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Chain Letter

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"Chain letters," said the Tyrant. "The Chain Letter to the Ephebians. Forget Your Gods. Be Subjugated. Learn to Fear. Do not break the chain — the last people who did woke up one morning to find fifty thousand armed men on their lawn."

Character receives a letter, one which informs the recipient that he must mail it to a certain number of people or suffer bad luck. Though warned by his credulous friends, the skeptical character mocks the very concept of luck and vows to ignore it. Disaster proceeds to befall him on a scale which would make Job from The Bible look like a paragon of good fortune.

Chain letters in real life have nowhere near the credibility that they do in media, and are annoyingly common in e-mail spam and on comment pages and message boards.

Their popularity has varied throughout the years — back in the days of snail mail they weren't unheard of, as information availability was much more limited and therefore ignorance and superstition were much more widespread, but the cost and difficulty of having to physically mail that letter again prevented them from circulating too much. The advent of e-mail made chain letters explode in popularity as all these superstitious and technologically illiterate people were exposed to chain letters that could be widely recirculated by just clicking a button; up until 2005 they were so widespread they were considered part and parcel of having an e-mail account, to the point that people just started mentally filtering them out and entire major websites like Snopes gained their early popularity specifically thanks to debunking chain mails. Big Tech eventually caught note of this phenomenon and started mobilizing their large resources to develop AI-powered spam filters that started blocking chain letters, thus pushing them back into obscurity for the remainder of the decade; but then they returned to popularity around 2012, when people discovered that cell phone text messages and social media outlets like Facebook didn't have any spam police and could be freely tapped for chain letters. This was in turn followed by another still ongoing decline from 2016 to 2020, when social media outlets started applying spam filters to their user-posted content and began promoting the anti-fake-news movement in an attempt to stamp out social media-powered superstition.

Often utilized for a specific type of Superstition Episode. See also, Glurge. Most modern chain letters overlap with Play-Along Meme, since very few people actually believe these things have any real power.

Not to be confused with chainmail.

If the horror movie with the same name is what you're looking for, see here. If you're looking for the horror books, see here.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Digimon Ghost Game, Episode 12's Villain of the Week is a Weedmon swarm that start attaching themselves to chain emails and attacking people who refuse to forward them, before hacking their accounts and sending them on their own. Within days, the problem escalates to them launching a full-scale invasion of Tokyo through people's smartphones & computers.
  • In Hetalia: Axis Powers, Russia got one saying that if he does not mail it to three other people within three days his capital will become Warsaw. Poland points out that, since he doesn't have friends, he'll freak out. It doesn't work since Russia just sends it to his subordinates instead.
  • In Chapter 36 of The Unpopular Mangaka and the Helpful Onryo-san, Onryo-san promotes Kirara's manga on Twitter by saying if people read it and don't show it to 10 people in 3 days, a ghost will visit their house. Judging by the number of retweets, it works.

    Comic Books 
  • In The Powerpuff Girls story "Chain of Fools" (DC issue #30), Bubbles gets a chain letter, which the Professor dismisses as bunk. Bubbles doesn't respond to it, but after she is suddenly zapped of her power, she immediately sends a chain Mojo Jojo.

    Comic Strip 
  • Charlie Brown (of course) once got a chain letter and agonized about sending it or not. He finally decides to tear it up. Then it starts raining.
    • In this comic, he gets one that tells him to copy it six times, and tries to do this with a pen. However, there's a reason he calls his pen pal a "pencil pal"...
  • Even The Wizard of Id had a chain letter arc. The King ended up mailing it on, even though nothing bad had actually happened yet, because...well...better safe than sorry.
  • In Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin receives a chain letter in the mail, and reads a list of people who were involved with it and what happened to them. One guy continued with the chain and got a raise, and another broke the chain and went bald. Hobbes tells him it's nothing but superstitious nonsense and advises him to throw it away. Calvin then continues reading: "And a dumb kid like you listened to a friend and got run over by a cement mixer."

