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Conspiracy theory and pop culture: a reciprocal relationship

Pop Culture

Conspiracy theory and pop culture: a reciprocal relationship

Like a reptilian eating its tail.

The murky world of conspiracy theory is heavily reliant on (and embedded in) pop culture. QAnon followers constantly use the phrases, “You are watching a movie,” and, “Enjoy the show.” But — save for its amazing ability to spread so far, so fast — nothing about QAnon is unique.

There’s a cyclical nature to conspiracy theory and pop culture. Because of this, conspiracy theorists love to tout the idea of predictive programming. This concept essentially states that every element of pop culture is being utilized to soften the blow of revelation to the general populace. The pilot of the X-Files spinoff The Lone Gunmen, in which a remotely controlled airplane is flown into the World Trade Center, is one of the most often used examples within the 9/11 “truther” community.

Conspiracy theory and pop culture: a reciprocal relationship

One of David Icke’s books, Children of the Matrix, not only references pop culture in its title, but uses Star Wars: The Phantom Menace as an example of predictive programming. Darth Maul’s reptilian-like features are shown, says Icke, to prepare us for the eventual unveiling of these shapeshifting, interdimensional beings. Aldous Huxley mentions adrenochrome (a key part of QAnon lore) in his book The Doors of Perception, and it was later a big part of Hunter S. Thompson’s iconic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Determining which came first — the myth or the movie — is a difficult task, but an important one. Archetypes and symbolism express a deeper human need for understanding. Do artists in our toxic political climate have a responsibility to stay away from conspiracy signaling in their work?

“I think that it’s not wise to do that stuff, like maybe it’s not worth it, to poke the conspiracy theorists for free press,” says Dan Friesen, co-host of the podcast Knowledge Fight, which focuses primarily on the pop culture-obsessed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. “[But] I don’t know if they have a responsibility not to. That’s an interesting line.”

Whether artists realize it or not, one of the most universal ideas in conspiracy theory culture is that the stories in movies must be real. “Misrepresenting movies as if they mean something, taking pieces of movies and pretending that they’re predictive — I wonder how much of that is a conscious decision and how much is how you experience the world,” Friesen says. “I’m not entirely sure; I tend to lean more toward the cynical.”

Films offer us a clear cut delineation between good and evil and right and wrong, whereas real life isn’t as simple. Or is it? “It is the fictionalization; it is saying that the world, the real world works under the same rules as a movie or a TV show, or mini-series or a novel,” says conspiracy theory researcher Dapper Gander (a pseudonym). “We’re moving into a trend where people are ready to believe that the world operates under the same rules as a television show.” He continues:

Pop culture can serve to form or shape public opinion, but the people who think it’s real are focusing on the wrong stuff.  American Horror Story does a season about witches — the lesson is not that witches are real, and that there are covens of witches … The lesson is what these women are willing to do to one another to be part of something, and to achieve what they are told is their rightful place. But again, people zip over that and they say, “Well, I think this is just about the fact that there are [witches]. See, they’re admitting that Hillary Clinton is a witch.”

It’s easy to say this intertwining started with The Matrix, which has been referenced by countless other films since its release in 1999. It also gave the conspiracy theory community an endless narrative to claim as its own. The term “red-pilled” was taken from the movie, and is used to refer to those who are awake to the Truth that “they” don’t want you to know. “It’s frustrating because a lot of our ideas on the red pill come from The Matrix,” Friesen says. “But if it wasn’t that, it would be something else; it would be some other movie.”

“I think we are completely past the point of separating conspiracy culture from pop culture,” says Jake Rockatansky, co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast. “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” There’s no easy answer.

red pills for conspiracy theory

“Well, the conspiracy theories floating out there can be of use to somebody telling a story in a way that makes sense,” Rockatansky says. “And then in turn, the movie gets made and the conspiracy theorist will say, ‘Oh I see a piece of something I’ve already read about or know about from my research….’  What are conspiracies other than something to distract you from the horrors of reality?”

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture. 

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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