Hell in a Cell: The surprising story behind the Reddit meme

Thursday, 30 November 2017, 10:33:14 AM. Meet the man who started the infamous tribute to pro wrestling and gullibility.

It goes like this. Someone posts a link, image or question on Reddit. A thread starts and comments pour in. A Redditor named Chris chimes in with a message that reads like a thoughtful, relevant addition to the discussion. Then his comment takes a sudden swerve, always ending with the same line: "...in nineteen ninety eight when the undertaker threw mankind off hеll in a cell, and plummeted sixteen feet through an announcer's table."

That seemingly cryptic sentence refers to a 1998 pay-per-view pro wrestling match that pitted feuding fighters The Undertaker (a sort of proto-goth character) against Mankind (a deranged lunatic). The two duked it out on top of a massive cage called Hell in a Cell as more than 17,000 fans in the audience shouted and cheered. In a clip of the infamous moment, you can hear the announcer shout, "As God is my witness, he is broken in half!"

If you spend any time on Reddit, an online community with more than 250 million users, there's a decent chance you've read one of Chris' Hell in a Cell curveballs. The self-described old-school wrestling fan, who goes by the Reddit handle "shittymorph," has dropped over 140 Hell comments in the past year in Reddit threads on everything from leaf insects to corn chips and coal miners.

They've become such a phenomenon on the site, they've earned an explanation page on the Know Your Meme website.

This meme brought some joy and, believe it or not, a small amount of purpose to my existence.  Reddit user "shittymorph"

Since he started posting Hell in a Cell comments, Chris has gotten private messages saying he should get cancer or his dog should die. "I was kind of hoping you'd realize you're a pathetic loser and had committed suicide," one reads. "No such luck." Because of messages like those, Chris doesn't want his last name used. He did share it with me, however, and I was able to corroborate his identity.

"I think some people get pissed about my posts due to the time waste," he says via Reddit private message, his preferred method of communicating with me as we talk over several weeks. Getting Hell in a Cell'ed is a lot like getting Rickrolled, where you click on a link expecting to find a relevant website, but instead land on a video of '80s pop singer Rick Astley crooning "Never Gonna Give You Up."

Plenty of Reddit fans revel in Chris' bamboozle, though, and they message him telling him what his Hell in a Cell comments mean to them. "Sometimes I just have really hard days," one college student wrote him. "Sometimes on those days I'll happen to see one of your posts, and it helps a bit." Another Redditor messaged him from a hospital bed, thanking Chris for making him laugh at a time when could barely lift a spoon to feed himself.

"The fact that someone else catches a smile from the Undertaker/Mankind thing makes the effort worth it," Chris says. 

hellinacell2

The infamous WWE Hell in a Cell cage that inspired the Reddit meme. 

Before Hell in a Cell, a personal hell 

Without comment threads, Reddit would be a ghost town. Redditors live for comments and replies, whether they're starting a new conversation or just jumping in. They even earn publicly visible "karma" points when others on the site like what they have to say. Chris' own karma haul approaches 700,000 points, more than celebrity Reddit users like Bill Gates or Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

reddit-shittymorph-hell-in-a-cell-6350Enlarge Image

Chris, known as "shittymorph" on Reddit, sits along the waterfront in Alameda, east of San Francisco.

"All of the magic of Reddit is in the comments," says an employee for the site who asked to remain anonymous, telling me Reddit doesn't comment on individual users. It's in the comments where the community comes together, conflicts arise and discussions both whimsical and thoughtful unfold.

Chris started his Hell in a Cell Reddit run in January after seeing a reference to the match in an unrelated Facebook post. He thought it was funny and transferred it over to his Reddit world, dropping it into random discussions.

That moment of levity came at a dark time. Chris' father, who struggled with depression and alcoholism, committed suicide a couple of months earlier, and the Redditor desperately needed a laugh. "This meme brought some joy and, believe it or not, a small amount of purpose to my existence," he says.

Chris, who was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and still lives there, is 37 and has been homeless at times, living in tents, warehouses and an old RV on an abandoned property. That's where he was when the Hell in a Cell meme kicked into gear.

The best KOs come from punches you don't see.   Reddit user "shittymorph"

He's more settled now. He sleeps on an air mattress in a rented room where two paintings of a now-departed dog he loved fiercely hang on the wall. There's a coffee pot, a desk and a TV he never turns on. The room's sparse, but he says he has everything he wants and needs.

