Stop me if you’ve seen this one before. There is a guy (almost always a guy) who lives on the outskirts of society, maybe in a basement with a computer. He believes in a conspiracy theory that sounds a little crazy to his friends and family. He is the target of the jokes, until one day he is the target of murder. It turns out that Deep State is after him, because the conspiracy theory wasn’t so crazy after all!
This paranoid suspense plot is now one of the laziest tropes in the world of TV and film writing. Not to be confused with the first wave of paranoid thrillers in the 1970s, classic films that reported real attacks on democracy (All the President’s Men, Z) aimed at a CIA genuinely out of control (3 Days of the Condor) or examined our obsession with espionage (The Conversation), that second wave of conspiracy entertainment dates back to the 1990s. That’s when Hollywood seems to have discovered that, if it reduced its villains to a simple and somber “they”, it could appeal to a wide range of viewers who fear all kinds of secret cabals from the elite.
Which is good, to some extent; the suspicion of power is healthy in any democracy. But now we are here in 2021, and a good part of the United States believes that the most obviously corrupt president in history was actually trying to bring down a dark cabal of liberal elites who kidnap children and drink their blood. Polls in 2020 suggested that up to 56% of Republicans believe in some aspects of this bizarre theory, known as QAnon (although the actual numbers are difficult to measure). Undoubtedly, Q’s followers helped fuel the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill. And they may not be finished yet.
The HBO Q: Into the Storm documentary, which ends on Sunday, takes a lot of effort to unmask the dismal Q that propagated the theory in the first place (spoiler alert: it was probably Ron Watkins, 8Chan administrator, for some time). Mostly unexplored is the most interesting question of why QAnon’s fairy tales found such fertile ground. The usual suspects are to blame for sowing the seeds of truth-free anti-Democratic paranoia – Fox News, Info Wars, Trump himself? Of course. Should we point a finger at social media algorithms to radicalize unsuspecting users with extremist content? Absolutely.
More insidious and unexamined, however, is the role played by the entertainment industry itself – and not just in the case of the failed screenwriter who has become a major influencer of QAnon. The creators of popular stories have spent decades telling us, over and over, that our government was nothing more than a mass of obscure conspiracies, regardless of who was in power. They had no other agenda than to keep him in the cinema chair or watch the next commercial break. Most of Hollywood would be horrified to think that they contributed in any way to a conspiracy theory like QAnon, which claims that Hollywood is part of the blood drinker conspiracy.
But a culture is always driven by the stories it tells itself. So, should we really be surprised, in a world where we can watch dozens of anti-government thrillers each year, that the conspiracy theories QAnon and antivax took root? It is surprising that an increasing number of viewers, even those who do not watch Fox, now distrust official narratives and the media of “false news”, to the point of no longer being able to understand the difference between truth and fiction?
Misinformation in the multiplex
The starting shot for the second wave of conspiracy entertainment was fired by Oliver Stone in 1991. JFK, Stone’s expansive three-hour vision of Kennedy’s assassination, is a cinematic masterpiece. The editing, John Williams’ tense soundtrack, the fun plot that bombards you with every hint of something wrong on that dark day in Dallas: Together, they leave you powerless to resist. I’m not the only movie buff who left the theater thinking “well, something about that must be true”.
You yourself need to be an obsessive conspiracy theorist to discover that much of the film is fantasy. The real lawsuit filed by Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) featured a witness that Garrison had drugged and hypnotized; this witness is conveniently replaced in the film by Kevin Bacon’s fictional prostitute (one of several aspects that make JFK appear disturbingly homophobic 30 years later).
Successes keep coming. David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) did not claim to belong to the CIA and died of natural causes. The so-called “magic bullet” did not make the journey shown in the film, and the most recent ballistics arose in favor of its path. Worst of all, Colonel X, the whistleblower played by Donald Sutherland, was based on L. Fletcher Prouty – a professional conspiracy theorist with ties to the far right, who advised Stone. Prouty has published so many strange lies in his life that there are entire websites dedicated to debunking “Proutyisms”.
Even Stone himself admitted before his release that JFK “was not a true story per se”. So what is it? A hybrid of infotainment and advertising; one that was a bad omen for the future. To quote the parody of Stephen Colbert’s conservative talk show host, JFK had “truthfulness”. It seems certain that we do not know the whole truth about November 22, 1963. There is, as Eisenhower warned, a “military industrial complex” that benefits from vast Pentagon budgets. Kennedy was hesitant with the military advisers he sent to Vietnam, and LBJ was prepared to lie to increase US involvement in the war (See: Gulf of Tonkin incident)
But none of this veracity comes close to proving that LBJ spearheaded a vast shadow-state coup conspiracy – one that was both so effective that it erased all evidence of its existence, while also somehow relying on a bunch of colorful buffoons in New Orleans and Dallas.
