Shrek is love. Shrek is life.

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If you’ve spent more than a few seconds of your life on the Internet, you’ve probably seen a Shrek meme. Maybe it involved Smash Mouth’s seminal 1999 hit “All Star,” the song that inspired a whole generation to unite in shared mockery of Smash Mouth. Or maybe it involved... anal penetration (Warning: NSFW due to child abuse, cartoony but still pretty obvious sex, implied sexual assault of a character who’s described as a child, and also whatever’s going on with Shrek’s face down there):

The above two videos, created with Valve’s Source Filmmaker, are different interpretations of a popular Shrek fan fiction that originated on 4chan in 2013. It’s called “Shrek is love, Shrek is life.” In the story, a young boy prays to Shrek and is ultimately sodomized by him. It’s inspired countless spin-offs and dramatic readings. The top video alone, which is not even the (now-deleted) original, has over 4.5 million views.

You might think, “My stars, how could such a vile act of lurid pornography emerge from a beloved children’s film franchise,” or the more common, “Uh... what,” but it all makes sense in the way the Internet often makes sense, which is to say it’s like a big game of telephone where everyone’s simultaneously screaming into an infinite void and the void is screaming back and also vomiting from its mouth and nose and ears and eyes and anus. It all just keeps getting louder and louder. At some point, the world ends. Nobody notices.

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I’ve used the word “anus” or some variation thereof twice, and we’re not even out of the introduction yet. This is definitely a post about Shrek.

We demand a Shreksplanation

You might not remember this, but the original Shrek movie was extremely well-liked. Kids loved the fart jokes and the fun action. Adults dug the way Shrek skewered fantasy tropes while telling a story that was, at times, downright heartfelt. To this day, it has an 88 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. It even won a damn Oscar in 2001. For a time, Shrek fandom was neither ironic nor horrifying. People just dug imaginative fictional characters like Shrek, Fiona, and Eddie Murphy. The movie did not age well, however, and its sequels and spin-offs relied more on cheap topical gags and cameos than wit or heart.

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The Shrek meme’s exact origins are tough to pin down, but it’s widely believed that Shrek lost his dignity and purity around the time the franchise’s official Facebook page launched in 2009. It sometimes featured posts written in the first-person, attributed to Shrek himself.

Suddenly, according to a 2014 Daily Dot deep dive into all things Shrek, the doofy ogre was more than just a calcified memory of a sorta-crappy early ‘00s movie series. He was an idea, a touchstone, a rallying cry. A brand ripe for evisceration by a generation raised on the very sort of ironic detachment (in this case, from the unending sincerity of kid-friendly Disney fantasy) the Shrek movies peddled in ogre-green, onion-laced shitloads.

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In essence, Shrek gave birth to Shrek. Now there’s an idea for a fan fiction.

Around then, the Internet fell into a deep, dark sleep. Its collective fever dream gave rise to mountains of fan works on sites like DeviantArt. Slowly but surely, they evolved into a surrealist meta-fiction, a dream of a dream of a nightmare. One of the most infamous works is a 2010 piece by user cmara called “Shadow begs Shrek.” The Shadow in question is the one from Sonic The Hedgehog, because of course.

It’s accompanied by a story:

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“One day, Shadow the Hedgehog was sitting under a tree petting Donkey who was taking a nap. Then, he saw someone on the path. It was Shrek the Ogre. Shadow then saw that he was holding a bundle. Shadow softly said, “Shrek...” He stood up and watched him walk away. He then ran towards him and said to himself, “You can’t leave this place!” He ran after him along the path. Shrek stopped and looked up at the sky. He then heard someone say, “Shrek!” He turned around and saw Shadow panting for breath.

“He said, “Shadow?” Shadow yelled out, “Idiot!” Shrek jumped. Shadow said, “What were you thinking about leaving?! You can’t leave us!” His eyes began to fill with tears as he said, “Please Shrek, don’t leave. I wouldn’t know what to do without you. Shrek, I didn’t mean to lie to you. I was only saying those things to protect Fiona and all of the others from dire peril.” Shrek looked at Shadow with a sad look on his face as Shadow talked. Shadow continued, “You know I would never lie to you. You’re one of my best friends ever since we first met. You can’t stay angry at me. I don’t want to lose you like I lost Maria.” Shrek then began to smile. Tears ran down on Shadow’s cheeks as he said, “I don’t want to lose you because you’re my friend. Because you’re always by my side and because...because...”

The story has multiple parts.

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Things only got weirder from there. Searching “Shrek” on DeivantArt is... an experience.

