In April 2021, a March 8 2019 Facebook post about a man caught secretly living in a woman’s attic went viral — purportedly told from the point of view of the unfortunate woman’s son.
The Post and its Variations
Originally, the text of the post read:
YALL CHECK YOUR ATTICS. My mom been hearing noises in her attic so she took a selfie stick to see if there were animals living up there & THIS IS WHAT THEY GOT. This man has a whole set up in her house .
Anyway, the police got him out, but he had been living in her attic for a YEAR. When she would leave the house, he would come down, eat her food and use her shower. I know this shit sounds straight off criminal minds but I swear its real life man. Ewewewew i cannot imagine.
In addition to the very viral tale, the poster attached a purported photograph (captured via a “selfie stick”) of the attic dweller:
The same user crossposted the tale to Instagram:
In March 2021, a Twitter account shared the image alongside a screenshot of that post:
This shit is CRAZY. pic.twitter.com/B7PLO3khh7
— (Prod. by Jordan Lattimore) (@ProdByLattimore) March 22, 2021
As of April 12 2021, the post maintained a six-figure share count, and it included a “lesson” — “check your attics,” because someone could live in it for “a YEAR.”
Background: An Old Urban Legend?
Fans of folklore might immediately recognize the story as an urban legend mainstay, featuring a basic premise — someone discovering that one or more people had been quietly “living” in their home for quite some time.
In some respects, the tale was similar but, not identical to, the legend known as the “Choking Doberman,” chronicled by folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand in a book of the same name:
Jan Harold Brunvand, a folklorist and professor emeritus of English at the University of Utah, wrote about this and other urban legends in his book The Choking Doberman and Other “New” Urban Legends published in 1984 by W.W. Norton & Company. He provided the reader with several varying accounts of the story. While the basic elements of the story remain the same in each version, the details, such as the number of fingers found, the breed of dog, and the condition of the intruder when discovered change slightly.
A woman goes out for the evening with friends. Upon her return, she is greeted by her pet Doberman choking in the hallway. Alarmed, she takes the pet to the veterinarian. The vet announces that he must perform a tracheotomy on the animal and he will call her when he has news. When the woman arrives home, the vet calls and tells her to leave the house at once. The dog was choking on three human fingers. The woman calls the police, who search the house. They discover the burglar, hiding in a closet, passed out from blood loss caused by having three fingers bitten off.
In that variation, however, the intruder was a burglar, not a long-term resident of the home. Another related concept is known as “phrogging,” or living in someone’s home without their knowledge or permission (and leaping from house to house undetected):
Over on Twitter, @ULTweets tracks and engages in discourse about the many urban legends circulating on that platform at any given time, and has at least once mentioned the “strangers in my home” specific genre of myth (dating related stories back to the 19th century):
Thank you. You're right — some of those have bases in real-life events. But so far nobody has found earlier crimes resembling "Doberman" and "Humans Can Lick Too." (The latter goes back to the 19th-c, at least.) Sometimes these things are just invented out of whole cloth.
— It's an Urban Legend (@ULTweets) March 30, 2019
A March 2014 Reddit post on r/todayilearned purportedly involved a homeless woman in Japan who had been surreptitiously living in a man’s closet for a year, linking to a thinly-sourced tabloid story from 2008:
On that thread, the very first comment linked the claim to a common urban legend:
My great grandma always had one of those latch hook locks on her attic door like in shitty restroom stalls. I asked her one day why and she said that a friend once went up to her attic and found the food wrappers and pop cans of a man who was living there. The lock wouldn’t be strong enough to keep someone in but someone in the attic couldn’t lock it from inside so you would know someone was in there.
I suspect now that she was reciting an urban legend but it scared the living shit out of me as a kid. Still won’t fuck with attics.
Fast forward 18 years and I have kids of my own. Their room is on the second story and has two large closets. Each closet has a tiny 1 ft x 1 ft door in it that goes into the attic. My then 3 year old started talking about “the man in the closet who comes out at night after mommy leaves”. Of course I panicked and tore apart the closet looking for an intruder after several days of the same exact story. One day he just quit talking about it.
tl;dr attics + strangers = my worst nightmare.
In 2016, the same claim was reposted to r/todayilearned, but this one had a link to an Associated Press article from 2008. In July 2017, NBC affiliate WRC reported on a similar story in Arlington, Virginia involving a homeless man — but there was no indication the attic dweller had been there for any significant length of time.
In October 2019, Time.com shared a similar Twitter thread, indicating in the process that the story was completely unverified. In 2010, a blog post addressed an “attic squatter” type hoax on YouTube, describing years of variations on and iterations of the original legend:
The story [on YouTube] is far-fetched, and the telltale clue is from about the 0:20 mark in the video: said feral intruder can clearly be seen waiting to emerge in the background. Even if the story wasn’t a pile of BS, she would certainly have seen the camera being set up and known she was rumbled.
