This article originally appeared in Vulture.
Like Stonehenge or the works of Shakespeare, we’ll probably never know who was behind “My Immortal”—the massive Harry Potter–inspired text that is widely regarded as the worst piece of fanfiction ever written—but there’s no shortage of theories. Was it, as the text’s pseudonymous author’s notes suggest, a teenage girl living in Dubai? If so, was her name Tara, and did she make a handful of mysterious YouTube videos under the username “xXblo0dyxkissxX”? Could it have been the fanfiction.net user who went by the handle “TheBatman” and wrote a 988-word confession saying he crafted the story as a hoax (a confession that has since been deleted)? And while we’re at it, who wrote the disputed 39th and 40th chapters of the story, which contain introductory notes claiming they were written by a hacker? Was there ever just one author, or was this a collaborative con job?
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but it’s hard not to go down rabbit holes while chasing after “My Immortal.” The story poses two great, as-yet-unanswered questions to anyone who encounters it: Who wrote this thing, and was he or she (or they) playing some kind of prank? Ever since it was published serially on fanfiction.net between 2006 and 2007, the 22,678-word-long story has generated very little concrete information, but a tremendous amount of discussion and fascination. Its original posts inspired droves of comments, and although those posts were purged from the web in 2008 (yet another mystery), they were the beginning of debates that continue to rage among fanfiction enthusiasts and internet archaeologists. Indeed, there’s an entire miniature Wikipedia solely dedicated to analyzing every aspect of the story. There’s fan art, there are parody versions, there are dramatic readings, there’s a successful live-action web series based on the tale … the list of tributes, both spiteful and loving, goes on and on.
“It’s really brilliant, in its way,” said Anne Jamison, an associate professor of English who’s teaching a course about fanfiction at Princeton University this semester. “It’s all the things that people in the fanfic community most hate.” She’s of the opinion that “My Immortal” is a satire, and a viciously intelligent one, at that. Indeed, she’s made the story the first piece of assigned reading for her class. The tale—abhorrently spelled, gratuitously vulgar, barely related to the source material—is a constant millstone around the necks of fanfiction enthusiasts who struggle to bring legitimacy to the genre. Nevertheless, it’s also a singular study in how fandom culture works and strives to make art out of even the craziest detritus. Here, then, is a good-faith effort to uncover how “My Immortal” came to be, why it rose to infamy, and whether one should laugh at it—or if it’s laughing at you.
“My Immortal” emerged from fanfiction.net, a domain that was—and is—loathed by fanfiction connoisseurs. The site was created in 1998 and prides itself on being largely unfiltered by moderators, meaning no one provides regular quality control. By the mid-2000s, it was reviled by high-minded fanfic consumers (they nicknamed the site “the pit of voles” to describe how wretched it was to spend time exploring it), and “My Immortal” fit right in there. Its first chapter was posted under the byline of an account named “XXXbloodyrists666XXX,” and that post went up sometime in early 2006. As Brad Kim, the editor of viral-content investigation site Know Your Meme, put it, “the date is a bit murky due to the drama that ensued afterwards.”
The chapter begins, as all the subsequent ones did, with an author’s note (or “AN,” as the text always puts it), written mostly phonetically:
AN: Special fangz (get it, coz Im goffik) 2 my gf (ew not in that way) raven, bloodytearz666 4 helpin me wif da story and spelling. U rok! Justin ur da luv of my deprzzing life u rok 2! MCR ROX!
As is typical of the story, this introduction is filled with confusing references to people and cultural artifacts. “MCR” refers to My Chemical Romance, a band, led by Gerard Way, then very popular among self-identified goth teenagers (as was Evanescence, fronted by singer Amy Lee, who released a song in 2003 entitled “My Immortal”). “Raven” is the author’s perpetually referenced friend and editor. Justin seems to be the author’s love interest, although he’s rarely mentioned again.
