"Today is Hope's birthday," writes Richard Chambers on his blog, Hope is Missing. "She is 23 today. I sang happy birthday this morning to a picture of her and couldn't get all the way through."
"Hope" has been missing since June. Chambers started the blog out of frustration shortly after her disappearance. Police had no leads; Hope's mother, one of the last people to see her alive, wasn't any help; and his wedding date was fast approaching. The feeling of helplessness in his posts is overwhelming. It's also false.
"The police have be [sic] involved and it feels like they are moving so slowly," he writes. "It feels like they aren't taking it seriously. A friend suggested that I start this blog both as a way to spread the word and also as a way to feel like I had some control over the situation."
Hope is Missing isn't real, and neither is Hope. The site is part of an alternate reality game centered on the film Head Trauma - but it's real enough to fool a causal observer. If there wasn't a disclaimer posted at the top of the page you just might believe Hope really was missing - and want to help find her.
"This is something I've been playing with for 10 years," says Lance Weiler, the creator of Hope is Missing and director of the film Head Trauma. "Maybe you shouldn't always believe what you see. Just because you read something somewhere doesn't mean it wasn't just a press release. With Hope is Missing I'm drawing from previous work and interest in that idea of 'What is truth in the digital age?' Even Head Trauma plays with perception; plays with what is reality."
"This Kind of Mobius Strip"
Weiler got his start in the film industry working as a production assistant and camera operator. Over the years, he's worked with a number of directors, learning the tricks of the trade and making short films of his own on the side. He released his first feature film, The Last Broadcast, in 1998.
The Last Broadcast, according to Weiler, "tells the story of a public access TV crew for a paranormal variety show." The show's producers, following up on a tip about the legendary Jersey Devil, call in an expert on paranormal phenomena and a psychic and trudge off into the woods, cameras in tow. "Four go in," says Weiler, "one comes out alive. And he's blamed for the murder of the other three." The film, told in documentary form, recounts the efforts of the survivor to clear his name and prove what really happened.
Weiler created a website for the film while he was still writing the script. This was in 1996, back when most websites contained little more than pictures of cats. The site contained transcripts of 911 calls, court documents and interviews with characters from the film. It was posted as if the events depicted in the film actually happened, like an alternate reality game, before there were alternate reality games. There was even a Flash-based comic version of the film.
"It all became this kind of mobius strip," says Weiler. "All these parts were feeding each other. ... I eventually wanted to bring it to where I have right now, where it was more of a game. I was always looking to engage the audience in new ways."