Angela introduced Nev online to an 8-year-old painter prodigy, a 19-year-old seductress, and a host of supporting characters made up of MP3 snippets, online videos, photographs, text messages, and nearly a dozen of Facebook profiles. Schulman at 24 had his worldview open when he fell hard on the seductress, who in pictures looked like Jennifer Lawrence. It wasn’t until he and his brother’s film crew, suspecting something was going on, made their way to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to stop the Angela Gate that the scales really dropped. Angela, who doesn’t look like Jennifer Lawrence, played all the characters. Nev was annoyed at first, then impressed, then grateful. He told me that Angela is still the biggest catfish he has ever met.
Ultimately, Marriott uses the term “catfish” to describe “anything that has brought into life … the weird, obnoxious and disturbing touch of the Kingdom of Heaven.” Angela’s husband Vince, who likely came to the catfish allegory through popular Christian writer Joel Osteen, puts a spin on it. “They used to haul cod from Alaska to China,” he says, confusing geography. “By the time the cod reached China, the flesh was boiled and tasteless. So this guy got the idea that if you put these cod in these big tanks, put some catfish with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. They keep you on your toes. They make you guess, they make you think, they keep you cool.
This is how the catfish came full circle. Angela’s person is reminiscent of the fictional Mary: Each is an intriguing and infuriating woman who disrupts the existence of another.
Not long ago, Schulman’s MTV show turned into a podcast. Schulman and a co-host help an array of lonely young hearts, who fear they’ve fallen in love with digital specters, determine fact from fiction. Time and time again, the show features catfish victims daydreaming in their phones, supporting fragmentary missives from space to create alternate lives.
“Privacy has become incredibly rare,” Schulman told me. “There was a swing. Young people are desperate for something private in their lives – just for themselves. People who appear on Catfish do not want to be immediately relieved of their illusions of privacy; they want to live in fantasy for a moment, to press it for self-knowledge. But by the time they contact Schulman, it’s because, as he told me, “something’s wrong. It grew and grew like a pit in their stomach.
Love objects are almost always a mirage. The catfish hardly ever looks like their profile photos. Sometimes they are of a different gender or race. In general, they are less successful, less wealthy, more lost, more incarcerated.
Schulman on the podcast shows something like admiration for anyone naive enough to find themselves in the seat of cat fishing, his seat. At the same time, he is amazed that many guests do not know that he has already been caught. They have never seen his movie. “People in this situation are people who don’t do their research,” he told me. Right on it.
Catfish makes obvious what most adults know: romantic love is traversed by projection. Our phones reflect our dearest hopes, and in the text bubble we pour out all of our desires. “I can’t wait to fill my fingers with your hair,” Schulman once sent his catfish. “My body craves your touch tonight,” Angela wrote. It’s hyperworthy now. But that’s what the craze looks like. You always write to someone who is half-imagined. Every sexter is a poet.
But Catfish never fails to end in disappointment. “Inevitably, the second they see them, they have an instant affection drain,” said Schulman.
Return to Catfish, 1913. Although George and Mary are both married to other people at the end of the book, George discovers in a flash that he and Mary have something “beyond love”, for only his fish -cat can keep it honest. “Before he could be candid with himself, he had to get away with her – and all his life he had avoided her. The catfish is not the suitor. On the contrary, it is the incentive to abandon all pretensions. As he talks to Mary, George finally talks to himself, to the self he has suppressed. He is free. Some of the participants on MTV Catfish find the same thing: that once they go out with their catfish, they are, in Marriott’s words, “free to love elsewhere.”
In deep gratitude, George turns to his beloved wife with renewed passion. The catfish’s provocations have been illuminating, but true love is serene. And sometimes all you want is someone who, by not looking like their lovely selfie, looks better.
If you buy something using links in our stories, we may earn a commission. It helps support our journalism. Learn more.
This article appears in the April issue. Subscribe now.
More WIRED stories