Zepotha is huge on TikTok, but it’s no Goncharov
The seminal 1987 horror film “Zepotha” is back on TikTok.
Reaction videos to the film’s gory forest scenes dominate user feeds. TikTok users are digging through their parents’ wardrobes to recreate the vintage outfits from the movie. Fanart of the characters and convoluted theories about the movie’s ambiguous ending keep going viral. The tag #Zepotha has nearly 160 million views, and the movie’s theme song — an ethereal, synth-heavy pop beat — is trending.
If you don’t remember Zepotha, you’re not alone. Zepotha never existed.
It’s all part of a clever marketing campaign to promote a new song by the musical artist Emily Jeffri. The 18-year-old singer posted a video about making a fake movie go viral on TikTok by dropping casual mentions of it without any context. She encouraged followers to tell other creators that they “look EXACTLY like the girl from Zepotha” to stir up confusion. Her original video has 7.6 million views. In another video, she recommended bringing up Zepotha “every time a film bro mocks you” to gaslight them into believing that the movie is real.
Zepotha is a massive inside joke on TikTok — if you know, you know.
“Together we will witness new lore develop, main characters will emerge, etc,” Jeffri said in a TikTok posted over the weekend. “We can convince thousands of people that this weirdly titled 80s horror film actually exists.”
The trend is working. Within days, the sound featuring Jeffri’s new song was used in over 12,000 videos. Other users leaned into the joke, claiming that they wrote extensive, smutty fanfiction about the film’s tragic protagonists. Fans posted “trailers” of Zepotha, and spread rumors about a 2024 reboot. They posted fake eBay listings for “rare” Zepotha VHS tapes and mint condition posters. When other users expressed doubt or confusion about the movie, Zepotha truthers insisted that their parents had shown them the movie as children.
“I did NOT watch Zepotha and become traumatized for them to just say we made it up,” a user commented on a TikTok about the movie.
“old person here (30) i definitely saw a glimpse of zepotha at blockbuster back in the 90s,” another said. “so I CAN CONFIRM IT’S REAL.”
Going viral on TikTok was once a perk that fast-tracked artists to making it in the music industry. Now, it’s an expectation. Artists tease previews of their new singles for weeks before actually releasing them, in hopes of manufacturing a trend to accompany their music. Last year, Halsey complained that her label wouldn’t let her release a new song without a “fake” viral moment. Organic virality is possible, but makes TikTok users suspicious. The platform is so saturated with new music that up-and-coming artists are written off as industry plants before they even have the chance to prove otherwise. TikTok users are wary of anyone who claims to have written “the song of the summer” or “the post-breakup song,” especially if the music they wrote conforms to the “TikTok music formula” — pop music made to go viral.
Sharing any kind of art is an act of vulnerability, but especially so for independent musicians on TikTok. Sharing too earnestly is cringe, and sharing too proudly is artificial. One of the few strategies that actually works is for artists to market to niche internet communities, like fan edits of tragic gay anime pairings.
Jeffri’s campaign is particularly clever because it builds a trend that happens to feature her song, instead of forcing her song into a trend. Zepotha is bigger than her song, at this point, and the more it spreads, the more removed it is from Jeffri herself. Zepotha is an inside joke, but few TikTok users know how the joke started. Knowing who Jeffri is doesn’t matter, though; as long as the videos use Jeffri’s song, her campaign is working.
While the strategy works to draw in new listeners, Jeffri’s claim over the trend also limits Zepotha from achieving its potential as a collaborative bit.
Collectively gaslighting the internet into remembering a fake movie isn’t new. Last year, Tumblr “brought back” the 1973 Martin Scorsese drama “Goncharov,” an Italian mafia film that revolved around crime, power and a forbidden love triangle. Like Zepotha, Goncharov never existed. But Tumblr users committed to the bit, and created a detailed Google doc about the film’s characters, their relationships and their backstories. The collaborative effort also included a scene-by-scene breakdown of the movie, which users coordinated through a Goncharov Discord server.
Scorsese himself joined in, and in a text to his daughter posted on TikTok, said, “I made that film years ago.”
While Zepotha is popular, it hasn’t reached the commitment to detail or collaboration that Goncharov did. Tumblr users have criticized Zepotha as a disorganized popularity contest, rather than a collective effort. Multiple creators started Google docs to write Zepotha’s lore together, but failed to agree on a singular story. There is no definitive list of characters featured in the film, and the names that TikTok creators do reference in their Zepotha posts vary in spelling.
“Zepotha will never succeed because tiktok users don’t have the attentions spans to pull off a goncharov,” Tumblr user sbibble said. “Meanwhile we have nothing better to do and decades of fan fiction experience.”
Zepotha’s greatest flaw isn’t the lack of centralized lore — it’s that, unlike Goncharov, a single creator is claiming ownership of the joke. This week, Jeffri announced a short film competition that would award the winner £500. The winning film would also become “canon” in the Zepotha universe.
“as the creator of zepotha i feel it is important that we restore order & organise our lore,” Jeffri said in the video announcing the short film competition. “time for you, the REAL creative geniuses behind all of this, to bring zepotha to life in your own short movies.”
Goncharov worked so well because countless users worked on it together. Fans discussed plot points for hours at a time on Discord before writing them into the shared Google doc, which canonized the lore. Tumblr users wrote detailed analyses of the film’s themes and clock motifs, based on other users’ additions to the Google doc. Goncharov writers went as far as agreeing that scenes in the film had to be compliant with the period-appropriate Hays Code, the industry guidelines that prohibited nudity, profanity and realistic violence. Tumblr users created a definitive story from thousands of ideas.
Zepotha, on the other hand, is an idea with a single origin point that has branched off into countless deviating storylines. Choosing a single winning short film to decide the film’s plot encourages fans to compete with each other, instead of build on each others’ creativity. It isn’t inherently better or worse than how Goncharov creators worked, but does limit Zepotha’s impact on internet culture. Zepotha is so popular because it’s fun to be in on the joke, not necessarily because of the creative potential.
The Goncharov hype lasted for weeks, and although it’s slowed down in the past year, the Discord server is still active. Jeffri posted about Zepotha less than a week ago, but users are already tiring of the trend.
Whether Zepotha lasts doesn’t matter as much for Jeffri. It doesn’t need to be the next Goncharov for her to make an impact. She already managed to make her song viral, and for an independent artist on TikTok, that’s enough of a win.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.