Then the actual story begins, introducing the author’s invented character, “Ebony.” The awkward rhythm, strange digressions, and stultifyingly purple prose are best appreciated if we excerpt a narrative passage in full:
Hi my name is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way and I have long ebony black hair (that’s how I got my name) with purple streaks and red tips that reaches my mid-back and icy blue eyes like limpid tears and a lot of people tell me I look like Amy Lee (AN: if u don’t know who she is get da hell out of here!). I’m not related to Gerard Way but I wish I was because he’s a major fucking hottie. I’m a vampire but my teeth are straight and white. I have pale white skin. I’m also a witch, and I go to a magic school called Hogwarts in England where I’m in the seventh year (I’m seventeen). I’m a goth (in case you couldn’t tell) and I wear mostly black. I love Hot Topic and I buy all my clothes from there. For example today I was wearing a black corset with matching lace around it and a black leather miniskirt, pink fishnets and black combat boots. I was wearing black lipstick, white foundation, black eyeliner and red eye shadow. I was walking outside Hogwarts. It was snowing and raining so there was no sun, which I was very happy about. A lot of preps stared at me. I put up my middle finger at them.
“Hey Ebony!” shouted a voice. I looked up. It was…. Draco Malfoy!
“What’s up Draco?” I asked.
“Nothing.” he said shyly.
But then, I heard my friends call me and I had to go away.
And that—with the exception of a brief note asking readers “IS it good? PLZ tell me fangz!”—is it. To a layreader, it could just seem like a poor piece of writing. But for a fanfiction enthusiast, that brief passage would have been agonizing to read because of all the hated tropes it was deploying.
“It’s all there,” Jamison said. “The author’s note that tells the reader to go away, the redundancy of calling herself ‘Ebony’ while saying her hair is ebony, the extensive describing of the eyes, the describing of the skin. It was hitting all these tropes at once.” There’s also the slapdash attempt to mash a popular work with an unrelated genre—in this case, putting vampires into the Potterverse—as well as the gratuitous shout-outs to teen touchstones like retailer Hot Topic, Lee, and Gerard Way. What’s more, this is a cardinal example of so-called “Mary Sue” fiction, in which authors insert thinly veiled version of themselves into a popular fictional universe and have all the characters already be friends with them. Add that to the horrible misspellings in the author’s notes and the standoffish attitude, and you had an odorous stew for anyone who cared about fanfic.
Users stumbled across the story and began passing it around. Heidi Tandy was a vigorous reader of fanfiction at the time, and first saw its initial chapters in the summer of 2006. “It already had a reputation of being completely ridiculous at that point,” she recalled. “Initially, it didn’t have much of an impact on me because it wasn’t quite as bad as a lot of other stuff. But what got interesting was that it got longer.”
Indeed, although the pit of voles was littered with subpar texts that petered out after a few posts, “My Immortal” ploughed ahead at a feverish pace. Over the next few months, chapter after chapter rolled out, each one bringing more readers. Although the original posts are lost, Kim remembers at least one post whose comments section contained more than 10,000 reviews. And all the while, the text became dramatically more insane.
The narrative got extremely difficult to follow. Ebony gets into a bisexual love triangle between Draco and Harry, the latter of whom turns out to be a vampire (and prefers for people to simply call him “Vampire”). Hermione shows up in chapter eight, but for no particular reason, she changes her name to “B’loody Mary Smith.” They all spend much of the story going to concerts, slitting their wrists, and traveling through time. There are anatomically improbable sex scenes, featuring passages such as the following: “‘OMFG Draco Draco!’ I screamed having an orgism. We stated frenching passively. Suddenly………… I fell asleep.”
Perhaps the most egregious sin for Harry Potter fans was how little the author seemed to care about J.K. Rowling’s original vision for the Potterverse. No one acts in character: Gentle old Dumbledore, for example, is prone to violent outbursts, at one point screaming, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING YOU MOTHERFUKERS!” at a copulating Ebony and Draco. The characters’ names becomes wildly inconsistent: Draco is variously referred to as “Drako,” “Dracko,” “Drico,” “Drake,” “Drago,” and “Darko”; there’s one remarkable passage in which Dumbledore’s name is spelled two different ways in one sentence; and even Ebony’s name is occasionally spelled “Enoby.”
All of this, of course, led readers to wonder: Were they reading a work of satire? Could anything actually be this bad by accident? To this day, researchers remain sharply divided.
“It has to be a parody,” Jamison said. “I mean, when I first read Fifty Shades of Grey, I thought that was a parody, so I’ve been wrong before. But with ‘My Immortal,’ it’s as if somebody has a checklist of all the terrible things that ever happen in fanfiction and has gone through and checked them all off.”
