What do The Simpsons, the September 11 attacks, and an online conspiracy board in 2006 all have in common?
Well, they are all inexplicably responsible for unleashing a trend on the internet which is obsessed with linking the beloved animation with current events, almost to an annoying degree.
Yes, we are referring to the 'craze' which seems to arise every couple of months which claims that at some point in its 30-year history The Simpsons managed to accurately predict a number of important events which have happened in the world in the past few years.
With everything from Greta Thunberg's awe-inspiring speech at the United Nations to Donald Trump being elected as president of the United States, people have become obsessed with finding moments from The Simpsons that happened on the show years before in transpired in reality, no matter how accurate or tenuous they are.
It's a trend that some have become so obsessed with that it has almost descended into a parody that not even The Simpsons writers could envision, with people actually faking images from the show, which not only distracts from the important issue it is attempting to represent but demeans the quality of what is possibly one of the greatest shows in television history.
How did this craze start?
To fully answer that question we have to go back to the 2006 online conspiracy board mentioned at the start of this article.
According to the great meme resource Know Your Meme, a person going by the user name of Howie shared an image on a 9/11 conspiracy website called Loose Change from the first episode of the ninth season of The Simpsons called 'The City of New York vs Homer Simpson', which aired on 21 September 1997.
In the episode, Lisa Simpson holds up a magazine advert showing that bus trips to New York City are just $9. However, the way the page is designed lines up the nine dollars with a silhouette of the World Trade Centre, effectively forming the numbers '9 11.'
This is the first known example of someone claiming that The Simpsons had predicted the future and if that one made your eyes roll, wait until you see what kind of soothsaying people would credit the show with since then.
Are there good examples of the show getting things correct?
Before we go any further, we should say that The Simpsons has, whether they meant to or not, accurately predicted important moments years before they happened. We've already mentioned that it predicted that Donald Trump would be a future US president in an episode that was first aired 20 years ago. However, they have been even more specific than that.
In a 2010 episode they said that the United States would win an Olympic gold medal in curling at the Winter Olympics defeating Sweden in the final, which is exactly what happened at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Even stranger was when they included a reference to the 2015 Nobel Prize winner in economics, Bengt R Holmstrom, in a 2010 episode about the Nobel Prize.
Coincidence or not, these are good examples of The Simpsons taking niche subjects, making a joke about it only for it to turn out to be true in the future.
These truly are cases of life imitating art but you can always have too much of a good thing and that is what has lead to a deluge of people claiming that the show has predicted everything from the deaths of celebrities like Prince and David Bowie to the coronavirus pandemic and 'murder hornets.'
Why does this matter?
While this may just seem like a bit of fun, the phenomenon has become so frequent now that it has almost lost any credibility that it had and is now verging on tedium.
Do really seriously think that The Simpsons could have predicted when Stephen Hawking would die just because of a sight gag which some believed correlated to the date of his death? Of course not. Or how about when people thought it had predicted a 'blackout' event on the video game Fortnite just because an episode from 1991 featured a television malfunctioning on Springfield's most famous family? Absolutely not.
Furthermore, the urgency to try and find predictions has led people to create scenes from the show which did not happen in order to fool people into believing that it predicted events.
Major world events from recent years have fallen foul of this. Everything from Greta Thunberg scowling at Donald Trump at the United Nations to the fire at Notre Dame cathedral have been made to look like (although pretty poorly, if we do say so ourselves) they featured in old episodes of the show.
This has become such a problem that the fact-checking website Snopes has a section dedicated to proving that The Simpsons didn't predict many events that people are claiming it did. Perhaps most egregious of all are the images circulating that claim that The Simpsons predicted the death of George Floyd and the subsequent riots in Minneapolis.
We can categorically state now that The Simpsons predicted neither the death of George Floyd nor the riots that followed this tragedy.
The image of Chief Wiggum with his knee of Floyd's neck is taken from the account of Instagram artist Yuri Pomo who uses characters from shows such as The Simpsons and Rick and Morty to comment on political, social or cultural talking points.
