Mystery is inherently seductive. Especially when it can be connected to murder, terrorism, and conspiracy. I published this a while ago for an news site called The Leveller. Being development-adjacent, I’d like to share with you the story of how I became embroiled in the very center of one such mystery. As my first post, I hope it's not too off the beaten track for the usual dev.to community!
To do this you’ll need to be acquainted with two terms.
The art of attempting to make a message unreadable to anyone but the intended recipient
The art of hiding a message from those who don’t know where look for it.
That out of the way, let’s start at the beginning.
John-Erik Krahbichler publishes an article on a relatively unknown technology blog ‘Gadgetzz.com’ titled ‘This Creepy Puzzle Arrived In Our Mail’. Said puzzle consisted of a DVD marked with nothing more than a random sequence of letters and numbers. The content contained this video:
Due the strange nature of the video, the article quickly gains the attention of other tech blogs and denizens of the internet. Before long someone has the idea to run the audio from the video through a spectrograph analyser — a way of viewing sound as an image rather than a wave. The resultant image contained the phrase “YOU ARE ALREADY DEAD”, “WE ARE THE ANTIVIRUS”, and many photos of the bodies of tortured or dead women. An unsettling, gory collage in grainy monotone bleeding one horror into the next. A mouth appears to gasp for breath, trapped beneath a plastic sheet.
This was my entry into the phenomenon known as 11B-X-1371.
If your assumption is the same as mine was, at about this point it looks like it could be the work of a murderer — some kind of Zodiac Killer for the YouTube generation. And this was exactly how it was understood by myself, and others.
A community on Reddit was already busily trying to solve various hidden messages found in the video. I was overcome with a sense of urgency to somehow help — seeing all the bodies in the spectrograph I scanned the video for anything I could contribute to, when I noticed a strange square dial at 1:26. Something that, with an enthusiast’s’ eye looked to be a pigpen cipher.
To give you a real idea of what it’s like to work on deciphering an encrypted message I’m going to have to get a little technical, but bear with me please.
A pigpen cipher is a form of monoalphabetic substitution cipher — meaning that each letter of the encoded message (the ciphertext) will always map to the same letter in the original message (the plaintext). For instance, replacing all the instances of ‘T’ with ‘U’, and all the instances of ‘F’ with ‘A’. This differs from a polyalphabetic cipher, which uses a number of substitutions for the same letter to make the code more difficult too break. In the case of the pigpen the substitution, rather than a letter of the alphabet, a geometric shape is used instead.
Also known as the masonic or tic-tac-toe cipher, it gets its name from the grid that is drawn to create the association between the letters and symbols (or key):
If all the possible shapes on the dial are drawn, something not entirely dissimilar to a pigpen key can be produced:
Although the grid generated bears obvious similarity to a pigpen cipher, the biggest problem with this one is that it contains spaces for 24 letters, yet there are 26 in the English language.
By this time other messages had already been decrypted, all in English. One message in morse code read “KILL THE PRESIDENT”, another contained the GPS coordinates of the White House. Combined with the phrase “We are the antivirus”, some members of the community were easily lead down the path of conspiracy. One online article even posited that the video indicated a threat of “Christian Bio-Terrorism” in the US and France before 2024.
I had also become a regular contributor to the reddit thread by myself, and a regular on the ##11b-X-1371 IRC channel (a kind of hackers’ instant messaging service). The community we had fostered was in danger of becoming a digital space for a kind of legend tripping; a practice usually engaged in by teenagers that essentially revolves around encouraging superstition. In one extreme case in London, stories about a vampire in Highgate Cemetery started by teenagers were taken up by the media, which helped whip young people into a frenzy, culminating in a mass vampire hunt in 1970, disturbing bodies and desecrating graves.
A version of the video was also discovered uploaded to a channel called “Parker Wright”. A matching Twitter profile had also been opened that claimed to be Parker Warner Wright, creator of the video. He had posted images of a brown leather mask that resembled that of a plague doctor, that looked identical to the one featured in the video. This led to impersonators logging on to try and claim authorship of the video for a moment of glory, and the opportunity for grandstanding.
It quickly became obvious that we would need to do our best to quash unreasoned speculation in our community as people flooded into the channel to make arcane and paranoid suggestions – connecting the video to numerous doom-laden ideas.
A shape sprayed on the wall behind the cloaked figure, who we referred to as ‘Birdman’, indicated a key for a potential solution. Using this information I began work.
