So let’s say there are infinite parallel universes. Everything that could possibly exist does exist — just in some other dimension. It’s quantum physics; you don’t think too hard about it. You just think about how cool it would be to take a vacation from this reality and visit the universe where you are taller, healthier, wealthier, more glamorous. Or a student at Hogwarts. Or an anime character.
Over the past ten months, a group of teenagers has gathered in online spaces to teach themselves a bevy of consciousness-altering techniques to, they claim, visit other universes. “Reality shifting,” as it is known, may have started as a niche trend back in September of last year, but it is now a thriving subculture. On TikTok, the hashtag #ShiftingRealities has 1.3 billion cumulative views and #ShifTok 418.3 million. The subreddit r/realityshifting has 28k members, and there are multiple reality shifting themed rooms on the teenager-populated Amino app, some with memberships in the tens of thousands. The most-liked shifting video on TikTok just in the past week had 793k likes and 62k shares.
Where did it come from and how does it work?
In spring 2020, teenagers on TikTok started discussing the idea that we’d fallen into an alternate universe. @anchor_ari, using the hashtags #paralleluniverses and #2020worstyearever, referenced a Thrillist article about the discovery of parallel universes and accrued nearly 2.5k views in May 2020.
I’m not convinced that the Tiger King/quarantine phase of our lives was in the same dimension that we’re in right now.
Another user, @selfcaremaven, said the following: “I don’t know if this makes sense, but I’m not convinced that the Tiger King/quarantine phase of our lives was in the same dimension that we’re in right now.”
Soon after, “shifting” tutorials began to spread. TikTok creators began to share methods, tricks, tips, techniques, stories, and entire imagined conversations with their favorite characters. While TikTok remained an entry point and a place for shifters to share jokes and stories, other devotees moved to text-based platforms like Reddit or Amino so they would be better able to organize and track their resources.
While these techniques aren’t new – they all have a history of use in other esoteric practices like astral projection and meditation – they have not really been used up until now to become an anime character.
The shifters often script what they want to happen by writing down granular details of their Desired Reality (which they simply call DR). They then use a variety of intense visualization, lucid dreaming, and meditation techniques drawn from new-age-y corners of TikTok to depart from their current reality (CR). These techniques include things like using something called the raven method, where you lie down in a starfish position and count to 100, putting on a theta waves audio track and meditating, and/or simply repeating affirmations about the reality you want to experience. While these techniques aren’t new – they all have a history of use in other esoteric practices like astral projection and meditation – they have not really been used up until now to become an anime character.
A conversation on an Amino reality shifting group.
Shifters claim to experience their desired reality in a bunch of different ways – flashing lights, a feeling of numbness, tingling, brief visions, a feeling of floating. They might see the rain pounding outside the castle window, might find a fortune cookie with something called an angel number in it, might feel someone tapping them on the shoulder — and call this reality shifting.
“I literally started spinning,” @fatalia.shifting told her followers. “I felt like my soul was being ripped out of my body, I was dizzy, I was numb, I couldn’t feel anything but everything at the same time, and I didn’t shift because I got so unbelievably hot and had to get up and move because I thought I was dying. But to this day I’ve never had results like that.
Wait, you might say, isn’t this just sitting in your room, vividly imagining stuff? In a sense, yes. But also in a sense, no. It’s not just escapism. Shifters wanted me to know that this was real to them – not some kind of dream, nor playing pretend.
“The difference between shifting and [something like] lucid dreaming is that it is very real and feels just as real as being in this reality,” Lovi, the admin of the largest reality shifting group on Amino, told me.
“I think reality shifting got popular because of the state of our reality right now – a pandemic, racism, sexism, etc and most younger people have basically given up on it and seek an escape,” said Aya, a 17-year-old who moderates the largest Reality Shifting room on Amino. “Many non-believers think it’s just because we want to go shift to an anime and get intimate with our favorite characters and stuff like that. While that’s partially true, I personally think we got it popular because subconsciously all of us aren’t satisfied with the state this reality is in. And the whole 'going to your favorite movie/show/game/anime' is a bonus.”
“So next thing ik, I'm randomly in my house [in a lucid dream] w my shifter friend, and I'm like "Abby look what I can do!" and then I was like "NOW IM OPENING A PORTAL TO MY ONE DIRECTION DR" and a swirly dark turquoise portal opened (same color as last time, hmm...)I jumped through the portal, and that's when I FELT MYSELF PHYSICALLY SHIFT FOR THE FIRST TIME...last time, I kinda j appeared in another reality, I didn't feel anything. THIS TIME I felt like a jolt and could feel my CR body like twitch. IT WAS CRAZY GUYS SHIFTING IS REAL OMG” - Libby, Reality Shifting room on Amino, General Chat
I spoke to Dr. Joseph Laycock, a scholar of new religions at Texas State University. In his reckoning, he said that it seems the zoomers are discovering techniques that have been used by mystics and esoteric practitioners for centuries.
