14 min read

The Despair Meme and the Hell Gate (Randonautica Series)

A look at memetics and the idea of the despair meme in Randonautica. In particular, I talk about some weird stuff that happened to me at New York City’s Hell Gate, examine its relationship to randonauting, and see whether my experiences could be tied in with the despair meme.
The Despair Meme and the Hell Gate (Randonautica Series)

The Despair Meme and the Hell Gate: A look at memetics and the idea of the despair meme in Randonautica. In particular, I talk about some weird stuff that happened to me at New York City’s Hell Gate, examine its relationship to randonauting, and see whether my experiences could be tied in with the despair meme.

Highlights include:

  • An attempt at explaining memetics
  • A possible initiation experience
  • Ghost-transmitted memes?

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Episode Script for The Despair Meme and the Hell Gate (Randonautica Series)

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

Memetics

  • Let’s talk about memetics. This is a concept that I still struggle to understand. But it’s been popping up a lot in different things I’ve been reading, including The Official Guide to Randonautica, and it has some bearing on randonauting, so I want to spend some time with the idea here.
  • So, first, let’s get the obvious out of the way. The first thing I think of when I hear “memetics” is “memes.” 
    • I think everyone listening to this podcast knows what an internet meme is, but just in case: I’d describe it as a popular format of telling jokes online, where text is placed on top of an image to convey a message that’s typically funny. You’ll see the same images circulating over and over, with different text superimposed. Check out the website Know Your Meme (https://knowyourmeme.com/) to if you want to see a bunch of memes. 
    • But it seems that the images we typically call memes online are really more accurately described as “image macros.” So they’re more like a subtype of Internet meme, and technically you could consider anything that’s going viral as a meme, like a phrase or idea or video or maybe even a creepypasta like Slender Man.
    • So if an internet meme is something that’s spread through the internet, a meme is basically the same thing, just not necessarily online.
  • So looking at the idea of “memetics,” I’m gonna start out real basic, with the wikipedia definition:
    • “Memetics is the study of information and culture based on an analogy with Darwinian evolution. Proponents describe memetics as an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer. Memetics describes how an idea can propagate successfully, but doesn’t necessarily imply a concept is factual.”
    • Honestly, I hear the phrase “cultural information transfer” and my eyes glaze over. But basically a meme is something that spreads information, behavior, styles, symbols, practices, and ideas, and memetics is looking at it through a sort of evolutionary lens.
    • The word meme was originally coined in the 1976 book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, the delightful public intellectual who brought us New Atheism. (To be clear, I’m being sarcastic, I’m not a fan.)
      • Basically, his idea was that a meme is like a mental gene, in that it’s a unit of culture that is “hosted” in people’s brains, and can spread between their brains. He gives the example as a tune that you can hum as a meme. Someone’s humming it, then it gets stuck in someone’s head, etc.
      • It seems that Dawkins doesn’t really see internet memes as true memes because they are, to quote wikipedia again, “deliberately altered by human creativity, distinguished from his original idea involving mutation “by random change and a form of Darwinian selection.”” 
  • This is all pretty twisty, to me at least, but you’re probably seeing how memetics has some connections to synchronicity, etc.
  • And unsurprisingly, the group of folks who inspired the creation of Randonautica were some researchers, or as the book calls them, “mad scientists,” who studied memetics.
  • The book talks about how you can read memes as archetypal expressions (which brings in Jung’s ideas again), and theorizes that you could read the general collective unconscious based on what is bubbling up in randonauting journeys.  
    • To read from the book: 
      • “The memes that emerge through Randonautica represent a global mythos based around curiosity. Although synchronicity is extremely personal and strikes to the very core of who you are, it turns out it can be a shared experience. People from around the globe often report the same synchronous experiences, which in turn are shared as memes, and turn into legends if they become popular enough. These legends are folktales that arise through curiously exploring the void and emerge through the collective unconscious.”
    • So that’s a really interesting idea.