Having no space for two letters of the alphabet, I hit a brick wall here. Many suggestions were made as to why there were missing characters — like the Tudor or Polish alphabets excluding certain letters. Polish language could in fact have had some significance since the location of the video was identified as the Jewish Zofiówka sanitorium in Poland, that came to a tragic end during the Nazi occupation of the area during WWII.
However despite my best efforts; I simply couldn’t convince myself of a logical mapping of symbols to letters that led to anything meaningful. Combined with the workload of my day job as a web developer I started to give up, and allowed the community to take up where I left off.
If only I had persisted; the answer was staring me in the face.
The Roman alphabet has 23 characters, missing the ‘J’, ‘U’ and ‘W’ of the modern alphabet. Using the grid above produces the following message:
‘AD OPPVGNARE HOMINES’
Taking into account that in Classical Latin the symbol ‘V’ was used as a ‘U’ as well produces:
‘AD OPPUGNARE HOMINES’
‘To target men’.
This was just one of many hidden messages, all of which required involved, group efforts to decrypt.
Most of the hidden messages had been solved by now, however one proved to be particularly tricky. A ciphertext arranged into four-character columns that was identified as output from the notorious Enigma machine — the machine that protected Nazi information up until a coordinated Polish and British codebreaking operation was undertaken. This culminated with the Ultra project at Bletchley Park, which is thought to have shortened WWII by two to four years.
This was further evidenced by a ‘G’ that appeared at first to be the pupil of an eye painted on the wall behind Birdman, but in fact turned out to be a reference to the Enigma logo.
We set about guessing at the settings from the machine, using hints from the video itself. But no matter what we tried, including brute force guesses using automated software, we couldn’t produce anything readable. The process went on for weeks, but we still had no luck.
By this time I started to get the impression that we were simply treading water. None of the hidden messages seemed to lead to an obvious next step; no message, bar a vaguely menacing anti-establishment tone, seemed to convey any further intent. We weren’t finding any indication of a next victim, or a link to some secondary puzzle. To say I was confused as to what the video was meant to represent would be an understatement.
But all of us were about to be thrown through a loop.
It turned out that all the hidden images in the spectrograph were sourced from films and gore artworks, barring one historic murder photo of the corpse of Mary Sullivan, purportedly the work of the Boston Strangler and proof of his identity as Albert DeSalvo.
One member of the Reddit community suggested that the video’s publication was synchronous with production for the on screen adaption of Dan Brown’s Inferno, which was originally slated for release on December 18, 2015, and could be viral marketing for it.
“A man named Bertrand Zobrist makes a creepy video dressed entirely in the traditional plague doctor mask and suit. He says he’s like death and is the cure”
Whilst it was a promising theory, it seemed highly unlikely a large marketing firm would use such extreme images for publicity, which could easily have a negative effect on any marketing effort.
A far more believable idea was — considering the discoverer of the video ran a fairly unknown tech blog — that Johny Krahbichler might have made the video himself. A marketing agency might balk at the idea of using such disturbing imagery, but an individual looking to get attention might do.
Johny himself logged onto the channel at some point to insist he was not involved in the production of the video in any way. Unable to further substantiate or disprove this idea we returned our attentions to the encrypted messages.
Eventually a user called “ParkerWWright” logged onto the IRC channel.
ParkerWWright wasn’t the first on IRC claiming to be the Birdman, but he certainly went to more effort than anyone else had to prove his identity. He posted photos of a customised leather glove with an embedded blinking light like that in the video, in addition to some simple arduino code used to produce the morse code it created. Whilst not conclusive evidence, a determined copycat could have made something similar fairly easily, it gave us pause for thought. He also posted photos of a brown leather mask on Twitter that looked identical to the one in the video, but we weren’t quite ready to accept it as undeniable proof that he was the creator of the video.
We were at an impasse, and if any headway were to be made the community needed the creator of the video to make a move.
One morning I logged into IRC and found a new message had been decrypted:
“COMPLACENT ARE THE WEAK STAND AND FIGHT WITH US TAKE DOWN THE BLACK BEAST KILL HIS DISEASE OR FALL WITH THE REST”
ParkerWWright had handed crucial Enigma settings over to a member of the community, revealing the final message and proving the veracity of his claim of being creator of the video.
