It's the same old song (or the rise, fall, and rise of the conspiracy theory in popular culture)

There was a 40 year arc of conspiracy theories in popular culture, from the Manchurian Candidate, the Roswell incident, various theories around the Kennedy assassination, through the Moon landing, the standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and the crash of TWA 800. Trust in the government (and other authority organizations) collapsed since the 1960s, and this proved a fertile breeding ground for the theories of paranoid cranks. The idea that shadowy groups are running the show at least allows the belief that someone is in control. The randomness and chaos of life causes people to look for some explanation, in religion or other kinds of faith. The Cold War seemed to foster such ideas, which paradoxically betrayed a confidence in the power of the West.

The conspiracy theory seemed to reach its high point in popular culture in the 1990s, with shows like the X-Files, which depicted employees of the government, fighting against its nefarious forces as well as those of the paranormal or extraterrestrial. Its popularity also generated Millennium, created by Chris Carter who also created the X-Files, and the X-Files’ own spin-off, the Lone Gunmen. The lead character on Millennium had a vaguely paranormal ability to see into the minds of serial killers. We also watched The Pretender, about a man abducted as a child and trained as an agent by a shadowy corporation.

Elaine Showalter, in Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (New York, 1997), claimed that "in the 1990s, the cinema of hysteria has evolved from theories of theatricality to theories of conspiracy. Individual trauma has given way to social disorder". Another example of this was Nowhere Man. Starring Bruce Greenwood, it focused on a photojournalist who was being "erased" by the government for a are editor of the that there are a having photographed something in South America. This apparent war crime, committed by American soldiers, was enough to send squads of men to kill this character, kill his wife, and keep him on the run.

These shows ran in parallel to that other element of conspiracy theories of the 90s, the fear of the Internet. Films such as The Net, starring Sandra Bullock, and Enemy of the State, starring Will Smith, focused on fears of Big Brother’s abilities to not only access all elements of our lives, but to actually erase our identities. Now that more of us use the Internet every day, it has lost its scare function (even by the time of Terminator 3, the threat posed by Skynet was seeming rather quaint), and our (rational) concerns about digital identity theft revolve around credit card fraud, not government attempts to eliminate citizens.

This period also saw the publication in 1991 of William Cooper’s cult classic of conspiracy theorists, Behold a Pale Horse. This is a grab-bag of paranoia, including such advice as “Patriots and Tax Protesters: You must never be found at home on any holiday. Your life depends on how well you can obey that rule”. Cooper’s book contains what purport to be classified documents about government plans to take over the country, declare martial law, as well as Cooper’s experience witnessing a UFO while serving in the Navy in Vietnam. “We are being manipulated by a joint human/alien power structure which will result in a one-world government and the partial enslavement of the human race”. Cooper was killed in a shootout with police in Arizona in November 2001, but his book still sells strongly. Disturbingly, it currently ranks in Amazon’s top ten in not only the “controversial knowledge” and “conspiracy theories” categories, but also “Astronomy & Space Science”. 

But after the paranoia of the 1990s, September 11 2001 seemed to bring a hush in that area of popular culture. From fears about an all powerful government, we saw a desire for such a powerful government, to protect us from all external threats. From the paranoid fear of the government watching us and our computer activity, we came to relish watching the geeks on the crime shows digging through other files online, and help to apprehend the bad guys through the information they discover. Employees of various acronymous government agencies became the new heroes.

The age of the individual, citizen hero on television seemed to have passed. The people we are watching, to rescue the victim and catch the villain in time, are public servants.  Any other people on TV performing heroic deeds also possessed supernatural powers. Remember Paladin of Have Gun, Will Travel (or even Magnum, P.I.) – we no longer see such examples of individual heroism. The only human, non-state-employee who still seems to be active (at least on the big screen) in crime fighting is Batman, a man whose personal wealth seems to rival that of a small nation, so it's hardly a model that the average citizen could emulate. Even the occasional maverick, such as the lead character on the Mentalist, is called in as a consultant to the police force. There is no room for the freelancing amateur. The message is clear: don't try this at home. The civilian is the victim (and his anti: the villain), but no longer a courageous agent in his own right. Designated villains have changed also. Think of the adventures of Jessica Fletcher, with the murders driven by such mundane things as inheritance or romantic rivalry? (The kind of crimes an observant middle-class widow could understand and solve). These are no longer the themes we see. Only Law & Order seemed to still offer crimes committed (sometimes) for motives a normal person would recognize. The other procedurals feature deaths of staggeringly baroque complexity (CSI) or the activities of serial lunatics (numb3rs, Criminal Minds).