    Fan Works 
  • Calvin & Hobbes: The Series: "Chains" revolves around Calvin and Susie receiving these. Susie rips hers up, and proceeds to have bad luck for the rest of the episode.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The premise of the 2010 Slasher Movie Chain Letter (2010) was that if the characters didn't forward the chain letter, they would die agonizing deaths involving... chains.
  • In When Evil Calls, a chain text circulates through a school, promising to grant the recipient a wish if they forward the text on to two friends. The wishes are granted. In the worst way possible.

  • In The Baby-Sitters Club book "Mary Anne's Bad-Luck Mystery", the club starts having bad luck after Mary Anne throws out a chain letter.

    Live-Action TV 
  • This is a staple of Sit Coms and has been for decades, as such, nearly every sitcom that ran long enough has had at least one episode about a chain letter.
  • A rare common sense moment had Red of The Red Green Show ignoring a recent chain letter craze over the Lodge until Dalton pointed out that Harold, who started it, got a $100 bill from it. By the final act, chain letters are going out like crazy until Harold reveals he didn't get a $100 bill — it was a bill for $100 from the library. It also provides a rare case of the sender getting the bad luck, not just from the bill, but from the others dipping into his cash box to pay for all the letters.
  • In an episode of Home Improvement, Unlucky Tim eventually realizes that his ill fortune isn't caused by the letter but rather that, owing to his incompetence, bad stuff always happens to him.
  • In a 3rd Rock from the Sun episode, both Dick and Mary receive chain letters. Mary throws hers out right away and tells Dick to do the same. Dick ambivalently holds on to his and leans more and more toward sending it out when Mary is repeatedly hit by bad luck. Eventually, Dick ends up taking superstitions seriously to such an outrageous degree that they totally run his life.
  • A The Kids in the Hall sketch had a company's CEO presenting a chain letter to his board and asking them what to do. Only one character refuses to take it seriously.
  • One episode of The Facts of Life saw the girls neglect the store's upcoming health inspection because they were so involved with a chain letter. Jo also accidentally sent the money for the chain letter to the health inspector, who thought it was a bribe.
  • An episode of an Australian news parody show (the name escapes currently) had one short about a man who refused to sign a chain email that said, 'if you don't pass this on, a little boy will die'. He ignored it. The boy died, and the man is being held accountable for manslaughter.
  • In an episode of iCarly, Freddie gets a chain letter regarding Consuela, a Spanish woman who died. He must pass it on, or suffer such misfortunes as red socks getting mixed with white shorts, his sandwich getting run over, making it absolutely gigantic (at least the size of his torso), and his computer shorting out and making weird popping sounds. However, it later turns out that Sam was responsible for his misfortunes.
  • An episode of Ghost Whisperer centered around the ghost of a teenage girl who was assaulting people who received a chain letter and didn't forward it. It turns out to be the same chain letter that the girl received before she died, so she believed that both her death and her mother's cancer were caused by her breaking the chain, and was convinced by another malevolent ghost that she had to harm other chain breakers in order to fix things. It's not until she's confronted by the ghost of her mother (who died near the end of the episode) that she realizes the foolishness of her actions, causing them both to finally cross over.
  • The Andy Griffith Show has an episode where Barney gets one of these, Andy convinces him to throw it out, and... well, you can guess the rest.
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show has an episode where Mary gets one of these from Lou Grant.
  • On My Name Is Earl, after a young man on Earl's list named Josh Martin dies in an unfortunate Murphy's Bed incident, and Earl's first attempt at giving him a proper funeral fails miserably, his friends from the Internet give him a better one. One of his friends is an Indian woman he goes on weekly Skype dinner dates with. She states that "He always sent the best forwards...and when you sent him a Chain Letter, you knew he'd pass it along!" before taking a tech-support call and introducing herself as "Mary Smith."
  • Bull from Night Court passes out a chain letter to all of his coworkers in one episode. While everyone takes the letters and throws them away, in an amusing subversion, it's Bull who ends up suffering from bad luck.
  • Being unaccustomed to the internet, the vampires from What We Do in the Shadows (2019) believe the first chain e-mail they got to be an actual curse. And, since they know actual curses to be real, they were terrified.
  • Sabrina the Teenage Witch puts its own magical spin on the trope. Hilda and Zelda receive a chain letter from the Other Realm (that is, a chain made of letters) and must send out twenty of them or suffer some irritating and uncomfortable curses. Said curse include bat wings, Overly long Tongues, wolf ears, extremely long legs and green skin and spots.
  • 2point4 Children: The plot of "Fortuosity", where Bill receives a copy of the International Chain of Good Fortune, which grants good luck to those who pass it on to six of her friends and bad luck if those who doesn't. Although Bill is skeptical and tears up the letter, the family starts getting bad luck afterward.
  • Homicide: Life on the Street: In the third season episode "Fits Like a Glove", Lewis and Munch find out Bayliss, who's supposed to go in with them on buying a bar, had a gambling conviction he didn't reveal. Bayliss tells Lewis and Munch what happened was he was the victim of a chain letter scheme.

