By Deidre Olsen
If you were online in 2004, you might remember Salad Fingers, the disturbing video series from which countless millennial teenagers simply couldn’t look away. As a green, deranged long-fingered creature with an addiction to rusty spoons and finger-puppet friends, Salad Fingers navigates a surrealist and nightmarish dystopian world. Viewers are often as equally horrified as they are intrigued. Some saw the animations as meaningless, others devoted entire YouTube series to deriving meaning from the madness. Were there Easter eggs left behind for viewers to decode or were the animations just an experimental exploration of the bizarre?
Regardless of what Salad Fingers is or what you make of it, the video series undoubtedly embodies “cursed energy,” a term used for content so eerie, unbelievable, or unsettling that people can’t stop consuming it. In 2016, the Twitter account @cursedimages was created to curate a hellscape of a feed filled with strange, unsightly, and ghoulish photos. Some of these images included a baby laughing behind a meat grinder, a dad using a chainsaw to cut a cake as children watch, and a person wrapped from head-to-toe in duct tape like a mummy, just to name a few. After racking up more than 150,000 followers, the account mysteriously stopped tweeting in November 2017.
In an October 2019 article for the New Yorker, writer Jia Tolentino ponders just how we came to live in such “cursed times.” In her view, the word “cursed” doesn’t just describe creepy images anymore, but has become an intrinsic part of online vernacular, to the extent that it’s now used to describe the actual state of living and existing in the world. “The word has acquired new valences, has come to signify increasingly generalized feelings of anxiety and malaise,” writes Tolentino. “We must be cursed, one would think, to spend so much of our day walking around with our eyes glued to a device that provokes bad feelings.”
Indeed, smart-phone-induced misery is in no short supply these days. In 2017, the American Psychological Association (APA) released the results of a survey about stress in the United States, finding that “news consumption has a downside.” More than half of respondents (56%) said that while they want to stay informed of the news, doing so causes them stress. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many people also reported general feelings of anxiety, stress, and loss of sleep. Despite this, 95 per cent of adults surveyed told the APA that they follow the news regularly. Nine percent check the news hourly, while 20 per cent check their social media constantly. Given the apparent relationship between news consumption and mental health, it becomes easier to understand how we’ve come to live in a cursed world.
Not everyone can handle being constantly ‘online’ and the associated never-ending barrage of negative content that constitutes the 24/7 news cycle. With real-time access to information about every tragic event on the planet, it’s not uncommon to feel perpetually overwhelmed and hopeless. Maybe Salad Fingers was onto something: Was it, perhaps, a projection of the post-9/11 era or an early warning sign of the cursed times to come? Regardless, in these cursed times, it takes a concerted effort to ‘log off’ from the negativity and jump headfirst into a wholesome escape.
If ever there were a wholesome-content icon, it would be Bob Ross, who famously said “We don’t make mistakes here, just happy accidents.” In his PBS series “The Joy of Painting,” Ross’s gentle demeanor and soft voice make the art form accessible to viewers, encouraging them to not fuss over minor blunders but to simply enjoy the creative process.
Nearly 25 years after his death, Ross remains beloved around the world, with his show available to millions on-demand via the streaming platforms Netflix and YouTube. It’s a meditative experience to watch Ross paint, whether you want to mentally check out, become enthralled by simple pleasures, indulge your curiosity about painting, or all of the above.
In its classic forms, wholesome content means babies, animals, family reunions, Bob Ross videos, and so on. It tugs on the heartstrings, brings happy tears to our eyes, and makes us forget the constant pessimism that constitutes the online world. Amidst the nihilism of ‘cursed images,’ it’s beautiful to know that a subgenre of internet content dedicated to goodness exists. While cursed content beckons you to stare into the depths of despair, wholesome content invites you in for a lovely, hearty meal with friends.
There’s a reason why many millennials fondly remember spending hours fishing in Ocarina of Time, cultivating a farm in Harvest Moon, or making friends in Animal Crossing. These virtual experiences are wholesome and filled with sweet, pure moments that make us feel good inside. It’s a relief to escape into the daily life of a humble farmer, cultivating thriving crops and caring for happy farm animals. This is part of the reason why the 2016 farm simulator Stardew Valley was such a massive success, as it evoked nostalgia for its predecessor Harvest Moon.
In a 2018 Polygon piece, author Mike Sholars writes about how Animal Crossing helped him through a major depressive episode in high school, during a roller coaster of hormones and cyberbullying. He says the game perfectly sums up what he calls “nicecore” or a genre dedicated to being “unrelentingly nice.” Sholars draws on the beauty of a game, wherein the player is part of a small town community of animals and spends time “harvesting fruit, paying off personal debt to an enterprising raccoon, and delaying your Saturday night plans to make sure you can watch a dog play guitar.” Overall, Sholars says, the endgame is to be happy.
Sholars recalls sending letters to virtual characters in his town about how sad, lonely, and suicidal he was in real life. In return, he’d receive carpets and shirts from these anthropomorphic animals. Animal Crossing is played in real-time, meaning an hour in the game is the same as an hour in the real world. So, when Sholars wasn’t feeling well enough to play, he would still be held accountable by in-game friends, who would check in after not hearing from him for a couple of days. In this way, the game’s “commitment to niceness makes it an oasis of positivity in an increasingly reactionary and fragmented media landscape,” says Sholars.
Whether you refer to it as wholesome content or ‘nicecore,’ escaping into a virtual world where kindness and compassion exist in large quantities is one way to grapple with mental illness and grief. In an episode of Gimlet’s “Reply All” podcast, a black woman named Autumn recalls how The Sims helped her navigate her struggles — from years spent living in a rough neighborhood to a challenging relationship with her mother, from high-school bullying to the passing of her beloved grandmother.
Of course, people can be quite cruel when playing The Sims. As the invisible masters of fictional human beings, some even purposefully cause their subjects to die painfully. But for thirteen-year-old Autumn, the game was a virtual dollhouse, a place where she could tend to people’s needs and help them live long, happy, normal, boring lives. “I can do this. I can be happy. I can do something. I can change things,” Autumn told “Reply All.” “And it gave me a sense of power that I guess I didn’t have otherwise.”
Eventually, Autumn found a website for black players to share resources, like advice on how to modify the game to customize different hairstyles and clothes beyond the few Eurocentric options available. This allowed her to make her virtual rendition of real life more authentic. What’s more, she learned how to “turn off” the aging mechanism so she could enjoy the presence of her grandmother in perpetuity. In The Sims, Autumn could randomly run into her grandmother in the park or sit with her at home on a big wooden swing. One day, Autumn decided to “turn on” the aging mechanism again, as she was finally ready to grieve her grandmother’s passing.
“Nicecore” is rooted in the “wholesome” and the “pure.” These are words that, decades ago, were synonymous with sexual chastity, and conjured up images of white middle-class families and their white-picket-fenced homes. But today, these terms — now associated with progressive values like kindness and compassion — have become aspirational in our world of political unrest, poverty, oppression, and war.
Wholesomeness gives people back their agency, spurring them to action by reinvigorating their genuine desire to make the world a better place. Cursedness, by contrast, is a dead-end (albeit an understandable response) — it’s an ethos that says life is meaningless and therefore, the world’s destructive forces are unstoppable, let alone overcomable. Wholesome content is a response to and an escape from a cursed world where everything is hopeless and nothing matters.