Despair meme

  • Next, let’s talk about the despair meme.
  • I’ll read a definition of what this is from the book:
    • “The despair meme is the visceral physiological reaction some people have at the prospect of going to a random place, or even a fear of uncertainty in general. Since that random place is totally disconnected from any prior events in your life, your brain is attempting to predict what will happen when you get there. This response to uncertainty can cause some people to feel fear or anxiety, even manifesting as a projection of their worst fears. Sometimes at the mere prospect of going to an unknown location, people start to feel nauseated and sick or dizzy.”
  • My own despair meme experiences:
    • I talked last time about how sometimes I do have a strong reaction to randonauting, and do get this big sense of anxiety and I feel like I shouldn’t do it that day.
    • The book suggests that you push through that feeling, and I think your mileage may vary with that technique. 
      • Usually, when I get this despair meme feeling, I give randonautica a rest for a while until I feel better about using it. That’s because I don’t see the point in forcing myself to do something that I’m just doing for fun, and I always know I’ll return to randonauting when it feels right.
      • I also, personally, am not neurotypical and sometimes do have anxiety about breaking my routine, especially if I’m worn down or stressed about something else already. And I know that when I force myself into a situation where I’m piling anxiety over already feeling bad, I’ll just feel worse.
      • You’ll know what’s best for you in this situation, though.
    • Now, I didn’t know about the despair meme until I read this book in January 2022, but I’d been using randonautica for almost two years at that point, so I was surprised to see that other people had encountered it. But it also made me feel better, and less alone in what I felt like was sort of an extreme reaction, even for me.
    • While looking at the despair meme, I also wanted to talk about a weird set of experiences that I’ve had, which may or may not have some overlap with the despair meme. Let’s talk about the Hell Gate.
      • Back in late 2020, I did a series of episodes about the Hell Gate and its environs (like Roosevelt Island, etc.) 
      • The Hell Gate is a tidal strait in the East River, sort of in that area around Astoria, Roosevelt Island, and the Upper East Side.
      • The Hell Gate is also said to be haunted, though I haven’t found as many stories about the area’s hauntings as I would like. It seems like there’s mostly just urban legends, which are fun and interesting, but not particularly convincing.
      • Another important thing about the Hell Gate is that it’s a troubled place, as you can guess from the name. It used to be incredibly dangerous to pass through, and thousands of ships ran aground there. 
      • I did episodes about two of the most famous ones:
        • The first is the HMS Hussar, a British warship that sank during the Revolutionary War with what was supposedly an enormous amount of gold
        • The second is the General Slocum, a steamship that a church group rented out for a trip in 1904, and which sunk, resulting in between 1,000-1,300 deaths. It was the largest loss of life in NYC until 9/11, and there are lots of horrific pictures of bodies washing up to shore in the area.
      • If you want to know more, you can listen to those episodes.
      • But basically, since 2020, I’ve been fascinated by the Hell Gate. But at the same time, I’ve been sort of repelled by it, often without realizing it.
      • I had a weird experience in spring 2020, where I was there and suddenly felt really upset and uncomfortable and wanted to leave, which was kinda weird and unlike me.
      • Other strange stuff has happened to me by the Hell Gate, too, and I often leave the Hell Gate being very upset. Usually there’s no clear reason for me to be upset, but I did have one weird experience where there was a sort of freak accident right after I did an Estes session there. 
        • In the end of August 2021, I did a solo Estes session by the waters of the Hell Gate, at Astoria Park. This was the first Estes session I had done there. I got some interesting responses and was fairly happy with how the session went.
        • But the most memorable thing was that on my walk home, a manhole cover on the street next to me blew up in flames. It was a ConEd manhole, so I assume it was an electrical fire, since they’re the electric company. The flames were pretty high–probably a couple feet high–and the manhole cover kept bouncing up and down as the flames came and went. It was also making very loud explosion sounds. And this was just in the middle of the street.
        • It was pretty early on a Saturday morning, so not that many people were around. And the people who were around mostly just ignored it. 
