Group 4

The Zepotha effect

A fake viral ‘80s movie signals a new era of hoax marketing


Thumbnail: Emily Jeffri

Banner: Haley Kalil

As we all know by now, the TikTok comment section is where it’s at. Behind every great video is, typically, an even greater comment section — a remark that resonates can go viral in its own right, gaining thousands of likes. And if you’ve scrolled through the app in the past month, you may have encountered comments referring to an ‘80s horror movie called Zepotha. Under a video of a girl lip-syncing to the latest trending track or otherwise going about typical TikTok business, you’ll find comments like “omg Rebecca from Zepotha?!” or “you look EXACTLY like that girl from Zepotha.” This kind of comment isn’t unusual — it’s common for viewers to give creators a compliment by way of a comparison to a celebrity or character (“You look just like Margot Robbie!” “Effy from Skins!”). But what is unusual is the fact that Rebecca isn’t a character in Zepotha. Because Zepotha doesn’t exist.

Zepotha is the creation of 18-year-old independent artist Emily Jeffri, who shared a post in August with the idea of creating a fake horror movie using TikTok comments. "ok so new bit idea: what if we created a fake ‘80s horror movie called 'Zepotha' & started commenting "omg u look EXACTLY like that one girl from Zepotha" or "wait u look exactly like ______ from Zepotha" on every thirst trap we see," Emily wrote. "together we will witness new lore develop, main characters will emerge, etc. & we can convince thousands of people that this weirdly titled 80s horror film actually exists."

Emily’s idea worked — shortly after she posted her video, Zepotha-related comments began to pop up across the app (even under Sabrina Bahsoon AKA internationally beloved Tube Girl’s early tube-riding videos). Zepotha doesn’t exist, but also, it does. Beyond comments, there are Zepotha filters and edits, and creators sharing videos where they react to being cast in the remake of Zepotha. Netflix has even managed to get involved — sharing a clip from Stranger Things with the message “okay we’ll say it: zepotha walked so stranger things could run (up that hill)” and Emily announced a short film contest with a cash prize of $500, meaning Zepotha will stop being a fake film soon and become a real one.

But before that happens, let’s look at the ecosystem that allowed Zepotha to be fake and real at the same time. Jeffri created Zepotha as a way to promote her music — her very first TikTok naming the film is soundtracked by a song of hers called DO YOU REMEMBER ME, captioned “putting this song forward as the movie’s main theme, i think it has zepotha vibes tbh.” And it seems to have worked. She has 289k followers on TikTok and 395k listeners on Spotify streaming her aptly titled album SOUNDTRACK FOR AN 80’S HORROR MOVIE. Not bad for a TikTok marketing ploy.

But Zepotha isn’t a standalone incident. You may have also noticed comments across the app using variations of the phrases “only in Ohio” and “can’t have sh*t in Ohio.” The videos that these comments are a response to never have anything to do with Ohio — they’re another example of the kind of comment-driven internet inside joke that’s currently shaping digital culture. While Ohio commenters have no album to promote, they’re still using the same mechanism for more or less the same reasons — to participate in, and propagate, a kind of crowdsourced private joke. 

And with streaming services like Netflix already tapping in, it’s possible that the Zepotha effect will have an impact on entertainment, especially as more and more film and TV is inspired by, and attempts to embed itself in, digital culture with major references to social media apps like TikTok in recent releases like Bodies Bodies Bodies. It’s easy to imagine buzz for a real but unannounced horror film being drummed up through unverifiable content alluding to the film’s plot and characters, Zepotha style. In some ways, it’s full circle to Blair Witch, when the found footage film became the first movie to go viral (all the way back in 1999) through an internet campaign that posed the film as a real-life documentary, intentionally blurring the line between fiction and reality. It’s hoax marketing for the TikTok age, powered by the people rather than a PR release.

Barring exceptional chops or an original hook, perhaps we’ll see more lean into the lore and let the internet write the script for them.

The Zepotha effect also says a lot about the state of music on TikTok. The app is centered around songs, specifically ones that go viral, from both established and unrepresented or independent artists. For the latter, TikTok is an especially powerful tool of discovery — a trending track can majorly accelerate a new or unrecognized artist’s career. But it’s becoming harder to really break through TikTok’s saturated audio landscape unless you’re an exceptional talent — think the Ice Spices and the PinkPantheresses, or have a great story to tell, like JVKE, who carved out a career with a viral video of him playing his song “Golden Hour” for his childhood piano teacher. TikTok users have even begun to express frustration with the ways growing artists promote their music, critiquing methods like teasing a song for an overly extended period before releasing it. So barring exceptional chops or an original hook, perhaps we’ll see more lean into the lore and let the internet write the script for them.