What if you are prepared, like Stone, to take that huge logical leap based on Proutyisms? Well, then, you can also believe that a bigger, wilder conspiracy of baby-eaters has been able to cover up its existence for decades, and that only a brave anonymous soul in Washington is blowing the whistle. Colonel X was, in many ways, the forerunner of Q.
In the wake of JFK’s commercial and critical success, conspiracies were on the rise in Hollywood. They permeated films that we now remember as mere action adventures – like The Rock (1996), in which Sean Connery is arrested in Alcatraz for stealing a microfilm of government secrets, and Nicholas Cage ends the film by reading the secrets and declaring that he now knows what happened to JFK.
But the final archetype of the new wave of conspiracy theory films was Conspiracy Theory (1997). Mel Gibson plays a taxi driver who exposes all the wild theories in his newsletter. Soon the CIA and the FBI fall on him, because one of them is right! It is up to the DOJ lawyer for Gibson and Julia Roberts to find out which one while fighting the weight of the entire parallel government.
Critics yawned at what already seemed like a predictable plot. Still, Conspiracy Theory was a huge box office success. The lonely conspiracy theorists of the world got exactly the wrong messages: first, that it’s okay to chase cute DOJ lawyers, and second, that if they just continue to rummage through all these wild ideas at their disposal (not just in newsletters) informative, but on the nascent Internet) – well, something there must be true! As the slogan for next year’s anti-government thriller Enemy of the State used to say, “it’s not paranoia if they’re really after you.”
At a distance of 24 years, however, the only true thing about Conspiracy Theory is that Mel Gibson turned out to be a conspiracy theorist – only his theories appear to be anti-Semitic. It is interesting how pop culture rarely deals with this, although the shocking racist bullshit known as The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion counts as one of the first and most widespread conspiracy theories out there. QAnon himself has deep ties to anti-Semitic tropes.
Hollywood had no idea that her flirtation with the genre was playing with fire. But I was about to get a clue.
Too close to the truth
Meanwhile, on TV, the definitive example of the 1990s conspiracy boom was The X-Files. The show featured not only a true believer and FBI agent Fox Mulder, but also a trio of computer hacking conspirators named for what they saw as the conclusion. questionable of the Warren Commission’s JFK investigation – The Lone Gunmen.
These basement outcasts were so popular that they had their own spinoff show. The pilot episode of The Lone Gunmen aired on March 4, 2001. Its plot involved obscure government forces who aimed a passenger jet at the World Trade Center in New York City, arguing that the resulting explosion would bring the military complex -industrial the new war.
Did the X-File team that wrote the program have any sort of scoop on the real tragedy that was going to happen that fall? Did Bin Laden watch the show? Or did the Lone Gunmen prove that 9/11 was an inside job in advance? Of course not – it was a horrible and tragic coincidence. Tom Clancy wrote a thriller in 1994 that involved a terrorist attack on Congress using an airplane; he was also not a prophet who predicted United Flight 93. Fictional writers simply have a vivid imagination.
Regardless, in the years after 9/11, Hollywood moved away from the conspiracy theory genre. There was no movie “jet fuel cannot melt steel beams”, because that would obviously have fueled a bonfire of absurdities that was raging online on its own. In addition, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was a lot of real-world drama to explore without plunging into parallel government paranoia – ironically, despite the fact that the Patriot Act gave the NSA many of the powers that conspiracy theorists claimed . had all the time.
Only on the 2011 Homeland TV show did the post-9/11 conspiracy thriller find its foundation – and even that program was merely a more subtle version of a classic 1950s communist paranoia piece, The Manchurian Candidate. That also had a remake of the film in 2004, replacing a corporation called Manchurian Global with the problematic anti-Chinese storyline of the original.
Dark corporate conspiracies were also Mr. Robot’s final target (2015-2019). Main character Elliot Alderson, however, represented a return to the classic conspiracy theory trope: a troubled loner, a stranger, a guy with a computer in a basement that ends up hitting everything. We can never know how many Gamergaters and QAnons have seen him.
Elliot also represented the “lol nothing matters” attitude of extremely online in the mid-2010s, as in his famous “fuck society” speech from episode 1. He calls the world “a big scam” and condemns ” fraudulent elections “- an unfortunate change of phrase now that it is so completely associated with Trump’s attempt to reverse the 2020 results. I am not saying that Elliot would have fallen in love with QAnon, but I am not saying that either. It was exactly that kind of cynical attitude towards all collective action, including our faltering attempts to govern ourselves, that has prevailed so much over the past decade. Trump and Watkins made the most of it.
Perhaps, now that America has lived through a terrible four years of leadership by a corrupt authoritarian, Hollywood can return to the All The President’s Men suspense model. Where’s the modern remake of Z, a 1969 classic that deals with political gas lighting? (A democratic leader is murdered; right-wing leaders insist that it was not, it was a car accident.) Cambridge Analytica, Brexit, Trump, Russian-influenced campaigns: There is meat for years of entertainment here, no parallel government is needed.
Please, no more guys with computers in basements who are the only ones who see the truth.