“Dear David found me, I think”: the lure (and ethics) of Twitter ghost stories

Inspiring fans and causing anxiety attacks, horror stories are unfolding in real time online.

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For the last three months, thousands of people have been watching a ghost story unravel in real time. Instead of turning on the TV or opening a book to discover the latest chapter in a thrilling tale, they are logging onto Twitter to get updated on The Haunting of Adam Ellis. Since 7 August 2017, the New York-based illustrator has been describing visits by the ghost of a small boy with a misshapen head – “Dear David”.

“I'm frozen with fear,” reads a typical update from Ellis, who has recounted speaking with Dear David and experiencing objects moving in his apartment, as well as unusual behaviour from his cats and mysterious phone calls from an unknown number. Each of these experiences has been shared incrementally on Twitter, with updates even making headlines on the websites of The Mirror, The Sun, and the Mail.

Many online believe Dear David is real – many more do not even need to look to say that he is not. But whether it is fact or fiction, Ellis’ haunting is still a story.

***

At the start of his vacation, Manuel Bartual had 16,000 Twitter followers – but by the end, he had nearly half a million. “Everything was going fine until some weird stuff started to happen,” was Bartual’s first tweet about his holiday, posted on 21 August 2017.

A tall, skinny man was waiting in Bartual’s hotel room, his story goes. This man spoke rapid Spanish, but said words in the wrong order “like Yoda”. He grabbed Bartual by the arm. When he finally left, Bartual – scared – visited reception and asked them to watch out for the man. The next day, he went to breakfast. When he returned to his room, a pencil had been left on his bathroom floor.

A few days later, Bartual had discovered that there was a man who looked exactly like him roaming around his resort. His favourite t-shirt had been stolen, and a message had been written in pencil on the toilet paper in his bathroom. “You are in danger,” it said.

A day or so later, he looked out of his hotel window. The second Manuel was standing in the street, looking up at his balcony.

Bartual’s story kept his Twitter followers captivated for a week.

***

“It was all made up,” was one of Bartual’s final posts, after he had sent hundreds of tweets detailing the discovery of his doppelganger, “the other Manuel”. Each tweet gained thousands of retweets, and each was translated into English by another kindly Twitter user (Bartual had originally tweeted the story in his native Spanish).

“I think if Orson Welles had told his version of The War of the Worlds in 2017 instead of 1938, he would have used Twitter instead of the radio,” Bartual tells me when I ask about his story. His ghost story was semi-planned and semi-improvised, but he always knew he would tell it over seven days. “I felt that telling it over a week would allow me to add a crescendo of suspense, day by day.”

Adam Ellis and Manuel Bartual’s Twitter threads are a modern form of storytelling. The suspense of waiting for an update keeps followers hooked, while the neatness of 140 characters allows for more cliff-hangers than any reasonable literary editor would normally allow. Does this make them somehow a lower form of culture than the works of Gothic authors?

“Both traditional and Twitter ghost stories rely more on suspense than on direct scares, violence, gore, or anything resembling Lovecraftian horror,” says Debbie Felton, a Classics professor who studies ghost stories from antiquity. “Twitter lends itself especially well to suspense… You know that a film will wrap up within a couple of hours but with Twitter ghost stories, you have no idea how long they might last.”  

Felton believes Bartual’s story is reminiscent of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, but notes how the use of film in his and Ellis’ threads emulate the “found video footage” genre seen in 1999’s The Blair Witch Project and 2007’s Paranormal Activity. She believes that the dichotomy between “high” and “low” culture is unhelpful, and describes Twitter ghost stories as an “emergent narrative genre” that may or may not last.

But whether or not they are lowbrow is not the most pressing question about Twitter ghost stories. After Bartual told his thousands of followers that his story was faked, something unusual happened. Hundreds of people refused to believe him, instead claiming that the “other Manuel” had got hold of his Twitter account and was lying.

When people become so invested in an online ghost story, with some even having anxiety attacks, another question emerges. Are these stories ethical?

***

On 31 May 2014, two 12-year-old girls lured their friend into the woods and one stabbed her 19 times.

