Is “Dear David” Real? An Examination Of Twitter’s New Favorite Haunting

Previously: How To Be A Nanny In A Haunted House.

I’m sure that by now — the internet being what it is — you’ve heard about “Dear David,” the ghost allegedly haunting illustrator and writer Adam Ellis’ New York apartment. I covered the story elsewhere when it was just starting to go viral, so I’ll send you over there for a more in-depth summary (EDIT 8/29: Here are some updates); for the curious, though, the short version is this:

On Aug. 7, Ellis tweeted, “So, my apartment is currently being haunted by the ghost of a dead child and he’s trying to kill me.” Several months prior (or at least, that’s what I think the timeline is like — Ellis hasn’t gotten more specific with when it all started than that), he had, during an episode of sleep paralysis, dreamed that a boy with a misshapen head was sitting in a rocking chair at the foot of his bed. In a later dream, a girl asked him, “You’ve seen Dear David, haven’t you?” According to this girl, Dear David appears only at midnight; if you see him, you’re allowed to ask him two questions as long as you preface them with the words “Dear David.” Asking him a third question, though, will result in him killing you. (Sounds familiar, right?)

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The next time Ellis saw Dear David, he asked him a couple of questions and discovered that he had died in an accident in a store; a shelf had fallen on him. But Ellis made one potentially fatal mistake: He accidentally asked a third question. And although things seemed fine for a while — Ellis moved into the apartment above his original one and experienced no unusual events — he’s now concerned that Dear David has crossed over from his dreams into the real world. Every night a midnight, his cats start behaving oddly; he’s been seeing strange movements flitting around in front of the peephole of his apartment; photos taken in the apartment and in the hallway reveal unsettling details when developed or viewed after the fact; a sleep tracker he’s started using has recorded bizarre noises in the middle of the night; and Dear David has appeared in his dreams once more.

Like the rest of the internet, I’m now extremely invested in seeing how the story develops — and conveniently, Ellis has created a Storify about it that he’s updating as he goes. But I’m not necessarily interested in taking it at face value; I’m interested in seeing exactly what about the story can be explained rationally, and what can’t be.

This isn’t to say that I think Ellis is definitely lying; indeed, he says he’s not. There’s the possibility that it could be a hoax; however, there’s also the possibility that, even if we’re not looking at an honest-to-goodness haunting — that is, even if everything he’s experienced has reasonable explanations — he might honestly believe that there’s something paranormal going on. Or, yeah, maybe he’s haunted. I’m not ruling that out yet, even if I’m not convinced it’s the case myself.

With all that in mind, though, let’s take a look at a few possible explanations for some of the individual elements to this story, shall we?

(EDIT 9/4: Here’s part 2!)

Dear David’s Appearances Might Be Sleep Paralysis Hallucinations

Ellis acknowledged that the very first time he saw (or “saw,” depending on how you feel about the whole thing) Dear David, he was in the midst of an episode of sleep paralysis. If you’ve never experienced sleep paralysis, consider yourself lucky; it’s quite an unpleasant sleep disorder. Live Science describes it as follows:

“Sleep paralysis occurs when the brain and body aren’t quite on the same page when it comes to sleep. During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, dreaming is frequent, but the body’s muscles are relaxed to the point of paralysis, perhaps to keep people from acting out their dreams. Researchers have found that two brain chemicals, glycine and GABA, are responsible for this muscle paralysis.”

Basically, during sleep paralysis, your brain has woken up before your body has, which means that although you might be cognitively conscious, you can’t move or speak. It’s not uncommon for hallucinations or breathlessness to accompany this state — and when all these elements combine, it can result in a pretty freaky experience. Have you seen the documentary The Nightmare? That’s what we’re talking about here.

I’ve had sleep paralysis on a few occasions, and although a couple of the episodes featured hallucinated events that realistically could have happened — that is, there were no otherworldly beings in them, just real people that I actually know who were in the house at the time of the episode — I’ve almost always known that what I was experiencing wasn’t actually occurring.

However, many, many people who experience sleep paralysis report utterly terrifying incidents that they can’t always distinguish from reality. This AskReddit thread is full of these kinds of stories;  so is this piece from Vice Motherboard. It’s what we think what gave rise to stories of incubi and succubi, and might possibly explain some alien abduction experiences.

