Paranormal trends are being turbocharged by a human anxiety about AI
The three decades or so of digital folklore have offered up urban legends shared by chain mail, creepypastas, NoSleep stories from Reddit, scary mods, and now spooky TikToks. Again and again, one theme resurfaces: mimicry. Mimics in the online world are paranormal entities, like doppelgangers or skinwalkers, which disguise themselves as something or someone you trust. In Navajo legend, skinwalkers are witches who shapeshift into animals, like deer or coyotes; doppelgangers, on the other hand, are said to appear as family members. Each expression of the mimic has its own nuances, but they all tap into the same fear: looks can be deceiving.
Though the digital mimic has long existed, the practice has recently become more prominent. At the beginning of the year, there was the “doppelganger trend” on TikTok, where people made videos, usually 30-second skits, around a voice clip saying, “If you see another person that looks identical to you, run away and hide.” Though this format has come and gone, a scroll through TikTok these days will eventually see you run into a story about a dad-who-wasn’t-actually-a-dad or a husband-who-wasn’t-a-husband. Everyone has a story about how they were sure they were talking to someone — only to find out they’d been “duped” by a nefarious spirit which was only mimicking that person.
Part of the reason mimics scare us is because we see ourselves reflected in them, and realise we are not as unique as we thought. In a world where many of us are desperately searching for ways to differentiate ourselves, this can be truly terrifying. But on another level, the Internet has always sparked (well-founded) fears about being deceived in some way. Old-school chatroom stranger danger, a too-convincing chatbot, catfishing, scams: all of these very real fears are downstream of danger being blurred by technology.
This has arguably always been a fear with communications technology: once we were able to communicate instantaneously and without having to see one another, a whole world of possibility opened up around deception. And such deception may not only come from lying to one another in our own world but also from spirits in other realms. There’s a reason that Spiritualists were so attracted to the telegraph, which they believed connected them to an “electronic elsewhere”, or the “etheric ocean”. All communication technology — a computer, a telegraph, a telephone — is a Ouija board for some people (at least if you squint hard enough).
This year, the danger of artificial intelligence has received more attention than ever before, and this fear has taken on new salience online. Not only do we now fear what we cannot see on the other end, but the reassurance we once had that we are communicating with another human being has been completely obliterated.
No longer merely a matter of if and when, AI became accessible to anyone who wanted to use it. Just this week, the New York Times published a startling article titled “Voice Deepfakes Are Coming for your Bank Balance”, something that almost felt like an urban legend itself when relayed on social media, like in this TikTok from CBC News.
With this technology, the mimic trended once more: the spirit that pretends to be someone you love, but which is something much more sinister. You don’t know what it is and you don’t know how it works, and therein lies its danger. What is the fear of a mimic if not the sublimated fear of technology?