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The movies that turned everything tin foil

Jodie Farber reaches across the car in a scene from the film 'JFK', 1991. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

The two films – and a TV show – that helped make conspiracy theories mainstream.

So let’s recap. This virus that you’re all so scared of isn’t actually real, just a flammed-up cold that’s been exaggerated to enslave the easily-led. But if it is real, then it was cooked up in a government laboratory either in China or the US, and unleashed to destroy the economy of the other.

And any ‘cure’ will be worse still. You think vaccination will save you? Pah! Don’t you realise that’s just a way for the puppet-masters of Davos to steal your precious bodily fluids? It’s all Bill Gates’ doing!

It is very easy to mock conspiracy theories. In fact, it’s near-enough impossible not to; the above might not be the fairest representation of some of the notions currently swilling around online and in people’s actual brains, but who wants to be fair to stuff that contradicts medical science, common sense and the evidence of your own eyes?

Conspiracy theories are nothing new, of course, from Blood Libels to Popish Plots but are flourishing now, in 2020, as never before. The pandemic has certainly stirred it up but the taste for conspiratorial thinking predates the arrival of Sars-COV-2.

Witness QAnon, bubbling away these past couple of years. It’s hard to summarise because it sounds so loopy but broadly speaking, QAnon (which started with an anonymous internet poster calling him/ herself ‘Q’) posits that the only thing standing between a cellar-full of terrified, trafficked children and the rapacious pederasts of the global elite is Donald Trump.

The reasons for this triumph of unreason are many and varied. Before Covid-19, there’s been a steady erosion of trust in the political class (that didn’t start with the Iraq War but was certainly exacerbated by it).

The lack of accountability at the top doesn’t help either (take the 2008 crash, for which no one so much as got their wrists slapped). All of this is poured into the internet and patiently stirred by people otherwise excluded from mainstream discourse.

Something else should be added, however. The role of culture, film and television, has sometimes been overlooked but it has been one of the most powerful drivers in all this, most especially things produced in America (when America does something, it – pretty much de facto – goes global. You can do that when you’re a global hegemon).

While it would be conspiratorial in itself to suggest a direct connection, culture helped draw conspiracy theories from the margins to somewhere more central, creating a climate where this nonsense could flourish.

Most specifically it was the culture of the 1990s, for this was when what had once been considered fringe thinking became newly fashionable. Ground zero in this was Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), his revisionist investigation into the death of the 35th president of the United States (spoiler – it wasn’t Lee Harvey Oswald wot done it).

The film is a remarkable achievement on many levels, assembling and marshalling an enormous quantity of information and remaining compelling for three hours.

Stone synthesises the then-nearly 30 years of alternative scholarship to present the clearest possible case that whoever shot Kennedy didn’t do it from the book depository, summoning evidence from the Zapruder film (“back… and to the left”) and outlining the so-called ‘magic bullet’ theory in all its absurdity.

If it weren’t for the fact it’s total b******s, JFK would be a landmark in cinematic journalism. And it certainly made its impact: even if Stone’s ultimate conclusions are muddy (pretty much everyone short of Jackie Kennedy was involved, it seems), it became routine to say that the president was murdered by person or persons unknown, whether the mob, the arms industry or the Rotary Club.

As numerous rebuttals and painstaking demolitions have shown, however, Stone made his case by either misrepresenting or ignoring verifiable facts: the ‘magic bullet’ becomes a lot less magical once you learn it’s based on a misunderstanding. But no one was interested: the falsehood was more sexy. To this day, the conspiracy argument remains widely accepted, backed up by Stone’s presentations. (Vincent Bugliosi’s Four Days in November is the most conclusive take-down of Kennedy conspiracies.)

It set the trend for the decade, a casual assumption that governments were hiding things from their citizens and that there was secret knowledge just waiting to be uncovered.

The most fulsome expression of this came from television. The X Files (1993- 2002) was a (mainly) sci-fi show that cocked a snook at scepticism on a weekly basis: two FBI agents (one rationalist, the other a full-on UFOlogist) would investigate cases of alien abduction, paranormal influence and the like.

The X Files was far more engaging than JFK ever was, never pretending to be anything more than entertainment and succeeding admirably at that, enhanced by the chemistry between its stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. You certainly didn’t have to believe in little green men to enjoy it.

As such, it met with little dissent, although Richard Dawkins waded in, displaying the tact and forbearance that has won him so many friends over the years. He moaned that The X Files indulged crack-pots and gave short-shrift to rationalism. Well, yeah, came the reply. That’s kind-of the point, prof. It’s a TV show.

As aggravating as Dawkins can be – if he wanted a show where the paranormal was consistently debunked, there was always Scooby Doo – he was on to something.

Just like JFK, it opened a door for wild-eyed speculation, this time about UFOs, with even well-adjusted people happy to accept their governments were hiding evidence of extra-terrestrial contacts. (It’s worth mentioning the cases of Gary McKinnon and Lauri Love, both threatened with extradition to the US over allegations they hacked into the Pentagon looking not for state secrets but for evidence of aliens.)

The X Files also provided much of the iconography of conspiracy theories, like the ‘deep state’; the shadowy undemocratic figures that loom so large in QAnon resemble nothing so much as the show’s sinister cabal.

Indeed, QAnon him/herself might be a figure from X Files mythos, drip-feeding secret knowledge to those brave enough to question what everyone else believes.

That self-imagined rebellious streak is important to conspiracists, and that’s probably why they seized upon the third example of 1990s conspiracy culture so readily.

The Matrix (1999) is a story of parallel realities, the one we can see all around us – which is revealed to be a computer simulation – and the world as it actually is, a dystopic wasteland where free humans battle the machines that have enslaved the rest.
Our hero, played by Keanu Reeves, has the curtain pulled back when he takes the ‘red pill’ offered by the leader of the rebels, which allows him to see things as they really are.

While most people accept this as the pretext for a diverting (if perennially overrated) action flick, a few took it more seriously. David Icke adopted it for the introductory page of his website, while it’s a favourite way for ‘men’s rights’ activists to groom new recruits.

Beyond this, a surprisingly large number of people have taken the film as an expression of some fundamental truth. No, they don’t think we’re living in a simulation (although there are more academic philosophers writing about such things than you might hope).

Rather, they find it metaphorically true: what we assume is ‘real’ is only a partial explanation and there’s a hidden architecture of power that we can’t easily see, concealed by a pliant political class and the dreaded ‘Main Stream Media’.

Let’s stress, once again, that The Matrix didn’t invent the presidency of Donald Trump or the anti-mask movement, things that would have been quite inconceivable when it was made. The 1990s were a more innocent time, the Cold War was over and there were no grand causes anymore. An age of irony flourished, when you could play around with provocations without doing much damage.

The trouble is, that all went up in smoke on September 11, 2001, when the world changed completely within an hour and a half, the opening act of the ongoing catastrophe that is the 21st century. At each turn the conspiracy mongers have been out in force to blur the record, suggesting sinister goings on behind the scenes. (Some of those are regrettably close to home: there are, alas, Remainer conspiracies, *cough* #CambridgeAnalytica.)

Culture in the 1990s normalised conspiratorial thinking, and the state of the world is such that the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. What’s more, YouTube videos and message boards spread their claims more quickly and more directly than TV and movies ever could.

Still, we can learn from these 1990s artefacts. They remind us that, at root, conspiracy theories are about storytelling, about taking a mass of messy, unwieldy facts and pruning them into something more orderly and appealing, no matter how false.

This in turn points to a solution. If we want to defeat the David Ickes of this world, we need to have better stories to tell.

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