        • So I had to call 911 to get the fire department to come put out the fire. Luckily they came pretty quickly, no one was hurt to my knowledge, and they were able to put it out, but there was a lot of smoke and tons of emergency vehicles.
        • I’ve mentioned this in the podcast before, but I am very uncomfortable around fire and probably have a bit of a phobia about it, because in 2019, the building next to ours burned down. I spent hours watching the fire department try to put out the fire and was worried that the fire would spread since the buildings touched. Luckily the building I lived in was brick and was mostly fine, but the smoke smell lingered for months, and it was generally a fairly traumatic experience.
        • So I was probably a little more upset than an average person would be at encountering open flames in the middle of the street.
        • Then, on my way home, I ran into a friend of mine who I had plans to hang out with later that afternoon, which I mention just because it was a random coincidence.
        • And this isn’t the manhole fire’s fault, or the Hell Gate’s fault, but that sort of marked a turning point last year, where things in my life had been going in a certain direction, and starting after that morning in August, things took a turn. 
          • It’s not worth going into a ton of detail, and it wasn’t all bad, but just to give you an example of what I’m talking about: I later learned that around that time, some stuff was put into motion that I didn’t know about that would result in me being laid off from my job a few months later, etc. And like I said, there were also some good things that happened around that time. But when I think of the last year or so, that time seems to be a bit of a pivot point for a lot of things in my life.
          • In retrospect, I’d almost describe the feeling as being like, if, on a summer day, the temperature suddenly dropped and standing water started freezing. I look around, and am pretty unsettled, and as I head home to get a coat and dress for the weather, I look around, and no one else can see it. They don’t feel the drop in temperature, they don’t see puddles freezing over, and they don’t need a coat. I’m experiencing a winter day, and they’re still all experiencing a beautiful summer day.
          • The metaphor is imperfect, but that’s how it felt. It was as if something was off, and that something was external to me, but other people just didn’t notice it.
          • Who knows, maybe that feeling started when I was reacting to seeing open flames in the street and other people were walking by as if they weren’t there, so I had to be the one to call 911.
          • In thinking about all of this, I almost wonder if I could interpret this as a sort of initiation experience, because it does feel like I crossed some threshold that day.
          • After that, things felt almost dreamlike for a while. A few days later, there was a freak storm and a number of people died, or lost everything, in Queens. The storm has nothing to do with me of course, but it felt really strange to encounter two somewhat dystopian environmental dangers in the space of less than a week.
          • However, I didn’t realize all of this was happening when it was going on. It’s only a pattern that I can see in retrospect.
      • So at this point, I sort of had some baggage around Astoria Park, so when I went on runs, I tried to avoid the park. Not consciously, I was just running to other places because I liked them better. You might wonder why I would like running through the large, beautiful park less than running through crowded sidewalks during a pandemic, and that’s kinda what I’m getting at here when I’m saying that it’s weird that I was unconsciously avoiding it.
        • As I mentioned in the last episode, I often randonaut while running. So I would set the radius so that Astoria Park would not be included in the area, and again and again, it would choose a point close to the outer edge of the radius, the closest it could get me to Astoria Park given the distance I had allowed.
        • Without really reflecting on it, I would run to the point, often not see much of anything, and then think, oh, I’m right near the park, I should run in the park since I’m here already.
        • I would do that, and again and again, partway through the run through the park, I would get this really awful feeling. It’s hard to explain, but I’d get there and I’d just feel extremely lonely and demoralized and awful. If I had to choose one word to describe it, I’d say I was probably feeling despair. 
        • However, at the time, I didn’t notice that I was feeling that way consistently when going to the park.
        • Finally, in October, I believe, I was doing a solo Estes session in the park and then suddenly started feeling deeply depressed. It came on really suddenly while I was there, and it was just very extreme and awful.