But there are those who, after years of analysis, have come to the opposite conclusion. “I absolutely think this was a genuine piece of work,” Kim told me. “I was in writing workshops on LiveJournal and Xanga, and these were the kinds of things that would be formulated by a high-school teenager in the early 2000s.” Indeed, a popular fanfiction hobby of the time was to pass around so-called badfics: pieces of fanfiction with many of the traits that made “My Immortal” so unbearable.
In 2006, however, readers didn’t seem to mind the ambiguity. “We were reading it and going, ‘Is this for real?’” recalled writer and longtime fanfiction reader Cyndy Aleo. She didn’t know if she was being trolled or not, and didn’t much care: She remained glued to her screen, waiting for new chapters. “There was such excitement for when it would update. It was like watching a train wreck.”
But here’s the thing: If this was a hoax designed to make fun of fanfiction tropes, it was an exceedingly complicated hoax, one that—as the chapters kept on coming—involved a web of interconnected fake online accounts within and outside fanfiction.net, as well as a faked hacking incident. All of those strange, muddying details started to emerge once readers began trying to crack open the story behind the story. As “My Immortal” grew in length, it stopped merely being a source of laughter and started being a source of confusion, harassment, and obsession.
An array of groups swooped in to investigate the lengthening story, many of them operating as hacking-savvy hive-minds. One of the most infamous online communities of the time was the mass of anonymous writers for a site called Encyclopedia Dramatica (or ED). It was built on the same anyone-can-edit principles of Wikipedia, but had a black-heartedly caustic tone and was filled with blatantly racist, homophobic, and misogynist text. For whatever reason, its users took an interest in “My Immortal” and its author.
According to Kim, who has spent years researching ED, it was that site’s users, communicating in private chat rooms, who were the first to find LiveJournal and MySpace accounts that seemed to be run by the story’s creator, given that they were written in a similarly disjointed style, had references to a best friend named Raven (whose accounts they also found), and expressed similar pop-culture interests as those seen in “My Immortal.” (Unfortunately, those accounts were purged years ago, public archives don’t show any old copies of them, and neither LiveJournal nor MySpace will divulge even the most basic information about them. All we have are echoes: information spread by ED users, which now exists as a kind of folklore on places like Know Your Meme and the aforementioned “My Immortal”–specific Wikipedia.)
The accounts were written from the perspective of a teenage girl named Tara Gilesbie, who claimed to live in Dubai and was a self-proclaimed goth with a history of cutting herself. She was a ripe target for attack. Although the original ED was shuttered in 2011 (a thankfully cleaned-up iteration has since been relaunched), an archived version of the old site’s entry on “My Immortal” shows the users thought Tara was the earnest author of the story—and therefore worthy of verbal abuse.
“Tara does seem to be a real person with a history of displaying these gothic/retarded habits, and has accounts on many websites corroborating her persona,” the archived Encyclopedia Dramatica entry reads. The consensus was that it would be too difficult for a hoax artist to “craft the persona of ‘Tara Gilesbie, uber-goffik retard girl’ then actively create and manage Tara’s many accounts,” not to mention going to the trouble of writing tens of thousands of words of awful prose. Many of the era’s more vicious online communities seemed to agree that the story was legitimately written by a teenage girl, and they joined in the hate. Notable sources of abuse were TVtropes.com; LiveJournals devoted to mocking bad fic; the SomethingAwful.com forums; YTMND.com; and the still-nascent world of YouTube, where users would upload “dramatic readings” of the text’s more mockable passages.
In seeming response to those attacks, as well as the ceaseless mocking the author received in the “My Immortal” comments sections, the author’s notes got increasingly defensive, impenetrable, and prone to mentioning suicide attempts. For example, here’s a bit from the introduction to chapter 27: “soz i kodnt update lol I wuz rly deprezzd n I silt muh rists I had 2 go 2 da hospital rraven u rok gurl!11111111111111111111”
One user, it seems, became so fixated on the story that she (the user claimed to be female, but of course, we can’t know for sure) decided to become a part of it. Chapter 39 bore the title “I Am A Trolling Genious, lolz” and began with an author’s note saying she’d cracked XXXbloodyrists666XXX’s password “[o]ut of boredom.” That chapter and the next were written in much more controlled prose that read like a lampoon of the previous 38.
