2007 Jul 10

The New World Order Will Not Be Televised

Alan Baker, whose directory of the paranormal and conspiracies will be published by Mainstream next year, looks at ‘Conspiracy Theories and the Paranormal’.

The mid-nineties seem like a lifetime ago. In those heady days, conspiracy theories and the paranormal were all the rage. Mulder and Scully were battling aliens, monsters and the Secret Government in ‘The X-Files’; UFOs were seen flitting through skies all over the world; and the ‘Grey’ alien became an international cultural icon. Every month, it seemed, saw a new book or TV documentary on aliens, ghosts, extraterrestrial conspiracies or bizarre archaeological theories on humanity’s hidden past; and the newsstands were awash with magazines devoted to these and many other ‘fortean’ subjects.

Those of us who are fascinated by these subjects found this both surprising and gratifying. Our enthusiasm was spreading rapidly through the general public, and people no longer offered us a puzzled and faintly embarrassed smile when we were rash enough to say where our interests lay.

And then, with the dawn of the new millennium, it all seemed to fade away. David Duchovny got tired of ‘The X-Files’, and so did many others; and the dreary (and unfounded) concerns about the Y2K bug (remember that?) became the hot topic of conversation, rather than Area 51 or the possibility that the ruins of Atlantis might be found in Antarctica.

This wasn’t really a surprise: no media fad can be expected to last for long, and publishers, newspaper editors and documentary filmmakers are always on the lookout for the ‘next big thing’, a new dreamcatcher with which to snare the public imagination. Conspiracy theories and the paranormal seemed to have run their course – this time.

However, the public fascination with these subjects did not go away simply because the media agenda moved on. It was merely the latest expression of a strange enthralment that has been going on for as long as the human capacity for curiosity. There are several reasons for our continuing interest in the murky world of conspiracies. For one thing, the truism that we live in an ‘information age’ is an important factor in our modern world view. We are constantly bombarded with information from a wide range of sources, which can be extremely difficult to collate and place within an easily understandable and consistent frame of reference. For many people this results in a feeling of powerlessness, of a constant, low-level unease in the face of important and frequently sinister events. A belief in conspiracy theories can provide us with a partial (albeit illusory) empowerment allowing us to feel that we know what’s really happening in the world; that, while we may be the pawns of people and forces we cannot control, at least we’re not unwitting pawns.

Of course, the term ‘conspiracy theory’ has become virtually synonymous with the ranting of paranoiacs suffering from persecution manias. And yet there is absolutely no doubt that conspiracies exist and have existed throughout history. For instance, one need only hear the word ‘Watergate’ to be reminded of the lengths to which politicians will go to further their aims. Watergate, of course, is a very well-known example; but the code word MKULTRA may be more of a mystery to many people.

MKULTRA was the name given to the Central Intelligence Agency’s attempts to control the behaviour of individuals (many of whom were unwitting) through the use of psychoactive drugs such as LSD. The genesis of MKULTRA goes back to the Second World War, when the US Army began looking into the possibility of using barbiturates, marijuana and hypnosis as aids to interrogation. The MKULTRA project itself became fully established after the Korean War, when the CIA began experimenting with more powerful drugs. The intention was to create secret agents who would be able to withstand torture should they be captured, and also agents who would be unaware that they were carrying out secret orders. Unwitting recruits were taken not only from the military, but also from the civilian population. MKULTRA research included the use of ketamine, psilocybin, lobotomy, electroconvulsive shock and electrodes implanted in the brain. Although the US Senate Church Committee exposed these practices (and the CIA solemnly promised not to continue them), it has been claimed many times since that the intelligence agency simply changed the name of the project and moved it to a different department.

Belief in, and fear of, conspiracies is not confined to ‘ordinary people’ – be they paranoiacs or otherwise. Back in 1922, long before the term ‘conspiracy theory’ had entered common parlance, former New York mayor John F Hylan stated: ‘The real menace of our Republic is the invisible government which like a giant octopus sprawls its slimy length over our city, state and nation.’ He was not the last public figure to express deep concern over the ‘hidden rulers’ of the world, and their secret agendas.

Our fascination with the paranormal has many parallels with our interest in conspiracy theories: once again, we are faced with a world in which bizarre and inexplicable events occur on a daily basis, as if we are the unwilling players in a surreal pantomime written by some deranged cosmic prankster. UFOs, ghosts, cattle mutilations and monstrous beings of every description continue to frighten and perplex ordinary people across the globe; and many wonder whether the elites who govern us possess secret knowledge of the causes of these strange incidents as well as the political and economic events that shape our lives.

These two strands frequently converge and amplify each other, expanding conspiracy theories to truly cosmic proportions. The most famous example of this is the claim that the US Government retrieved a crashed alien spacecraft at Roswell, New Mexico and is busily reverse-engineering the technology at Area 51 in Nevada. Somewhat less well known is the theory that the infamous Chupacabra (goat-sucker) that has been terrorising communities throughout Latin America for several years is actually a failed CIA genetic engineering experiment that escaped from a top secret laboratory on Puerto Rico.

The world of conspiracy theories is a weird, wonderful and terrifying place: a place where mysterious secret societies rule unchallenged, where the CIA and the Mafia colluded in the assassination of John F Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe was murdered because she knew too much; where NASA faked the moon landings and is covering up the discovery of a ruined alien city on the lunar surface; where Princess Diana was killed on the orders of the Royal Family, who are really drug-dealing reptiles from another dimension; where the attacks of September 11 were known about by the US Government and allowed to occur to provide justification for an invasion of the Middle East.

More than ever before, people are demanding explanations for the uncertainty and random violence haunting their lives; and if those explanations are not provided by our rulers, the conspiracy theorists are more than happy to invent them. The world is getting stranger and more dangerous, and conspiracy theories are becoming more elaborate and pervasive as a result. Like global warming, they are an inconvenient truth, an important part of twenty-first-century society and culture. In the information age, the words of the late, great conspiracy theorist Robert Anton Wilson are more pertinent than ever: ‘Reality is what you can get away with.’