In the early hours of Saturday morning, ignoring the blare of children's television, I muzzily and reflexively poked at the Twitter icon on the battered screen of my knackered phone. Down I scrolled through the dozens and dozens of updates I'd missed during my five or so hours of child-interrupted sleep until I came upon one by comic artist Jamie Smart. It read
Oh my god. There was a fifth housemate in The Young Ones and she was terrifying.
Huh? I blinked, took a big swig of my bitter, luke-warm, instant coffee, and clicked the link Jamie had posted.
On Business Insider Australia I read the headline REVEALED: There really was a creepy fifth housemate lurking in cult British TV show The Young Ones. The article had been posted that very morning (18th June, 2016). What the...?
For those of you who don't already know, The Young Ones was a seminal, anarchic comedy series that ran on the BBC for two series between 1982 and 1984. Much like Monty Python, but in the era of VHS, The Young Ones became a show that many of us who were born in the 1970s ended up watching again and again and again. Business Insider news editor Peter Farquhar had, it turns out, quite recently watched a video on YouTube entitled The Young Ones ~ The 5th Roommate, which had been posted back in July 2012. This video had been inspired by a 1999 posting on The Easter Egg Archive website, which took its cue from a page last updated the previous year on a now defunct site called The British Comedy Library (still, thankfully, available via The Internet Archive's wonderful WayBack Machine). The strange person at the back of the house is the title of the page. It contains a few quotes from viewers who have emailed in to the site about something they've spotted re-watching the original 1982 series of the BBC comedy show The Young Ones. Things like
Has anyone else noticed the strange person who appears to share the flat with the guys. If you look carefully in the first five episodes you can see a mysterious person with long black hair who appears sitting against walls in the background of quite a few scenes.
And yes, the 2012 YouTube video shows it: a fifth housemate appearing at least once in every episode of the entire first series. She never moves, she never speaks, you never see her face, and her presence is never acknowledged by any of the other characters, but she's there.
This, apparently, blew Peter Farquhar's mind so much that he ended up contacting some of the people involved with the series including one of the writers, Ben Elton. Elton's prompt and short response was he had no idea what he was on about. A few days later however, Farquhar received a response from another member of the Young Ones team - Geoff Posner, who was one of the three directors on the series.
In his reply Posner said that he and fellow director Paul Jackson
thought it would be funny to have some ghostly figure in the background of some scenes that was never explained or talked about. Hair all over the face so you shouldn't be able to decipher the gender, either. The fact that we forgot to do it consistently shows what a bunch of amateurs we were in them days.
In his article Farquhar goes on to write
So maybe the fifth housemate idea wasn’t such a big deal to the cast and crew back then. Often what artists think of their own work is only half of the story. The other is what impact it has on the audience and its legacy and in this regard, “The Young Ones” still stands up incredibly well 34 years after it first aired. The appearance of the running “fifth housemate” gag is a great example.
Posner's short email explanation was, happily, enough to allay Farquhar's worries, and general sense of unease about the mysterious fifth housemate. Not mine though. No, not mine. Because you see, to me, Posner's explanation doesn't quite make sense. The fifth housemate - or the ghost as we should probably more accurately call her - isn't nearly so throwaway a gag as Posner suggests, or Farquhar seems happy to believe.
In episode 1 of the first series, the ghost makes her first appearance sitting by the living room door as the housemates watch television. She is seated on the floor with her hands draped over her knees, her long hair covering her face as always. People pass through the door next to her but never acknowledge her presence.
In episode 2 she remains in more or less the same place, sitting motionless behind the couch as Vyvyan and Rick watch television.
At the start of episode 3 a man who appears to be a late 20th century Druid/wizardy hippy of some sort exits the cellar of the Young Ones' house as part of a surreal "what happens when no-one's watching" sequence (which also involves a roller-skating chip and carrot falling in love). There, sitting outside the cellar door, next to the stairs, is the ghost in her usual pose. She's still there later in the episode (her head only visible through the balustrades) when the housemates are watching TV, fail to notice an armed siege take place in the house, and eventually decide to go to the pub.
In episode 4 she's back in the living room behind the couch.