This represents a shift into the realm of fantasy too: despite their population on the small screen, serial killers are incredibly rare – you probably have a better chance of winning Powerball than of encountering one. This cultural turn directs our concern towards the stereotypical killer we all recognize (“He seemed so quiet” say the neighbors, as the single white man, of higher than average intelligence, is carted off in handcuffs), while paradoxically it is from him we have least to fear. These fictional cases serve to both terrify and comfort us. They offer up examples of evil that most people would struggle to understand let alone respond to, and at the same time the heroes who have the skills to save us. The vision of police departments, the FBI, the military (staffed by photogenic geniuses equipped with state-of-the-art technology), able to anticipate and thwart the most vicious killers, offer continual reassurance of the strengths of our protectors. However, one of our darkest fears remained the elephant in the room: that of the terrorist, one whose intentions will only become clear at 30,000 feet, and who will not be defeated by someone removing their sunglasses to the strains of a Who song. When the true villain appears, it won’t be Batman who saves us either: a man with a private jet is unlikely to find himself shuffling, shoeless, through security at O’Hare. 

For a while, the only show to take the issue of terrorism head-on was 24. Its synchronicitous arrival, being already in production during 2001, allowed it to capture the zeitgeist. Even so, the adventures depicted of Jack Bauer, demonstrate great faith in the government's ability to avert disaster. Showtime’s Sleeper Cell a few years ago dealt with it, but network television fixed upon the official authority figures as the heroes. Other shows have handled the terrorism issue - like Blue Bloods and Law & Order: Los Angeles - by focusing on home-grown terrorists, specifically white women converts to Islam. Like the real case of Jihad Jane. But old-style conspiracy theories seemed to fall from view. Some of this change was of course generational: those who remember where they were in November 1963 are fewer than they were 20 years ago. And debates about the Warren Commission and the single gun theory seem out of date now. The "9/11 truth" campaigners obviously belonged to this tradition, but their activities had been relegated back to the fringes of popular discourse. Few rational people were interested in hearing that the government we have to trust to save us, is under the control of another government (or indeed representatives from another planet), and staffed by the evil and corrupt.

However, along with Cold War nostalgia of Mad Men, the various paranoias of that period are also coming back. On the big screen, Salt offered a return to Cold War intrigue, and Jason Bourne is of course a defrosted Cold Warrior too (but too busy sorting out his own dramas to save the world). Suddenly superhero movies are all over the place, too. Superheroes protect us from forces too powerful for normal law-enforcement to resist, and were particularly popular during periods when the enemy was seen to be totalitarian states (Nazi Germany, the USSR). Recently the Adjustment Bureau offered a plot that could be seen as harking back to the Calvinist idea of predestination. Rather than divine judgment however, the characters’ lives are planned out by a mysterious cabal, the “bureau” of the title. Such conspiracy theories fulfill both our hopes and fears. The power of technology, the internet, GPS, cellphones, satellite imagery, make it easier to believe that our lives could be monitored, down to the smallest detail. 

Last week we saw the triumph of the “birthers” getting President Obama to release his birth certificate proving he entered the world in Hawaii - but of course the most jaded conspiracy theorist won’t be so easily satisfied. After all, popular culture has shown us for decades how nefarious plots and cover-ups can infiltrate even the highest corridors of power. Belying this belief however, are the the Wikileaks cables. Their revelations revealed inopportune comments and occasional streaks of humor, but hardly a grand conspiracy on a shadow government scale. In fact, the various setbacks of the War on Terror served to prove time and again that the government is made up of regular people, not omniscient plotters with a master plan. Whether you find this reassuring or terrifying depends on where you fall on the conspiracy belief spectrum. After all, if you truly believed that the CIA or the NSA invented AIDS, created the crack epidemic, killed JFK and faked the moon landing, you should think them able to catch Al Qaeda.

Indeed the final killing of Osama Bin Laden has already attracted conspiracy theorists, and in the years to come their stories will no doubt become embellished as urban legend. Are we returning to this level of paranoia? Conspiracy theories never really went away, but are now returning to the mainstream. Already the “Love My Country, Fear My Government” t-shirts have returned to sale at airport gift shops. In amidst the vampires and zombies, a familiar thread of paranoia has come seeping back into popular culture. After a decade’s hiatus, the conspiracy is back.