‘The world’s worst superhero’, Florida Man has become one of the internet’s most well-known memes. As the state known for unusual headlines, Florida has become a source of humour for many internet denizens, who share news from the state on social media platforms like twitter and reddit.
The many stories have motivated millions to take on the ‘Florida Man Challenge’, where people Google for Florida Man stories that occurred on their birth dates. Florida has become associated with all manner of unusual headlines, and even international tabloids began using the Florida Man headline formatting style (Hill, 2019).
Like the US, Singapore has its own ‘Florida’ famous for unusual incidents: a residential neighbourhood known as Yishun, which is also ‘memed’ online and associated with bad luck and bizarre incidents. Dubbed the ‘Devil’s Ring’, or ‘Singapore’s Ghetto’ by local bloggers, Yishun has become infamous for drugs, murders, suicides, cat killings; a direct contrast to Singapore’s reputation for safety (Travel Safe – Abroad, 2021). A more recent phenomenon in comparison to Florida, Yishun has garnered attention from local news (Loh, 2017) and foreign bloggers (Awang, 2019). Netflix even made use of Yishun as part of their promotional video for Stranger Things (Lam, 2017).
Yishun’s infamy is a recent trend compared to Florida’s, though it is not entirely clear why it was picked out over other residential districts. Perhaps it is inevitable – some areas in a country will have more strange incidents than others. ‘Cursed’ locations have been around for far longer than Florida Man has been a meme, from haunted castles to jinxed islands. Across the world, countries have their own unique spots with their own type of misfortune: Japan has Inokashira Park, known for ending relationships, while countless castles across Europe have their own unique ghost stories.
It is possible that many of these places have simply been subject to rumours and hearsay, resulting in a tarnished reputation. Alternatively, some of these places have colourful histories of murder and war, which lead people to believe them to be haunted or cursed, and any incidents that occur only serve to confirm the bias people have towards the place.
For instance, castles with particularly violent histories have the tendency to become famous for paranormal activity, such as Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, or Corvin Castle in Romania (Woodman, 2017). Other places have urban legends cantered around the local religion: in the case of Inokashira Park, the ‘curse’ and its ability to break up couples is attributed to the local goddess Benzaiten becoming jealous of lovers (Spacey, 2014). And of course, there is the Bermuda Triangle, an area in the North Atlantic Ocean blamed for the disappearances of airplanes and ships; a source for a large number of myths and conspiracies that have been the subject of countless books and articles.
Statistics paint a different picture from what internet memes would have us believe. In 2019, Yishun was found to rank only 4th highest in terms of crime rate (Tan, 2019), while an older study looking into preventable crime recorded by Neighbourhood Police Centres in 2016 found that Yishun North ranked 18th and Yishun South ranked 29th out of 36 (Nee Soon Town Council, 2018). Some of its issues, such as animal abuse, are equally prevalent in other residential areas such as Tampines and Ang Mo Kio, but do not receive the same level of media attention (Koh, 2017).
Similarly, Florida is not the den of crime it has become reputed for – in 2020, Florida ranked 21st for violent crime rate at 384.9 per 100,000 people (Stebbins, 2020).
According to Craig Pittman, a Tampa Bay Times journalist and a Florida Man himself, Florida’s reputation for bizarre news headlines can be traced back to the election recount in 2000 (Luscombe, 2019), where controversy arose over the recount of the ballots (Elving, 2018). Florida’s status as a hotbed of strange incidents also may be explained by its open government laws, which makes it easy for news outlets to obtain information for their stories (Munzenrieder, 2015). As the third largest state by population, Florida is home to many immigrants, and its polarized nature – being home to both the very rich and very poor, the very liberal and the very conservative – may be another contributing factor, according to lawyer Roy Black (Alvarez, 2015). The geography with sinkholes and alligator-infested swamplands further contributes to the weirdness of the area (Hill, 2019).
Like Florida, Singaporeans have their own theories on why Yishun was singled out: Ryan Ong of 99.co suggested that the lower population density makes Yishun a more feasible place for covert activities, such as those of a less-than-legal nature (Ong, 2017). Member of Parliament (MP) Louis Ng simply attributes the phenomenon to how bad news sells faster than good news. Of course, there are also those like paranormal investigator Charles Goh, who simply believe that the place is haunted (Geddie, 2020).