Why Shadow, though? Why did this piece and others like it resonate, ultimately forming the foundations of a beautiful, twisted canon? Because by this point, Shrek had outgrown the confines of his holy swamp. He’d become a symbol of all things gloriously shitty and relentlessly focus-tested from the early ‘00s. If Shrek was the big screen embodiment of nu-millennium toilet garbage, Shadow The Hedgehog—with his hilariously unfitting blend of guns and angst in a colorful world of fast animals in clown shoes—was his video game bride. Both tried to act like they were too cool for “kid stuff.” Too sophisticated, too edgy. They were made for each other—and approximately one billion people between the ages of 12 and 34.

Countdown to Shreksplosion

It didn’t end there. Image boards like 4chan were on board more or less since the beginning, but they didn’t kick things into high gear until 2012. That’s the year the now-defunct Shrekchan launched.

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Shrekchan, survived by places like Reddit’s /r/brogres, the Shrekchan Facebook page, the ogreLord Steam group, and countless Twitter accounts, was more than just a repository for memes. It was the oily, ugly spawning pit for an entire meta-meta culture. Its main inspiration? My Little Pony fandom. Instead of Bronies, dedicated Shrekchanners were Brogres.

They developed their own ongoing fiction with history and terminology. Ogres were misunderstood, but perfect. Holy, even. Onions formed the center of their universe. They represented the concept of layers, a sort of well-roundedness to which good brogres aspired. The swamp was one’s safe place, their sanctuary, and laddies were their friends and comrades. Farquaads, named for the first Shrek movie’s villain, were their foes. Then there was Farquaad’s vile creation, Drek, nemesis to Shrek and all things Shrek stood for. He was literally Shrek, except blue.

On image boards, people are defined not by identities (typically, everyone’s either anonymous or they only get a simple username), but by the novelty and shock value of their posts in the moment. Users often skew young. This, naturally, leads to Some Fucked Up Shit in the name of getting attention. Then everyone tries to pretend they’re not bothered by any of it through jokes and escalation. It’s kids sneaking into an R-rated movie or finding dad’s porn collection, only turned up to 11 thanks to the boundless reach of the Internet.

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It wasn’t long before Shrek stories like the ones in the videos above were commonplace. Sex, drugs, violence, murder, rape—nothing was off-limits for ol’ Shrek. Sometimes Shrek was a vengeful guardian angel. Other times he shit on people’s desks. As per usual with image board stuff, Shrek wore the aesthetic of uncomfortable topics while not really engaging with any of it. A lot of it was like a slightly more grown-up version of a fart joke. Some things never change.

Valve’s Source Filmmaker, which has been used to create some truly breathtaking virtual movies by Valve and fans alike, was a perfect conduit for people’s most demented Shrek fantasies because a) people could make Shrek models in it and b) Valve’s Source engine has been giving life to Internet strangeness ever since YouTube poops took off.

In that way, a culture of image board faux-ironic “edginess” formed around Shrek, a character originally intended to be the safe, family friendly version of “edgy,” a character who likely played a small role in inspiring some of the ironic distance that formed the backbone of image board culture.

I guess what I’m saying is, the Shrek internet meme has layers.

Shrekpocalypse

In 2014, Shrekchan disappeared. The board’s creator explained that, essentially, Shrek jokes had been run into the ground, and the board’s community aspect fell to the wayside. “The community has all kinds of people, and I love it very much,” they wrote. “Unfortunately spammers and shitposters—as well as the fact that the Shrek phenomenon has been butchered down to nothing—has made it hard for our community to survive.”

Shrek memes went mainstream. Shrek became the poster child for “Internet weird” among kids and adults everywhere from Facebook to Twitter to Tumblr to Reddit to YouTube. Improbably, Shrek rediscovered his original audience: people of all ages who wanted to feel like they were a little strange, a little subversive... while also being part of a thing pretty much everybody was a part of.

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To add an extra layer of on-the-nose full-circle-ness to it all, even the official Shrek Facebook account began communicating in memes, something it continues to do to this day. It’s currently spoofing the 2016 presidential election, and well, the less said of that, the better.

Still, though, Shrek continues to resonate. For many of the people now sharing Shrek memes and chuckling slyly every time they hear Smash Mouth on a bar jukebox (while knowing in their heart of hearts that they’re only one drink away from loudly singing along), he represents everything shitty but weirdly likable about the early ‘00s.

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In many ways, the Shrek meme imitates the Shrek movie franchise, the thing it was both directly and indirectly born of. Its humor often relies on cheap shock gags and references, and it’s rooted in layers and layers of ironic detachment—the dullest form of “edginess”—from actual fandoms and real-life problems alike.

Still, for a few years, it gave a community a means by which to work together and create an entire, weird little universe. Even now, with that community splintered and dissipating, Shrek memes have filtered up into the Internet at large, giving people a way to communicate through a bizarre cultural touchstone that just about everybody recognizes, something precious in these increasingly fragmented times. Despite the irony and the ugliness, even Shrek memes have a core of heart.