In the summer before I went off to graduate school, I was trying to stack as much money as I possibly could. This included working full time, taking up odd-jobs on Craigslist like helping people move, and tutoring high school students. One day while browsing Craigslist, I came across an ad for work as a junior animator / video editor. It paid $20/hour, so I instantly applied. I had passing familiarity with animation programs because my friend and I had spent years trying to design a simple video game. And my video editing was quite good, because I had run a popular YouTube channel when I was younger.
I got the job. It was weirder than I expected. The company was in a nondescript business complex in Irvine, and every employee had an electronic badge that unlocked doors. Certain levels of employees could unlock certain doors. Being at the bottom tier, I could only unlock the entrance, the door to the room I worked in, and the conference room where we’d have weekly meetings. I never saw any other rooms in the building, and never spoke with anyone who worked in them.
There were seven animators including me. We sat in a row of cubicles in our own small room. Our job was to edit cartoon knock-offs of popular children’s characters, typically Spiderman, Elsa, Spongebob, My Little Pony, etc. We worked on one or two videos per week, and basically we just created cartoon objects and settings. The work was surprisingly simple. There was very little real “animation” required.
The job paid so much that I hardly paid attention to how strange it was. The company divided our labor in such a way that none of us animators ever saw a video in its entirety. We each worked on a few seconds of it, and often, the project would be taken away from us and transferred to another department before we were finished.
The rules were odd. The animators and I were not allowed to speak to each other under any circumstance. We were not permitted to exchange names or introduce ourselves. Speaking, or looking at another person’s computer, was a terminatable offense. No two people were allowed in the break room at the same time, and no cell phones were permitted inside the building. Ever.
The room was strange too. It was blue. Everything was blue. The walls, the chairs, the keyboards, the door. A blue air freshener was taped to the wall of each work station, but it didn’t smell like anything. There was one object that was red: a telephone. It rang every so often, but we were not allowed to answer it. I was instructed to stand up from my chair and stretch each time it rang, but over time, I noticed that the other employees had been instructed to do other things. One of them took deep, slow breaths. One of them put his head down on his desk. Two of them left the room and returned. One swirled around in his chair. One coughed.
I noticed a few other weird things about the company during my short time there. It wasn’t unusual to see employees crying as they made their way through the halls. Any time I spotted one of them crying, they always tried to hide it. Some of them couldn’t. On a few occasions I saw a child wandering through the halls looking for someone, or maybe for a bathroom. When I brought this up to my supervisor, he told me “It’s bring your kid to work day for the department upstairs.” He told me that three times in two months.
Things started to get really uncomfortable around the two-month-mark. One day, when I checked my company email account for the weekly briefing/workload assignment, there was an email titled “Lullaby.” Inside was a link to a short, low-resolution video of a young girl asleep in a bed. She babbled in what I believe was Russian or Ukrainian, and occasionally fidgeted or brought her hands up defensively to protect her face. It was clear that she was having a nightmare. Behind her, on the bedpost, was a blue air freshener, much like the one next to me in my cubicle. Whimsical vaudeville music played in the background.
I examined the recipients and sender of the email, and found that it had been sent from inside the company to several employees on a list. I forwarded the email to my boss and asked him what the deal was, and he quickly responded that it was a joke from our partners overseas, and that I had been mistakenly added to the recipient list. He told me to ignore it and keep up the excellent work, and that my review would be coming up, with the possibility of a raise.
More than $20/hour? I guess my memory is for sale, because I quickly forgot about the video.
Only a few days later, when I returned to the office after a holiday weekend, there was another email waiting for me, titled “Be brave, Spidey!” I was reluctant to open it, and now I wish I hadn’t. Inside was a link to a Russian-language website. When I clicked it, I saw a video of a real kid, probably four or five years old, dressed as Spiderman. The boy sat in what looked like a child’s bedroom. His mask was pulled down, and his costume sleeve was pulled up. The boy screamed and cried as an adult man wearing a Hulk costume gave him three different injections with a long needle. Off-screen, another person hurled stuffed animals at the kid, hitting him in the head with them, and even once hitting the needle as it stuck into his arm, causing the kid to wail even louder. By the end of the short clip, the boy was shaking and nearly catatonic. The Hulk man laughed and danced around him almost ritually. Cheerful kid’s music played the entire time.
As far as I could tell, the video was not acted. What I saw was a real “medical” procedure, and real terror. Horrified, I emailed my boss, demanding an explanation. I received none after about an hour (normally he replies within minutes or even seconds), so I left my cubicle and stormed down the hall to knock on his office door.
As I passed by our conference room, I heard my boss’s muffled voice, and then a bunch of other racket. I was so angry and freaked out that I didn’t care if I interrupted him – I badged the electronic lock and cracked the door open.