  • "Weird Al" Yankovic:
    • "Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me" touches upon this, among other junk being circulated via email.
    And I highly doubt some dead girl is gonna kill me
    If I don't pass her letter along
    • "Virus Alert" is a parody of hoax virus warning emails, and includes instructions to forward the message to everybody.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Ars Magica, the malleus epistula, or "hammer-letter," is one of these. This document provides advice for battling against demonic and pagan magic, teaching an uncompromising ideology of "torture and kill them all; God will know his own," along with the basics of the Ars Goetia to banish demons with and Mind Manipulation techniques that help the inquisitor extract confessions. At the end of the letter, the recipient is instructed to keep the letter a secret, but to make six copies of it and pass them along (anonymously) to other members of the Church, or else some curse (depending on the particulars of the letter) will befall the recipient. If you haven't already guessed, the letters were in fact originated by demons, and the inquisitors who study the letter become infernalists.

    Video Games 
  • A side mission in Control involves Jesse finding one of these and inexplicably deciding to honor it, utilizing the pneumatic mail tubes in the Federal Bureau of Control to send copies, and only then investigating the source of the letter.
  • Egbert Aethelbald, being Suikoden V's go-to person for the Rage Breaking Point, leaves a chain letter in the HQ's suggestion box.
    You have to send exact copies of this letter to twenty-seven people within twenty-seven days. If you don't, you'll be a 'filthy devil.' FILTHY DEVIL!

    Visual Novels 
  • The eponymous letter from The Letter is one. Subverted. The letter was originally just a call for help until a group of young pranksters added the chain clause.

    Web Original 
  • On Bogleech's GHASTLY MACARONI!!! anthology, the stories "THE KILLER SPIKES" and "2 BEARS FOREVER" amount to this, both threatening to send the titular menace to the reader's house if they don't send it to four message boards and 8½ people, respectively.
  • Smile Dog: The original email that Smile.jpg is spread through is described as one of these, with the subject line 'SMILE! GOD LOVES YOU!' Smile's method of haunting can be seen as a supernatural version of one of these, since he stops tormenting his victims once they've passed on his photograph.

    Web Videos 
  • In Suburban Knights, the Nostalgia Critic accidentally reveals that the map he received was part of a chain letter.
  • Just Vidman: In Szellemek, marketing és űrlények a neten (Ghosts, marketing and aliens online), Vidman talks about a spam mail sent by Peti, a dead 8 years old's ghost. If the receiver does not sends it to three people until an hour then their wifi connection will get ruined. Vidman makes fun of it by saying if he dies, the first thing he will do is to send mails like this to his friends on the internet.
    Peti: You use the internet on cable? I will step on it until it breaks!

