Darkened figures descend into the Chicago subway. Photograph: Clarissa Bonet
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Ruins of people’s lives

The shadowy subculture of gang stalking.

In 1919, the psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk published his famous paper “On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia”, in which he wrote about patients who believed they were under the control of malign technology beyond their understanding. Sometimes, they claimed, this technology would cause “erections and seminal emissions that are intended to deprive the patient of his male potency and weaken him”. In typical Viennese fashion, Tausk concluded that “the influencing apparatus is a representation of the patient’s genitalia projected to the outer world . . . a machine independent of the aims of the ego and subordinated to the foreign will”.

Right away, we might be reminded of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, in which Tyrone Slothrop may or may not have been secretly conditioned to get an erection every time a V-2 rocket is about to strike London. Yet to find more patients for Tausk, we don’t need to look to fiction. “At first I believed they could only terminate my erection, but recently I also started believing that they could create my erection,” writes the author of a recent blog about electromagnetic persecution by the government. “Often I am given erections in co-ordination with the brain butchery, and occasionally voided of semen,” writes another in the same field.      

Both these bloggers are part of an online community centred on a phenomenon called gang stalking. Gang stalking, according to one website:

. . is a covert investigation that is opened on an individual. The individual is then placed under overt and covert forms of surveillance. The person is followed around 24/7. Foot patrols and vehicle patrols are used to follow the individual around, as part of the monitoring process . . . The secondary goals seem to be to make the target homeless, jobless, give them a breakdown, and the primary goal seems to be to drive the target to forced suicide.

Gang stalking has been linked with, but doesn’t necessarily involve, remote mind control. No one has ever come forward as a perpetrator. But large numbers of people have come forward as victims.

Before the internet, if you had developed the belief that you’d been targeted in this way, you would have been isolated. Anyone hearing your story – whether a friend or a relation, or a doctor such as Tausk – would have tried to persuade you that you were suffering from paranoid delusions. But today you would find confirmation of your suspicions on dozens of websites, blogs and message boards. “When you read the methods used by gang stalkers to harass their victims,” writes one blogger, “it is helpful to know that the stories told by victims worldwide are remarkably consistent.”

You would also find information on developments similar to gang stalking that have been documented in the respectable media, such as a declassified Pentagon report on the “Bioeffects of selected non-lethal weapons” or Ealing Council signing up eight-year-olds as “Junior Streetwatchers”. You could even make some friends. In other words, you’d be part of a community – and, as the British psychiatrist Vaughan Bell points out in his paper “‘Mind control’ experiences on the internet”, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual stipulates that a belief cannot be classed as a delusion if it is “accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture”.

Reading about gang stalking online can be dispiriting, because one has the sense that someone such as Tausk really ought to be intervening. But I confess I also find it addictive. For instance, consider one blogger who believes even birds and animals are his enemies:

Birds, pigeons and crows, that can be controlled to fly (screaming) over me, to land in my garden when I walk into my kitchen and look outside, to crash into my kitchen window and car front window while driving. Birds, pigeons, that come sit, walk, on the roof of my house when I am upstairs having sex. Cats walking by like being programmed. Barking of dogs, flying away ducks etc, not by mind control but by beaming these animals with laser beams (directed energy weapons).

An entire menagerie of animal spies – if that isn’t in Pynchon, it should be. One might also recall Kafka or Don DeLillo, not to mention Mark Lombardi, the American artist whose work consisted of diagrams of various conspiracies involving the Vatican or the World Finance Corporation.

On another website, I found a collection of photographs of household objects – folding chairs, velcro straps, long underwear – that their owner believes to have been damaged during secret incursions into his home. The pictures have such eerie power that you could easily imagine them on a gallery wall next to a William Eggleston or a Laura Letin - sky. Elsewhere, the idea of harassment through the “everyday stimuli” of “red, white, yellow, strips, pens clicking, key jangling, loud coughing, loud whistling, loud smacking of clapping of hands together, cell phones, laptops, etc” evokes Sartre’s metaphysical nausea.

