When I’ve published updated examinations of the “Dear David” ghost story writer and illustrator Adam Ellis has been telling on Twitter over the past seven months, typically it’s been because enough has happened since the last post that I feel a new one would be meaty enough to warrant writing. This time, though, the update comes because of something a little different: Lately, I’ve been wondering, “Is Dear David over?” After all, it’s been a month since Ellis last updated the story with any meaningful addition — a length of time that’s substantially longer than the space between any of his previous updates. He has recently begun posting on his Twitter account again, although he appears to be using it in a more typical way. Have we seen the last of the possibly demonic, yet almost certainly fictional ghost child?
UPDATE, November 2021: According to Deadline, the planned feature film adaptation of Dear David is now on Lionsgate’s slate. (Earlier, New Line had been set as the studio behind it; the film was originally announced in 2018.) John McPhail of 2017’s Anna And The Apocalypse will direct from a screenplay by Mike Van Waes. Casting is apparently not only underway, but close to being “locked in.” No news on when shooting itself will begin, let alone when we might be able to expect the film in cinemas.
PREVIOUSLY: Right now, my answer, I’m afraid, is, “I’m not sure.” I’m hoping that the tale isn’t quite finished yet, because if it’s ended the way things currently stand… well, it would be an underwhelming finish to something that had previously had a ton of promise. But I could easily see how and why Ellis may have decided to just let the story go — although I do think there’s still the possibility that we’re not quite done yet, too. I go back and forth on what I think is really going on, because both scenarios are equally plausible.
[Like what you read? Check out Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, available from Chronicle Books now!]
There have only been a few short updates since the big one Ellis published at the beginning of January, but for the sake of completion, let’s start by taking a look at what we’ve got; then, after that, we’ll dive into some analysis (scroll down if you want to skip the recap and just cut to the chase).
The Instagram Invasion
On Jan. 16, Ellis began a thread with an apology and a curious note. “Sorry for the long delay,” he wrote. “Honestly, I wasn’t sure I was going to tweet again.” After the last update — which, you’ll recall, involved David seemingly following Ellis home to Montana for the holidays and ended with a striking image of David dropping from the ceiling directly on top of Ellis — he said that things had actually returned more or less to normal: He’d stopped having dreams; he was sleeping through the night; and overall, the activity seemed to have stopped.
But all was not well. Ellis also reported that he had started to “lose time” — as he described it, “Like I’ll look up at the clock and realize a whole hour has gone by and I don’t remember any of it” — and that occasionally he would “mishear someone and ask them to repeat what they said, but they’ll say they didn’t say anything.”
Still, though, he said that he was hoping to be able to “put it all behind [him],” so when he opened up Twitter on Sunday, Jan. 14, he intended to tell his followers just that. Instead, he found himself wading through a sea of notifications, all pointing out something unusual his followers had spotted on one of his social media feeds. Not Twitter, though; this time, it was on Instagram.
The previous day, it seemed, Ellis had gone to brunch with a friend and posted a Story to his Instagram page featuring some images from it. They were standard millennial brunch pictures, full of emoji and avocado toast….
…Except for one. That one — the image seen up top here — was distorted and discolored, even though Ellis swore it was normal when he uploaded it. But if you look closely at it, superimposed over Ellis’ face is another face — one we’ve seen before.
The First Cat Video
Almost two weeks later, on Jan. 28, a single tweet appeared on Ellis’ timeline. The tweet was a departure from the pattern Ellis’ updates had settled into over the course of the story: It wasn’t part of a bigger thread, and there were no words at all. It was just a video, around 30 seconds in length, showing Ellis’ cat Maxwell standing in front of the front door of Ellis’ apartment and meowing. The video was shot from a low angle, the camera seemingly positioned on the floor; in the foreground on the left-hand side, we can see a large, bulky, object, but it’s not clear what it is. Maxwell is a little further back, behind a shoe and some other detritus on the floor. Noise is audible in the background — it sounds like maybe the television is on — but most of what we hear is Maxwell. At the end of the video, he turns around and looks directly at the camera while continuing to meow.