In episode 5 she's still in the living room but now seated in an armchair near the window. All four of the main characters are in the room with her, three sat facing her, and as ever no-one ever acknowledges her. She's still there throughout the party that happens later in the episode, also appearing in another part of the house when Neil takes a bong-hit that sends him into space and back.
In episode 6, titled Flood, the ghost drifts past the living room window in the floodwaters that have engulfed the house.
So, as you can see, there are times when the ghost is a kind of background gag (throughout much of ep 3, most notably) but there are just as many, if not more, occasions when this never mentioned, never acknowledged figure is front and centre on the screen.
How could Ben Elton, who not only co-wrote the series but also appeared in ep 1, have failed to notice the inclusion of this character? Farquhar writes
I thought it’s not surprising Elton doesn’t remember what was probably just a running gag shared by Posner, Jackson and the production crew.
but does that make sense? The actress playing the ghost had to be there on set for every episode bar one. There must have been times where they were sorting her costume, her hair, and getting her into position for certain shots. Although she is never acknowledged on screen, her actually appearing there must have taken more effort than Posner seems to suggest. If Elton was on set for any of the episodes, you'd think he'd have noticed this. The ghost's appearance in ep 6 goes one step further in that, fleeting as it is, it has been added in post production. It's not just someone sitting silently in the background of the shot - it's a specially edited and superimposed final appearance of the mysterious figure. On top of all that, there's further evidence to suggest that the ghost was more than just a mere throwaway, tagged-on gag: she appeared in publicity for the first series.
If, right now, you search for images of The Young Ones, you will find some promo shots from 1982 with the four main characters standing in the kitchen of their house around an empty white wooden chair. Mike is wearing gingham pyjamas with teddy bears printed on them, and in some shots has one foot on the chair. In some variants of these shots though, the chair is not empty. The ghost - or fifth housemate, as she appears here - is once again front and centre and no-one seems to have noticed.
In fact, no-one seems to have noticed to such a degree that this image seems to have been used for years in articles referring to The Young Ones, without anyone questioning it. How can that be? How can you and I never have seen her there? Or behind the sofa? Or sitting in the armchair? Or floating past the window? How has she possibly been RIGHT THERE for thirty-four years?
One answer is that, clearly, people have noticed. As far back as 1998 the fifth house-mate was being talked about online, so it's just a case of you and I having not paid enough attention. Our VHS recordings of the Young Ones were dark, and muddy and scratchy, and let's face it all kinds of stuff happened in each episode that didn't really make sense anyway. We (and presumably Ben Elton) just missed it. Yet, it doesn't feel like that, does it? That doesn't quite sit right.
You may recall as I do that back in August 2015 the likes of Vice and A. V. Club started posting pieces about the American children's book series (and subsequently cartoon series) The Berenstain Bears. These articles were based on something posted by Rob Schwartz on the Stranger Dimensions website in January that same year. The Berenst#in Bears Problem: Are We Living In An Alternate Worldline? talks about a particularly odd phenomenon where many, many people are absolutely certain that when they were growing up The Berenstain Bears were actually called The Berenstein Bears. Yet, it turns out there was never any name change. Type in "Berenstein Bears" and your search engine will ask if you meant "Berenstain Bears", because the Berenstein Bears don't exist. They never have. At least, not in our reality.
Rob Schwartz's piece was actually based on a post on a blog entitled The Wood Between Worlds, dating from August 2012 (the month after the The 5th Roommate video was posted on YouTube). In The Berenstein Bears: We Are Living in Our Own Parallel Universe[?] the author, Reece, posits the following theory:
These books play such a huge role in the collective memories of so many people, all of whom clearly and distinctly remember "BerenstEin", that I am not the first to propose the notion that somehow, at some time in the last 10 years or so, reality has been tampered with and history has been retroactively changed. The bears really were called the "BerenstEin Bears" when we were growing up, but now reality has been altered such that the name of the bears has been changed post hoc.
In 1992 they were "stEin" in 1992, but in 2012 they were "stAin" in 1992.
I would like to make a modest proposal: We are all living in our own parallel universe.
There is at least one other universe parallel to our own. I will distinguish the two by the stEin universe and the stAin universe, depending on the surname of the creators of the famous children's book. The stEin universe was the world we resided in during the 1990s. Sometime after we all stopped reading kids books, that is when we were shifted in to the stAin universe. There may be more differences than just the surname of the Berenst_ins, in fact there almost certainly are more differences, and we just need to find them.
