Updated: Aug 10, 2020
When I was a kid in the 90’s, I used to get chain letters all the time. They were usually something simple: This is a letter, forward it on to a certain number of people, then add yourself to this list of people who have already gotten the letter. These chain letters have been around for well over a century, but many of them aren’t so innocent. Let’s look at a story that became popular via one of these letters: The story of Carmen Winstead.
There are a few different versions of the Carmen Winstead story floating around. Some are pretty bare bones, others are more detailed. So I’ve cobbled together everything I could find to give what I feel is the most complete version.
Carmen’s story begins around the year 2000, when she was about 17. We’re not sure where she lived at the time, but her dad lost his job and apparently got a new one in Indiana, because that’s where the family moved. Carmen was a shy girl and had trouble making friends — especially in the middle of the school year. She eventually found a group of girlfriends but, as girls often do, she soon discovered they were trashing her behind her back. When she confronted the girls, they began bullying her — calling her nasty names, writing profanities on her books, vandalizing her locker and more.
One day, Carmen finally had enough. She decided to stay after school to tell her teacher what was going on, but never got the chance. After lunch, the teacher announced there would be a fire drill. When the alarm rang, the students filed outside and teachers began calling roll to make sure everyone got out.
As the roll was being called, Carmen’s bullies decided now would be the perfect time to embarrass her. She was standing close to a sewer, so they pushed her in. Her classmates standing nearby saw what was going on and began laughing — but stopped when they saw her body at the bottom of the sewer, unmoving.
The police were called, and they found that Carmen’s face had been torn off by the sewer ladder, and her neck had broken when she hit the bottom, killing her. The girls who pushed her told the police it was an accident, that Carmen had fallen. And everyone believed them — for awhile.
Over the next few months, Carmen’s classmates began receiving strange messages on their various social media pages. The messages recounted what really happened to Carmen, called for the receiver to share Carmen’s story and would sometimes urge the bullies who pushed Carmen to come forward…or else. Some versions of the story specifically said the bullies who pushed her were killed one by one and their bodies were found in sewers, but didn’t give much more information. One incident that’s been described in more detail is what happened to David Gregory.
David was a classmate of Carmen’s, according to most sources — others said he was just some random kid who heard about Carmen. Either way, he got the message about Carmen but laughed and deleted it. Later on that evening, when he went to take a shower, he heard laughter coming from the shower — and it sounded like Carmen’s. How he would have known that I have no idea, but I’m just the messenger here. David ran to his phone (or to his computer, depending on the version) to repost the message, but it was too late.
In the middle of the night, David’s mom was woken up by a strange noise. When she went to David’s room to check on him, he was gone, and a message written in blood said “You will never have him back!” David’s body was found later that morning in a sewer with his neck broken and the skin on his face peeled off. (Other sources have told a similar story, but say it happened to a girl.)
So if you haven’t figured it out by now, the story of Carmen Winstead isn’t true. There are no records of anyone named Carmen Winstead dying in this manner in Indiana or anywhere else. The story started circulating back in the early 2000’s on sites like MySpace. Various versions have been posted on places like Facebook, Reddit, Amino and creepypasta websites. I read in a few places that the story was started by teenage girls on MySpace to see how many friends they could get from it, but I could never find confirmation of this.
The most common form the Carmen Winstead story is told is in chain letter. The poster — sometimes claiming to be Carmen herself — will tell the story of what happened and warn you to pass it on. If you don’t believe the story, or if you don’t read the whole message and pass it on to more people — sometimes within a certain time frame — then Carmen will get you. When you go to sleep, you’ll wake up in a sewer, unable to move. You’ll hear Carmen’s laughter and she’ll rip your face off — the same thing that was done to her.
Carmen’s also been said to be able to see without eyes, maybe because they were ripped off along with the rest of her face in the sewer. She won’t kill anyone younger than 13 and can be weakened by loud and obnoxious noises. She’s also reportedly been spotted in a Grand Theft Auto game. Interestingly, some stories and chain letters will end by saying that the story is true, and that you can Google it. But when you do Google it, all you find is page after page reiterating the legend — no news articles or other reports pop up. In some versions, Carmen has been renamed “Jessica Smith” and in at least one, David Gregory’s name was changed to Ron Anderson. “Jessica” can also get you from the toilet or a shower.
The Carmen Winstead legend isn’t exactly mainstream — most of the information I found on it was on various paranormal websites. It’s never been talked about by any sort of paranormal investigators or even folklore professors or historians like some of these legends have been. It’s mostly confined to social media.
That being said, it’s easy to see the appeal. The story is about an outcast who had a hard time with things but was able to get her comeuppance in the end. Indiana, where the story takes place, can be seen as a relatively normal place to live, giving the story sort of an “everyman” vibe. There’s also an element of fear for those of us who read the story but have no other attachment to it — if we “raise awareness” about bullying by sharing Carmen’s story, we can feel good about ourselves and avoid her wrath. This is obviously a big thing on social media even today…but that’s another topic for another day.
But perhaps the biggest part of this story’s appeal is its chain letter format. According to an article from Miami University, chain letters are “letters that direct the recipient to send out multiple copies so that circulation increases.“ (By the way, Miami University is actually in Ohio — not Miami. That has nothing to do with anything, but I just thought it was interesting.)
Chain letters stretch all the way back to the 1880’s, when places like schools and orphanages would use them in an attempt to get funding. These money-centric letters got really popular in the Great Depression for obvious reasons — though using them for moneymaking purposes today is legally dubious at best. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, chain letters began migrating from the regular post into e-mail format. A few articles over the past few months suggest chain letters are making a comeback because of the pandemic, with e-mails asking cooped up people to do things like share a recipe or inspirational quote.
Frankly, I don’t think chain letters ever went anywhere. They’ve always been around, their most recent iteration being in the form of social media posts. Instagram “follow loops” will require someone to follow all the people on a list, then add their names to the top of the list and share the post again, presumably in an attempt for everyone involved to get more followers. And, of course, we’ve all seen THOSE social media posts — the ones that recall some sad story about a boy who died of cancer that say “share if you have a heart.” Or maybe they even promise that a certain amount of money will be donated to a related charity every time the post is shared. Chain letters give people a sense of community and purpose -- or annoyance and “unnecessary obligation” as CNN once put it.
So that’s all I have for you today on Carmen Winstead. I first heard this story around 2012 and figured out pretty quickly that it wasn’t true. Still, when you read something alone in your room at night with all the lights off…you’d be surprised at how terrifying it can be.