Besides, the barebones plot of this hoax is the basis of numerous urban legends (though usually it turns out to be Mexican immigrants hiding out in the attic). If this were real, the mainstream media would have picked it up by now.
“Real life” mimicking urban legends is a phenomenon known as “ostension” in folklore, which we have addressed in prior fact-checks:
What is actually occurring is a phenomenon that is well documented and well known in folklore circles as pseudo-ostension. The term “ostension” (showing or demonstrating something) is also “used by those who study folklore and urban legends to indicate real-life happenings that parallel the events told in pre-existing and well-established legends and lore” as a term specific to that genre of research.
Ostension can be observed in a slightly different form as quasi-ostension, when unrelated happenings are chalked up as related to circulating urban legends. Incidents involving purported gang initiations often fall into this category, for example. Local and global media panics are primed for examples of quasi-ostension. But [the posts in question] are more likely to represent pseudo-ostension:
Acting, true to life or not, is a series of signs and stands for the objects (actions) it signifies. Netiher is the delusion of the magician ostension but at the most pseudo-ostension, imitation of ostension. Through a whole series of signs, the magician strives to create the illusion that the lady in the show really levitates although she does not, at the same time it is made plausible for the audience through a series of theatrical signs.
More plainly, urban legends don’t always mean a phenomenon never happened — sometimes the details of the urban legend match a past occurrence, and perhaps more frequently, elements of popular urban myths are re-enacted by or inspire acts which are held up as proof that an idea or response is legitimate. Sometimes (as the imaginary “Mexican immigrants” mentioned above makes clear) these recurring legends reflect what is often coyly referred to as “fear of demographic change,” but which could more accurately be described as racist fearmongering.
In the linked page, we provided an example of individuals “acting out” popular urban legends as a means to draw attention to a problem they deemed worthy of awareness:
In this example, individuals who heard and believed the referenced urban legend felt it important to “raise awareness” of the purported risk described in unfounded circulating urban legends. To do so, they falsely claimed to be party to or even be perpetrating incidents of the legend, thereby lending credence to an otherwise untrue — but popular — story. As is often the case, once a frightening urban legend reaches critical mass, people will begin to “act it out,” or else claim they participated in an event or know someone who did because they truly believed it would help others take the claims seriously.
The ‘Selfie Stick’ Attic Dweller Photograph, Explained
Initially, a reverse image search returned no matching results — which sometimes can indicate the image we are searching has never been shared before on the internet, or that the sharer’s photograph was taken by them.
However, absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. We eventually located a June 2019 post on a subreddit for the podcast My Favorite Murder (titled “Image of the guy in the attic they were sent in today’s minisode”) with the same image attached:
In that particular context, we thought several details were notable. One was that the submitter indicated the image was part of a June 2019 “minisode” of My Favorite Murder. Another was the June 2017 date, two months after Stoop Malone’s viral Facebook claim — as such, it was possible the podcast shared his story in a “minisode” (as it turns out, it was episode 126.)
One person explained:
For anyone else curious, yes it is 126. The story was told from a “friends” point of view (i.e the ones who wrote the story in, they weren’t the ones taking the picture). So who knows if it’s true or not 🤷🏽♀️
There are a couple of guys claiming in the IG comments that he was a maintenance man living in their basement in Philadelphia. 🤷🏼♀️
A fourth commenter responded:
This picture has popped up randomly with different stories for months. Always a guy living in the attic or basement. It certain has actually happened before but I think the person who sent this in was making it up.
That commenter inadvertently demonstrated that the very viral Facebook post (which was edited to include the hashtag #ForEntertainmentPurposes) was falsely presented. They did so by linking to a December 28 2018 post on the subreddit r/LetsNotMeet, in which the image was included:
A date-stamped version of the photograph from months earlier was attached:
In March 2019 (after the Facebook post appeared), another Redditor attached the image to their own story about an attic squatter shared to r/pics:
In April 2021, a March 2019 Facebook post advising users to “check [their] attics” spread virally once again, featuring a photograph of a man in a small space and purportedly accompanying an authentic firsthand account of squatters in the attic. Eventually the user added a tag indicating the tale was “for entertainment purposes only” (in other words, fabricated), but almost no one seemed to understand the tale was untrue. As noted, stories of undetected squatters in attics, basements, and closets have long circulated (generally showing up around the same times of heavy anti-immigrant or racist fearmongering by public officials), and this version was no exception. We were unable to locate a primary or first iteration of the image (which Reddit users said might be a maintenance man in Philadelphia), but it was used to illustrate a post on a subreddit r/LetsNotMeet in December 2018.