And when you freeze the final frame and up the contrast, here’s what you get:
Again, it looks like David’s face, this time superimposed over Maxwell.
As brief as this update is, there are a few things I think are worth noting about it. First, the tweet was posted at 12:17am — that is, it was posted around midnight, which Ellis has previously established as the time at which his cats always gathered around the door to his apartment. And speaking of the cats, this video was the first time one of them had appeared as a focal point in an update for some time; the last cat-centric update occurred on Sept. 5, 2017, aka the green jar update. And lastly, Ellis had also previously reported his television behaving oddly: In October, he had written that an LED backlight he had plugged into his TV had begun turning on and off of its own accord before ceasing to work entirely.
For anyone who’s been wondering what happened to those loose threads — well, now we know: It’s all coming back together.
“Everything Is Fine”
About a week later, just before midnight, another single tweet arrived — and this one, too, was a major departure from Ellis’ established tweeting patterns: Not only was there no thread accompanying it, but moreover, the writing was grammatically incorrect. Ellis has always taken care to type his updates with correct grammar; this one, however, lacks both capitalization at the beginning of the sentence and punctuation at the end of it. The implication is that Ellis did not type or post this tweet.
Or, as this Twitter user put it:
Plus, if you look closely — or, if you copy the text of the tweet and paste it elsewhere — you’ll see that there’s another error: An extra space between the words “is” and “fine.” The tweet doesn’t read “everything is fine”; it reads “everything is fine.” This is also unusual… and it’s not the last time we’ll see it, either.
A Return To Normality…?
Just three days later, on Feb. 6, Ellis appeared to break the fourth wall: The next set of tweets sent out from his account were seemingly unrelated to the Dear David story, merely informing his followers that he’d left his full-time gig at BuzzFeed in order to strike out on his own.
This is all true; in fact, he’d posted a more detailed version of this message to his Instagram page on Jan. 17. Even I initially thought that he was totally breaking character here… but then I looked a little more closely at the third tweet in the set. “I’m nervous about what the future holds, but I feel good,” it reads. Not “I feel good” — “I feel good.” There’s an extra space between “feel” and “good,” just as there was between “is” and “fine” in the previous tweet.
I am not the only person who had this sort of response to this update:
“Everything Will Be Like It Was Before” & The Second Cat Video
The evening of Feb. 13 into the 14th, we got this one. Again, note the lack of grammar; there’s also an emoticon, which Ellis hasn’t used in any of his other Dear David updates. No one is quite sure what “everything will be like it was before” means yet — before what? — but either way, it seems pretty clear that Ellis (or at least, the fictional version of Ellis who’s the main character of the Dear David story) didn’t write this tweet.
Then, an hour later — just after midnight — another video of Maxwell meowing at the door appeared:
As with the last video, there’s something large and bulky in the foreground. It looks kind of like a nylon drawstring bag, but I can’t be sure; nor can I be sure about what the heck is going on with the bottom section of the frame. Here’s what happened when I upped the brightness, contrast, and sharpness on a still from the last few seconds of the video:
What is that? And why is it red on the left-hand side?
We don’t have any answers yet — all we’ve had since then is this, which he tweeted on March 12:
No weird spaces. No incorrect grammar. There’s an emoji, but it doesn’t strike me as out of character.
Then, when someone told him, “We just want answers, is all,” he followed it up with this:
[EDIT: The tweet formerly located here has been deleted and is no longer available to view.]
This one is lacking grammar, so there’s that; beyond that, though, nothing else related to the story has been forthcoming… which is what had made me wonder whether it’s (mostly) over and done with.
Let’s Get Analyzing
There are a couple of different ways we need to look at these updates in order to get at the big picture: First, we need to look at them in terms of the plot development of the fictional Dear David story; second, we need to consider what’s been going on in Ellis’ life outside the fictional narrative; and third, we need to tackle what both of the previous angles might mean for the future and conclusion of the story. I actually think these three levels are nested within each other, so let’s work from the inside out, starting with the story itself.
Although there are a few ways we can read the glitched out Instagram photo, the implication of these final few updates is pretty cut-and-dry: David has apparently taken possession of Ellis.
