The Red Placebo: Confessions of a Former Conspiracy Dabbler


The Matrix may have inspired an entire generation of conspiracists. We sometimes forget the impact of a particular moment in our popular culture. The success of The Matrix was that no one saw it coming. Though the concept of virtual reality and computer simulations had long been weaved throughout science fiction, the Wachowski brothers' uniquely plausible presentation captured the mainstream imagination.

The allure of the red pill, of knowing a terrible truth and boasting an esoteric righteousness from the knowing, haunted many moviegoers long after the credits rolled. The film’s imagery and lexicon went on to permeate the various truther movements which gained popularity in the following decade.

Often portrayed as heroic, innocent, kooky, or haphazardly correct, conspiracists are actually dangerous. After all, what we accept to be accurate knowledge informs both our actions and our emotional responses. By refusing to accept plain facts and insisting upon indulging unsubstantiated fantasy, conspiracists in effect become willful psychotics, consciously rejecting reality.

Let us consider a few examples of how conspiracists stumble through our popular culture.

In Roland Emmerich’s disaster porn 2012, Woody Harrelson’s pirate radio conpiracist Charlie Frost proves himself prophetic. Operating out of a cluttered trailer in Yellowstone National Park, Frost accurately predicts the end of the world better than the combined scientific-industrial complex of the G20 nations. Presented as unkempt, disorganized, and somewhat repulsive, Frost nonetheless enjoys validation as his wacky theory tying solar activity to the Mayan calendar manifests in global tectonic catastrophe.

In John Carpenter’s 1988 cult classic They Live, professional wrestler turned actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays a drifter who comes across a pair of sunglasses which enables him to discern subliminal messages on billboards, signs, television screens, and magazines. The spectacles even let him see the many hideous aliens in his midst who have disguised themselves as humans. The film shares the tone of the earlier television miniseries V, which portrayed a fascist invasion of reptilian aliens who at first appear to be friendly and human-like. In both stories, the notion of the rebellious few who see the truth while others comply like mindless sheep -- "sheeple" in truther lingo -- becomes well established.

That notion plays out in real life through the proselytization of David Icke, who on the conspiracist spectrum serves as mainline heroin compared to Alex Jones’ gateway trutherism. Icke claims that world affairs proceed under the malevolent control of a race of hybrids created by combining humans with alien reptilian DNA. Icke and his followers offer “proof” in the form of video stills of high-profile politicians and media personalities whose eyes briefly appear to be reptilian slits when the interlacing of two frames creates video artifacts. It would be laughable if not for the fact that people actually believe it.