Urban legends were once morality tales, usually told from the perspective of “a friend of a friend,” who just happened to know the real story. While some of these tales persist, the Internet has seemingly made everything immediately verifiable. Have a story about a mixing exploding candy with soda? A quick internet search immediately debunks the claim. But that doesn’t mean people have stopped telling each other stories on the Internet itself, stories about things that can be verified—and stories about memory and reality.
Some people are convinced they remember Nelson Mandela dying in prison in South Africa in 1985. The nation mourned, his wife gave a memorable eulogy. This was all on the news. Lots and lots of people remember this happening.
Of course, none of this actually happened. Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and was president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 and he died in 2013.
So why do people think he died in prison in the ’80s? And why did this error give rise to one of the Internet’s weirdest urban legends—the Mandela Effect?
The term “Mandela Effect” was coined in 2010 by paranormal researcher Sofia Broome when she noticed that others, like her, misremembered the Mandela funeral. From there the “effects” grew and grew. Stores had different names. Logos looked different. Meat products were spelled differently. Beloved characters in movies said lines differently and songs ended in new and confusing ways.
The Mandela Effect, as true believers describe it, might be evidence that we’re living in an alternate reality—and there are legions of true believers.
Communities on Reddit that discuss the subject have over 200,000 members. There are web sites, hashtags and videos with millions of views. All these people remember things one way, even though all the evidence points to the exact opposite.
Enthusiasts call evidence of the effects “residue” as if there was a timeline that has since been erased and we’re only able to see the residual hints of what once was.
A popular theory is that CERN, the European research center, caused a splinter in time and space when it fired up the Large Hadron Collider in 2008 and started flinging atoms at other atoms to discover the roots of the universe. Of course, there’s absolutely no evidence to support this theory.
Some believers think there are endless universes closely aligned with ours and we shift in and out of them, our timeline in a constant state of flux. Some say the Mandela Effect is evidence we’re now in the dankest timeline…some say the worst.
The theories and explanations are as many and varied as the effects themselves: it’s a huge conspiracy, this logo looked like this, we’re all living in a computer simulation, this celebrity is dead, this one is alive, nothing is real, this popular song ended one way and now it doesn’t. The reasons and the effects go on and on and on…and some of them are super creepy.
I stumbled on the Mandela Effect by accident. A few years ago, I was checking out Reddit and saw a thread titled, “Y’all Remember the BerenstEin Bears? Guess What, They Never Existed.”
Naturally, I was curious because I definitely remembered the Berenstein Bears books. I read them as a child and was pretty sure I’d learned a lesson or two from Papa Bear and the Berenstein gang as a young reader.
Of course, the only problem was that I remembered them as the BerenstEin bears and they are, in actuality, the BerenstAin bears—and that didn’t make a lick of sense. There were hundreds of people like me on the thread who were also confused and many with theories about why we remembered it this way.
I’m not entirely sure this means we’re living in an alternate universe, but my brain did hurt for a few days as I tried to process how something that seemed so indelible from childhood, how I could see in my head the script font at the top of so many books spelled Berenstein.
I still want to type out Berenstein Bears every time I type out Berenstain Bears. I still ask people all the time how they remember it and they almost always remember it being spelled with an E.
Vaughn Royko runs DebunkingMandelaEffects.com and found out about the effect when the Berenstain Bears effect blew up on message boards all over the web in 2015. He is, as his URL implies, something of a skeptic.
“I’m of the opinion that the Mandela Effect is real; however, the explanations for them involve psychology, sociology, brain function and memory in general. Since these things are hard to test for, they are largely theories and hypothesis,” Royko said in an email.
“People try to make up ways for these “changes” in their memories to make sense. This is when some resort to alternate realities, shifting of dimensions, CERN causing space/time rifts and other things that have no basis in reality. People expect their memory to be infallible; but it’s probably not.”
Dr. John Paul Garrison is a clinical and forensic psychologist practicing near Atlanta, Georgia. He’s spent years reading about the effect on various message boards and has noticed Mandela Effects in movies and pop culture personally. While he’s also bit of a skeptic, he’s not dismissive of the effect and finds it fascinating.
“I suspect that some memories are spontaneously created when we read certain Mandela Effect news. However, once that new memory is in there, it might seem like it has been there forever,” he said in an email.
“Human memory is imperfect and, unfortunately, the Mandela Effect is likely secondary to our flawed retention. If we could find a few people with a photographic memory that could make for a great experiment, but sadly that has not been proven to exist in adults.”
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