Three years ago, I interviewed the proprietor of the Twitter account Cursed Images, which had amassed more than eighty thousand followers in just a few months with its steady stream of creepy, uncanny photos: laughing mannequins, raw eggs cracked onto a bedsheet, a stretch limousine sinking into a creek bed, a man cutting up a salami with a CD. The account was mysterious; the proprietor would not speak on the phone, or supply any information relating to location or age or gender. “The unsettling feeling people get while looking at these is pretty much how I feel most of the time,” the proprietor wrote in an e-mail. Cursed Images stopped tweeting on Halloween of that year, shortly after I published my blog post. (Other accounts have stepped in to replace it.) This served as a reminder of the cursedness of my own behavior: there’s no way of killing the fun of a phenomenon like analyzing it online.
Since then, “cursed” has become central in the online vernacular, and cursed content has gone from novel to mundane. There is a flourishing subreddit called “Cursed Memes,” which is not for the fainthearted: the least disturbing image I’ve seen there featured a golden retriever smiling with a full set of human teeth. On Instagram, there’s an abundance of cursed accounts: Cursed and Blessed Birds (a parakeet clamped between a set of barbecue tongs), Cursed Neoliberal Images (a Whole Foods sign saying “this restroom is for app users only”), Cursed Shirts (“I like my girls nerdy, dirty, inked & curvy,” over a drawing of a tattooed Velma, from “Scooby-Doo”). A million images have been labelled #cursed; nearly two hundred thousand have been labelled #cursedmemes. The Gen-Z social platform TikTok recently featured “Cursed TikToks” on its Discover page, aggregating a particularly uncanny meme in which people’s faces appear to flicker into other images. A couple of months ago, I interviewed the person behind the Twitter account Cursed TikToks, which at the time had three hundred thousand followers. (It was recently deactivated, apparently owing to a copyright dispute with an agency that licenses viral videos.) “Generally, if I feel disgusted after a video, that’s a good indicator to put it on my account,” Cursed TikToks told me.
If the Internet demonstrates what we’d like to receive on demand—attention, Thai food, episodes of old sitcoms—one of those things, clearly, is excessively bad vibes. In the nineties, the shock site Rotten.com became famous for publishing a fake photo that purported to show Princess Diana’s corpse just after her death in a car crash. I was a child in those early Internet days, and I remember steeling myself, in my AOL explorations, for the ever-present possibility that an ordinary image would turn into a jump-scare prank. I disliked the feeling of alarmed detachment that freaky online images provoked in me, but I craved it, too.
That dual impulse—summed up in today’s parlance as “thanks, I hate it”—is especially present in the version of “cursed” that denotes a sort of context-based profanity. This often involves food in a place it shouldn’t be: an Oreo, for example, serving as a gauge in someone’s ear, or American cheese melted onto Pop Tarts, or someone riding a skateboard with their feet planted in two plates of spaghetti. “For me, ‘cursed’ brings to mind a sort of unholy juxtaposition—things that shouldn’t be together, in a way that makes the whole thing feel senseless,” Jenny Odell, the author of “How to Do Nothing,” told me. She mentioned, as an example, finding a cheeseburger next to a copy of Sun Myung Moon’s “Divine Principle” while working as artist-in-residence at a dump in San Francisco. “It also reminds me of dreams,” she said, “where your mind takes two potentially banal things, smushes them together, and renders something that feels deeply wrong.” She described cursed energy as “normcore horror.”
On Twitter, people appear to identify objects and phenomena with “cursed energy” every hour of every day. It’s not just creepy images: the word has acquired new valences, has come to signify increasingly generalized feelings of anxiety and malaise. “The way I use ‘cursed’ has a connotation of being trapped, i.e. a sort of Greek Mythology Ironic Eternal Punishment vibe,” Alex Pareene, a writer for The New Republic, told me. We must be cursed, one would think, to spend so much of our day walking around with our eyes glued to a device that provokes bad feelings. Ashley Feinberg, a writer at Slate, wrote, in an e-mail, “To me, cursed energy is about any number of bad or dystopian things finding each other and congealing into something that is somehow more stupid than the sum of its parts.” She included a link to an image of an Instagram meltdown queen appearing on a leftist reactionary podcast whose hosts are best known for denigrating #MeToo and valorizing anorexia. Sam Biddle, who writes about tech for the Intercept, told me, “I think so much of the Internet feels like hell now that it just makes sense to blame it on the devil.”