Regardless of whether you perceive these to be in bad taste or not, that scene is not, nor is it ever likely to appear on The Simpsons.
The second image of the Springfield police department on fire comes from season 11, episode 6 and is just a sight gag making fun of the incompetence of the show's police force. It is nothing more than a joke and nothing to do with a riot.
In addition, the image of the building on fire in Minneapolis is actually an unfinished housing project near the city's third precinct. To have connected all these to try and make some sort of joke or go viral on social media shows that not everyone has fully engaged with what the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement are actually about and makes something of a mockery of the horrendous death of George Floyd.
The creation of fake images supposedly from the show reared its head again recently after president Trump was diagnosed with coronavirus leading to many speculating about his wellbeing. Although Trump has been depicted in The Simpsons, his character definitely didn't die. However, after the news broke of him testing positive with Covid-19, images of the Simpsons Trump in a coffin began to circulate on the notorious messageboard 8chan.
The use of memes and lighthearted cultural references and jokes may help us process the tragedies of everyday life, but taking it too far can also detatch us from the real impact these things have on human beings and the world.
The Simpsons is a great show even without these predictions
There are 639 episodes of The Simpsons and with the conclusion of the latest season has seen it span four decades. This makes it the longest-running television show in history. There are literally adults alive today who have a family of their own that will have never known a period where The Simpsons wasn't on the television.
That's staggering to behold and demonstrates that while it is far from perfect, has arguably been on the air for far too long and has potentially exhausted itself from storylines, it also holds a certain amount of credibility and perception of quality among its audience.
Although hardcore fans would say that the show started to diminish around seasons 12-15, there is still the odd gem of an episode every season which tackles a deep issue that resonates with viewers and does so with its own unique blend of charm and humour.
Whether focusing on subjects like estranged parents, unexpected pregnancy, mortality, sexual inadequacy or difficulties in a relationship, it has found ways to both make us laugh and cherish what we have without reducing itself to mawkish sentimentality. It has also largely done this with great knowledge and respect for culture and history.
For instance, following the closure of many Toys R Us stores across the world in 2018, fans thought the show had predicted that it would be hit by hardships after a 2004 episode showed the store in Springfield being closed down much to the dismay of the local children. What many people missed was that the scene contained a reference to a famous image from a 1943 propaganda film called Divide and Conquer which looked at how Nazi Germany managed to dominate and take over Western Europe in 1940.
All of which is to say that the complexity and cleverness of The Simpsons can sometimes be so profound that it goes over even the most ardent of fans' heads.
By trying to constantly find predictions that the show didn't make, we are likely missing out on a key reference or existential point that the show is trying to make about the loss of innocence and good failing to overcome evil, as seen above.
"Stupid, sexy, Simpsons predictions"
It's understandable that in difficult times many of us may find comfort in a funny Simpsons prediction popping up on our timeline. Let's not forget the delight of the internet when people "discovered" that the show had vaguely alluded to both the coronavirus pandemic and the worry about 'murder hornets' coming to kill us all happening both at the same time. Even the creators admitted that they might have gotten this one correct.
However, this trend is only amusing and worth engaging with if they are actually real and not something that might bear a visual similarity to a tragic real-world event.
The craze is unlikely to stop any time soon. If you go to Twitter and search for 'Simpsons predictions' you'll find hundreds of tweets trying to link something in the news to something that may or may not have happened on The Simpsons, such as anti-racist protesters removing statues.
By reducing important topics like racism, police brutality and climate change, to name but a few, to nothing more than a viral meme that is vaguely connected to a TV show that has more episodes than most TV channels have news broadcasts, really misses the point.
So, please stop with this nonsense unless it is actually true. Sometimes the predictions are funny and fairly accurate but for the most part, they prove nothing, make the show out to be something that it is not and distracts from very, very important topics that deserve our more considered attention.