To make matters even more baffling, the original author appeared to return in chapter 41, and seemed mostly unconcerned with the hacking. And three chapters later, the story stopped. Chapter 44 began with an author’s note declaring, “Diz wil prolly be da last chaptah until I kum bak.” Sure enough, the story was never again updated. A few months later, for unknown reasons, fanfiction.net took down all of the chapters (the site is notoriously opaque, and my repeated interview requests to its various social accounts have gone unanswered). Soon afterward, the alleged LiveJournal and MySpace accounts of Tara disappeared, too. All the world has left of the original “My Immortal” fiasco are copied-and-pasted versions of the story’s text and the sparse fanfiction.net user page for the original author, last updated in 2009.
In the years since, there’s been a steady flow of pseudonymous individuals who have claimed to have written “My Immortal” as a prank. Some of the admissions have been extremely brief (such as this one-line statement posted by fanfiction.net user “goffikblood666” in 2009), and others have been lengthy (like the aforementioned manifesto, which further muddied the waters by claiming someone else took control of the original account after chapter 15). Intriguingly, there’s even a Tumblr, launched in 2013, by a user named “taragillespie,” who said she wrote the story earnestly when she was an angsty teen. None of the users of these accounts would respond to my interview requests. Perhaps most bizarrely, there’s the aforementioned YouTube account, “xXblo0dyxkissxX,” which posted ten videos in 2008 and 2009, all of them starring two young-looking girls who identify themselves as “Tara” and “Raven” and appear to be making fun of goth teens … but who never mention “My Immortal.” Ethan Chiel of On the Media tracked down the girls in the video (their real names are, apparently, Sarah and Rachel), and they claimed to have nothing to do with the story, saying they hadn’t even heard of it until after they made the videos. (That doesn’t explain the suspicious coincidence of them picking “Tara” and “Raven” as pseudonyms, and the “My Immortal” wiki still considers them suspects). The mystery of the authorship of “My Immortal”—even in this privacy-averse age—appears unsolvable.
But memes don’t need authors or concrete evidence to flourish, so “My Immortal” lives on. It still circulates widely—much to the chagrin of the generation of fanfiction enthusiasts who are trying to bring the genre out of the shadows.
“For someone from outside of fandom who’s never seen bad fanfiction before, the story feels so hilarious,” said Aja Romano, a journalist who writes about fan cultures. “But I know from long experience that people don’t need an excuse to think badly of fanfiction, to think that it’s badly written and creepy. The Gawkers of the world and the SomethingAwfuls of the world find pieces like this and make them viral, and the rest of the world gets the sense that that’s what fanfiction is.”
Nevertheless, there are still plenty of people from the fandom world who embrace “My Immortal” in all of its baffling wonder. Cyndy Aleo says it’s a source of nostalgia for a different era of online fandom—she even misses the kinds of criticism the story got. “Until Fifty Shades blew up, fic seemed like a bunch of nerds, not a bunch of moms,” she said. “I’m happy with fic being viewed as stuff like [‘My Immortal’] rather than a bunch of middle-aged women who read Twilight and try to write sex scenes.”
And it still inspires people to do creative work. The most notable example is (My) Immortal: The Web Series, a collection of 15 filmed episodes inspired by the infamous story. These aren’t derisive dramatic readings—they’re original scripts based on the ridiculous characters and logic of “My Immortal,” right down to referring to many of the characters by their misspelled names. “The most common comment I get from viewers is, ‘I can’t believe I started to sympathize with Enoby,’” series creator Brian McLellan said. It’s so beloved that its fans have even created fanfiction and dozens of pieces of fan art based specifically on the series. That means there are people creating fanfiction about fanfiction inspired by fanfiction that may or may not have been a parody of fanfiction. It’s a strange world.
Aleo thinks the ambiguity allows readers to enjoy the story without feeling guilt or shame. “If we knew that it was some girl who was at that age and is now older, then the story becomes nothing, just the diary entries of a young girl,” she said. “At that point, it would cease to have any commentary on fandom. And if it’s someone who was doing a commentary, someone who wanted to see what kind of reactions it got, then it becomes insulting to the fandom because you all feel like you were guinea pigs.”
Either way, “My Immortal” retains its magic. It’s forever elusive, hopelessly convoluted, and constantly discussed. If we were ever to be certain about the story’s authorship and intent, it would it lose its allure. Like the Jack the Ripper murders or the Roswell crash, “My Immortal” stirs something primal for a world with seemingly limitless access to information: It’s a secret that, against all odds, stays a secret.
See also: Your Guide to the Fanfiction Explosion