#74: What makes an image “cursed”?
Maybe Baby is a free Sunday newsletter. If you love it, consider supporting it financially. For $5/mo, you’ll gain access to my weekly recommendations, my monthly Q&A column, & my weekly podcast. Maybe Baby is reader-supported, hence the lack of ads and sponsors. Thank you!
My current petty dilemma is I can’t decide whether to join a coworking space I toured the other day because I’m not sure if I liked it or if it just smelled good, and there is a non-zero chance I was just smelling the cologne of my tour guide...much to think about. Should I join your coworking space? Does it smell good? Lmk.
A couple weeks ago I read an article called “Nameless Feeling” by Ludwig Yeetgenstein for Real Life Magazine and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The piece is about the proliferation of ‘vibes’—not just as a term, but as an organizing principle—and what it means that, as a culture, we’ve become more interested in group identification versus specificity. In Yeetgenstein's view, the framing of things by the general mood they evoke, or the group that likes them, is reductive. It discourages “the more difficult work of interpretation and the search for meaning that defines human experience.” When I started reading the article, I wasn’t convinced ‘vibes’ had much to do with anything, and by the end I was sure it had a lot to do with everything, which I think means it’s good.
My relationship with the term ‘vibes’ follows the hero’s journey of internet slang: At first I found it cringe, then I started using it ironically, and now I use it so frequently it is either fully earnest or at least post-ironic. Some uses were always annoying (“Good Vibes” neons hanging in fake-hip coffee shops), and now the term is nearing death-by-saturation regardless of context, but I stand by the inherent comedic value of connecting two disparate things very quickly. ‘Vibes’ does this well, i.e. this lamp has Titanic vibes; your mom has outdoor-patio vibes; his apartment has murder vibes. The term opens up a world of referential possibilities, or at times requires none at all: “You know the vibes,” my brother will text me with a screenshot showing he’s listening to Blink182 at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning. It's a linguistic lubricant, freeing you up from having to explain yourself further. This is why it’s funny, and also, per the article, why it’s limiting.
Yeetgenstein posits that when we fail to interrogate why we think and feel certain ways, or like and dislike certain things, we risk missing the insight. Perhaps I was drawn to this hypothesis because it’s essentially an endorsement for writing. It made me think of Molly Fischer’s early 2020 piece about the millennial aesthetic. Pastel ceramics, big leafy plants, terrazzo coffee tables—we all knew the vibe, so to speak, and yet it was satisfying for someone to attempt to describe and analyze it. It took her many thousands of words, but in the end she succeeded in gleaning an insight: “We have lived through a moment in which design came to seem like something besides what it was, like a business model or a virtue or a consolation prize. The sense of safety promised in its soft, clean forms begins to look less optimistic than naïve.”
For his own attempt at specificity, Yeetgenstein connects the ‘vibes’ zeitgeist to the evolution of artificial intelligence. Specifically, the way that the flow of information now follows a mysterious set of rules, by way of algorithms, in lieu of more descriptive or obvious parameters. Consider the Spotify algorithm, serving up music perfectly tailored to your nameless taste, or else curated for a specific mood. Here are five popular Spotify-created playlists at random: “Wake Up Happy,” “Get Chores Done,” “Your Favorite Coffeehouse,” “My Life Is a Movie,” and simply: “aesthetic,” which is apparently “for people who appreciate a curated mood🌸.” As for what type of mood, that is unspecified. Since joining Spotify, I’ve become both exposed to more artists I love and less clear on how to describe them.
“Explanations are unnecessary,” writes Yeetgenstein, “it’s seen as enough to just recognize a desired mood or feeling.” The problem, naturally, is that “these systems can only instrumentalize taste; they turn any expression of self into a reductive data point meant to generate more data at the same level.” The goal is almost always to sell us more stuff, so we can, in turn, better cultivate our vibes, and the cycle continues.
One element this theory fails to account for is the basic human draw towards the unexplainable. Take, for instance, my affection for the term cursed, which I started using after discovering the Twitter account @cursedimages in 2016. Now defunct, the account posted random unsettling photos from all over the internet with no descriptions. The lack of context was the point: Viewers immediately understood why an image was cursed. And like a joke, it was better left unexplained. But Yeetgenstein has me wondering if we’ve missed something in that process: “The vibes framework may hone our abilities to identify settings like ‘cozy’ or ‘cursed,’” he writes, “but it doesn’t give instructions on how we might build them or avoid them in our lives.” I don’t necessarily want to create cursed images (lol) or even avoid them (in fact I love them), but I am curious as to why they have so thoroughly captured a generation of terminally online people. And so I’ve decided to put his idea to the test.
