a harmless toy, and others professing it to be a dangerous tool of the occult.
I can’t attest to its legitimacy because I don’t know firsthand of anyone who’s ever had a proper fright using it and I am much too much of a baby to try it myself (the fact that your GPS location is known to the app alone is enough of a deterrent). But like a lot of cheap, one-note horror games that clog up my YouTube subs page, I can’t deny that it’s bloody good fun to watch.