The preteens were attempting to impress “Slender Man”, a fictional character with unnaturally long arms and a featureless face. Slender Man stars in “creepypastas” – online horror stories that are copied and pasted throughout the internet. During a sleepover the night before the stabbing, the two girls had read about Slender Man online. They believed that if they murdered someone – anyone – they would be allowed to live in Slender Man’s palace.

“This case was a horrific example of readers not understanding that creepypasta was fiction,” says Felton. After the incident, some creepypastas featured warnings that the stories were fiction, or at least that they did “not endorse or advocate for killing, worship, and otherwise replication of rituals of fictional works”.

Though nothing tragic has happened as a result of Dear David or the Two Manuels, Felton notes that there are ethical difficulties when readers believe the stories are real. “Both Adam Ellis and Manuel Bartual allude to messages supposedly received by readers concerned about the authors’ well-being,” she says, referring to tweets sent to the authors pleading them to leave their respective apartment and hotel.

“What if a nervous reader were convinced and concerned enough to, say, call the police to report that Adam Ellis was in danger?” she muses (as of yet, it appears this hasn’t actually happened).

This ethical dilemma is exacerbated by the fact Ellis sometimes doesn’t tweet for weeks on end. Ruth Robbins, an English lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, notes how this differs from traditional stories which unfold in retrospect. “That sense of something happening in real time means that we don’t have the traditional reassurance that the narrator has survived the experience,” she says.

Still, she notes that ghost stories have a long tradition of pretending to be true. “I think we are particularly sensitive to this issue at this moment in history because of the accusations that fly around about ‘fake news’,” she says. “On Twitter, when reading other people’s accounts, a significant pinch of salt is – for once – actually the healthy option.”

***

Adam Ellis does not want to comment on Dear David. He tells me (nicely) that he is holding off on interviews “for the time being”. This suggests to non-believers that he has a grand, planned finale – and to believers that he is busy dealing with his boy ghost.

Bartual, however, is thrilled to talk about his story, which has become a phenomenon in Spain. “My goal was to have a good time telling a story in a different format and in a different medium from the ones I use regularly,” he explains.

When I ask about ethics, Bartual says he believes his story didn’t cause “real harm”.

“The worst thing that can happen to that person is that he realises that maybe he should not believe all the information that comes to him, or at least without questioning or checking the sources. It encourages you to develop more critical thinking,” he says. He believes the story helped people come together and created a brief, but powerful, community.

“I discovered that many people activated the notifications of my Twitter account, which made them receive every new tweet on their mobile phones as if it were a WhatsApp message or something like that. As if the story was telling them directly, as if Manuel was a friend.”

***

Perhaps Adam Ellis has a book deal. Perhaps he’s launching a new comic, or a TV show. Perhaps Dear David will kill him in his sleep. Regardless of whether Twitter ghost stories are true, there’s no denying that they engage people as though they are. You can feel your heart pound as you read each new tweet, your palms begin to sweat as you click refresh for the latest instalment.

Ellis and Bartual’s readers are undeniably engaged, so much so that The Sun can run headlines like: “Is flat owner ‘haunted’ by Dear David ghost child actually being terrorised by the spirit of a Japanese statue?”

Does this engagement mean we have stumbled upon a new literary phenomenon, worthy of study?

Ruth Robbins, the English lecturer at Leeds, believes these stories will only continue to evolve as their authors learn how to be more efficient storytellers. But there are problems. “The problem Twitter storytellers may have is one that’s common to all digital media. The medium itself is ephemeral,” she warns. “I don’t just mean that a post can be here today and gone tomorrow. I also mean this very medium will eventually be superseded.”

In order for these stories to last, they may need to borrow at least one thing from their historical counterparts: paper.

Yet regardless of whether his story lasts, Bartual had a good time telling it.

“When the story ended, the trending topic that showed up in Spain was #ThanksManuel with followers thanking me how much they had enjoyed. It was very exciting,” he says. “A lot of people wrote to me privately to tell me that my story had encouraged them to tell their own stories and think of different ways to do it than the usual. To have managed to provoke all of this in people is one of the things that I will remember most.”

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh