— PART 3 —
SPREAD THE WORD, MAYBE
"Fear is terrible, but the worst is the fear of fear."1 — Rita Lickteig
This time we will look at modern depictions of the evil and the scary. Does the internet enable us to find the true "face of evil"? How do scary narratives work and how can they enhance the effect of something that is said to kill us if we look at it?
Is it possible to portray the true evil without using a mask? Or will it always hide itself behind a mask that hints at something evil without letting us see the true qualities behind this mask? We noticed in the previous part that masks are tools used to show us something that is unknown or unexplained, but as soon as we get to know it and are able to explain it these masks fall apart; or they become silly (remember the example of Dr. Drakken
The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins
coined the term "meme"2
by creating an analogy between the inheritance of genes and the inheritance of ideas and thoughts as "cultural genes". For him a meme (from the Latin memor
= "to remember" and the English mime)
is a single concept that can be multiplied by communication. Memes are not concrete compositions of thoughts but abstract ideas that can be influenced by the culture they appear in, and with this help the culture to develop.3
This means not a single painting would be a meme but the idea behind this painting. But the painting can influence and even change the meme. The evil itself could be considered a meme we encounter in all cultures. We see it in religious texts, myths and scary stories. It does not necessarily need a specific image to work. As a meme the abstract idea of the evil — or of the Devil — can be transferred and multiplied without a visual counterpart.
Many people know the "meme" only as an internet phenomenon: an idea or concept which arose out of an image, a text, a video or a sound; it resonates with people and they start to share it. The abstract idea of a meme is met with various possibilities of the media and is transformed into specific works. It is not perfectly know when the first memes arose, but they spread with the power and speed of an explosion. The authors of these memes are usually unknown. A meme is born when a person depicts an abstract idea (in an image, video, text, audio file etc.) and uploads it to the internet. If this idea is poignantly depicted and resonates with other people it will be shared all around the internet. The authors of these memes are usually unknown or get lost in the endless stream of re-uploads. The memes are downloaded, used, altered, extended and uploaded again; which creates even more and new versions of the meme. They can become even more poignant, get emphasized or change into other memes. And again they are shared and the process continues.
Memes are not limited to certain places or times and can appear and move anywhere on the internet (and with this anywhere on the globe). This means they are potentially able to show a relatively precise depiction of a collective idea. If we compare a modern internet meme to the meme of Dürer's
devil we will notice this difference: Dürer's devil was limited by the place where its creator lived, the people he met and the texts he read to get inspired. He was only able to read certain books, to look at certain images and to talk to certain people. His devil was also limited by the time Dürer lived in and heavily relied on the images and symbols of his surroundings and culture. He was able to visit libraries to read about other cultures and their images, but this knowledge was extremely limited if we compare it to the possibilities of the internet today with which a person can learn virtually anything what he wants to know about any culture in any time. Now the question: How does the evil look like in the global culture of today that theoretically knows no limitations? How does it look like as a meme that can only be multiplied if it resonates with enough people to get shared on the internet? If it meets the standards of a global consensus and resonates multi-culturally? Maybe we can find a partial answer in the modern legends that inhabit the internet — the creepypastas
— basically equivalents to traditional urban legends and campfire stories. These stories gather their ideas and content from modern legends, allegedly real events and traditional spooky stories, and with this they create an aura of mystery. Although most of these stories are completely fictitious, they create an ominous net in which real events can no longer be strictly separated from imaginary events.4
The scary and evil intrudes the real world and can no longer be separated from it — the objective distance cannot be kept anymore. The global scary stories and memes are successful because they manage to fit a consensus of what is considered to be scary instead of only fitting the idea of a single person (for example Dürer's idea about the devil).
Let us take a look at one example of these scary memes. One of the best known memes that supposedly show the truly scary and evil is smile.dog.