The average Singaporean on the street seem to agree with the statistics. I spoke to people living within and outside of Yishun, and many do not find Yishun any stranger than other parts of Singapore, even when they were aware of Yishun’s bad reputation. Yishun residents Michael Lim and Ian Fong told me they had not noticed any strange incidents despite having lived in the area for years. Ian described living in Yishun as “calm and peaceful’” and that though he knew of a strange man in the area, he does not consider that too unusual; rather, he jokingly called himself the “weird” resident of Yishun. Neither were particularly offended by Yishun’s less-than-stellar reputation.
Other non-Yishun locals I interviewed were perfectly willing to move in, citing the nearby amenities as reasons. This is backed up by property prices in the area. Prices for residential flats have increased by 31.1% since 2010 (Khandelwal, 2021), and resale flats in Yishun have become some of the most popular in recent years (Koay, 2021). One interviewee, Patrick Kok, wondered instead about the longevity of Yishun’s negative reputation, pointing out how the Bedok Reservoir, another location in Singapore, had gained a reputation for being a suicide spot back in 2013, but is now no longer famed for such (MBev, 2013).
Some Yishun residents are not as sanguine about the meme, however. Eva Tan, a Yishun resident, posted on Facebook on how she was “sick and tired” of being the brunt of jokes, and that some incidents are in fact not the fault of ‘Yishunites’, who are the victims. She believes it is ‘rude’ to laugh at those with weird behaviour, as they might need help (Loh, 2017).
Other residents like Dawn Lim have taken a more active role. She and a group of friends put together ‘care packages’ to deliver to an entire block of residents, as part of their efforts to counter the negative press Yishun gets, and to “make Yishun great again” (Stomp, 2017).
In some ways, these memes can feel like harmless fun. Some have even taken pride in Yishun becoming a ‘modern day meme area’ (Tan, 2019), while Yishunites like Filmmaker Mohd Ridhwan Mohd Yunos see it as entertainment, having contributed to the joke with his video ‘Yishun Resident Evil’ (Paulo & Grosse, 2017). Some haunted locations might have the reverse effect of attracting thrill-seekers or people with an interest in the paranormal, which could boost tourism.
However, Eva raises a salient point: we might be laughing at the problems some people have, instead of taking their woes seriously and providing much needed assistance. One Yishun story in 2020, of a daughter who had stayed by the body of her deceased mother for 5 days (Ling, 2020), highlighted the plight of small, financially-challenged families who might not be capable of reaching out for much-needed assistance, especially if they experience mental health problems.
Like Yishun, the prevalence of unusual stories in Florida reveals deeper underlying issues. Florida is ranked 5th in terms of income inequality (Martin, 2018). Counties in central Florida, which tend to be less financially wealthy, were found to produce a larger quantity of Florida Man stories compared to the south, which is much wealthier (Luscombe, 2019). This difference in financial ability might be linked to the tendency towards drug use and the lack of mental health care faced by some Florida headliners – Florida ranks 8th in terms of prevalence of mental illness, but near the bottom at 48th when it came to access to mental care (Mental Health America, 2021).
Sometimes, in our entertainment, we forget the genuine struggles these real people go through that led to these incidents, and the pain and loss of the victims. Perhaps with all the strange news, we have become desensitised, and become less able to see that some superficially wacky tales involve truly problematic stories.
The negative side of the Florida Man meme was not lost on Freddie Campion, the creator of the @_FloridaMan Twitter account. Campion became uneasy over what the account had become as people began sharing more mean-spirited stories and grew increasingly worried as he became more aware of the real-world consequences of social media. He briefly stopped posting in 2017, not wanting to make fun of people on the ‘worst day of their lives’, before eventually retiring the account in 2019 (Hill, 2019).
Yishun’s reputation might end up a passing fad before another area eventually takes its place. Ultimately, while we might find entertainment in news from Florida or your own local ‘cursed’ area, we need to keep in mind the deeper reasons behind their infamy. Even as social media bombards us with sensationalist news, it is important not to become desensitised to the lives of the real people behind these stories.
Perhaps, like certain residents of Yishun who deliver anonymous care packages, we could generate our own good press instead, and become the heroes our local cursed towns need.
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