Online communities have a notorious death-faking problem, from cult fanfiction deserters to unraveling indie yarn retailers
Indie romance author Susan Meachen was never famous—that is, until she committed suicide. Then, two years later, she uncommitted, taking to Facebook to share that she was never dead in the first place. “I am in a good place now and I am hoping to write again,” Meachen wrote in The Ward, the 700-person writing community she once managed. “Let the fun begin.”
But for those who knew Meachen, this announcement wasn’t fun. After the author’s alleged suicide was announced in 2020, the indie writing community offered an outpouring of support. There were fundraisers to help her grieving family, and fellow authors who banded together to edit, publish, and promote her posthumous books free of charge—at least, until they realized she was still lurking among them, having reprised her role as group moderator under a new alias, TN Steel.
To most, faking their own death is all but unimaginable—yet the act of doing so, otherwise known as “pseudocide,” has been well-documented throughout history, with people fleeing debt and criminal prosecution in favor of a life on the lam. It will come as no surprise that in an era of smartphones, location data, surveillance, and social media, it’s increasingly hard to get away with a disappearing act—yet while faking one’s death in the physical world is more difficult than ever, doing so online is shockingly easy. The phenomenon of online pseudocide is especially common in virtual communities, where social pressures feel real, but the bar for successfully faking your own death is surprisingly low.
In 2021, TikToker Berklie Stolz admitted to faking her own death on Fanfiction.net a dozen years ago, where she wrote a popular fanfiction under the pen name Blay Nix. “I’ve always been a bit of a people pleaser,” she told The Daily Dot, explaining that she didn’t want to write the story anymore, but was afraid of letting the community down. Then she had an idea: “I’ll just tell them I died, and that way nobody is going to be upset with me for not updating anymore.”
In a Facebook post written from the perspective of Blay’s friend Nena, Stolz announced that she died of cancer, thanking the community for their kind words and stating that “the only thing that kept her going so long was writing.” She wasn’t the only one: Fake deaths were relatively common in the fanfiction community, with authors killing off their personas instead of admitting that life simply got too busy to offer another installment of Harry x Draco smut. (It may not be a coincidence that many romance authors, including the infamous E.L. James of Fifty Shades fame, got their start writing fanfiction.)
“We’re living in a post-Trump, post Q-Anon world. And historically, fake deaths have increased during times of great social upheaval, such as 9/11 and the Great Depression. These are times that are ripe for any kind of fraud.”
Some people fake their deaths to get out of writing, but for author Elizabeth Greenwood, it was part of the process. On paper, Greenwood died in 2013, the victim of a nasty car crash in the Philippines—at least, according to the falsified documents she acquired as part of her research for Playing Dead, a book that takes readers on a journey into the world of death fraud, and what it really takes to disappear in the 21st century.
There are countless complications to every garden variety pseudocide scheme, according to privacy expert Frank Ahern, the author of How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, And Vanish Without A Trace (2010.) Ahern once advised Greenwood that those hoping to fake their deaths shouldn’t stage a fatal accident; rather, they should just erase themselves online, or offer a counternarrative as to their whereabouts. At the time, it was 2012, and she didn’t see the point of a virtual pseudocide—but as our lives have become increasingly rooted in the digital world, his observation feels prescient.
As well as making it harder to move through the physical world without a trace, the advent of the internet opened up new possibilities for disappearance: personas that can be born and killed off without half as much commitment as it would take to uproot your real, physical life. “I don’t think people are seeing it as, ‘I am ending my life now once and for all.’ It’s like, ‘I’m ending my life for now,’” Greenwood says, noting that the rapid-fire nature of digital life has altered our perception of the permanence of our decisions.
