I first met in person with Mary E. in the summer of 2007. I had arranged with her husband of fifteen years, Terence, to see her for an interview. Mary had initially agreed, since I was not a newsman but rather an amateur writer gathering information for a few early college assignments and, if all went according to plan, some pieces of fiction. We scheduled the interview for a particular weekend when I was in Chicago on unrelated business, but at the last moment Mary changed her mind and locked herself in the couple’s bedroom, refusing to meet with me. For half an hour I sat with Terence as we camped outside the bedroom door, I listening and taking notes while he attempted fruitlessly to calm his wife.
The things Mary said made little sense but fit with the pattern I was expecting: though I could not see her, I could tell from her voice that she was crying, and more often than not her objections to speaking with me centered around an incoherent diatribe on her dreams — her nightmares. Terence apologized profusely when we ceased the exercise, and I did my best to take it in stride; recall that I wasn’t a reporter in search of a story, but merely a curious young man in search of information. Besides, I thought at the time, I could perhaps find another, similar case if I put my mind and resources to it.
Mary E. was the sysop for a small Chicago-based Bulletin Board System in 1992 when she first encountered smile.jpg and her life changed forever. She and Terence had been married for only five months. Mary was one of an estimated 400 people who saw the image when it was posted as a hyperlink on the BBS, though she is the only one who has spoken openly about the experience. The rest have remained anonymous, or are perhaps dead.
In 2005, when I was only in tenth grade, smile.jpg was first brought to my attention by my burgeoning interest in web-based phenomena; Mary was the most often cited victim of what is sometimes referred to as “Smile.dog,” the being smile.jpg is reputed to display. What caught my interest (other than the obvious macabre elements of the cyber-legend and my proclivity toward such things) was the sheer lack of information, usually to the point that people don’t believe it even exists other than as a rumor or hoax.
It is unique because, though the entire phenomenon centers on a picture file, that file is nowhere to be found on the internet; certainly many photomanipulated simulacra litter the web, showing up with the most frequency on sites such as the imageboard 4chan, particularly the /x/-focused paranormal subboard. It is suspected these are fakes because they do not have the effect the true smile.jpg is believed to have, namely sudden onset temporal lobe epilepsy and acute anxiety.
This purported reaction in the viewer is one of the reasons the phantom-like smile.jpg is regarded with such disdain, since it is patently absurd, though depending on whom you ask the reluctance to acknowledge smile.jpg’s existence might be just as much out of fear as it is out of disbelief.
Neither smile.jpg nor Smile.dog is mentioned anywhere on Wikipedia, though the website features articles on such other, perhaps more scandalous shocksites as ****** (hello.jpg) or 2girls1cup; any attempt to create a page pertaining to smile.jpg is summarily deleted by any of the encyclopedia’s many admins.
Encounters with smile.jpg are the stuff of internet legend. Mary E.’s story is not unique; there are unverified rumors of smile.jpg showing up in the early days of Usenet and even one persistent tale that in 2002 a hacker flooded the forums of humor and satire website Something Awful with a deluge of Smile.dog pictures, rendering almost half the forum’s users at the time epileptic.
It is also said that in the mid-to-late 90s that smile.jpg circulated on usenet and as an attachment of a chain email with the subject line “SMILE!! GOD LOVES YOU!” Yet despite the huge exposure these stunts would generate, there are very few people who admit to having experienced any of them and no trace of the file or any link has ever been discovered.
Those who claim to have seen smile.jpg often weakly joke that they were far too busy to save a copy of the picture to their hard drive. However, all alleged victims offer the same description of the photo: A dog-like creature (usually described as appearing similar to a Siberian husky), illuminated by the flash of the camera, sits in a dim room, the only background detail that is visible being a human hand extending from the darkness near the left side of the frame. The hand is empty, but is usually described as “beckoning.” Of course, most attention is given to the dog (or dog-creature, as some victims are more certain than others about what they claim to have seen). The muzzle of the beast is reputedly split in a wide grin, revealing two rows of very white, very straight, very sharp, very human-looking teeth.
This is, of course, not a description given immediately after viewing the picture, but rather a recollection of the victims, who claim to have seen the picture endlessly repeated in their mind’s eye during the time they are, in reality, having epileptic fits. These fits are reported to continue indeterminably, often while the victims sleep, resulting in very vivid and disturbing nightmares. These may be treated with medication, though in someses it is more effective than others.
Mary E., I assumed, was not on effective medication. That was why after my visit to her apartment in 2007 I sent out feelers to several folklore- and urban legend-oriented newsgroups, websites, and mailing lists, hoping to find the name of a supposed victim of smile.jpg who felt more interested in talking about his experiences. For a time nothing happened and at length I forgot completely about my pursuits, since I had begun my freshman year of college and was quite busy. Mary contacted me via email, however, near the beginning of March 2008.