It is strange that of all things a "smiling dog" is considered to be a face of the evil. But this is exactly the strength of memes like this: They combine everyday things with the unusual and alien. Like many other memes smile.dog first appeared somewhere in the obscure parts of the 4chan forums
and is said to show the portrait of the Evil itself. Rumors appeared that whoever takes a look at this image will be hit by random waves of fear that will prompt epileptic seizures and eventually will lead to the person dying.5
The image is linked to ominous stories, forum posts and letters about people who allegedly took a look at the image and later committed suicide; all caused by this terrible image and the inability of these people to get the face of evil out of their heads. This obscurity is then increased by the claim that the original image of smile.dog cannot be found anymore on the internet and all images that are said to be smile.dog are just fakes that do not possess the effects and powers of the true original.
What we see is a skillfully crafted narrative that attaches itself to our deepest fears to feed of them. We have a legend about an image that can kill us by just looking at it. Something that cannot be possible. We doubt that it is possible. But there are these stories of supposedly real people who did in fact die after looking at it. Does that mean our assumption that nobody can die by looking at an image could be wrong? "Might it really be possible after all?", we might ask ourselves. And then we have the piece of information that the original image is lost and whatever we see is just a fake. This means even if the image we find is truly scary, we are reminded that the original must be so much worse than whatever we might see. With this our doubts about the image are challenged a second time. When we see the image and do not die, the story tells us that this is only because the image we looked at was fake, and we might ask ourselves: "Is the real image really so much more terrible that all what is said about it might be true?" The narrative is crafted in such a way that it already knows our rationale and our doubts and it adds little details to get around them. To basically make us believe by adding obscurity and vagueness at important places that prevent us from staying absolutely rational.
The unknown is combined with the unexplained and the impossible. The image cannot be dangerous on its own, of course, but its narrative is designed in such a way that it uses objective assessment and subjective judgment to keep us trapped. To let us believe and doubt at the same time. To prevent us from seeing things clearly. What is possible and what might be possible are equated and with this even the impossible suddenly seems to become "somewhat possible".
Let us take a walk in the little gallery of scares. The following images show different incarnations of the smile.dog meme. Some clearly show a connection and seem to be directly modeled after each other, while others seem to be self-contained interpretations of the meme. Is one of them the original? Will one of them kill you? Has the narrative disabled your ability to assess the images objectively?
I - IV: The different incarnations of the smile.dog meme show that different people visualized how the meme looks like for them.
Such a narrative is typical for scary memes. They surround themselves with possibilities, half-truths and theories that cannot be true but that cannot be proved to be false either. A typical trap to conquer and disable rational thinking; related to paranoid reasoning and conspiracy stories.
But is it truly the narrative alone that makes smile.dog scary? Or does the image really include something that is scary or even repulsive even if you do not know about the stories it is imbedded in? As for almost every meme there are dozens of versions of smile.dog; proof for the busy hands of many people adapting the meme and designing their own impressions of it. Let us take a look at one of the images: The following image of smile.dog shows the portrait of a doglike creature sitting in a darkened room and staring directly at us while grinning. Let us be perfectly neutral and unimpressed and let us list all the things that might result in a scary or repulsive effect: the very high contrast of lights and shadows, the striking red color, the general darkness in which the figure seems to "glow", the extreme focus on the figure, the applied human looking teeth on an otherwise doglike creature, the protruding eyes, the association with a slaughterhouse-look or some figure that was skinned, the association with an x-ray photo, the smile as a display of bare teeth and the perceived human resemblance of the figure. All these things are striking and can easily convince the watcher that they show something evil. It is not surprising that some people write that they are literally not able to look at the image and are urged to remove it whenever it appears somewhere.6
V: What effect does this image of smile.dog have on you? And why?