It feels almost sacrilegious to define what makes an image cursed. It will certainly make the images less funny. But for the sake of interpretation, I volunteer. To do this I’ve scrolled through tens if not hundreds of cursed images, in addition to revisiting the many cursed images in my camera roll, which I cherish. After much deliberation I’ve determined most cursed images contain at least one of five features, and they are thus:
Something where it doesn’t belong
“Something where it doesn’t belong” is a preeminent quality of a cursed image. Unless there are real consequences, it is funny to have your expectations violated. Food is particularly potent in this category as we typically go to great lengths to protect it and keep it clean. There is simply not a single scenario in which an egg should be near a sewing machine. Not one! This cursed quality follows the Benign Violation Theory, which says we laugh when something seems wrong or unsettling but is actually benign. This is why I have a group chat dedicated entirely to spotting empty beverage bottles around New York that are filled with urine.
Tonal incongruity between the subject(s) and impact of the image
This one was harder to nail down—how to describe why it’s funny when a family dresses up as The Simpsons and poses unhappily together on a couch? The details are funny (the sub-par costuming, the reluctant teenager) but most important is the narrative implied: a family’s attempt to document a light-hearted family costume, ultimately in direct conflict with its depressing effect. Same goes for a clown smiling with a crying child, a panoramic-photo-gone-wrong of an infant crawling, or a nun smiling excitedly into the camera, eyes lit up like Satan. Perhaps in these cursed images we see our own failed attempts to deliver on our ideas, and laugh in recognition.
The concept of the “uncanny valley” was first described by robotics professor Masahiro Mori to describe an “eerie or unsettling feeling that people experience in response to not-quite-human figures.” In this case I am extending it to anything that looks not-quite-right, like a hairless dog with a patchy beard, a Disney star posing awkwardly with spaghetti in her bare hand, or a naked man photoshopped into a photo of a lightning storm. The question these images pose is: What am I looking at? Or more existentially: Why? There is, of course, no answer, as in life itself.
Creatures in groups
Creatures in groups are terrifying for obvious reasons. They convey a sense of invasion or infestation. Even the most docile being, like say, a furby, is foreboding in the form of a collective, as we imagine being mobbed and attacked by them in aggregate. It doesn’t matter if the group is smiling or not smiling (see above; both are awful)—the issue is the overall effect of being overtaken. These images are thus cursed.
Meat out of context
Meat is, in a word, grotesque. Photos of meat even slightly out of context tend to be cursed because they remind us of our own corporal and dietary grotesqueness, in the face of which we have no choice but to laugh or, more simply, perish.
All images, with the exception of ❤️pig-dog❤️, pulled from @cursedimages, where, much like the rest of the cursed internet, absolutely nothing is attributed.
Taking these five features at face value, there are some clear connections between them and the general pathos of modern life. There is the overwhelm of mass media, jamming myriad things together that have nothing to do with each other (friends’ baby updates next to news of genocide next to ads for fat-reduction surgery). There’s disgust with our own fraudulence and over-consumption on social media. There’s our general sense of meaninglessness and purposelessness as work and community become increasingly abstract, life increasingly digital. There’s our alienation from optimism as we hurtle towards climate disaster. There’s the spectre of surveillance, not unlike a gang of watchful Ronald McDonalds. And maybe most fittingly, as the internet invites near-constant context collapse, there’s our sense of futility in making sense of anything at all. Perhaps we love and hate cursed images, then, because we love and hate our cursed selves.
“Whether things change or evolve remains up to us,” Yeetgenstein concludes in his piece. “We are beginning to see what it’s like when things don’t.” He wasn’t talking about cursed images, but it makes me laugh to imagine he was. Through unpacking these nasty little photos, I see what he means about the power of specificity. And even though my insights gained are a bit grim, I’m somewhat touched by the brute resilience they suggest. I can’t help but be impressed that we’ve taken the above conditions and created something funny. Like a pack of dirty raccoons turned simultaneously towards a harsh flash, cursed images are living proof that sometimes it’s worth it to stare straight into the void.
Pick of the week: “The Author, the Work, and the No. 1 Fan,” an essay by Kristen Roupenian that I read kind of randomly but ended up loving (I think it was linked somewhere in the kidney discourse? lol. But it’s not about that at all). “I wanted to be loved for being perfect, which meant that the last thing I wanted was to be seen.”
Runner-up: Rice-a-Roni, chicken and garlic flavor. My feedback for society is we don’t talk enough about how good Rice-a-Roni is.
Pic of the week: This hazard poster spotted in a Brooklyn coffee shop. I kept imagining something choking in the cafe while another person squinted at the cursive on this aesthetic chart trying to learn the Heimlich on the fly.
Hope that’s a good place to end. Thanks for reading!
This month a portion of subscriber proceeds will be redistributed to Make the Road New York, the largest progressive grassroots immigrant-led organization in New York state, focusing on issues like education, housing, immigration, policing, and labor justice.