33. The Epidemic

THE EPIDEMIC IS ESTIMATED to have begun in the year 2023, although this has only been calculated retrospectively, because it took three years before the epidemic was detected. It is thought to have originated in the town of Finoglio, where in year one the rate of adolescent suicide went up 300% (from one to four), and in year two it went up another 200% (to 12). The epidemic spread to nearby Orsela and Serra della Croce in the second year. In Orsela, where there hadn’t been a teenage suicide for eleven years, three adolescents took their own lives in the space of one calendar year. The next year (year three of the epidemic), another seven killed themselves. Similarly, in Serra della Croce, two teenagers killed themselves in year two, and two more in year three. By this time, similar suicides were occurring throughout the country: three in Trentino-Alto Adige/S├╝dtirol, two in Friuli Venezia Giulia, four in Valle d'Aosta (including twins). The suicides were marked by common features that made it impossible to avoid a chilling conclusion: the suicides were inspiring copycat suicides – in other words, there were viral characteristics to the epidemic, which could potentially make it impossible to contain. These features were as follows: the suicidal adolescent would compose an impassioned suicide note, often in the form of a song or a poem, which he or she would then record on a camera-phone. The performance would then be uploaded onto YouTube. While the video was uploading, the suicidal subject would take his or her own life in any one of a number of different ways, but usually by hanging. Subsequent research traced the beginning of the fad to a video by a 16 year old girl from Finoglio, a certain Antonella Cantarella, whose suicide ‘note’ was a song that had since been downloaded 216,000 times. Efforts to suppress these videos lagged far behind their popularity – the performance (a long, florid poem) by one adolescent, Marco Rubbio, was online for three and a half hours only before it was deleted, but in that time it had received more than 300,000 hits, and the video continued to exist on countless fan sites after it had been taken down on the initial site. The pattern was the same in all cases: what the subjects were seeking, in their deaths, was immortality, fame and adulation. As soon as the epidemic was detected, the government assembled, without fanfare, a comprehensive response. It was imperative that the epidemic be contained. There were fears, behind closed doors at least, that the epidemic would spread internationally. Psychologists, psychiatrists, paediatricians, educators, policy experts and media specialists were dispatched throughout the country. Developers raced to come up with software that would scan the internet for videos by adolescents containing keywords. At first, for a tense couple of weeks, it seemed that their efforts would bear fruit, until their worst fears were realised: Isabelle Simkind, a 14 year old girl living in Plymouth, Wales, uploaded a hybrid poem-song suicide note that attracted several hundred thousand hits in the first two hours before it was taken down, by which time she had already become an international star. Thankfully, soon after a British taskforce came up with an admittedly risky strategy to halt the growing teenage trend: they would counter the suicide video-notes with fake suicide video-notes. The idea was to discredit the videos and thus denude them of their morbid glamour. Leading British poets and songwriters were rapidly mobilised to produce high quality poems and songs, recorded by professional adolescent performers, on the subject of suicide that were then filmed and posted online. The performers were subsequently ‘revealed’ to be still alive, thus depriving the audience of the satisfaction that their idol had actually died. The epidemic was officially declared over within weeks. Altogether, it is believed to have claimed the lives of 217 adolescents in 11 countries.