To: jml@****.com From: marye@****.net Subj: Last summer’s interview Dear Mr. L.,
I am incredibly sorry about my behavior last summer when you came to interview me. I hope you understand that it was no fault of yours, but rather my own problems that led me to act out as I did. I realized that I could have handled the situation more decorously; however, I hope you will forgive me. At the time, I was afraid.
You see, for fifteen years I have been haunted by smile.jpg. Smile.dog comes to me in my sleep every night. I know that sounds silly, but it is true. There is an ineffable quality about my dreams, my nightmares, that makes them completely unlike any real dreams I have ever had. I do not move and do not speak. I simply look ahead, and the only thing ahead of me is the scene from that horrible picture. I see the beckoning hand, and I see Smile.dog. It talks to me.
It is not a dog, of course, though I am not quite sure what it really is. It tells me it will leave me alone if only I do as it asks. All I must do, it says, is “spread the word.” That is how it phrases its demands. And I know exactly what it means: it wants me to show it to someone else.
And I could. The week after my incident I received in the mail a manila envelope with no return address. Inside was only a 3 ½ -inch floppy diskette. Without having to check, I knew precisely what was on it.
I thought for a long time about my options. I could show it to a stranger, a coworker… I could even show it to Terence, as much as the idea disgusted me. And what would happen then? Well, if Smile.dog kept its word I could sleep. Yet if it lied, what would I do? And who was to say something worse would not come for me if I did as the creature asked?
So I did nothing for fifteen years, though I kept the diskette hidden amongst my things. Every night for fifteen years Smile.dog has come to me in my sleep and demanded that I spread the word. For fifteen years I have stood strong, though there have been hard times. Many of my fellow victims on the BBS board where I first encountered smile.jpg stopped posting; I heard some of them committed suicide. Others remained completely silent, simply disappearing off the face of the web. They are the ones I worry about the most.
I sincerely hope you will forgive me, Mr. L., but last summer when you contacted me and my husband about an interview I was near the breaking point. I decided I was going to give you the floppy diskette. I did not care if Smile.dog was lying or not, I wanted it to end. You were a stranger, someone I had no connection with, and I thought I would not feel sorrow when you took the diskette as part of your research and sealed your fate.
Before you arrived I realized what I was doing: was plotting to ruin your life. I could not stand the thought, and in fact I still cannot. I am ashamed, Mr. L., and I hope that this warning will dissuade you from further investigation of smile.jpg. You may in time encounter someone who is, if not weaker than I, then wholly more depraved, someone who will not hesitate to follow Smile.dog’s orders.
Stop while you are still whole.
Sincerely, Mary E.
Terence contacted me later that month with the news that his wife had killed herself. While cleaning up the various things she’d left behind, closing email accounts and the like, he happened upon the above message. He was a man in shambles; he wept as he told me to listen to his wife’s advice. He’d found the diskette, he revealed, and burned it until it was nothing but a stinking pile of blackened plastic. The part that most disturbed him, however, was how the diskette had hissed as it melted. Like some sort of animal, he said.
I will admit that I was a little uncertain about how to respond to this. At first I thought perhaps it was a joke, with the couple belatedly playing with the situation in order to get a rise out of me. A quick check of several Chicago newspapers’ online obituaries, however, proved that Mary E. was indeed dead. There was, of course, no mention of suicide in the article. I decided that, for a time at least, I would not further pursue the subject of smile.jpg, especially since I had finals coming up at the end of May.
But the world has odd ways of testing us. Almost a full year after I’d returned from my disastrous interview with Mary E., I received another email:
To: jml@****.com From: elzahir82@****.com Subj: smile
I found your e-mail adress thru a mailing list your profile said you are interested in smiledog. I have saw it it is not as bad as every one says I have sent it to you here. Just spreading the word.
The final line chilled me to the bone.
According to my email client there was one file attachment called, naturally, smile.jpg. I considered downloading it for some time. It was mostly likely a fake, I imagined, and even if it weren’t I was never wholly convinced of smile.jpg’s peculiar powers. Mary E.’s account had shaken me, yes, but she was probably mentally unbalanced anyway. After all, how could a simple image do what smile.jpg was said to accomplish? What sort of creature was it that could break one’s mind with only the power of the eye?
And if such things were patently absurd, then why did the legend exist at all?
If I downloaded the image, if I looked at it, and if Mary turned out to be correct, if Smile.dog came to me in my dreams demanding I spread the word, what would I do? Would I live my life as Mary had, fighting against the urge to give in until I died? Or would I simply spread the word, eager to be put to rest? And if I chose the latter route, how could I do it? Whom would I burden in turn?
If I went through with my earlier intention to write a short article about smile.jpg, I decided, I could attach it as evidence. And anyone who read the article, anyone who took interest, would be affected. And even assuming the smile.jpg attached to the email was genuine, would I be capricious enough to save myself in that manner?