As corrosive as it is to doomscroll our way through a global pandemic, there’s something uniquely disconcerting about those whose online presence remains unchanged. Perhaps some see it as an escape, but there’s no shortage of influencers online who continue to proliferate the internet with pictures of their idyllic, sun-dappled lives, as if hundreds of thousands of Americans aren’t dying amidst a health crisis needlessly exacerbated by a gutless administration.
But what’s worse? Complete indifference or passing nods to a national struggle? What’s someone paralyzed by fear and anxiety to make of posts celebrating the power of “positive thinking” alongside elegantly disheveled bedroom selfies? It was the latter, these cosmetic odes to an ill-defined struggle, that inspired #NeverAlone, an interactive horror narrative currently unfolding on Instagram.
Spearheaded by a trio of artists—actor Sabina Friedman-Seitz, writer Chloe Cole, and director Anna Miles—the narrative centers around an influencer, Cassandra Clemm, whose brand is intertwined with her reflections on mental health. But her sweaty need to, as Cole puts, “perform her ‘self,’” begins to manifest in some disconcerting ways through her posts, photos, and Stories. As Friedman-Seitz, Cole, and Miles note in an email interview with The A.V. Club, their goal is to “show the absurdity of [influencers’] performances and then continue to turn up the volume on the absurdity until it was monstrous and frightening.”
Some of the posts are funny. “Some of you know that I’m guilty of taking a lot of bathroom selfies. What you don’t know is bathrooms are where I retreat when I’m feeling overwhelmed,” reads one from last week. “It’s okay to retreat when you feel unsafe, my darling Heart Mates. And it’s also okay to take cute photos to cheer yourself up.” Accompanying captions include #authenticallyme and #realstagram.
But there’s something off about the later posts. “I feel like the world is filled with fear and anger and sadness right now,” she writes beside a photo of her younger self. “I used to be like this. Here’s a picture of me as a teenager, filled with all the negativity. But then I got help and now I know I’m not alone. You are all here with me. Remember, you’re never alone.” Complex emotions are boiled down to binary notions of positivity and negativity, while specifics regarding what “help” entails are left unaddressed.
#NeverAlone’s eerie undercurrent is teased via the account’s Stories, one of which features a Marble Hornets-esque scrap of found footage. Cassandra chalks it up as an “old video” that “probably posted on Instagram as a glitch,” but it’s safe to say there’s more where that came from.
“When we started to consciously examine Instagram, we grew more and more aware of how pervasive posts about ‘mental health’ were,” the trio said. “So many influencers share long essays detailing their mental health struggles. Often, these captions are accompanied by photos that remain highly stylized or curated. To pair a caption about the struggles of depression or anxiety with a beautiful photo rings false to us. It presents a skewed picture of what mental illness really looks like, and it glamorizes struggles with mental health.”
“Also,” they continued, “in compiling material, we recognized how repetitive and homogeneous the language was, which again seemed to undermine the earnestness of these discussions about mental health. The urge to satirize these posts was too strong. We couldn’t resist.”
But what they’re also interested in the follower’s relationship to the influencer. Cassandra’s commenters play their own role in the story, whether they’re aware the account is fiction or not. “[W]e are deeply frightened (and titillated) by the internet tendency to spiral into obsessive and conspiratorial thinking,” they tell us. “And we feel that now that we spend most of our days staring into screens, this urge has gone into hyperdrive. We wanted to examine how these conspiracies, which are often embedded in language of either deep concern or vitriolic criticism, reflect the relationship between followers and influencers. Do these conspiracies come from followers wanting to feel an inflated sense of intimacy with influencers, like they know something secret and private about them? Or do they come from followers feeling bored and purposeless and wanting desperately to imbue a meaningless thing with meaning?”
Much like Shudder’s recent horror hit, Host, #NeverAlone reflects the new modes of digital storytelling artists are embracing while in lockdown. “[W]e wanted to examine how to translate storytelling into a digital space in a way that not only unfolded online, but used the online forum itself as part of the storytelling,” they explain, noting that too many creators are still “fighting the digital form.”
“We wanted to fundamentally rethink the way a story could be performed, so that the experience suited and benefited from (and commented on) its online venue.”
#NeverAlone continues to unfold via Cassandra’s Instagram page. And it’s going to get much darker.