Halloween may be over, but there’s one spooky figure you still need to keep an eye out for: the Hat Man.
Since the late 2000s, people have shared their stories of a strange vision that sounds remarkably consistent from one account to the next. It’s the tall silhouette of a man in a brimmed hat, a presence that tends to appear when you’re in bed at night, somewhere between sleep and consciousness.
“What I saw gripped me immediately with fear and dread,” writes Timothy M. Brown Jr., who from 2008 has curated a blog where anyone can describe their encounter with the Hat Man, describing his first glimpse of the apparition as a teen in the 1990s. “The man had no distinguishable features whatsoever. I could see no eyes, no nose or mouth, only blackness. He looked like a shadow, only darker — much darker. He had a very wide brimmed hat and a long trench coat that flowed as he moved.”
This was the beginning of the Hat Man’s tenure as an internet urban legend, often referred to as a “creepypasta,” the kind of story that gets endlessly repeated and revised until it has embedded itself in the cultural consciousness. For years, the Slender Man — also tall, featureless and terrifying — was the most prominent of these phantoms, in part because of a shocking 2014 case where two 12-old-girls viciously stabbed their friend in order to appease the fictional character. Lately, however, the Hat Man has emerged as the horror meme of the moment.
Apart from Brown’s blog, a Hat Man subreddit has been going strong for years. He’s been the subject of fan art and numerous YouTube videos, including a 2019 mini-documentary by Quartz that associated him with the biological phenomenon of sleep paralysis.
But on 4chan and elsewhere, the Hat Man is often referenced as a hallucination brought on by the abuse of diphenhydramine, or DHP, the active ingredient in the over-the-counter allergy medication Benadryl. Forums like Reddit’s r/ilovedhp, where users post “trip reports” after taking dangerous amounts of the drug, the Hat Man is at once an inside joke and mascot — “I’m going to attempt to see the Hat Man and fuck him,” a DPH disciple once announced. But any mind-altering substance taken to excess is thought to grant access to the Hat Man, even caffeine.
While many don’t take the Hat Man too seriously, instead riffing about owing him money or manifesting him as an imaginary friend when you’re lonely, some TikTok creators have gone in the other direction, claiming that he’s a real and potentially evil “shadow person.”
Patrick James, whose videos on subjects like UFOs and haunted houses reach nearly 300,000 followers, hypothesized that the Hat Man could be an inter-dimensional being. Abbey Sobota, whose “scary tales” and interpretations of American folklore command an audience of more than half a million, says that the Hat Man most often appears to children to feed off their negative emotions, especially those arising from trauma, and is, in effect, a “parasite.” A TikTok influencer named MJ Patek, meanwhile, told his own 1.1 million followers that if they’ve seen the Hat Man, they’re in “danger,” claiming that some have woken up with “scratches and marks on their body” after he visits.
The trend has gotten so extreme in certain corners of the app that a few users have been compelled to push back. One response to a creepy Hat Man video with the caption “Did you have a good childhood or was this man in your dreams?” took the position that the Hat Man may be out there, but he’s nothing to worry about.
“That’s the Hat Man,” explained a self-described “practitioner and teacher of traditional physical witchcraft” who goes by the handle @witchfoot_official. “He’s not dangerous, and it’s not only people with bad childhoods that see him. He is an observer. He is in all cultures. He may be around when you have sleep paralysis, or the shadow people come. But he is not one of them, and he does not harm you.”
“So stop terrifying the children on this app, and young folk on this app,” she concluded. “Thank you.”
Of course, as more people draw engagement by stoking fear of a Hat Man who can attack you at your most vulnerable, the more power the myth obtains, and the more his menace will be exaggerated. The content is self-perpetuating, too, since the suggestible youth consuming it automatically become disposed to recognize the Hat Man in their own bedrooms. After all this time, what probably began with a trick of the light as processed by the human subconscious is now a dominant character within the digital culture, a being that has inspired its own lore and countless witness reports, lately fueled by TikTok’s fascination with the paranormal and occult.
So go ahead, enjoy the memes and tell yourself the Hat Man doesn’t exist. It won’t change the fact that others are deciding to believe. Who knows? Maybe someday you’ll pop one too many Benadryl and meet him.