He lives with his beloved pit-bull mix Scooby, who authorities rescued from a dog-fighting group in 2015. The other dogs seized with Scooby were euthanized for their trained aggression, but mild-mannered Scooby got a chance at life after months of socialization and rehab and finding a new home with Chris.

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Chris, who has been homeless at times, now shares a rented room with his rescue dog Scooby. 

Chris adopted the pit bull after seeing a Facebook post asking for foster help. After he lost his previous canine companion to cancer, "I didn't want to get another dog, but when my father killed himself I needed something to help," says Chris, who posts photos and videos of the brown, short-haired pup with soulful eyes on Reddit.

The combination of rescue dog and Reddit meme might seem like an unusual recipe for peace of mind, but it's working for Chris. "Life is not all perfect the entire way through," he muses, but he's grateful for the life he's living. He has a dog he adores and a Reddit avocation that's become its own art form.

Creativity blooms from Chris not just on Reddit, but in other aspects of his life. He records rap songs and is a member of the Actors' Equity Association. He stood in for one of the Baldwin brothers and once played a character killed by a pickaxe in a movie. But acting "never panned out and I became disillusioned with the industry as a whole," he says.

Today, Chris works in IT for an auto parts company, but he has another ambition -- working for Reddit. He bumped into a Reddit admin in real life and sent his resume to the company. "I'd be happy to be a coffee runner over there really," he says. But he admits he's not holding his breath.

Crafting the perfect 'Hellish' comment

Chris doesn't just toss his fictionalized Hell in a Cell comments into the Reddit tangle. He researches them first. He'll talk about executing a "deck fan" in a comment about a card magic trick, discuss nitrogen packaging of chips or cite George Orwell's "1984." That sense of plausibility is a big part of what lures people into his messages only to eventually reach that magic moment when The Undertaker throws Mankind off Hell in a Cell.

"The best KOs come from punches you don't see," Chris says. 

His success relies on the fact that most people read an online comment before reading the name of the person who posted it. I've personally fallen for Chris' writing skills countless times as he lulls me into a reverie about how his grandmother met Colonel Sanders or how dangerous an ostrich can be, only to end up laughing as "nineteen ninety eight" appears and my sense of reality is gently upended.

Chris writes quite a few Hell in a Cell posts he doesn't end up sharing. "If I re-read it after I wrote it and it makes me smile to myself, I will post it," he says.

Comment from discussion shittymorph's comment from discussion "Very clear water [Sweden]".

Chris typically checks Reddit a few times a day, but says he doesn't pay close attention to his Reddit karma. People have offered him money to post links and use his influence to get them noticed, but he says he always refuses.

"I am proud of the shittymorph account and wouldn't post for profit. I do it to entertain myself and because what entertains me also makes a good number of other people laugh," he explains. While he's been active as shittymorph for over a year, he's been on Reddit for seven years with other names.

A spammy Reddit past

Chris wasn't always cruising for laughs on Reddit. "I used to try to spam Reddit for YouTube views," he admits. Another Reddit user, who goes by Umbraphile-NS and also asked to keep his identity private, caught onto Chris' shenanigans and tried to discourage the behavior. "He called me out on that in a not-so-friendly sort of way," Chris says. "But I listened to him and, believe it or not, we became friends."

chrisroom1cropped

Scooby has helped bring Chris peace of mind. 

While Umbraphile-NS was unhappy about Chris' initial ploys, such as crafting made-up stories to feed YouTube traffic, he came to appreciate Chris' growth into a smarter Redditor. "I came across some of shittymorph's offline activity and discovered that he had a part of his persona that was genuinely a good guy," says Umbraphile-NS.

Umbraphile-NS encouraged Chris' forays into Hell in a Cell. "The shittymorph role I think is helping to make Reddit a continued destination for people looking for good laughs," Umbraphile-NS says. "It is a good lesson that in a humorous way makes folks learn to be wary of what they're having confidence in online."

With an internet full of fake news, Hell in a Cell is a timely reminder to always check your sources. And Reddit users can expect Hell in a Cell to continue. Chris intends to keep it going until he no longer finds it funny, despite the fact that in nineteen ninety eight the undertaker threw mankind off hеll in a cell, and plummeted sixteen feet through an announcer's table.   

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