The conference room was dark, but I could see about fifteen men sitting inside at the far end of the wall. Most of them were dressed nicer than me, so I knew that they were senior employees who worked upstairs. A video played on a large screen at the other end of the room, and even though I couldn’t see it from my angle, I recognized the sounds. They were watching the same horrific video I’d seen an hour before. Some of the employees smoked cigarettes, like they were at a fucking gentleman’s club. Perhaps strangest of all, a conference phone sat in front of them, and a loud voice came through the speaker, talking in Russian. One of the men in the room occasionally replied in Russian.
I left work early that day, too freaked out to return to my station. By the time I got home I had a missed call from my boss, and a voicemail summarily terminating me, stating that the project was complete and that unfortunately our entire team was no longer needed. I didn’t give a shit. I didn’t plan on going back anyway. I spent the rest of the summer doing odd jobs, and trying to forget that company.
But weird shit continued happening, and it got worse and worse.
A few weeks later, I visited my brother and his wife at their home in southern California. My niece Katie was five years old at the time, and could already operate electronics better than I can. She’s got an iPad, and spent a bunch of time showing me photos she’d taken of birds and insects and people. She’s also got Netflix and YouTube, and watches those regularly.
One night during my visit, my brother and I were on the couch watching one of the Hobbit movies. Katie was lying prone on the floor nearby, watching a cartoon on her iPad. When I leaned over and asked what she was watching, I immediately recognized the cheaply animated characters.
It was a video I myself had edited. I recognized the ringing red phone, which I had designed after the phone in our office. I recognized the glass bottle the characters drank from. And I recognized the way the joints and jaws moved – all things I had worked on at one point during my brief stint at that company.
But I had never seen a full video. This one was about five minutes long. It featured two cartoon kids dressed up in Elsa and Spiderman costumes, stealing their father’s beer and getting drunk. Then, one of the kids trips and falls, smashing his face into a desk and splitting his skull open. Blood sprays everywhere.
I was confused and disturbed by this video, but it wasn’t until YouTube’s stupid Autoplay feature cycled to another “recommended video” that I really freaked out. Another video played, then another, and another, all products of my company, some of which I’d worked on. Every video featured recognizable children’s characters from Disney and Marvel and other big brands, but something weird – or violent – or sexual – took place in them.
I pulled Katie away from the iPad and put Finding Nemo on the TV for all of us to watch. Before I returned home, I warned my brother about what I had seen, and advised him to keep her off YouTube for a bit.
It wasn’t until I returned home and started digging around on YouTube that the true scope of these fucked up videos came to light. I found several channels with child-oriented names like “Silly Hero Fun” (not a real name, mods), all of which produce videos exactly like the ones I'd worked on. They all specifically target children using familiar characters, and they all link to more legitimate cartoons via the “recommended videos” algorithm.
The more I watched, the deeper the rabbit hole seemed to go. These videos are constantly removed, re-named, and re-uploaded, over and over and over. After watching about a hundred of these videos, I found that they all shared certain similarities, and can be divided into recurring themes. By Intergalactic NoSleep Law, I’m not allowed to link the videos or mention the YouTube channel names, but if you want to find these videos for yourself, simply type “Elsagate” into YouTube and you will see for yourself. WARNING: the cartoon videos are disturbing, and the live-action ones are outright depraved. I consider some of them to be actual child abuse.
The themes I’ve identified are as follows:
- Some of the videos show characters stealing alcohol and hurting each other. One shows child-versions of Mickey Mouse getting drunk on their dad’s beer and then one of them splits his head open. This same video has been re-skinned over and over with Elsa and Spiderman, Paw Patrol, and Minions. Getting drunk and hurting yourself is ubiquitous in these videos. Also, burning yourself on a stove or getting sucked into an escalator are common. Accidental injury is the driving plot device. Search “Elsa drunk hurt head” or “Mickey drunk hurt head.” It works with Spiderman, Hulk, etc.
- The phobia of spiders and insects is another common theme. I found a video showing Minions covering themselves in disgusting-looking bugs. The end of the video depicts a man drinking a bottle of urine, which I’ll discuss below. Another video shows Elsa, Spiderman, and the Hulk all being swarmed by insects. Sometimes they require hospitalization and surgery because of the bugs. The characters always react with horror to bugs, and the bugs always injure them. Search terms include “Mickey insects” or “Elsa insects gross.”
- Drinking from toilets, eating poop, drinking urine, and smearing feces on people’s faces is another theme commonly portrayed in these videos. Many of them are live-action, with real actors dressed in costumes that target the attention of children. In one video, Spiderman and Elsa drink from toilets, and also find insects in one. In another, Venom buries Elsa alive and shits on her head. Another shows the Joker feeding excrement to Elsa and Spiderman. Any of the character names with the word “poop” or “toilet” will return these videos.