No lives were ever at risk. The meaning of the hours I’d contributed to the project began to evaporate as I grappled to come to terms with the significance of the video in a new light. I lost interest. I got back to my day job.
That was a year ago now, a second video — 11B-3-1369 — has been released since then. ‘Parker Warner Wright’ (a pseudonym to be sure) did an interview on YouTube. I even added him as a ‘friend’ on Facebook.
Wright seems to see himself as a kind of “teacher of humanity”; a term he makes a nod to in the interview. He professes his work to have its significance in forcing the viewer to look beyond the surface. He is keen to stress an emphasis on not accepting the popular narrative at face value, and letting go of “wilful ignorance”. As a hidden message in his second video implies quite crudely and directly:
“THEY MAKE EVERYTHING SO BELIEVABLE SO YOU SUCK IT LIKE A WHORE”
There is a repeating motif through all the works I have seen so far; sophisticated production techniques, intricate multi-layered puzzles, all to hide messages that lack a certain level of depth. Corruption, war, poverty, inequality, lying politicians – these aren’t new concepts, we aren’t the first generation to experience pain. “Wake up!” Wright seems to scream, but to what?
“A new order is on the rise. You will join, or you will fall. The virus has spread too far; it must be stopped. We will dike it at it’s root. 13 and 50, will burn.”
Militaristic language, a vague implication of revolution…These words ring familiar somehow:
“Rise up and take the power back, it’s time that
The fat cats had a heart attack, you know that
Their time is coming to an end
We have to unify and watch our flag ascend”
–Uprising by the band MUSE
There is a real danger, at least when taking it at face value, that there is actually little meaning to be distilled from the phenomenon of 11B-X-1371. At some level, the artistic merit seems to lie very superficially on this piece. Bluster and spectacle hiding little meaning. And if a ragtag group of hackers and conspiracy theorists huddling together in the darker recesses of the internet are the intended audience, they almost certainly are already ‘waking up’ themselves, making Wright a self-appointed preacher to the converted.
For a long time I thought that this was all there was. A brick wall, hours of time wasted to help someone gaze into their own navel. What started as an internal drive to contribute to something that might save lives and potentially catch a serial killer was reduced to someone’s performance art. I’d been duped, and I was annoyed to see someone potentially squander the chance to say something truly meaningful to a large, captive audience.
But of course, a piece of art is not just a mass of words. And just because an art piece contains words doesn’t necessarily mean that those words encompass and summarise its meaning. Something I find particularly fascinating to consider is; who is the piece aimed at? Who is the intended observer? I had previously suggested that I myself might be the intended audience, but the more I think about it, the less sure I am that this is the case.
Propagation of untruth is a recurring theme for this entire story. When the video was first revealed, I was one of many who contributed to the working theory that there was a killer on the loose. Even now, almost every article you read on the piece will ignore any meaning in the piece, or even the idea of it being art in favour of a clickbaity title and the promise of a cheap scare. Words like “Mystery”, “Creepy” and “Murder” crop up regularly. Even I opened this article by going into detail about dead bodies, because it’s a hook. I think that was a clever move for Parker Wright, and I suspect that without it he would not have accrued the audience he built for himself.
The idea of ‘meaning’ or a ‘message’ is not so straightforward when it comes to art. Some artists don’t claim to give any meaning to their work, or say that they let their audience ascribe meaning to their work.
The presence of a work in public space, and the decision of the artist to put it there.
These two factors bely intent. Something you make to show someone else is done so with intent, and arguably for that reason it conveys a message.
Whether or not clarity of this message is the duty of the artist is up for debate, though personally I tend to judge art on its ability to communicate something. And as much as I scoffed earlier at the idea of “looking deeper” being a non-message, something superficial, there may be something to it. I think in actual fact the ecosystem of articles, response videos, impersonators, conspiracy theorists illustrates this quite accurately.
I think to judge Parker’s art as “just his videos” is to ignore the fact that 11B has become greater than the sum of its parts. Which makes this article part of his work – and if you’ve read this far, then perhaps you have become a part of his work too.
“The world is a work of art that gives birth to itself”
Special thanks go to Singularity, Cyphere, and everyone on the ##11BX1371 IRC channel, for taking part in this journey with me, and for helping with research for this article. I couldn’t have done it without you.
Images © Parker Warner Wright. All rights reserved.
Photograph of the Enigma machine CC-BY-SA Tim Gage