In its four decades, the internet has seen a lot of conceptual alchemy, but there's nothing quite so odd as the Cult of Kek. The maybe-maybe-not religion is the brainchild of the so-called alt-right, some of whom claim to believe not only in white supremacy, but also in the supremacy of an ancient Egyptian deity called Kek.
The logic goes thusly: There's Pepe the Frog, the unofficial mascot of the alt-right. There's also an ancient (and real) Egyptian chaos-god named Kek who happened have a frog's head. And then there's "kek," a World of Warcraft-derived word that became part of 4chan's trolling toolbox. Alt-righties mashed the two things together to create the Cult of Kek, a catch-all ism that can invoke the power of Kek via “meme magic.” All those Trump/Pepe memes you saw during the 2016 presidential election? That was trolling, but it was also the Cult of Kek memeing the Trump Presidency into existence. Well, in their eyes, anyway. And maybe not even then.
On its face, it seems like prime fodder for Poe's Law, which states that it's impossible to know if someone online is joking or not. But when a user on notorious subreddit r/The_Donald asked asked if "any of us actually worship Pepe," the responses were … mixed.
Meanwhile, on the other end of internet culture’s ideological spectrum, you have the witches of Tumblr. Witchblr (a real thing) isn't so much a community of Wiccans as much as it is a millennial-pink confection, studded with crystals and presented by tea-drinking women in flower crowns twirling through meadows—served alongside recipes for patriarchy-strangling tincture and a few choice emoji hexes guaranteed to ruin President Trump’s day. It was also Tumblr's 11th-largest community last year, at least ranked by the number of hashtagged posts it spawned. (Tenth-largest? Retiblr.)
The Witchblr is in many ways the Cult of Kek's opposite—it’s predominantly female, it’s not overtly racist, it prizes self-care over "triggering normies"—but both manage, despite their cheek-rooted tongues, to take on a spiritual affect.
The internet giving birth to new religions, or new versions of existing religions, is just another sign of it becoming a real place. But what ties Witchblr and the Cult of Kek together, despite their diametrically opposed viewpoints, is that each is dissatisfied with the real world and their inability to change those circumstances, and thus each has created its own sheltering cosmology. Followers of both send violent or violence-connoting images to their enemies (who are, at least in part, each other). And because each seems to comprise a mix of ironic and genuine believers—and because the internet is overrun with that nihilistic, post-truth “lol nothing matters” point of view right now—each has the potential to be a little dangerous. And that makes them hard to know what do with.
If your brain is still trying to process the fact that millennials think they’re witches and worship the Egyptian deification of primordial darkness, let’s back up. Belief is fundamental to human culture. If you’re being purely objective, there’s very little difference between spreading the word of Kek and proselytizing for a more socially acceptable prophet. “The consensus is that the internet speeds up the same processes that always made up folklore,” says Jeffrey Tolbert, a folklorist at Bucknell University. “Think of it as the telephone game. All of that happens a lot faster on the internet, and it’s a lot more visible.”
Which makes sense, as long as you don’t think of technology as the opposite of spirituality, as many people tend to do. But actually, the supernatural and (to the non-technical) the mysterious black box of technology mesh together quite well. Tech can either lend a kind of scientific authority, or provide a blank digital canvas welcoming of screwy new ideas. “As soon as there’s tech, people will incorporate it. Look at ghost hunters,” says Lynne McNeill, a folklorist at Utah State University.
But, McNeill says, there's a more interesting comparison to make: “The best example of the ability to embody a fictionalized world on the internet is probably fan fiction. Suddenly fiction is no longer something you can only access from the outside. We can redraw the boundaries of reality.” That's the kind of flexibility the supernatural needs to flourish.
Even the communication medium of the internet is ripe for the occult. According to McNeill, the internet’s focus on the visual—think: emojis, memes and gifs in place of text alone—has brought back symbolic communication, something most religions are steeped in.