- Extreme medical violence and the phobia of sharp objects is yet another theme you’ll find in these videos: children cutting each other’s fingers off with razors; doctors forcing needles into children’s arms, eyes, and rectums; and gory surgery are all present. In one, Hulk crushes Elsa’s bones and she requires injections. In another, Hulk gets needles shoved into his face and has his eyes pulled out with tweezers. In that same video, Spiderman throws sand in a child’s eye, and the child requires injections in said eye. Spiderman later gets sick from eating bad food and requires needles to be shoved into his body in multiple places. Search terms include “Hulk eye injection,” “Elsa surgery,” or “Spiderman/Elsa sick.”
- Pregnancy is frequently depicted as a curable illness. Unsurprisingly, the cure is an abortifacient injected directly into the woman’s stomach. The worst video I found depicts tummy-aches, illness, and pregnancy in a very blended way, all of which require the use of needles to “cure.” In another live-action video with real people, an evil doctor chases pregnant children around with a giant needle while they scream and cry. Many of the pregnant women give birth to insects, or to logs of shit. Search terms include “Elsa pregnant surgery” and “Elsa pregnant injection.” Really any of these cartoon names with “pregnant” works.
- The helplessness of children to protect themselves from adults is a popular theme, especially in the live-acted videos. In many of them, a very large adult man dressed as Hulk grabs children by their necks, holds them to the ground, rubs his ass all over their faces, or otherwise beats them up. Search terms include ”bad hulk superhero battle.” It gets worse and worse the more you follow the video trail. There are also tons of videos of toddler-aged girls being kidnapped and tied down by adult men, depicted in a playful manner. Many of the men are wearing frightening Halloween masks. The children are often crying and are not having fun at all. Some appear in pain. So many of these have been reported/taken down by YouTube that now the channel has converted all video titles to Russian, and they cannot be searched in English. This is the sickest channel I found, and the point where I completely stopped watching.
- Sexualization of children and depiction of pregnant children as a good thing: Many of the “Elsagate” videos depict children in an arguably sexual light. The most popular channel with this kind of content stars two young Asian girls, and has three million subscribers. Many of the videos depict butt-shaking, “playing doctor,” and fake-vomiting. Others show girls and even boys celebrating their own pregnancies. I won’t even provide search terms for these. Just don’t.
It took me a while, and a bit of research, to pick up on the purpose of these videos. At face value, they’re all a bunch of psychotic nonsense. But when I started to see how they all mimic each other and build on each other, I realized that they must have a grand purpose:
-The fact that there are thousands of these videos, but they all cover the same seven topics, screams conditioning. The creators of these videos are banking on the probability that if kids watch enough of the videos, they’ll be saturated with two or three ideas: Hit your friends. Blood is funny. Poop is for eating. When an adult gets on top of you, don’t fight back.
-The fact that violence and sex are such recurrent themes tells me that the creators want to normalize them. They want kids to be desensitized to sex and violence. Maybe even curious about them.
-The comments in the videos reveal that a lot of the viewers are adults, and fetishists. Perverts. They really, really enjoy the videos of kids being kidnapped and tied up. They beg for more, and offer to support via crowdfunding.
In short, these videos are designed to groom children, and to satisfy perverts.
After digesting all this information, I contacted my brother, who had some terrifying news for me. Apparently, he and his wife had received several phone calls from people asking for me. When my brother asked who they were, they always hung up. He said “they always have an accent.”
Worse, a man actually tried to pick Katie up from kindergarten by claiming he was me. He gave the office my full name and told them he was her uncle, here to pick Katie up for a doctor’s appointment. When the receptionist said she was going to call Katie’s parents for verification, the man took off running. He didn’t even get into a car. He ran out of the parking lot.
I began receiving text messages from very long numbers. The texts always contained links to YouTube videos. I always deleted them and blocked the numbers. By the time I was packing up and preparing to move, the texts had stopped, but my brother told me that Katie came home with an air freshener in her coat, and couldn’t remember how it had gotten there. He sent me a photo of it, and I recognized it as the same type from my office. He said it had no odor.
Things settled down for a while. My first year of grad school blindsided me, and I forgot all about the strange incidents. But over the summer between my first and second year, something else happened that reignited my old fears.
I worked part-time at the university library. I always took the night shift because I could relax and work on grant applications, and didn’t have to deal with many students. But one night, an older man checked out a stack of medical books at my counter. He looked and smelled like a tenured professor, so I thought nothing of it when he struck up a conversation and asked me if I’d had my flu shot yet. I told him I had, and he smiled and turned to leave. But then at the door, he turned back to me and called out, “And has Katie had all of her vaccinations?”
By the time I recovered from the shock of his question, the man had disappeared into the dark outside. He left the books by the door.