The glitched-out Instagram photo is interesting, though. In and of itself, it’s obviously an easily achievable effect; it’s actually an example of a specific style of art known as glitch art. As I’ve noted several times in the past, Ellis — as an illustrator who works in digital media — is likely quite familiar with Photoshop and other kinds of image manipulation software, so editing a photo to look like this would be well within his skill set.
But how are we to interpret it? One theory that’s occurred to me is that it shows David to have become sort of like an electronic virus; he’s never before appeared on Ellis’ Instagram — only his Twitter — so if David has been able to make the leap from one platform to another, it’s possible that he might be loose on the internet now (kind of like what happens to Moloch in the first season Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “I Robot, You Jane”). However, the photo could also be an indication that David has taken up residence inside Ellis’ body — that he’s essentially possessing him — which I think is the more likely explanation.
It’s curious that Ellis said the glitched photo was normal when he posted it; to me, that suggests that either the photo was altered after it was uploaded, or that the photo was already glitched when Ellis uploaded it and he just couldn’t see it. The first option would make sense if David were running wild on the internet (that is, as a literal ghost in the machine, David could mess with stuff that exists online); meanwhile, the second option would make sense if David were possessing Ellis (and therefore had the ability to alter his perception such that he saw the photo as unglitched).
But I still come down on the side of possession. For one thing, it would be the logical progression from the previous photo Ellis had taken of David: We saw David dropping from the ceiling onto Ellis while he was sleeping — which, it turns out, may have been the moment David actually “moved in,” so to speak. The fact that he was visible in the Instagram photo could be taken as evidence that he’s inside Ellis and about to take him over. Plus, given everything that’s happened since the Instagram update, I think the argument for a possession plotline is strong here. The difference in the writing style of the tweets also supports the idea of David possessing Ellis, as does the fact that each of the videos appeared shortly after midnight.
The apparent “real life” update, however, requires a little additional thinking to crack. What I think might be going on here is a purposeful blurring of the lines between the fictional Ellis and the real-life one. Outside the story, he’s managed to both notify any Twitter followers who may not have been keeping up with his Instagram account about his work situation — and, by including the additional space previously seen in the “everything is fine” tweet, simultaneously work within the narrative framework that has characterized his Twitter account for the past seven months. With the exception of a few tweets very early on in the story, Ellis has used his Twitter account exclusively to tell the Dear David story — and by making his “life update” part of the story, he doesn’t actually break the fourth wall in the way that I originally thought he had. I’m wondering if — knowing that David has access to Ellis’ Instagram account, as seen in the glitched out brunch photo — the ghost was able to borrow the messaging Ellis had previously written in order to try to fool folks on Twitter into thinking Ellis was still in control.
So, possession seems to be the name of the game here — and for what it’s worth, the symptoms Ellis has been describing (lost time, hearing voices, etc.) line up with the signs and stages of demonic possession. If, y’know, demonic possession is something in which you believe.
Outside of the Dear David narrative, meanwhile, Ellis’ life has been busy — and, indeed, I think he’s slyly been using the visibility he’s gained from Dear David to draw attention to his primary work, too. I think it’s worth noting, for example, that he tweeted about the glitched-out Instagram photo on Jan. 16 — right before his comic about leaving BuzzFeed appeared on his Instagram feed on Jan. 17. For anyone who wasn’t aware that Ellis even had an Instagram page… well, that’s an excellent way to draw attention to it at a key moment.
As a cartoonist and illustrator, Ellis is likely better served by Instagram when it comes to showcasing his work than he is by Twitter; as such, it would make sense to leverage his massive Twitter following in order to redirect folks to his Instagram. For the curious, according to the Wayback Machine, he had not quite 73,000 Twitter followers in July of 2017 prior to the beginning of Dear David; by Jan. 8, 2018, he had close to one million; and as of this writing, he has around 1.03 million. Meanwhile, he had around 283,000 Instagram followers in July of 2017, and he hit one million on Jan. 25, 2018 — not too long after the Dear David update featuring his Instagram feed. It’s also worth noting that Ellis is funding his solo work at least in part via Patreon, which he began plugging in his Instagram feed on Jan. 17.