Cursed energy used to be a more literal concept. In Genesis 3:14, God says to the serpent, who has just tempted Eve to eat the apple, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.” The idea that a deity might curse you gave way to an idea that you might be able to curse another person, on behalf of or with the help of the deity. Ancient Romans buried curse tablets the size of credit cards, called defixiones, in graves and bodies of water, in the hope of bringing suffering on the unlucky soul of their choosing. These curse tablets are so uniform that historians assume that there was a cottage industry of scribes or magicians churning them out. Some were buried in stadiums and directed at individual chariot racers; today, the sports curse may be the last pop-culture vestige of the straightforward curse tradition (though many have been lifted in recent years).
The first known use of the English word “curse” to mean an invocation for harm occurred in the eleventh century. The Austrian literary critic Leo Spitzer posited, in the fifties, that the word stemmed “from a certain use of the verb incurrere which, in classical Latin, was used of ‘running into’ ills of any kind.” One of these ills was, of course, menstruation: long-standing folk beliefs held that women on their periods would make wine spoil and meat go rancid; in the first century, Pliny the Elder wrote that a menstruating woman could cause bees to leave their hives and razors to become blunted. In the early twentieth century, curses went through a glamour phase: there was the curse of the Hope Diamond, which, as the Times noted in 1911, may have been generated by a “sensational article” published in 1901, recounting tales of diamond-related misfortune that came to be revived and expanded every time the stone was mentioned in the press. The mummy’s curse, a sensational device in nineteenth-century literature, became a newspaper story in 1923, after the romantic novelist Marie Corelli wrote a letter to the New York World warning that the men who had discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb were due to suffer a “most dire punishment.” Less than two weeks later, one of those men, the Earl of Carnarvon, died.
The cursedness that has come to be incessantly invoked online is less literal. It may be connected to a sense that the very relationship between direct cause and effect has grown weaker. Americans are regularly dying in mass shootings but Congress won’t pass basic gun legislation; the President has been racking up impeachable offenses since the Inauguration but momentum for impeachment is only building now, as we approach the end of 2019 (and, really, who knows for sure). At the same time, our sense of indirect, complex cause and effect may be tightening. We see Caribbean islands destroyed by hurricanes and look guiltily at our air-conditioning units; the Supreme Court ruled one way in Bush v. Gore and now Ivanka Trump is acting as a diplomat in North Korea’s demilitarized zone. I have never been able to interest myself too much in the idea that we are living in a simulation, and yet the idea of cursed energy does evoke a feeling that the simulation is breaking, and that something terrible is emerging from the breach.
These are quite obviously cursed times: Donald Trump is somehow still the President; more than a quarter of the birds in North America have disappeared since 1970; and children keep having to take to the streets to plead with our lawmakers to protect their lives. But it is hard—given the sheer extent of what is crumbling around us, as well as the natural limits of our individual scopes of vision—to take in the fullness of contemporary cursedness all at once. It’s easier, perhaps, to see dread in individual objects: an eBay listing for a Sonic costume photographed on a child-size mannequin, a drawing of Mickey Mouse with a flesh-colored skull, holding a black ear-shaped cap, a photo of a brick of ramen being cooked in Mountain Dew. The affection among young people for the word “energy,” nearly always used with simultaneous irony and sincerity, suggests a latent desire both to summon and to mock a mystical explanation for the real. In the words of Democratic Presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, a “dark psychic force” is hovering over America. It’s kind of funny, this cursed feeling, or it’s kind of cursed that we need it to be funny.