Still other online writers veer towards the psychedelic visions of Philip K Dick, proposing that the gang stalkers are really “lower astral entities, some aliens/non-humans, and Neg entities in general [who] are known to feed on the energies created by lower frequency emotions, since that’s what they resonate with, farming us for them in the same way we farm animals for their meat, milk, eggs and parts”, or, alternatively, normal humans wearing “frequency suits”, which “are invisible to the naked eye, but they seem to transport either your etheric layer, or another such layer from place to place”.

This is dangerous territory, however. Yes, there are precedents for appreciating the special energies we find in work by people who deviate from the psychological norm, going back to Hans Prinzhorn’s book Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922). After reading it, the painter Paul Klee wrote: “In our own time, worlds have opened up which not everybody can see into, although they too are part of nature. Perhaps it’s really true that only children, madmen and savages see into them” – a remark the open-mindedness of which is not quite enough to outweigh its condescension. At Lausanne’s Collection de l’Art Brut and London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital there are whole museums devoted to such art.

None of the people describing their gang stalking experiences on the internet think of themselves as making art, however. They are serious. They want their writing and photography to be taken seriously. In most cases it is harmless to aestheticise modes of expression that are not deliberately aesthetic, otherwise there could be no such thing as Pieces of Intelligence: the Existential Poetry of Donald H Rumsfeld. (And there are grey areas: although Henry Darger’s The Story of the Vivian Girls, one of the cornerstones of the very idea of outsider art, was certainly intended as a creative work, there is no reason to think it was ever intended for public consumption.)

But human misery is different. A comparison here might be what’s sometimes called “ruin porn”. I can spend hours looking at beautiful photographs of derelict houses in Detroit or condemned council estates in London, but at the back of my mind I feel guilty about it, because I’m aware that these aren’t just evocative scenery, they’re also places where people less fortunate than me actually had to sleep every night. Gang stalking websites, similarly, are the ruins of people’s lives and I shouldn’t be cruising them for ephemeral thrills. I feel the same way about a lot of amateur YouTube videos that go viral: some of those “zany characters” wouldn’t be behaving like that on camera if the US had a functional mental health-care system. This is what the philosopher Mark Reinhardt, in his essay on the idea of “beautiful suffering”, calls “a kind of morally obtuse obscuring or exploitation of pain”.

Gang stalking is more resonant than these other examples, because here we find ourselves counterpoising two different methods of making sense of the inferno in which we all live. To compare notes on gang stalking with like-minded strangers on the internet is to take part in an investigation, almost a forensic science, a project to expose what Pynchon calls “other orders below the visible”, instead of merely sitting in your house with the blinds closed because you’re worried that everyone is out to get you. And to appreciate the artefacts of this subculture on an aesthetic level is not only to look sidelong at despair: it is also to play on sensibilities that were first sharpened in us by the work of Pynchon, DeLillo, Dick and so on: writers who were themselves trying to confront a world so large, so secretive, so random, so pitiless that not much human feeling can survive in it.

These two postures differ in the important respect that one comes from a state of abjection and the other from one of literary privilege. All the same, they are both ways of coming to terms with life. I would like to say that in future I’ll spend less time on gang stalking websites, but my own work is so derivative of the aforementioned authors in its preoccupation with conspiracies that I will inevitably find myself going back to these sources to forage for inspiration. Then I will launder them in my work like dirty money. Perhaps the challenge, then, is to prove that an aesthetic attitude and an empathetic one need not be mutually exclusive – that even if I’m planning a novel about remote-control spy-ducks, I can forage and feel at the same time.

Ned Beauman’s latest novel is “The Teleportation Accident” (Sceptre, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

MARTIN O’NEILL
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The new young fogeys

Today’s teens and twentysomethings seem reluctant to get drunk, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Is abstinence the new form of youth rebellion?

In a University College London lecture theatre, all eyes are on an elaborate Dutch apple cake. Those at the back have stood up to get a better look. This, a chorus of oohs and aahs informs me, is a baked good at its most thrilling.