Kek worship and Tumblr's version of witchcraft aren’t the first religions to burst forth from the internet's skull, and all of them are similarly shining examples of Poe’s Law. The realest of them is probably Pastafarianism—the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which started as a satirical protest against teaching intelligent design in schools, then became a meme and acquired thousands of followers. (You may have even seen a car bedecked with its Fry Guy-meets-Sebastian emblem.)
Then there’s Cthulhu, who started as a monster in HP Lovecraft's fiction and became a quasi-ironic demonic cult leader who contacts (and brainwashes) followers in their dreams. Many of the octopus-headed god-things followers admit they’re roleplaying, but also that not everyone is.
But the quasi-belief that really shows how these things can go sideways is Slender Man. The now-iconic internet boogieman got his start as an online game that boiled down to "come up with the scariest photoshopped image possible." Still, the slippage between irony and genuine belief started almost immediately. Some of the users mentioned tricking people into believing in their new hoax image, but as Slender Man's popularity grew, reality got blurrier. Users thought they may have created a tulpa, an entity they’d brought to life by thinking about it hard enough.
“They would start to say things like, ‘I scared myself so badly I can’t sleep,” says Tolbert, who has written papers on the Slender Man phenomenon. “Or, ‘I think I see Slender Man outside my window.’ But with text-based communication and this quasi-belief, quasi-irony, there aren’t any hard and fast answers.”
Still, Slender Man was real for at least two people: Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, who at 12 years old lured a friend into the woods and then stabbed her 19 times, all to impress Slender Man. (Both have since been committed to mental institutions.)
Something Wiccan This Way Comes
Back to our two current-day phenomena—both of which are, in their own ways, surprisingly traditional. For example, this isn't the first time a group of women has turned to witchcraft as a form of protest. In the 1960s, a coven calling themselves W.I.T.C.H (Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) set about hexing Wall Street and beauty pageants and generally hanging around being creepy.
Witchblr is the internet version of that, with similar goals. They use the space to swap advice about meditations and sigils and altars, and compliment each other in the giddy, deeply ironic way that's become Tumblr's calling card. But they're also—at least sort of—witches. They've got Tumblr names like "The Cutest Death Witch Around." And the spells they cast range from woo-woo and harmless to good-humored-but-still-kinda-threatening:
And then there's Pepe-headed "meme magic" like this:
"By saturating the web with these images of Pepe, they were trying to somehow make reality reflect the net," says Gary Lachman, cultural historian and author of Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. But do they actually believe that by flooding the internet with Rare Pepes that they influence the election? Obviously, not even the users on r/The_Donald agree.
Yet, even this bad-faith faith has precedent. "It wouldn’t be the first time that extreme right conservative groups have employed the supernatural," Tolbert says. "The Nazis did exactly that. Creating a narrative and associated belief system has always been used as propaganda." (And, say what you want about the alt-right, but its members are savvy propagandists.)
Ultimately, any religion—or propaganda, or mythology—is a form of worldbuilding, a way of creating the appearance of influence on the world around you. And neither Witchblr nor the alt-right can deal with the world right now: the rules don't make sense anymore, and nobody's following them anyway. The certainties that used to hold the world together are gone. So why not start hexing people, or spreading your magic talisman to mark your territory and lift your chosen candidate to office?
“The reality is a lot of people don’t want to deal with the diversity of the real world,” McNeill says. “There are people who are going to use the internet to shrink their worlds rather than grow them, and scholars did not see that coming.”
What happens now? Does Witchblr go all Slender Man on the alt-right? Doubtful. And after the tragedy at Charlottesville, the alt-right hasn't been nearly as visible at real-world events. Yet, by retiring to their own corners of the internet, both groups' worldviews will only get more entrenched, and potentially more extreme. Foundational myths are what society is built upon, but nobody knows what will happen when myth creation is so easy—and so easily transmissible. "There used to be a time where you had to be really lucky to meet another pagan or practitioner of the occult," McNeill says. "People know that they aren’t alone now, but I don't think we yet know the power or the price of that."
Buckle up, internet. It's going to get spooky around here.