        • Once I was done with the session, I went home, and once I got home, I felt better pretty much right away. And as I was telling my wife about it, she said, “oh, that makes sense, because you always feel depressed when you go to that park.”
        • I hadn’t made that connection, but then I thought back to the prior year and a half during some of the stricter COVID lockdowns. After my feeling of despair in the park in April 2020, my wife often tried to get me to go on walks with her to Astoria Park, because it is a beautiful park, but I always found some excuse for why I couldn’t go. I wasn’t consciously avoiding it, but in retrospect, I was definitely avoiding it. And that’s even weirder when you consider that during late 2020, I got really obsessed with the Hell Gate and did a bunch of episodes about it, and I’m still obsessed with the Hell Gate.
        • After realizing this, I try not to go to the park alone, or if I do, I try to bike through. It seems fine if I bike in and out of there quickly, or if I’m with someone else. But when I’m walking, running, or sitting there alone, this deep feeling of despair creeps in.
    • To bring this back to Randonautica, I think it’s very odd that the app tended to send me there again and again, and that I had a similar experience of despair each time. 
      • Was it sending me there because I was obsessed with it so was thinking about it in the back of my mind and accidentally influencing my intention? Or was it sending me there for another reason?
      • Also, does this have anything to do with the despair meme? On face value, it seems like not, since the despair meme is about fear of uncertainty. But if there’s something strange going on there from a paranormal perspective, maybe there’s some uncertainty or strangeness that’s disturbing me there. 
        • I don’t know, there’s just something about the phrase “despair meme” that makes me think, okay, yeah, I feel like I could be experiencing a despair meme. 
        • I think that’s because the depression I feel when I’m in the area of Astoria Park feels like it comes from outside of me. Usually, I get the sense that my feelings originate from something going on in my brain, or something that another person did. But in this case, it feels like something non-human and external to me is influencing me in a way that is invisible to me, aside from the terrible feeling I get there. 
        • It’s like this feeling just appears, and is very intense, and that to me feels almost meme-like. If memes are ideas spreading between people, I wonder if memes can be spread by ghosts. My first impulse is to say that maybe I’m being influenced by being in this haunted area. But I only get this feeling when I’m alone.
        • Is it possible that, when I linger there and am not in the presence of another corporeal person, I am maybe picking up a despair meme from some sort of paranormal entity?
          • I do want to pause to acknowledge that I could be, unknowingly, be experiencing other factors. Those could include:
            • Sadness because I know that a lot of people died near there
            • Some sort of trauma response related to the manhole fire explosion
            • A weird reaction to pollution from the nearby power plant (though I will say that I spend a lot of time near a different power plant and the only reaction I have then is just asthma problems)
          • I really do feel like there’s a more paranormal aspect that I’m experiencing there, because I don’t have an issue if I’m not alone, but who knows?
        • It’s not lost on me, however, that Randonautica is all tied up with this phenomenon and set of experiences.

Outro

  • Next time, I’ll talk about some more of my own experiences of randonauting weirdness
  • Also, I have a patreon now! 
    • I wanted to curate a digital library of cool public domain books and share that on patreon, so by the time this goes up, I’ll add a book that I have only read part of so far, but which I’ve heard great things about. 
      • It is a Victorian ghost hunting book that was written by a woman. 
      • It was forgotten for a long time, but has recently enjoyed a resurgence of popularity, at least in the corner of the paranormal community that I inhabit. So go to patreon.com/buriedsecretspodcast to get that.
    • I might add something else as well, but I’ll at least upload that book.
    • Remember that if you sign up for any level of the patreon, you’ll also get access to my Solo Estes Session kit and my Haunted Map of New York City, which has about 200 stories of hauntings in the city, as well as a bunch of other forgotten history and landmarks.

Sources consulted RE: The Despair Meme and the Hell Gate

Books consulted: The Despair Meme and the Hell Gate

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