In case you were wondering, UCL hasn’t rented out a room to the Women’s Institute. All thirty or so cake enthusiasts here are undergraduates, aged between 18 and 21. At the third meeting this academic year of UCL’s baking society, the focus has shifted to a Tupperware container full of peanut butter cookies. One by one, the students are delivering a brief spiel about what they have baked and why.

Sarah, a 19-year-old human sciences undergraduate, and Georgina, aged 20, who is studying maths and physics, help run the baking society. They tell me that the group, which was set up in 2012, is more popular than ever. At the most recent freshers’ fair, more than 750 students signed up. To put the number in perspective: that is roughly 15 per cent of the entire first-year population. The society’s events range from Great British Bake Off-inspired challenges to “bring your own cake” gatherings, such as today’s. A “cake crawl”, I am told, is in the pipeline. You know, like a pub crawl . . . but with cake? Georgina says that this is the first year the students’ union has advertised specifically non-drinking events.

From the cupcake boom to the chart-topping eminence of the bow-tie-wearing, banjo-plucking bores Mumford & Sons, the past decade of youth culture has been permeated by wholesomeness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this movement is more than just aesthetic. Not only are teenage pregnancies at their lowest level since records began in the 1960s, but drug-taking, binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections among young people have also taken significant dives. Drug use among the under-25s has fallen by a quarter over the past ten years and heavy drinking – measured by how much a person drinks in an average week – is down by 15 per cent. Cigarettes are also losing their appeal, with under-25 smokers down by 10 per cent since 2001. Idealistic baby boomers had weed and acid. Disaffected and hedonistic Generation X-ers had Ecstasy and cocaine. Today’s youth (which straddles Generations Y and Z) have cake. So, what shaped this demographic that, fairly or otherwise, could be called “Generation Zzzz”?

“We’re a lot more cynical than other generations,” says Lucy, a 21-year-old pharmacy student who bakes a mean Welsh cake. “We were told that if we went to a good uni and got a good job, we’d be fine. But now we’re all so scared we’re going to be worse off than our parents that we’re thinking, ‘Is that how we should be spending our time?’”

“That” is binge drinking. Fittingly, Lucy’s dad – she tells me – was an anarchist with a Mohawk who, back home in the Welsh valleys, was known to the police. She talks with deserved pride about how he joined the Conservative Party just to make trouble and sip champagne courtesy of his enemies. Lucy, though decidedly Mohawk-free, is just as politically aware as her father. She is concerned that she will soon graduate into a “real world” that is particularly hard on women.

“Women used to be a lot more reliant on men,” she says, “but it’s all on our shoulders now. One wage isn’t enough to support a family any more. Even two wages struggle.”

***

It seems no coincidence that the downturn in drink and drugs has happened at the same time as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Could growing anxiety about the future, combined with a dip in disposable income, be taming the under-25s?

“I don’t know many people who choose drugs and alcohol over work,” says Tristan, a second-year natural scientist. He is one of about three men at the meeting and it is clear that even though baking has transcended age it has yet to transcend gender to the same extent. He is softly spoken and it is hard to hear him above a room full of sugar-addled youths. “I’ve been out once, maybe, in the past month,” he says.

“I actually thought binge drinking was quite a big deal for our generation,” says Tegan, a 19-year-old first-year linguistics undergraduate, “but personally I’m not into that. I’ve only been here three weeks and I can barely keep up with the workload.”

Tegan may consider her drinking habits unusual for someone her age but statistically they aren’t. Over a quarter of the under-25s are teetotal. Neither Tegan nor Lucy is dull. They are smart, witty and engaging. They are also enthusiastic and seemingly quite focused on work. It is this “get involved” attitude, perhaps, that distinguishes their generation from others.

In Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the 1990s, a lot of the humour stems from the relationship between the shallow and fashion-obsessed PR agent Edina Monsoon and her shockingly straitlaced teenage daughter, Saffie. Although Saffie belongs to Generation X, she is its antithesis: she is hard-working, moral, politically engaged, anti-drugs and prudishly anti-sex. By the standards of the 1990s, she is a hilarious anomaly. Had Ab Fab been written in the past couple of years, her character perhaps would have been considered too normal. Even her nerdy round glasses and frumpy knitted sweaters would have been considered pretty fashionable by today’s geek-chic standards.