It seems that smile.dog is a working incarnation and visualization of something evil and scary that does not fall apart when we look at it. The image is vague and obscure while being extremely direct in the way it uses colors, contrast and its elements. It offers various ways of interpreting it. It is like a visual riddle without solution. And it became famous precisely because it is effective at displaying something scary. People share it. Some do not want to look at it and move away as soon as it pops up. It randomly appears in videos, at the end of web pages or even in chats to trick and startle people. Although it is always people who use the image, it sometimes seems as if the image has a life of its own when it appears somewhere seemingly out of nowhere and forces people to look at it or to instantly remove it out of disgust. This spooky autonomy increases its ominous aura.
Smile.dog is by far not the only thing that uses a narrative like this to scare people. The whole idea of people dying after looking at something is thematized in the book Ringu
(1991) and the movie adaptations from 1998 and 2002. In this case it is a video that is said to kill whoever watches it. It too takes a completely ordinary object and adds something unknown and impossible to it to create obscurity and vagueness that can become scary. What we know about an ordinary object is changed in a way that it creates something unknown we are not able to assess rationally anymore. A video cannot do anything on its own. It cannot kill. And yet it does in the movie. Something impossible becomes possible. Something ordinary is changed into something alien. Even the solution to get rid of the "evil curse" is the same by smile.dog and Ringu: Make a copy of the thing that will kill you and share it with others and you will be spared. People who believe that this is true, and people who simply find it funny, will help the image to spread even more. Seemingly with a life of its own.
The idea that you can die after looking at something is not a modern invention.7
In the traveling stories of John Mandeville
there is a description of a valley in which a rock can be found that has the face of the Devil on it. Whoever looks at it will tremble in fear and the ground will be shaking, the stroy says.8
A common saying states "Do not paint the Devil on the wall or he will appear before you."
As if the mere depiction of something will call this thing to life and will kill.9
You see that there is a barrier in place; used in stories and everyday life; to prevent people from visualizing the evil. This way it can stay hidden in the unknown to scare us with vagueness, and whenever we see a supposed "face of the evil" we will remember this barrier and might be scared of it just because we are told that the evil should never be depicted. Because its mere image brings misery. This way a lifeless object can seem to be alive after all. Because it has an effect on us and we do not realize that it is us who create this effect and not the object itself.
In the next part of this chapter we will look at some more memes. We will also talk about how the face can be distorted to create something scary and seemingly evil and what effect this can have on the viewer.
Sources1 — Original: "Angst ist schrecklich, aber am schlimmsten ist die Angst vor der Angst."
2 — Dawkins, Richard: Meme, die neuen Replikatoren. in: Das egoistische Gen. (Original: The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1976), 2007, S. 316–334
3 — Mem: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mem
4 — Playgrounds for these memes are memebase.cheezburger.com or www.creepypasta.com that work similar to Wikipedia. Users are able to download, edit and upload memes. The constant change, adaptation and extension of memes makes their specific origins and creators unknown. They almost become "digital ghosts".
5 — Smile Dog: creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Smi…
6 — www.deviantart.com/art/SmileDo…, scpcontainmentbreach.wikia.com…, www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpFhW_…, www.youtube.com/watch?v=35cJcB…
7 — The curse of the Evil Eye is said to cause harm and bad luck. In folklore people with sinister intent, the dead and even animals are said to possess the ability to use the Evil Eye to kill a person they look at. Böser Blick: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bös…
8 — John Mandeville describes the face of the Devil in a valley near Milcorath. Buggisch, Christian: Illustrationen in Mendevilles Reiseberichten. www.buggisch.com/mandeville-il…, 2010
9 — The legend of the church in Clausthal tells about a scornful pitman who paints the face of the Devil on a wall. The Devil later appears and abducts him. Bartens, Werner: Die Schwarzen Führer. Der Harz. Mysteriöses, Geheimnisvolles, Sagenhaftes. Freiburg 1997, S. 60
I — creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Fil…
II — unknownwolf1996: Smile Dog. unknownwolf1996.deviantart.com…
III — creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/The…
IV — moondragoness08: Smile Dog. moondragoness08.deviantart.com…
V — nightmarestalestocurdleyourblo…
Last updated: October 2015