Chain Mail Is Back & It’s Preying On People With OCD

Photographed by Michael Beckert.
Twenty-seven-year-old Erica Kathleen regularly finds herself making private TikTok videos in the middle of the night to "manifestation sounds". She never posts the videos and says she wishes she didn’t have to make them but the obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) she’s had for the past decade makes her feel it’s impossible not to. OCD is an exhausting mental health condition that is made up of hugely misunderstood obsessions and compulsions, both external (like having to complete a task a set number of times) and internal (like fighting "bad" thoughts). The anxiety of OCD means that sufferers feel something unbearable will happen unless they engage in their compulsions. It can take over lives. In this case, the TikTok audios are putting the health of her loved ones on Erica’s shoulders. 
Erica is one of many with OCD who say the rise in "manifestation sounds" and "claim sounds" is wreaking havoc on their days. These videos are TikTok's accidental reimagining of chain mail. They span various popular audios — one common sound has over 700,000 videos under it — while #claim, the hashtag often used in the captions of these posts, has over 15 billion views. The videos don’t tell you ghost stories of murdered teenagers like the emails of the 2000s or push financial pyramid schemes like the physical "Send-A-Dime" chain letters delivered to houses in the 1930s. Instead, they instruct viewers to use a specific audio or interact with the video in order to prevent something happening. What started as opportunities for people to encourage good luck has snowballed into threats of pets dying or car accidents.
"I can't tell you how many videos I have in my drafts of these sounds," 22-year-old MJ tells Refinery29. MJ’s OCD means she finds herself listing three things she likes about her surroundings while driving in order to relieve anxieties about a car crash. It also means she uses manifestation sounds whenever she comes across them, even in the middle of a work or school day. The stress of these claim sounds has become a regular subject during MJ’s therapy sessions. "I don't want to drop everything I'm doing and make a stupid five-second video but it brings me a great amount of anxiety. A lot of my OCD is just thinking that I have these magical manifesting powers and that anything bad I think will happen, will happen." 
MJ’s "magical manifesting powers" are described by medical professionals as "magical thinking", a form of OCD in which people try to counter an intrusive thought (any unwanted and often taboo thought) with an unrelated compulsion. Compulsions provide temporary relief but ultimately intensify symptoms and fear in the long run. Manifestation videos offer up an intrusive thought with its "healing compulsion" on a silver platter.
Chain mail has been around for decades (see: The Guardian’s hate letter to the act in 1999) but physical letters and email inboxes didn’t have the algorithmic genius of TikTok. Users find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle that sees them interacting with videos to clear their worry only for TikTok to take it as evidence they want more. 

I don't want to drop everything I'm doing and make a stupid five-second video but it brings me a great amount of anxiety. A lot of my OCD is just thinking that I have these magical manifesting powers and that anything bad I think will happen, will happen.