“This strikes me as kind of both in some ways really novel and in some ways kind of familiar,” he told me. “Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, reportedly loved Disneyland. He thought life should be like Disneyland – like there should be like pirate lands, frontier land, and so forth. And that you shouldn't have to live in a reality that you don't want to live in.”
LaVey also apparently used a similar sort of guided visualization technique to get his followers to astral project to the elemental planes from the comfort of their basement pentagrams. But it’s not all demonic. St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order, includes a sort of biblical visualization technique to help baby Jesuits immerse themselves in moments in Jesus’ life. And one of the supposed powers of the Catholic saints is bilocation – aka, the power to be in two places at once.
“There was a nun in 17th-century Spain, Mary Agreda, who wrote diaries about being transported to the new world by the power of Angels and then converting all the indigenous people,” Laycock told me.
The fandom connection
A simply enormous amount of shifting videos is about Draco Malfoy. Why? Bad boy appeal. Finding true love. “Saving” a broken soul. A video from @pixiedaz on December 21, 2020, with the caption “#pov you finally shift to your love draco Malfoy” has 2.7 million views, 53.3k comments, and 67k shares.
For decades, fan communities have congregated online to celebrate their favorite characters through the medium of fiction. Often, this is a safe way for fans to explore romance and sexuality. For the most part, this has traditionally been limited to simply rearranging characters into relationships that didn’t happen in the original canon: Frodo/Sam, Watson/Sherlock, Harry/Draco are all common examples. But occasionally, fandoms incorporate esoteric or spiritual elements.
The Snapewives, for instance, was a group of middle-aged women who were spiritually married to Severus Snape. Another example is Otherkin, a group who spiritually identified as part-humans: as elves, as fairies, as dragons. (They were definitely not furries, the Otherkin was quick to note – people who thought they were animals were on the bottom of the pagan hierarchy, along with people who thought they were aliens. And there was a great deal of mutual antipathy between those two groups, and the people who thought they were elves.)
I asked Laycock how it would be possible to get this kind of spiritual meaning from something that obviously does not have divine providence, such as a fictional setting. Laycock wrote a paper in 2015 about Otherkin communities. He explained that for plenty of people, the most prosaic explanation is that it was a “personal mythology,” but for some of the Otherkin, they were “channeling” a spirit. This is what was called a “walk-in” – an otherworld spirit walks into your body and temporarily possesses you.
“After that 2005 James Cameron movie came out, Avatar, there were plenty of people who said they identified as a blue alien cat person. How? Because Cameron was ‘channeling’ the real existence of the planet Pandora.”
But the main difference between plain fanfiction and “shifting” is the step between visualized fanfiction and the sort of spiritual step of literally visiting another world where you are a student in Hogwarts. Shifting scripts recall the “imagine” Tumblr blogs of the mid-2010s, which serve as a conceptual bridge. These blogs would take a second-person perspective, and write elaborate scenes for the readers. “Imagine Draco says hi to you in class”, for instance. The idea was to use the fictional setting and “you” pronoun to use fiction as a way of visualizing a more immersive fanfiction experience.
And the whole Snapewives thing appears to be making a sort of comeback – the user @drawc0s_wife has 40 followers, and her shifting tutorial videos have hundreds of thousands of views.
What’s the takeaway?
Much like many other virtual realities from the last year, reality shifting seems more of a way of connecting to others during this absolutely godawful point in history. Aya told me about “groupshifting,” where several people share a script and try to depart to the same universe together. I wondered how it would even be possible, since I wasn’t sure how a bunch of people would concur on what happened in their private experiences. But Aya reminded me of two things: 1) there are infinite universes, so contradictions aren’t important, and 2) that since we’re all trapped inside, the script can be a Google Doc, and everyone can go visit on their own time.
Plenty of people might worry that this level of escapism is unhealthy. But Laycock said that the shifters were probably on healthier grounds than, say, QAnon adherents.
“In some ways, I think what these TikTok kids are doing is more intellectually honest,” he explains. “Because they can like, read a newspaper and they say, well, that's the news in this reality, but then I have another reality I go to. Whereas a QAnon person will say, well, this is fake news. This is created by satanic pedophiles, so it's not real. The kids are saying, this has a kind of realness, in fact, an important kind of realness. It's just not the only realness.”
“We're kind of all just vibing here, to be honest,” Lovi told me. “We’re helping each other out and just trying to shift and become the best version of ourselves. It's a fun time, so we really don't appreciate it when non-believers ruin that by acting as if we're doing something wrong. If you don't believe it, then just let others do, you know? Have some respect [for] those who do.”
In this sense, reality shifters distinguish between fictions and realities. It might seem weird that Harry Potter has replaced spirit guides, but it makes sense that less-religious people may draw on a library of well-known and well-loved media to fill out their spiritual imaginations. Fictional characters are certainly real, even if they don't exist in the same sense as you and I. And whether you're getting in touch with your favorite characters through a book, a screen, or a sort of guided meditation, you're allowing yourself to shift out of this world — in whatever small way — and into another. We all partake in various kinds of fantasy. Who's to say which of those are more real than others?