    Western Animation 
  • One episode of Pinky and the Brain began with Brain planning to send a chain letter as part of his latest plan. He was beaten to the punch by his sworn enemy, Snowball, whose letter had the exact same text, except the subliminal message (the key element to the plan) was changed from "You will bow before the Brain" to "You will bow before Snowball".
  • In a 6teen episode, Jen gets a chain email, ignores it, and has bad luck throughout the episode. She then tries to get a number of people's email addresses, but later it is revealed that those people have Jen's email address, so she has more chain letters to send.
  • An episode of Johnny Bravo featured the title character receiving one of these.
  • One episode of Chowder has Mung Dahl given a chain recipe that he must make or he'll be cursed for 100 years. He refuses and suffer from the bad luck, though refuses to give. Chowder and the others try to end the curse by having Chowder complete the recipe while disguised as Mung, but this ends up making the curse go haywire on everyone but Mung.

    Real Life 
  • Chain letters are Older Than Radio. The oldest known ones purported to be copies of letters written in Heaven by Jesus Christ himself, and urged the receiver to copy his message and spread it.
  • The concept also sprang up independently in eastern culture. During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, some Boxers put up anti-foreigner fliers in Peking that told the reader to make copies and distribute them. Six copies would save a family, ten would save a whole district, but if you ignored the flier, you would "certainly be decapitated."
  • The most common form of chain letters on the internet usually tell the story of a girl who either committed suicide or was murdered in a cruel way, and then demand you to copy and paste the letter to a certain amount of YouTube video comment sections or else the girl's ghost will kill you for no apparent reason.
  • On DeviantArt, the most common chain letter hoax involves a "hacker warning", warning of a (non-existent) hacker who goes around hacking people's accounts by replacing their deviations with either porn or racist material, and telling people that they can avoid the hacker by copy-and-pasting the journal to your own journal and encouraging others to do so. The chain letters seem to run on users' gullibility, and even DeviantArt staff have stated "Pasting a chain-letter style journal onto your profile page is absolutely no "protection" against unauthorized access to your account." Though this does occasionally cause some enterprising individuals to create accounts with similar names to that of the (fictional) hackers, posting messages on their profile pages saying "IF YOU GET FAVED YOU'RE GONNA GET HACKED!"
  • One well-known chain letter is detailed by Cracked here. A boy named Craig Shergold was suffering from a brain tumor, and he wanted to use his wish from the Make A Wish foundation to get get well soon cards from as many people as humanly possible. Make A Wish told him that they don't do wishes involving chain letters, and so his wish was granted by the Children's Wish Foundation instead. Except there's a pretty good reason why Make A Wish said no — the wish was so successful that, even after he'd had surgery to remove the tumor and said that people could stop sending cards, his family still received thousands of cards each week. Eventually, they had to move to escape the influx of mail, and all the cards ended up being forwarded to the Children's Wish Foundation's headquarters.
  • Free-to-play games like Roblox and Transformice often have (or used to have) messages being spammed all over the place claiming that copying the message enough times would grant premium currency or premium membership for free. It's obvious this is false (why would a business that depends on selling currency and membership to keep itself afloat give users an easy way to get these things without spending a dime?), but younger players may fall for it.
  • Reddit has a "crosspost" button that makes spreading chain letters extremely easy. On top of the classic "repost or this scary monster will come to kill you", a common variant is "every time this image is reposted, a [insert acceptable target here] is killed painfully", and asking to repost an image to as many communities as possible solely for the sake of reposting and getting to be part of a big, site-wide thing.

12 facts I know about u
1. Your reading my trope
2. Now your saying/thinking thats a stupid fact.
4. You didnt notice that i skipped 3.
5. Your checking it now.
6. Your smiling.
7. Your still reading my trope.
8. You know all you have read is true.
10. You didnt notice that i skipped 9.
11. Your checking it now.
12. You didnt notice there are only 10 facts
Copy and paste to 1 trope, Then stick your name on the list
and tomorrow will be your best day ever! no matter what
if you dont copy this to 300 trops in the next minute
youll just drop out of your seat

(...why would I just fall off of my seat?! That's stu...*thunk*)