In 2001, a strange web serial appeared. Then, in 2007, the indie horror publisher Permuted Press published it as a book, and a lot of people’s lives changed forever.
That book, John Dies At the End (JDATE), was soon followed by several sequels: This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch I, in 2012, What the Hell Did I Just Read? in 2017, and most recently, If This Book Exists, You’re In the Wrong Universe (ITBE) in 2022. JDATE was made into a film in 2013, directed by Don Coscarelli (of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep).
JDATE revolves around a drug from another dimension, a drug that’s alive. “Soy Sauce” allows the user to see through space and time, shifting from the past to the future, and sometimes into a past or future in an alternate reality. But the drug has lingering effects which gives users, including JDATE’s main characters John and David, a second sight that “normies” don’t possess. They can see and experience things no one else can, partly because almost no one else survives Soy Sauce.
Set in the town Undisclosed, the book series chronicles the adventures of our two main loveable miscreants as they battle monsters from beyond our dimension and reality. John and David have become legendary figures that are warily-eyed by the other residents of the dying town. In Undisclosed, you know who to call when “there’s something weird,” and it ain’t Dan Akroyd. Seen as both heroes and harbingers of doom, they jump from one bizarre encounter (and reality) to the next.
The series has been categorized as cosmic horror, but it’s much more than that. Inside the books you’ll find delightful philosophical conundrums and thought experiments, and insanely hilarious passages such as, “My hair looked like I had combed it with an angry cat,” and, “concealed like the smoldering bulge in the devil’s leather pants that promised the arrival of his forked, fiery boner.”
Even further, while reading the fourth book for the first time, I noticed what appeared to be some subtle stabs at conspiracy theories. After a second reading, I saw it even more (and how about all those blue cars out on the road?).
For a large chunk of time, JDATE‘s author used the pseudonym David Wong, but has since begun publishing under his real name, Jason Pargin. I was recently able to talk with Pargin about these elements in his work, as well as conspiracy theory culture in general.
I’m not mad at people who believe conspiracy theories, I think the people who you blame are the ones who are profiting from it, because I think at the top of almost all of these you find somebody who knew it’s not a thing. Like PizzaGate; that was propagated by a lot of people who just knew factually that the basic facts were incorrect. They obviously knew. But they saw that it got traction, it got engagement, and it maybe motivated people to vote, and so off it went.
Those are the people I think are the villains in this situation. I think the many, many millions of people who have bought into QAnon or whatever the next thing is going to be, anti-vaxx conspiracies — I think they’re victims, largely. Even if they are engaging in some really spurious thinking and logic. They’re falling prey to something.
This is not to detract from a free will argument — people always have a choice on how to act — but there’s something to be said for how conspiracy theories create multiple kinds of victims. We see it from the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol building to Sandy Hook conspiracy theories — someone is planting these seeds in people’s heads. The big guys at the top walk free, but the QShaman does four years in prison.
Conspiracy theories, Pargin says, are “like the idea version of junk food. It’s a version of reality that is instantly gratifying. It’s empty calories, but it’s engineered to go down easy, to leave you hungrier. It’s a version of food that is great in the moment, but it will eventually give you a stroke.” These concepts are “literally engineered to be addictive and to spread.”
“It’s an idea that gets its hooks in you, and then all you want to do is know more,” Pargin says. This concept is metaphorically touched on in the beginning of ITBE, where John, David, and David’s girlfriend Amy receive a visit from a strange man whose “wife” is actually a parasitic monster feeding on his brain, creating a false reality in which the two are married –an actual brain worm that only David and John can see. Much like facehuggers in the Alien franchise, this parasite cannot be removed without killing the host, but there’s another twist which is better understood if you read the book.
A parasite creating an alternate reality? Where have we heard of that before?
The whole thing with QAnon is that they operated that basically like an ARG – if you remember the Alternate Reality Games – there’s like a treasure trail or breadcrumb trail that you would follow to the next fact, the next drop …The ones doing it knew it was a hoax. The original Q, they would go on 4Chan and drop their next dump of whatever the next exciting thing they’d come up with, and then the whole excitement was being on there to discover it … To them, I guess they regard it as a game … but largely it’s just about, what? The power? It’s almost like a cult leader type thing where, “They’re all waiting to see what I say next.”
In ITBE, John, David, and Amy (along with John’s interdimensional hivemind roommate, Joy) are trying to stop a dangerous group of teenagers who’ve created their own belief system based off the remains of the brain worm parasite. It’s a cult comprised of disaffected, confused adolescents who feel powerless and alone. So, you know, a cult.
“That’s a universal need, you can see it in politics, you can see it in sports fandom. People want to identify with some kind of a group or a tribe, or whatever word you want to use. Humans are social animals; we want something to gather around,” Pargin says. “People need to latch onto something.”
There’s a secondary character in JDATE who seemingly represents black-pilled Incel culture, and another who reads like a toxic masculinity Alpha Male intent on “preserving” the “purity” of his two daughters. These thematic elements may seem minor within the scope of the book and the series, but there’s no escaping their prevalence in our society and world.
There is where I find it very frustrating – the way we talk about this new breed of men’s rights … like Andrew Tate is the one everyone talks about right now; there will be a new one a few months from now. These young, teenage kids, a lot of them grow up without fathers, they’re looking for some sort of a role model, they’re looking for some sort of inspiration … you need to offer them something better and something that gives them the love they get from their Andrew Tate fandom.
So now these days when you get so many people who are isolated from a real world friend group and all of their interactions [are] online, they don’t have those connections, and someone offers them that person, that connection, that is totally understandable. Even if the actual thing is based on a lot of ugly ideas and hate or whatever. In terms of something to get to gather around, hate works as well as anything.
Conspiracy theory culture has always been strange, there’s no denying that, but with advances in technology, we also see greater exposure to bad beliefs. People used to have to put in effort to seek out conspiracy theories; now the conspiracy theories find us, whether we want them to or not. And like the Soy Sauce, they end up becoming a drug that does us.
If you or anyone you know has been infected with “brain worms,” I recommend finding someone you can trust who can point you in the right direction. Here are two links to get you started. Remember, anyone can get infected, but everyone can – with the proper help and guidance, preferably professional – get better. There is hope. You are not alone.
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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