Anti-vax Grief Trolls

Over the last few class sessions, we have discussed how technology and media are used as tools and vehicles for the grieving process. Many of the bereaved turn social media in search of support, comfort, or “thoughts and prayers.” Unfortunately, while there are many out there who genuinely do offer condolences and their own grief for the deceased, there is a population of media-users who capitalize on the digital expression of grief. We have spoken about “grief trolls,” who make jokes or seek personal gain at the expense of someone’s public grief. I did not fully understand this concept until having read a CNN article which popped-up on my feed earlier today, entitled “Her son died. And then anti-vaxers attacked her.” This short article tells the story of a young mother who’s 2-year-old son tragically dies of the flu, and her choice to reactively vaccinate her two other young children to avoid similar fates. As many of members of this generation do, she sought out the comfort from friends through her expression of grief via facebook. Yet instead of receiving messages of sympathy, kind comments, and sad face emojis, she opened her facebook to find alarming and condemning messages from those referred to as “anti-vaxers.” These messages ranged from blaming her for the death of her child and attacking the young mother’s personhood, to claims that the mother has made up this story to champion vaccinations.

This is a perfect, yet upsetting example of the grief trolls who transform another person’s public grief into a much uglier entity either for their own personal gain or just because they have nothing better to do. To claim that this young mother’s grief is unfounded, that she is to blame for the death of her child, or that the very existence of her child is fabricated completely invalidates the grief experience. These anti-vaxer grief trolls both inflict emotional harm on the bereaved and politicize another’s experience of grief to advance their own political agenda: that vaccines are bad.

While people have been using tragedy for political gain for years, this widespread grief trolling with specific political goals would not be possible without the role of social media in today’s grieving. The popular expression of grief through media platforms has rendered the grieving process notably more public than before, especially given the taboo nature of death in our society. Unlike the previously private dying and grieving process, this unboundedly public grief not only expands the audience which is witness to grief, but also creates a new platform through which strangers can appropriate and exploit the experiences of others.


Can someone who looks like they were in the Brady Bunch haunt you?

On a run with my friend Maura a few days ago, we passed the abandoned cabin collapsed into the mossy thrush that lines Davidson’s cross country trails.

I commented in passing that the sloping log edifice disintegrating into damp soil was a perfect representation of Mark Fisher’s definition of “the eerie”: a family had been once present here, we could see their turned over sink and ice-box. Ostensibly they were now absent, for reasons we were sure were fraught and nefarious.

“I want to take a photo of this but I feel like some spirit would possess my phone or something,” I commented jokingly.

“I found like a 1950’s saddle shoe here once,” Maura said, and then added “empty of course.”

Which provoked a strange thought, “ghosts like are never from like a decade after the 40s though.”

In the media, rarely do you see a ghost that isn’t a small victorian child in white-ish night gown with long stringy hair and empty eyes.

Enter Bethan Bell’s “Taken from life,” in which dead victorian folks are propped up with what I can only imagine are coat hangers and photographed. I was struck by the fact that the images were the crystallization of what my brain thought of when it thought of “ghost.” A ghost had to be someone distant from me in sense of dress and in decade. The more antiquated the more likely to come back haunting.

“Yeah like you wouldn’t see a ghost from the 1970’s. What would they do shake their bell bottoms at you and boo?” I said.

“But you also wouldn’t see like the ghost of a caveman or something” Maura decides.


So evidently one’s perception of “ghosthood” is highly temporal. It has a scopic element that refracts our categorization of who can who can’t be a ghost.

Why particularly are Victorian people so much more likely to be ghosts? Were they sadder, more melancholic, more ashen faced, more hysterical, more generally creepy?

Well, honestly, probably, but also we might find the answer in Jeffrey Cohen’s theses on monsters. Just as monsters are a “cultural body” so too seemingly is our perception of the ghost inflected with cultural anxiety (Cohen 4). 

I’m no historian on the late industrial period, nor am I exactly sure why the people of this time are the recycled fodder of many a haunting T.V. show, novel, or film.

Maybe some of this may connect to the insurgence of gothicism that began in the mid to late 18th century, maybe some of this was related to the increase in population, which meant a proportional increase in death, maybe victorian people were really just that more creepy than the rest of us. I can’t particularly point  to one reason. But it’s worth interrogating why I can’t fathom someone from the 80s rocking shoulder pads and a bad haircut haunting me.


A Violent Aesthetic: Walter Benjamin, Shopping for Weapons, and Videogames

I want to focus on the particularities and aestheticization of violence in video games because as many video game conventions showcase, the industry cultivates an aesthetic of violence with the intent of commercialization. Just as with T.V shows there’s a level to which video games are created to be merchandised, to exit the virtual reality into the material reality. And in this aestheticization, there is something perhaps violent involved. It almost reminds me of the end of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction” which maybe one could use as a theoretical foreground through which to understand the aesthetic of violence in video games as a form of purveying or making consumable. This is essentially at the core of violence as Carly Kocureck arguement in Who Harkens To The Monster’s Scream? (But to get into nitty gritty theory will have to wait for a longer paper.)

In response to Kocurek, I might push further and say that part of the violent outgrowth in video games becomes more so an aesthetic violence. How many Fortnite swords to children wield now across the globe? How many faux daggers were sold following the peak popularity of Assassin’s Creed? This aesthetic specifically is one which is done under the illusion that the gamer inhabits a free will inside the video game (Just as the consumer to an extent can decide what to buy while in the push pull tide of manipulative capitalism).

(Check out this interesting Amazon purchase for example):

One of the oppressive aspects of graphic video games is the illusion of choice that they create as they inscribe this aesthetic violence. This often begins when users generate an avatar, and as in the several iterations of Halo along with multiple other first-shooter games, players initially decide on their armor, and even the type and color of their weaponry. We are given the choice of color, but we have no choice as to whether or not we can choose to have a weapon. The act of choosing one’s avatar feels like an intensified trip to the mall for new clothes, however, with these clothes violence is sublimated, made quotidian, routine.

As games like this precede the ease at which multiple rounds are fired becomes a repetitive, almost addicting visualization of success. By ascending to the next level or in some cases receiving better weapons for attaining certain checkpoints, etc, we begin to create a false sense of self-determinism within an environment that actually has been pre-set before us. We are choosing to shoot the gun in our hands, but we can never rid ourselves of the gun itself. We can replace the AK 47 for the shotgun, but it’s glued to our virtual palms.

Thus we are never given the choice between non-violence and violence, we are only given the choice of this costume of violence or that.



Work Cited:

Benjamin, Andrew E. Walter Benjamin and Art. Continuum, 2005. Accessed 15 Feb. 2019.