Back in the UCL lecture theatre, four young women are “geeking out”. Between mouthfuls of cake, they are discussing, with palpable excitement, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp in Italy. “They play Quidditch and everything – there’s even a Sorting Hat,” says the tall, blonde student who is leading the conversation.

“This is for children, right?” I butt in.

“No!” she says. “The minimum age is actually 15.”

A kids’ book about wizards isn’t the only unlikely source of entertainment for this group of undergraduates. The consensus among all the students I speak to is that baking has become so popular with their demographic because of The Great British Bake Off. Who knew that Mary Berry’s chintzy cardigans and Sue Perkins’s endless puns were so appealing to the young?

Are the social and economic strains on young people today driving them towards escapism at its most gentle? Animal onesies, adult ball pools (one opened in west London last year) and that much-derided cereal café in Shoreditch, in the East End, all seem to make up a gigantic soft-play area for a generation immobilised by anxiety.

Emma, a 24-year-old graduate with whom I chatted on email, agrees. “It feels like everyone is more stressed and nervous,” she says. “It seems a particularly telling sign of the times that adult colouring-in books and little, cutesy books on mindfulness are such a massive thing right now. There are rows upon rows of bookshelves dedicated solely to all that . . . stuff.” Emma would know – she works for Waterstones.

From adult colouring books to knitting (UCL also has a knitting society, as do Bristol, Durham, Manchester and many more universities), it is hard to tell whether the tsunami of tweeness that has engulfed middle-class youth culture in the past few years is a symptom or a cause of the shrinking interest in drugs, alcohol, smoking and other “risk-taking” behaviours.

***

Christine Griffin is Professor of Social Psychology at Bath University. For the past ten years, she has been involved in research projects on alcohol consumption among 18-to-25-year-olds. She cites the recession as a possible cause of alcohol’s declining appeal, but notes that it is only part of the story. “There seems to be some sort of polarisation going on,” Griffin says. “Some young people are actually drinking more, while others are drinking less or abstaining.

“There are several different things going on but it’s clear that the culture of 18-to-25-year-olds going out to get really drunk hasn’t gone away. That’s still a pervasive social norm, even if more young people are drinking less or abstaining.”

Griffin suggests that while frequent, sustained drinking among young people is in decline, binge drinking is still happening – in short bursts.

“There are still a lot of people going to music festivals, where a huge amount of drinking and drug use goes on in a fairly unregulated way,” she says. It is possible that music festivals and holidays abroad (of the kind depicted in Channel 4 programmes such as What Happens in Kavos, in which British teenagers leave Greek islands drenched in booze and other bodily fluids) are seen as opportunities to make a complete escape from everyday life. An entire year’s worth of drinking, drug-taking and sex can be condensed into a week, or even a weekend, before young people return to a life centred around hard work.

Richard De Visser, a reader in psychology at Sussex University, also lists the economy as a possible cause for the supposed tameness of the under-25s. Like Griffin, however, he believes that the development is too complex to be pinned purely on a lack of disposable income. Both Griffin and De Visser mention that, as Britain has become more ethnically diverse, people who do not drink for religious or cultural reasons – Muslims, for instance – have become more visible. This visibility, De Visser suggests, is breaking down taboos and allowing non-mainstream behaviours, such as not drinking, to become more socially accepted.

“There’s just more variety,” he says. “My eldest son, who’s about to turn 14, has conversations – about sexuality, for example – that I never would’ve had at his age. I think there’s more awareness of alcohol-related problems and addiction, too.”

De Visser also mentions the importance of self-image and reputation to many of the young non-drinkers to whom he has spoken. These factors, he argues, are likely to be more important to people than the long-term effects of heavy drinking. “One girl I interviewed said she wouldn’t want to meet the drunk version of herself.”