And all the times that Ellis has either dreamed about Dear David or “seen” him? They sound like they fit squarely into repeated episodes of sleep paralysis to me. It all seems to be what sleep paralysis expert and University of Waterloo professor emeritus James Allen Cheyne described to Motherboard’s Brian Barrett as an Intruder experience: “For Intruder experiences, the main sensation is the sensed presence — a feeling of something in the room,” Cheyne said. “That something may then also be seen, heard, or physically felt. It may move around the room, approach the bed, and sometimes climb onto the bed.”

However, sleep paralysis doesn’t explain Ellis’ cats’ behavior, or the weird things he’s spotted in photographs he’s taken while documenting what’s unfolding, or the odd noises his sleep tracker has recorded.

The Photo “Anomalies” Are Smudges Or Have Other Earthly Explanations

I actually think there are plenty of reasonable explanations for many of the “weird” things that have been spotted in Ellis’ photos. Let’s take a look at a couple of them:

In this one, he thought he saw something where the banister meets the shelves in the first photo (which I believe was taken through the peephole, whereas the second looks like it was taken with the door open):

And when he took more peephole photos, he just became more convinced that something was out there:

But, you guys? They… just look smudges to me. Peepholes are often covered in years’ worth of grime and dirt from both sides, and a slight shift in the angle from which you’re taking the photos can make things look like they’ve suddenly appeared there.

When Ellis posted this selfie:

A follower spotted this:

Which many believe looks an awful lot like the initial illustration Ellis made after his first encounter with Dear David:

Again, though: Humans like patterns. Our brains often try to make sense out of chaos where there isn’t any to be found. There’s a lot of research supporting this idea; for example, a 2008 study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and published in the journal Science found that participants would both find images in static and see patterns in stock market data where no images or patterns actually existed — but also that performing relaxation exercises lowered the chances of participants finding patterns that weren’t really there. Indeed, there’s even a term for our tendency to find faces where there are none and hear words where there’s just noise: Pareidolia.

I suspect that’s what’s going on with this photo of Ellis: We’ve been primed to look for a pattern, so we’ve found it in the door behind him — even though what’s really there is probably just visual noise.

But what about the Polaroids that have developed pitch black? Well, I hate to break it to you, but it’s possible that…

The Photos Might Be Hoaxes

Most — if not all — of the evidence Ellis has posted to his Twitter feed is incredibly easy to fake, particularly for someone with a background in visual art who’s likely quite familiar with image manipulation software. All of the images with “smudges” I just talked about, for example, could also just as easily have been edited to include those “anomalies.” And the all-black Polaroids?

These might be the result of the light dial not being set to the correct setting. Fujifilm Instax cameras (like the one Ellis has) do “automatically [determine] the best brightness for taking a picture, and [inform] you of the suitable setting by lighting the corresponding lamp”; however, it’s up to you to turn the “brightness adjustment dial” to the right setting. Indeed, according to this forum, Instax film developing all black due to the brightness adjustment dial not being set to the right setting is a common user error — and if you’re aware of that fact, you can easily exploit it as an in-camera edit.

And the image showing one photo with a lit hallway and other with an unlit one?

We didn’t watch Ellis take those photos; we’re just seeing them after the fact. The photo of the Polaroid — which is a picture of a picture, and therefore digital — could have been edited before it was posted. Or, the hall light could simply have been turned off.

And then there’s this:

Which could also have easily been edited in. People were faking spirit photography long before digital editing tools were a glimmer in anyone’s eye. It’s even easier to do now. Just sayin’.

Same With The Sound Recordings

Eventually, Ellis began using a sleep tracker that automatically begins recording if it hears anything during the night. Here are the recordings:

Again, all easily faked. Or explained by other means — he does have cats, after all.

Speaking of…

But What About The Cats?

It hasn’t been definitively proven that animals are more sensitive to ghosts and spirits than humans are, but many believe it’s the case; a lot of anecdotal evidence suggests that they are. Could Ellis’ cats really be reacting to a ghost in the apartment? Maybe. It’s  worth noting that this whole “gathering in front of the door at midnight” thing is recent behavior for Ellis’ cats; they haven’t hitherto had this habit, so the development of it might be seen as strange or unusual. Here’s what they’ve been doing:

By my experience, though, cats often just change their mind about things on a whim (source: I have two). Even if you’ve been living in the same place for years, they might suddenly decide that this random corner of the living room is a great place to take all of their naps; they might decide they hate the brand of food you’ve been feeding them since they were kittens; and they might suddenly decide that they’ve got some weird feelings about your front door. Heck, one of my cats — after years of having absolutely no interest in mirrors — recently discovered her reflection, and she gets distracted by it all the dang time now.

