A recent post from the Hunter-based Instagram account, @huntercursedimages, is captioned “puff puff PISS!” In an email to The Envoy, one founder of the account referred to the image as “Juul in Toilet.” It delivers on the premise, displaying the popular and controversial e-cigarette submerged in the foamy water of a urinal. Scrolling through the feed, one might mistake it for a post by another Hunter-based Instagram account, the candidly named @toiletsofhuntercollege. Art History majors might recall Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.” The image provokes a sense of discomfort. It invites the viewer to question, why is it there? Was the staging intentional? Was someone so affected by the news of young people dying of the mystery vaping illness that they decided to discard it so dramatically? Or did it tragically slip loose from a pocket?
The “cursed image” is an internet meme first explored in 2015 by a Tumblr blog titled “CURSED IMAGES.” The blog deals in images which, as writer Jia Tolentino described in The New Yorker, “hew to the Freudian description of the uncanny: a sense that something once familiar has become terribly strange.” It inspired legions of copycat “cursed image” blogs, each with their own niche, and the meme format soon migrated to Twitter, Reddit and Instagram. Now, a quick search for the hashtag #cursedimage on Instagram yields over a million posts, and Google search records indicate an all-time peak in interest just this past October.
In an effort to pin down the elusive quality of the “cursed image,” one Reddit user, u/bullshitpapaya, describes the “cursed image” as “any image that can incite the 5 W’s in a person.” Via Instagram’s Direct Message feature, and through email, I spoke with the four founders of @huntercursedimages account. They gave only their first names, citing anonymity as key to their freedom of expression. One founder, Alejandro, echoed the “5 W’s” definition, writing that a “cursed image” is “anything that causes a sense of confusion, unease, or just makes you question reality. If the ‘Who? What? Where? When?’ and most importantly ‘Why?’ can only be vaguely answered, it is cursed.”
In another @huntercursedimages post, a torn and yellowed sign in a women’s restroom warns female students to “AVOID ISOLATED AREAS” on campus. It continues, “USE FACILITIES ON POPULATED FLOORS.” Students might wonder if there is a basilisk haunting the less populated women’s restrooms. The sign admonishes, “BE SMART – DON’T BE ALONE.” Evening students in particular would be surprised to read such a sign, as the campus is significantly less populated at that time. Inversely it might read, how stupid are you to use the bathroom by yourself? It is unknown if any such sign ever existed in the corresponding men’s restroom.
The post is captioned, “desolate wasteland (women’s restroom).” This evokes a desperate survivalism that should be out of place on a CUNY campus. But despite the sign’s absurd propositions, we cathect with it. Frequent postings to Hunter’s student Facebook page decry the loneliness of the commuter student experience. Everyone asks, “How do I make friends?” and meanwhile, a decrepit sign on the thirteenth floor screams, “DON’T BE ALONE.” It’s enough to make you laugh.
In another post, a distorted smiley face points to trailing laughter on a sign indicating elevator construction in the North building. Students complain that the reduced elevator capacity impedes their ability to get to class on time. With only ten minutes in between class periods, students are often left stranded by the dysfunctional elevators. Some opt to scale up to sixteen flights of stairs to avoid lateness. Students with mobility issues must wait for the few slow and overloaded elevator cars. The laughter in this image is a response to the common knowledge that construction on the elevators is continuously delayed. Block printed letters on the perennially closed elevator doors currently read, “COMING SOON / FALL 2019.” The fall semester ends in a few short weeks. We laugh again, albeit defeatedly.
Another founder, Elizabeth, compared the account’s bleak sense of humor in the face of what she labels the “Hunterian bureaucratic state” to the film Mad Max, calling Hunter a “post-apocalyptic gold mine.” On the power of the “cursed image” in situ, she wrote in an email, “Laughter is a form of emotional processing. In this case, we are processing strife in an uncaring and broken institution. There is light in absurdity, and this light is communicable, shareable, and likable — figuratively and literally.” Surely students see the “light” she refers to, or at least they “like” the post to join in the collective sigh.
As students struggle to deal with what another founder, Josh, terms the “Olde Age of the buildings,” they find relief in humor and the company of one another. Elizabeth wrote that “Laughter is an interpersonal act… We all just want to see some funny shit in a dark, or ‘cursed’ place.” Josh wrote, “I like to think that the fact that we put locations under all of our finds actually leads to some people going to those places to check the cursed images out in person… This, along with the fact that we invite people to send in their own images for us to post, fosters a feeling of community.”
The fourth founder, Diana, wrote, “Our school is completely broken and everyone knows that. I’m really grateful for some of the facilities and amenities we have, but I’d really appreciate not needing to get to Hunter twenty minutes too early just so I can get to class on time, waiting for these elevators. Everyone’s sick of dealing with this administration and having to work around leaky ceilings, rotting walls, and bug/rodent infestations, especially when our tuition is constantly increasing and going nowhere. I guess they appreciate that we highlight these issues in a comedic way.”
I asked, “How do you feel when you stumble upon something worthy of a @huntercursedimages post, at Hunter, in real life?” and Elizabeth wrote, “‘Wow! Structural collapse!’ *snaps photo* That response seems to be characteristic of my generation.” Josh wrote, “Defeated, in a happy way. When I’m tired and just trying to make it through the day, walking into something cursed piles onto the exhaustive reality of this city, which itself is cursed. But I’m already over it, so all I do is laugh, snap a picture and keep on keeping on.” Diana wrote, “Well, I immediately think, ‘This is perfect for the page.’ But also, ‘Why is Hunter like this?’”