This is Episode 15 of Real Future, Fusion’s documentary series about technology and society. More episodes available at realfuture.tv.
The internet is many things to many people—an information clearinghouse, a play place, a looming danger. But for Sam, a 24-year-old computer programmer from Maryland, the internet has been a place to meet people who share her unusual hobby: interacting with her imaginary friend.
Sam is what’s known as a “tulpamancer”—a person who has a “tulpa,” which is an imaginary friend with thoughts, feelings, and a personality of its own. Sam says her tulpa, “KT,” has been living inside her body for the last two years. That was when Sam first heard about tulpas, got interested in the idea, and conjured KT into existence.
“I was sitting like I was meditating and I just thought, ‘Hey, KT. My name is Sam. I’m going to be your host. It’s very nice to meet you,'” Sam told me.
Now, Sam runs a website, Tulpa.io, to teach people about tulpamancy, and has become part of a supportive community of fellow tulpamancers that communicate on Reddit and other forums.
Tulpas are an ancient Buddhist concept, but they’ve gained new life among young non-Buddhists, who have seized on the concept as a way to experiment with identity and externalization. Tulpamancy, which grew out of discussions on Reddit and 4Chan forums and currently has its own subreddit with nearly 10,000 subscribers, has been divisive ever since it began. (A Vice article called it “incredibly weird.”) People have speculated that some tulpamancers might be suffering from dissociative identity disorder or some other psychological condition, a suggestion many tulpamancers find offensive.
And make no mistake: even though it’s not necessarily indicative of a mental health problem, tulpamancy is weird. Adults aren’t supposed to have imaginary friends, and hearing Sam slip back and forth into “KT” can be a jarring experience. But tulpamancy is harder to dismiss when you realize that it’s also helping people—including Sam, who says that KT helped her avoid depression and anxiety.
Recently, I went to meet Sam, learn more about her experience with tulpamancy, and hear how her imaginary friend KT has changed her life. It’s one of the most unexpectedly fascinating and moving stories I’ve heard. And you can watch it below: