The Shelf Life of Viral Videos Has Expired

Netflix’s ‘The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker’ lacks energy because we’ve grown tired of novelty internet stories

Jamie Cohen

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Kai speaking to Jessob Reisbeck about his incident in February 2013

“No matter what you’ve done, you deserve respect. Even if you make mistakes, you’re lovable; and it doesn’t matter your look, skills or age or size, or anything, you’re worthwhile,” the frizzy haired, backpack wearing Kai says in his washy surfer voice as he’s interviewed by Jessob Reisbeck of KMPH News. The uplifting note from the transient man at the beginning of the interview isn’t the reason the video went viral, rather it’s Kai’s dramatic explanation of how he hit an assailant on the head with his hatchet.

“Smash! Smash! Suh-mashhh!”

In 2013, we were living through the heyday of viral video content. Double Rainbows, What Does the Fox Say? and the Harlem Shake were everywhere. A year after the Kony 2012 debacle, viral videos were a dominant part of internet culture. At the time, companies were constantly asking their millennial interns “how can we make this go viral?” and reality television was starting to intersect with the idea of the “influencer” (the term was partially invented for the Kardashians).

The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker documentary attempts to make a 2023 audience care about this story, but unfortunately, the film is only novel because it was based on a viral video. The entire plot of The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker takes place in a three month period in early 2013 — plus the ending in 2019 where Kai, real name Caleb McGillvary, is sentenced to 57 years in prison for the murder of a New Jersey lawyer.

The film is set up as though we’ll learn about something untold, but nothing new appears. The main interviewer Jessob Reisbeck is sincere and caring and all the other subject interviewees seem sober about the whole thing, but, there’s just no energy in the documentary. It doesn’t contain the suspense of Making a Murderer or the social commentary on creepy internet behavior that comes from something like The Tinder Swindler, it just feels like a blog post about a 10 year anniversary of a viral video.

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Jamie Cohen

Digital culture expert and meme scholar. Cultural and Media Studies PhD. Internet studies educator: social good, civic engagement and digital literacies