What’s more, cats really, really hate closed doors — they often have an insatiable need to know exactly what’s going on behind them. It’s possible that, even though they’ve been living in this apartment for several months, Ellis’ cats have suddenly realized they must know what’s behind the closed front door—just like my weirdo cat suddenly realized that her reflection is fascinating.

Also, cats have a pretty good internal clock for routine. For example, both my cats know when my husband usually gets home from work, so they gather by the door shortly before that time pretty much every weekday. If the cats have been hearing something out in the hallway around midnight recently — something more normal and less para — then they’d eventually get more or less trained to start paying attention around that time as a matter of course.

For what it’s worth, Ellis thinks it’s unlikely that there’s another animal in the hallway. Isaac Fitzgerald (who is apparently one of Ellis’ actual friends) asked, reasonably, “Not to be all Dana Scully about this but is there a chance that what you’re seeing in the hallway is another cat (or other animal)?” Ellis replied, “Nope! I live in a house! There’s no real way for an animal to be in the hall.” (And for those of you who are wondering, “Wait. House? You said apartment before,” it seems that Ellis lives in a building that’s kind of like a duplex — he said it’s “an old house that was converted into two apartments.”

Still, though — there are plenty of ways for animals to get into old buildings. Mice, for example? Freaking everywhere in New York. (Source: New York resident for 10 years, plenty of pests encountered during that time.)  I can’t help but wonder if there’s a mouse or something that recently got into Ellis’ building and has started running around outside his front door around midnight each night. That would certainly draw the attention of most cats.

Maybe Dear David Really Is The Ghost Of A Dead Kid

I mean, I’m skeptical for all of the reasons I’ve previously mentioned, but I suppose it could be the case.

Or Maybe Dear David Is A Demon Posing As The Ghost Of A Dead Kid

Notably, Ellis said he hasn’t been able to find any record of a kid named David dying in a store in the city. You know how if you dial a wrong number while playing the Shoebox Telephone, it’s possible that you might encounter a malevolent being posing as the person you were trying to call? It’s a similar concept. Throughout history, reported demon infestations and stories of evil spirits often feature the demon in question pretending to be something that it’s not — something much more benign — as a way to trick its target into letting it in. If The Exorcist taught us nothing else, it’s that one should never trust a spirit being exorcised.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

I’ll be honest: Whatever is going on here, I don’t think it’s an actual haunting. I think there are too many reasonable explanations to jump immediately to “GHOST!” — and, hey, we could even be seeing something that’s a combination of two or more of those reasonable explanations. Then again, I’m a skeptic by nature; I love to think about this stuff, but I’ve never seen anything with my own two eyes that has made an absolute believer out of me.

That’s just me, though. What do you think? Ghost? Demon? Hoax? Misunderstanding? You be the judge.

If you’re interested in staying on top of this story, you can follow Adam Ellis on Twitter here and read the Storify of this whole situation here.

***

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[Photo via SHTTEFAN/Unsplash]

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7 thoughts on “Is “Dear David” Real? An Examination Of Twitter’s New Favorite Haunting

  1. Fascinating stuff. I just followed Adam on Twitter. Your explanations are pretty logical, but it’s fun to see what else might be happening in his apartment. 🙂 Thanks for the post!

  2. There actually is a video of him taking the shot with the polaroid cam and watching the pic turning out black!
    I look for all the logical explanations too, but this story is soooo creepy.

    1. I did see those videos! It’s interesting to me, though, that he uploaded them as two different videos, rather than as one continuous video. Super creepy either way, though!

  3. I must debunk your theory on the cats. I have had multiple cats with NO interest at all with any closed door. It has to depend on its personality. So it’s not all cats in which you were trying to say. Cats don’t just do that for no reason at all especially meowing and staring at a door for hours with no explanation. Just saying.

    1. Fair point! FWIW, I’m not trying to say any of the ideas here are the be-all, end-all explanations for what’s been going on, including all the stuff with the cats; they’re just possibilities. You’re right — some cats won’t necessarily find closed doors fascinating, while others will. I like to approach things from a perspective of seeing if they can be explained by non-supernatural means before I start seriously considering whether or not there’s something truly paranormal going on, but that’s just me. Just some thoughts!

  4. I would like to help Mr. Ellis. My name is James and am a medium with over 25 years of experience. I don’t have social media accounts except a dedicated email. I have an intetesting addition to his experience.

  5. Mainly when extraordinary thing happen under our noses, we are right with our instincts. That it might be something more than the explainable. But we overthink and over-analyze and then we quit believing. I believe this guy.

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