MJ, 22
These sounds hide under the guise of manifestation, which has boomed in recent years, thanks in large part to TikTok. The idea that thoughts can become reality can be difficult itself for some with OCD but manifestation is often an open invite to users, with a "no worries if not" attitude to non-partakers — a clear difference from the threats of claim sounds. 
"I think about people with OCD who are struggling worse than I am [and] who are seeing that stuff," says MJ. "I just don't want it to be something that makes their life worse."
Both original chain mail and modern manifestation sounds play on very natural human anxieties and fears about things that impact us all, with or without OCD: luck, health, relationships. It offers a sense of control over the uncontrollable future — something that many people have a hard time sitting with comfortably. It taps into the same need that might make you avoid three drains in a row or refuse to open an umbrella indoors; it's the research that suggests superstitions boom during times of uncertainty, from war to economic crisis.
"There's a sense of urgency, it feels very life or death. Even people without OCD can relate to that scary feeling," says Esther Fernandez, who’s behind the popular TikTok account of mental health nonprofit Made of Millions and has OCD herself. 
Erica says her first memory of feeling able to control an irrational situation that scared her was her decision as a child to bathe instead of shower for weeks after receiving her first chain mail about a girl that kills in the shower. 
Psychologist Dr Ree Langham from Impulse Therapy says that while a video alone is unlikely to cause OCD, it could be a trigger for those who don’t know they have it. "When it comes to younger people, they are at a crucial stage in their lives when reasoning skills and critical thinking are being developed. So repeatedly consuming content like the TikTok video trend could create irrational fears," she explains.
"I don't think that anybody's doing it with pure malicious intent," says MJ, who believes that it likely comes down to a lack of awareness of OCD and its less glamorised symptoms. Despite an estimated 1.2% of both the UK and US populations having OCD, with that number rising to 2% for lifetime prevalence in the US, it remains massively misrepresented. OCD to many is Monica Geller and her tidying or Khloe Kardashian and her "KhlO-C-D" arranging Oreos in glass jars. Even when compulsions are recognised as part of the disorder, the focus is often on cleaning alone, like excessively scrubbing one's hands. It’s never someone who is embarrassed to tell a therapist — let alone anyone else — about their intrusive thoughts.
That, MJ explains, used to be her. "I only recently started talking to my therapist about [my intrusive thoughts]," she says. "With depression or anxiety, those can be easier thoughts to share with other people because they can understand, like, Okay, you're feeling really sad right now, or Okay, you're feeling really nervous right now. But as far as OCD [goes], it can put these really gross, violent thoughts in your head that you will internalise and be like, Oh my god, that just popped into my brain, am I a terrible, shitty person?"
For Erica, who says she usually wouldn’t expect people on social media to have to think about her personal OCD triggers, this time it feels a little different. "This isn't 'the world needs to cater to me' because if we all cater to everybody's mental health, the world wouldn't operate. Everyone's going to have triggers," she says. "But these seem particularly predatory for the sake of nothing. I think that the core thing is that it's preying on my actions correlating to something happening."

This isn't 'the world needs to cater to me' because if we all cater to everybody's mental health, the world wouldn't operate. Everyone's going to have triggers. But these seem particularly predatory for the sake of nothing.

Erica, 27
Anna Bailie is a PhD researcher in politics, mental health and social media at the University of York. She says that while it’s important to step away from placing the responsibility on the individual as this simply adds to the pressures of social media and the community, it’s vital for people to think of social media as the public space that it is and be mindful. "We're beyond thinking of the offline and online as separate. Broadly across online research, data research, everyone is of the opinion that you cannot separate the two," says Anna. Essentially, if you’re not the type of person to tell a stranger on the bus that their mum’s going to die, maybe don’t do it on TikTok. 
Although Anna believes that it’s often on tech companies to do more when it comes to damaging content, manifestation sounds pose a unique problem of going under the radar. "It's actually quite hard to decipher this content. It can hide itself within that wider manifestation content because it's so hard to sort of recognise words like that [and] to then be like, Oh, this is potentially damaging [and flag]," she explains. 
Esther says that she uses the videos as a form of exposure, enforcing "non engagement responses" to take away the power from the compulsion. "Sort of leaving it up in the air," she says. "Maybe something bad would happen, that would really suck, but I'm not going to engage in this behaviour. These thoughts can pop in, they can pop out, they can be really scary, but ultimately it’s for the better to not fight these thoughts or do any of these compulsive behaviours."
Dr Langham acknowledges that it can be hard but recommends doing all you can to limit your exposure to manifestation sounds if you do have OCD. Although TikTok is yet to introduce the option to block audios, features like "not interested" or blocking specific content and creators who make these videos can be useful. Dr Langham also suggests speaking to a therapist about the videos and employing any coping mechanisms you may already have in place. MJ, for instance, tells trusted people about the videos when they come up and how they’re making her feel in that moment.
Refinery29 has reached out to TikTok for comment.
Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here.

More from Mind