We just need to find them.
Shwartz followed up his post on the Berenstein/stain phenomenon with one entitled The Mandela Effect: More Proof of Parallel Universes? in which he wrote about The Mandella Effect, a concept summed up on font of all knowledge Wikipedia thusly:
The Mandela Effect is a theory brought into pop culture by “paranormal consultant” and author Fiona Broome. Individuals from all over the world share common memories and collective experiences, that don't match the current known history of events, as part of a belief that we are living in a "fluid space/time continuum". Major examples are: Remembering BerenstEin Bears instead of BerenstAin Bears, Sex IN the City instead of Sex AND the City, Interview with A Vampire instead of Interview with THE Vampire. Both the consistencies and the inconsistencies of the shared memories lead the experiencers to believe firmly that they have witnessed at least one or more parallel realities.
The Mandela Effect takes its name from the fact that, despite him not passing away until December 2013, Fiona Broome noticed in the early 2000s that many people seemed to share a memory of Nelson Mandela tragic death while incarcerated during the 1980s. Broome started mandelaeffect.com in 2010, and set about cataloguing the memories that, despite being factually incorrect ("in this timestream", at least), are shared by lots of people. The mandelaeffect.com/major-memories page is, for the most part, filled with things like spellings, and dates, and other stuff that could very easily be attributed to people simply getting stuff slightly wrong (although extra bonus conspiracy theory points need to awarded for the inclusion of the likes of brain-warping coin-op Polybius on the site). As Schwartz puts it:
However, the problem with something like the Mandela Effect is this: just because you hear something or even see something, that doesn’t mean it’s true.
Sometimes we read something incorrectly, or experience false memories. Sometimes we’re told something, even (well, especially) by the news media, that’s incorrect. We assume it’s true, because why not, and go about our business.
Then, when we later find out that Nelson Mandela has only recently died, or New Zealand is in a different location on the map, or that the Berenstein Bears are actually the Berenstain Bears, this information clashes with what we thought we knew. And if enough people are misinformed about the same topic, I imagine that’s when we run into the so-called Mandela Effect.
In other words, that’s a roundabout way of saying sometimes we’re wrong.
But that’s a boring way to look at things, isn’t it?
Boring? Maybe. It's certainly more reassuring.
On the 18th of April, 2016, two months before Peter Farquhar published his article (and therefore possibly around the time he first watched the 5th Housemate video), Fiona Broom created a new post on mandelaeffect.com entitled Question: Does Accepting the Mandela Effect Increase Slides? ("slides" between different realities being one theoretical cause of the Mandela Effect put forward on the site, another being that we're actually living in an imperfect computer simulation [Elon Musk might agree]).
In discussions with friends, a question has been raised: When someone accepts the idea that the Mandela Effect is real, does this reduce one’s resistance to it? And, does this result in more frequent slides from one reality to another?
Instead of a subconscious effort not to slide, are we mentally “catching the wave” and riding it to the next, cooler, alternate experience?
I’m interested in whether you feel that — since looking at the Mandela Effect concept, and deciding that it might be real — you’re seeing an increasing number of changes.
I don’t mean “Whoa, when did that change?” moments. I mean times when you look at something and know it was different yesterday, or in a time since you stumbled onto the Mandela Effect.
When I went to sleep sometime after 11pm on Friday the 17th of June, 2016 there was no fifth housemate in The Young Ones. The white chair in the kitchen in 1982 stood empty. When I woke up on saturday the 18th of June, 2016, there was an unexplained, unmentioned, faceless, ghostly figure visible throughout the entire first series of The Young Ones, every single episode of which I must have seen one-hundred times. She had been sitting on that chair for more than three decades now but, somehow, you and I just couldn't see her. Not until today.
We should just probably pay more attention, right? Seems like, one way or another, there might be more things like this waiting to be spotted in the coming months.
John Reppion is an English writer based in Liverpool. A lifelong fascination with folklore, forteana, weird and forgotten history runs through all of his work, from comics (co-authored with his wife, Leah Moore), to Weird Fiction, to his essays and articles. His website is moorereppion.com and he can be found on Twitter @johnreppion