The Curse of a Thousand Chain Letters
About chain letters

E-mail can instantly whisk a letter to a limitless number of people, and forwarding a message involves only a click of the mouse. Such is the breeding ground for scores of vile chain letters, which people zip off to whomever is in their address book, often without even reading beyond the sentence "forward this to as many people as possible."

Systems administrators hate chain letters because sending a big message to hundreds of people can bog down e-mail computers. Many online services and Internet providers have rules forbidding chain letters. And yet the letters persist.

E-mail chain letters usually fall into one of three categories:

Generic chain letters

These chain letters exist only as chain letters. Most promise wonderful good times in exchange for passing the message along, but often, they are nothing more than a list of threats of things that will happen if you don't send it along. None of these things has ever happened to anyone who has gotten the letter. Many contain the phrase "This is no ordinary chain letter". | Examples

Entertaining chain letters

These are the most common variation, and also the most harmless. Usually, they tell a joke or a funny story. Sometimes it will be some cleaver ASCII art of dashes and lines that show up as a picture in your e-mail window. But all end with the sentence "You must send this to as many people as possible," or something similar. Nobody knows why jokes, stories and cheesy art can't exist on their own merit. If they were really worth reading, they would certainly be worth forwarding without requiring the order to do so. | Examples


These are by far the most serious and evil of all the chain letters. They prey on the ignorant and confused; relying on trickery to control the readers' thoughts and force the message along to others. Most have an alarmist tone, use confusing technojargon, and make the reader feel that s/he is performing a service by passing the message along. Anyone who sends these is doing just the opposite. The most common manifestations of hoax chain letters are phony virus alerts and cheesy "suffering childern" lies. | Examples

About chain letters

So what isn't a chain letter?

  • Spam, although just as nasty, is a different beast from the chain letter. Spam is unsolicited e-mail advertising sent to massive numbers of people. If you use America Online, you probably get (and delete) scores of these every week. Unlike chain letters, Spam does not insist that you to send it on to other people.
  • Many e-mail forwards are not chain letters. Jokes, poems and stories can exist as forwarded e-mail that people pass from friend to friend just because they are interesting. Only when a message insists that you pass it on does it become a chain letter. And only then does it get scary.

More resources

Hoax du Jour - David Spalding's well-researched hoax column.

Chain letters and links - Want to lose friends fast? This is a nifty page from another bored student.

Chain letter information - By Donald Watrous of Rutgers University. This frequently-updated site has lots more links and plenty of examples.

ICQ Hall of Shame - Specifically about those awful ICQ chat forwards.

CIAC Internet Chain Letters - from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Urban Legends - based around the alt.folklore.urban newsgroup.

Urban Legends Reference Page - Not as complete as the link above, but still pretty extensive. Anti Chain Mail Entente (ACME) - Pledge your opposition to chain letters here.

Hype Alert - IBM's Antivirus hoax page.