Jess, a self-described “granny”, is similarly wary of alcohol. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who works in marketing, makes a bold claim for someone her age. “I’ve never really been drunk,” she says. “I’ve just never really been bothered with alcohol or drugs.” Ironically, someone of her generation, according to ONS statistics, is far more likely to be teetotal than a real granny at any point in her life. Jess says she enjoys socialising but her nights out with close friends are rather tame – more likely to involve dinner and one quick drink than several tequila shots and a traffic cone.

It is possible, she suggests, that her lack of interest in binge drinking, or even getting a little tipsy, has something to do with her work ethic. “There’s a lot more competition now,” she says. “I don’t have a degree and I’m conscious of the need to be on top of my game to compete with people who do. There’s a shortage of jobs even for people who do have degrees.”

Furthermore, Jess says that many of her interactions with friends involve social media. One theory put forward to explain Generation Zzzz is that pubs are losing business to Facebook and Twitter as more and more socialising happens online. Why tell someone in person that you “like” their baby, or cat, or new job (probably over an expensive pint), when you can do so from your sofa, at the click of a button?

Hannah, aged 22, isn’t so sure. She recently started her own social media and communications business and believes that money, or the lack of it, is why her peers are staying in. “Going out is so expensive,” she says, “especially at university. You can’t spend out on alcohol, then expect to pay rent and fees.” Like Jess (and as you would probably expect of a 22-year-old who runs a business), Hannah has a strong work ethic. She also has no particular interest in getting wasted. “I’ve always wanted my own business, so for me everything else was just a distraction,” she says. “Our generation is aware it’s going to be a bit harder for us, and if you want to support yourself you have to work for it.” She also suggests that, these days, people around her age have more entrepreneurial role models.

I wonder if Hannah, as a young businesswoman, has been inspired by the nascent strand of free-market, “lean in” feminism. Although the women’s movement used to align itself more with socialism (and still does, from time to time), it is possible that a 21st-century wave of disciples of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is forswearing booze, drugs and any remote risk of getting pregnant, in order to get ahead in business.

But more about sex. Do the apparently lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies suggest that young people are having less of it? In the age of Tinder, when hooking up with a stranger can be as easy as ordering a pizza, this seems unlikely. Joe Head is a youth worker who has been advising 12-to-21-year-olds in the Leighton Buzzard area of Bedfordshire on sexual health (among other things) for 15 years. Within this period, Head says, the government has put substantial resources into tackling drug use and teen pregnancy. Much of this is the result of the Blair government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of 2003, which was directed at improving the health and well-being of children and young adults.

“ECM gave social services a clearer framework to access funds for specific work around sexual health and safety,” he says. “It also became a lot easier to access immediate information on drugs, alcohol and sexual health via the internet.”

***

Head also mentions government-funded education services such as Frank – the cleverly branded “down with the kids” anti-drugs programme responsible for those “Talk to Frank” television adverts. (Remember the one showing bags of cocaine being removed from a dead dog and voiced by David Mitchell?)

But Head believes that the ways in which some statistics are gathered may account for the apparent drop in STIs. He refers to a particular campaign from about five years ago in which young people were asked to take a test for chlamydia, whether they were sexually active or not. “A lot of young people I worked with said they did multiple chlamydia tests throughout the month,” he says. The implication is that various agencies were competing for the best results in order to prove that their education programmes had been effective.

However, regardless of whether govern­ment agencies have been gaming the STI statistics, sex education has improved significantly over the past decade. Luke, a 22-year-old hospital worker (and self-described “boring bastard”), says that sex education at school played a “massive part” in his safety-conscious attitude. “My mother was always very open [about sex], as was my father,” he says. “I remember talking to my dad at 16 about my first serious girlfriend – I had already had sex with her by this point – and him giving me the advice, ‘Don’t get her pregnant. Just stick to fingering.’” I suspect that not all parents of millennials are as frank as Luke’s, but teenagers having sex is no longer taboo.

Luke’s attitude towards drugs encapsulates the Generation Zzzz ethos beautifully: although he has taken MDMA, he “researched” it beforehand. It is this lack of spontaneity that has shaped a generation of young fogeys. This cohort of grannies and boring bastards, of perpetual renters and jobseekers in an economy wrecked by less cautious generations, is one that has been tamed by anxiety and fear.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war