Warning: Reading this post may consign you to eternal torment. Or maybe not, if you’re not prone to worrying about the existential threat posed by imaginary characters. But as strange as it may sound, there are otherwise sane people out there who take the idea of supernatural beings created and shared on the Internet seriously, and some who have actually acted on their existence. Remember the old urban legend of teens conjuring Bloody Mary, or strange doings at the Witching Hour? Today’s bizarre Internet memes have the same vibe, though they spread much faster. Maybe you have enough to worry about in terms of existential threats in reality, without having to make things up. Here are five of the stranger ideas perpetuated in recent years across the Internet.
5. Smile Dog
Many modern urban legends have sprung from the “creepypasta” sub-genre on the Internet, a chain meme of short, fictional horror tales mostly written in first person and circulated by users on underground sites such as 4Chan. The term “creepypasta” is itself a portmanteau, a linguistic word play on the term “cut and paste.” The creepypasta craze seems to have reached its peak around 2010, though it still has its adherents. One popular meme circulated by users is termed “Smile Dog,” the image of a smiling dog with bloody, human-like teeth. The central plot of the original story is that if you see the image of Smile Dog, you’ll soon die. The idea bears more than a passing resemblance to the plot of the 2002 horror film The Ring. The only way the viewer of the Smile Dog image can avert insanity or death, the story goes, is to pass it along to the next unsuspecting victim. Sound familiar? That’s because Smile Dog has all of the attributes of another classic meme spread by the superstitious long before the dawn of the Internet: the chain letter.
4. Do Time Travelers Walk Among Us?
Folks have claimed they’ve spotted time travelers in various photos and videos circulating on the Internet. These time travelers are usually wearing clothes or using technology people of a given era seemingly shouldn’t possess. The most common one, a sunglasses-wearing, hatless “hipster” in a 1941 crowd photo, may have pre-dated the rise of teen culture by about a decade, but that’s not to say he came from the future — maybe he was a trendsetter. Another widely circulated instance is from a 1929 video, supposedly showing a woman walking down a Los Angeles street using what looks to be a mobile phone (how is she getting a network?); it is more likely a primitive hearing aid. In similar fashion, most of these time traveler photos can easily be debunked. The fact that we project and see our own current and changing technology in these older scenes is rather telling. One serious scientific study recently combed social media for posters who had prescient knowledge of Comet ISON and the rise of Pope Francis, though it can be argued that these events have already largely been forgotten about just a few years later. Would a time traveler who had journeyed back in time bother to discuss them on social media?
3. The Rake
Another creepypasta alumni, the Rake is a pale-skinned humanoid with no nose or mouth but glowing green eyes. The creators of the Rake were very open about discussing the creation of their fictional monster online in chat forums, so it’s amusing how the Rake worked its way into modern suburban lore. Another plot twist that supposedly gave the Rake mythos traction is how it’s been retroactively placed in historic settings by “researchers,” who claim to have found references to the creature in ship’s logs and diaries dating all the way back to the 12th century. The story of the Rake claims that a rash of sightings of the creature occurred in the Northeastern U.S. in 2003, but evidence of these in the media were all conveniently destroyed.
Like the Rake, Slenderman is another creepypasta creation that adherents claim appears in historical photos and paintings. Slenderman is described as an unnaturally tall man in a black suit, sometimes with a pale or blank face. Slenderman is said to abduct or terrorize children, and was first created in 2009 in the Something Awful Internet forum. Slenderman gained notoriety in 2014 with a near-fatal assault in Waukesha, Wis., when two 12-year-old girls stabbed a classmate, purportedly to impress Slenderman as a sort of sacrifice. You see similar tales of folks taking fiction too seriously in claims such as that Lovecraft’s unholy book the Necronomicon was secretly real. Slenderman is probably the best example of what’s been termed “fakelore.”
1. Roko’s Basilisk: Evil Artificial Intelligence From the Future
The first rule of Roko’s Basilisk: you don’t talk about Roko’s Basilisk. Proponents of the idea claim that those who know of the possible existence of the basilisk are then consigned to an eternity of torment merely by evoking the idea. The idea arose in 2010 as a thought experiment on the LessWrong Internet discussion board, about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence. Posted by a user named “Roko,” the concept has since gained serious traction in some intellectual circles. It states that in the future, an omnipotent artificial intelligence will arise, which will then punish those who knew of its eventual existence but failed to bring it into being. A variation of this idea says that we already live in a simulation ruled by Roko’s Basilisk. LessWrong site founder Eliezer Yudkowsky thought the idea was “stupid” and banned discussion of it for several years, claiming it had given site visitors nightmares and had driven them almost to the point of a nervous breakdown.
The philosophical logic behind the eventual rise of Roko’s Basilisk that’s usually put forth is similar to Pascal’s Wager on the existence of God: it’s better to believe and possibly be wrong, than to not believe and find out, too late, that we were in fact wrong. Of course, this “what’s the harm?” idea could then be extended to any existential threat we can dream up, paralyzing us with fear. The creation of Roko’s Basilisk and characters such as Slenderman seems strange in a world already full of very real fears with the rise of terrorism, populism and nationalism; perhaps we need fake fears to fill the minds of the “worried well” in modern society.