But Ellis has had a lot going on in the month since the Feb. 13-14 Dear David update, too. He posts around three or four comics to his Instagram page per week; he’s been writing and drawing for other outlets (for example, he’s got a weekly gig with Geek.com ); he maintains a store with merch and exclusive designs; his Patreon feed is full of patron-exclusive comics and extras (and believe you me, Patreon-exclusive content can be really time-consuming — the twice-monthly newsletter I put out for my own $10+ patrons takes as much time to research and write as a full TGIMM post does); he’s been working on a new project called Fever Knights; and he keeps alluding to various “secret projects” he has on tap for 2018, so I assume there’s a lot more in the works, too. And let’s also not forget that he’s got a new book — his third — coming out this year.
With all of this on his plate, it’s to be expected that he’d want to draw this wacky little pet project to a close so he can focus on the work that’s his bread and butter. So, it’s likely that we’ll be facing an end soon — or, possibly, that we already have.
Is It Over?
To be honest, I wouldn’t blame Ellis if he’d decided to just end Dear David where it is; he’s got so much else going on that it’s distinctly possible that he may just no longer have the time or energy to keep it going. Plus, there’s no denying that, since roughly January, the new updates haven’t had the same staying power that previous ones have. I’ve been covering this beat for other publications, too, so I’ve been deeply aware of how both the mainstream media its readers have been engaging and interacting with this story — and, from what I can tell from both traffic and chatter around the web, interest is waning somewhat, indicating that the whole thing may be past its peak. It’s possible that Ellis could have sensed that and decided to drop the story accordingly. (And for the curious, no, the lack of updates isn’t a legal/ownership thing spurred on by his going freelance.) What’s more, on March 13, he posted one of his comics to Twitter, indicating that he’s taking back his account for more traditional use.
It’s been a little jarring seeing his feed suddenly become “normal” again after seemingly having been taken over by David; at the same time, though, it’s worth remembering that his feed is his own, which means that it’s totally his call what he does and doesn’t post on it. He also doesn’t “owe” any of us anything, so if he’s chosen to be done with Dear David, then again, that’s his call. I do have to wonder whether he kind of trapped himself with his own story, and is now having trouble extricating himself from it; a verified Twitter account with over a million followers is both a valuable resume item and networking platform for creatives, so it’s got to be frustrating feeling like you can’t use it as it’s intended.
As he tweeted last night:
Again, it’s jarring, but the point is valid. (And hey, maybe this is what David meant when he tweeted “Everything will be like it was before.”)
It’s also possible that something else might be going on, too. Perhaps, rather than drop the story, he might just have opted to scale it back somewhat — which means he could simply be taking a brief break before launching into a big, explosive finish.
The second possibility is what I’m hoping for. He’s invested so much in the story thus far that it would really be a shame not to see it through to a full and satisfying conclusion.
Last time, I mentioned that it looked like Ellis was setting up the final arc to be a battle for dominance between David and himself, with the main question being about who would come out on top. This does, in fact, seem to be what’s going on — although that final question about who’s going to win is still unanswered. David has the upper hand right now, so the tale could very well end with a solid indication that Ellis is gone and we’re left with just David for all eternity; however, Ellis could still wrench back control and finish up the story by banishing David once and for all.
The two videos of Maxwell meowing at the door are perhaps the last remaining mystery. Why is the camera on the floor? What’s that bulky thing in front of the camera? What’s up with that weird black and red thing at the bottom of the frame in the second video? If the story continues, my sense is that it will a) draw everything to a close, and b) solve the mystery of the videos to do so.
And I hope that’s what happens. I really, really, do. This whole thing has been an extraordinarily entertaining and endeavor, and although it hasn’t been without its flaws, I’ve enjoyed it immensely. If Dear David has taught us anything, it’s that the story itself is only half of the picture; the way you tell it is the rest of it — and if you’re willing to think outside the box a little, you can accomplish something quite special indeed.