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Logan Paul’s Stunt Mines the Gulf Between Memes and Tragedy

The 22-year-old YouTube star’s dispatch from a Japanese forest known for attracting people considering suicide highlights his distance from human reality

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Good day and welcome to 2018, where we’re already facing a horrific social media incident.

Last weekend, the YouTube star Logan Paul entered the Japanese forest known as Aokigahara with cameras, a group of friends and fellow YouTube personalities, and — yes — a silly hat. They went there, in Paul’s words, to “focus on the ‘haunted’ aspect of the forest.” Instead, Paul and his cohort encountered the tragic reality of the area, coming across the body of a man who had apparently taken his own life. They filmed this discovery, and on Sunday, a 15-minute synopsis — which included images of the man’s body as well as Paul’s reactions, like dubbing the discovery one of the “top-five craziest things I’ve ever experienced in my life,” before adding, almost excitedly, “top one!” — appeared on Paul’s widely followed account. The “**emotional**” description comes from the since-deleted version of the video published on YouTube by Andy Altig, another member of the group. If you’re curious, here’s a link to a widely circulated clip of Paul’s reactions; there are no images of the body.

The backlash on social media was swift and forceful. Paul’s video disappeared from YouTube, where his daily vlog account has more than 15 million subscribers; in a statement, the network said the video violated its community guidelines and that a “strike” — in theory one of YouTube’s harshest penalties, but in reality one that will have no consequences on its own — had been applied to Paul’s account. On Monday night, Paul posted an apology on Twitter that included the phrases “I’m out here” and “I get views,” and ended with a hashtag referring to his fans: #Logang4Life. A subsequent apology posted Tuesday morning on YouTube came closer to contrition, offering condolences to the man’s family and beseeching his fans not to defend him. It includes the remarkable and telling phrase, “I want to apologize to the internet.”

Perhaps you have maintained a healthy distance from the world of YouTubers. Maybe you’ve picked up a little through osmosis — something about PewDiePie or Jake Paul, Logan’s younger brother, or the wealth and fame of toy-reviewing toddlers. But maybe, until this whole preposterous saga burst into the forefront, you hadn’t ever contemplated the elder Paul or his adrenalized corner of social media, so let’s take a step back.

Many of YouTube’s biggest stars operate in semi-eponymous crews like Logang, flitting in and out of one another’s videos. They are, in turn, worshiped by legions of predominantly very young fans, many of whom sport officially branded merch. One widely watched Paul video shows him perusing stores in cheap disguises and confronting shopkeepers selling unlicensed goods (“**hostile**,” he specified); last month, The Daily Beast dubbed the younger Paul “the undeniable Merch King of YouTube.”

Logan Paul, 22, dropped out of Ohio University in 2014 and moved to Los Angeles in service of a budding Vine career. He has, like his brother, made a name for himself with a mix of outlandish stunts and physical comedy. Wealth has followed: Forbes reports that Paul makes “$150,000 per Facebook post and $80,000 for sponsored content on Instagram”; he has appeared in ads for Hanes and Dunkin’ Donuts, among other brands, and has made clear he has Hollywood aspirations. In October, Paul bought a $6.55 million mansion in Encino, California, with the explicit goal of throwing “awesome rager parties.” At one point, he drove a purple Dodge Challenger with the license plate “AYYYYYYY.”

On Vine, he proved himself a master of the six-second form. As that network fizzled, Paul joined his brother in devoting himself to YouTube, where the most successful publishers harness a mix of frequent, lengthy posts and subscriber loyalty — meaning that many of the network’s biggest names adopt some version of the vlog model, turning their daily experiences into fodder for fans. More so than on perhaps any other network, success on YouTube means success at turning real life into content.

It isn’t surprising, then, that the Aokigahara forest seemed to Paul less like a place where very real tragedies happen and more like, well, a meme — a cartoonish, ghostly place to reenact a bizarro version of The Blair Witch Project. In English, the forest is frequently referred to as “the suicide forest,” and it looms large on sites like Reddit, a spooky phantasm that is almost entirely divorced from the forest’s somber reality. Aokigahara has become a macabre tourist attraction for many visitors; 2016’s Natalie Dormer–starring The Forest is, if not quite a glorification of the deaths there, at least a doubling down on the decidedly Western mythology of the place as an elaborate haunted house. This runs in stark contrast to the Japanese approach, where the government has ceased to even release annual fatality figures.

But nuances, let alone difficult truths, don’t travel well on the internet. Silence — out of respect or horror — is just a void to be filled, and so tragedy online is divvied up into superimposed flags on Facebook (Pray for Paris) and Atlas Obscura oddities. (“Accessible without a car.”) So places like Aokigahara are flattened, reduced to their strangest or darkest or, at the very least, most shareable feature. Such was Paul’s certainty in that internet-fueled vision of the forest that he initially thought the body was a prop — placed there, maybe, just to mess with him. “Yo, are you alive?” he shouted to the body. “Are you fucking with us?”

On Tuesday, Paul’s name trended on Twitter with the subhead “YouTuber sorry for video showing dead body.” He will lose some fans, surely, and his road from social media stuntman to Hollywood entity is likely to be that much more difficult. But on YouTube, scandal rarely leaves a serious dent — PewDiePie, dropped by many sponsors last year after an anti-Semitic stunt but still a wildly popular broadcaster, is a case in point — and if his goal was to present a portrait of himself as a foolish young man, then by every metric he succeeded. The most revealing moment of the video, perhaps, came in the moments after Paul realized that he was looking not at a prank or a ghoulish visual creepypasta, but at the tragic end to someone’s story. “This obviously just became very real,” he said.