The prevalence of online pseudocide, Greenwood says, points to our increasingly screen-mediated reality. “It seems, to me, that for the Susan Meachens of the world, the internet really was where they were living their life,” she says. Since releasing her book in 2016, things have changed a lot—not just our relationship to technology, but also to truth. “We’re living in a post-Trump, post Q-Anon world,” she says. “And historically, fake deaths have increased during times of great social upheaval, such as 9/11 and the Great Depression. These are times that are ripe for any kind of fraud.”
While fabricating your own demise is not a crime in and of itself, starting a new life under a false identity makes it near-impossible to avoid committing widespread fraud—even if you don’t plan on collecting life insurance for your old identity. And though Greenwood received her falsification documents for free, as part of her book deal, faking one’s death can be very expensive, ranging from a few hundred dollars to the tune of $30,000, if you hire someone to erase your digital and physical footprint.
Online, the main cost of pseudocide is social—while it may be easier to pull off than disappearing IRL, the grief is just as real for the people you leave behind. Fellow romance writer Samantha A. Cole, a frequent correspondent of Meachen’s, was horrified to learn that someone she once considered a friend had subjected the indie writing community to such unnecessary pain. “I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut,” she wrote in a viral, receipt-filled Facebook post detailing Meachen’s transgressions. “Excuse me while I now go get shitfaced in memory of coworkers and friends who I know really did commit suicide.”
“I don’t think people are seeing it as, ‘I am ending my life now once and for all.’ It’s like, ‘I’m ending my life for now.’”
Viewed in a vacuum, it’s possible to see why the real-life impact of your actions might be easy to dismiss when you only know someone on the internet. “I’ve been in more than one community where someone faked their own death—or even the death of their (fake) baby—to avoid consequences,” commented one Redditor, stating that the internet makes it alarmingly easy. Others feel it’s a fair approach in low-accountability settings, claiming that faking one’s death “is the internet equivalent of ‘the dog ate my homework.’”
Often, a little scrutiny is all it takes to unravel a death fraud—but rarely is this so literal as in the case of the indie yarn-dyeing community, which suffered a rash of “tragic, sudden, and utterly fake” deaths in the early-2000s. At the time, a cottage industry of at-home yarn retailers had sprung up seemingly overnight, brought on by the rise of Etsy and the increasing popularity of the hobby. Retailers like Mystical Creations Yarns and GothSocks accrued a cult following for their custom-dyed yarns—which was all well and good, until small businesses scaled too quickly. Faced with an overwhelming backlog of yarn-dyeing orders, multiple indie yarn retailers pronounced themselves dead instead of, well, dyeing. The phenomenon was so common that Ravelry, a popular website for fiber crafting, even spawned a drama-watching sub-group called Ravelry Rubberneckers where you could see it all go down, popcorn in hand.
While people’s reasons for faking their deaths may differ, what they have in common is that there usually is a definable motive, like evading prosecution or money trouble—at least, in the real world. But as the parameters of what’s required to justify faking one’s death has shifted, so too have the demographics engaging in pseudocide—so much so that Tennessee-based indie romance authors and custom yarn sellers are the ones doing it, as opposed to criminals and CEOs escaping six-figure debt.
In cases both physical and digital, people considering pseudocide usually underestimate the consequences of their actions. “Often, people think that they’re going to fake their deaths, let things chill out for a while, and then reintegrate back into their previous lives—and you really can’t do that,” Greenwood explains, citing Meachen’s story as an example of the chaos this kind of stunt can cause.
Throughout her research, Greenwood found herself asking, What would be a moral reason to fake your death? “I think that the classic is a woman faking her death to get away from an abusive partner,” she muses. “But I haven’t personally encountered that.” In fact, the overwhelming majority of pseudocides are performed by men—meaning that it’s either more common for men to fake their deaths, or that women are better at not getting caught.
“In my reporting, I was always hoping to come across a unicorn: a person who just faked their death because they were bored, someone who did have some big immoral reason behind why they did it,” says Greenwood. She never did find one—but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there. After all, “We never hear about people who fake their death successfully,” Greenwood says. “We just presume they’re dead.”