December 9, 2012

The Conspiracy Conspiracy Conspiracy


Several years ago my friend David Ritchie wrote a sadly unpublished book in which he attempted to trace the origins of several popular technology-based conspiracy theories—among them the Philadelphia Experiment (early attempts at time travel undertaken during WWII), the Montauk Children (genetically-engineered human-alien hybrids sent into the world as sleeper agents) and the underground lizard people (aliens who’d cut a deal with the government). Much to his surprise, Ritchie was eventually able to trace the beginnings of most of these conspiracies to science fiction films and television shows (quite a few of them seemed to originate with Star Trek).

            It was an enlightening book, and one that’s come to mind a few times in recent days, and the more I think about it, the more I’m starting to wonder if perhaps there’s not still another twist or two that might be added to his conclusions.

            About a year ago I ran a column about a new theory that had just been put forward regarding the Roswell incident and Area 51. Instead of a spaceship, a respectable journalist argued in a new book, the thing that crashed in Roswell in 1947 was actually an advanced Soviet aircraft, designed by escaped Nazi engineers and manned by deformed dwarves. Stalin’s idea was to trigger a nationwide panic by making Americans believe we were being invaded by Martians. There was apparently convincing documentation to support this. I found it a charming, delightful, and strangely plausible theory, and so of course immediately began spreading it around.

            Then last week I was watching an old BBC miniseries I hadn’t seen in a couple of years.

            Back in 1958, British screenwriter Nigel Neale wrote the third of his “Quatermass” series, Quatermass and the Pit (it would be remade about a decade later and released to American theaters as Five Million Years to Earth). Without going into all the details, the story involves what appears to be an alien spacecraft (complete with occupants) uncovered at a construction site in central London. While rocket scientist Professor Quatermass is convinced that the saucer is authentically extraterrestrial, military and police officials insist it was merely a hoax launched by the Nazis near the end of the war in hopes of, yes, triggering a panic.

            After seeing that again and thinking back to that new Roswell theory, I couldn’t help but believe it was another example to support Ritchie’s claim. This respected journalist had seen either the miniseries or the film at some point, and morphed it into her Roswell idea (neglecting the fact that in the film it really does turn out to be a flying saucer).

            A few days after watching the film, I found myself watching the pilot episode of The Lone Gunmen—an X-Files spinoff concerning three crusading investigative journalists and techno-geeks out to expose corporate and government graft, corruption, and evil-doing.

            Well, in the show’s pilot they uncover a government plot to slam an airliner into the World Trade Center and blame a Middle Eastern terrorist group, thus triggering a war in order to increase military funding.

            Now, no big deal, right? Two-thirds of the world believes 9/11 was an inside job. The only tricky thing here is that this particular show aired six months before the attacks. There’s a little thing to make a man say “hmmm . . . ”

            But again after seeing that I thought back to Ritchie’s book. The conspiracy nuts who kicked into high gear within hours after the towers came down would have been The Lone Gunmen’s core audience—and having just seen the show a few months earlier of course it would come back to mind immediately. It didn’t take much work—it was a pre-packaged conspiracy theory all ready to post. (Unless of course someone in the Bush administration saw that episode too and got ideas.)

            So at this point everything fit, and conspiracies involving actual events were still arising out of pop cultural sources. But that WTC episode still nagged at me a bit. There were other things going on in the show, but as far as the plot itself was concerned, it was just too spot-on. It was a little unnerving. Maybe there was another layer to Ritchie’s thesis that needed to be considered. Maybe it wasn’t just a matter of some geeks seeing an episode of Star Trek and running with it, or of this journalist seeing a Quatermass movie and consciously or unconsciously deciding to move it from London to New Mexico.

            What if the screenwriters knew something? What if Nigel Neale had some shadowy insider connections and really did know what happened at Roswell a decade earlier? He couldn’t come right out and say it—that would be crazy, and in 1958 it might well have gotten him killed. So what does he do? He disguises it as an entertaining science fiction program, inserting the true story as a red herring.

            And what if these journalists and conspiracists who come along later aren’t merely cribbing the plots from old TV shows, but uncovering the same facts the screenwriters knew all those years before them, when the screenwriters opted to turn them into entertainment instead of boring investigative pieces? Screenwriting pays better than journalism after all, and maybe they were hoping someone would read between the lines.

            My problem with conspiracy theories has always been the human factor. People are dumb, and people are blabbermouths. Someone’s going to talk, unless they’re publicly discredited, locked away, or eliminated first. Maybe highly fictionalized screenplays are a way to get things off your conscience without getting yourself killed for it.

            If that’s the case, then of course we need to ask what the screenwriters of The Lone Gunmen knew, and how. (If of course they’re still alive).

            This is when things really begin to get tricky. If my guess here is correct, then we need to go back to every fictional conspiracy film ever made, no matter how insane or ridiculous, and ask: What buried truths about actual historic events were the screenwriters (with their dark and arcane knowledge) trying to reveal to us in some lightly camouflaged fashion? What about all those episodes of Kolchak, or The Prisoner, and what about the other Quatermass shows? And my god, what about Get Smart?

            But to stop there would be making it too easy on ourselves. There are another ten layers or more to go, as history is a constantly shifting conglomeration of the things we call truths and realities and the stories we tell about them, and the lies we tell to hide those stories, and the stories we tell to hide the lies we used to hide the original stories, which no one remembers anyway. The little shards we get handed every once in a while, these little bits of truth about the world, are merely playthings, used to keep us giggling and preoccupied while still more levels of subterfuge are built on top of all those other lies and stories, which we’ll never penetrate anyway. But they’re still fun to think about while we’re playing with those little toys.


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