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The American Obsession With Conspiracy Theories, Explained

A new book reveals that our paranoid crisis has been a century in the making.

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The residents of Olympia Springs, Kentucky, all agreed that Mrs. Crouch was an unimpeachable witness. One afternoon in 1876, she was making soap in her backyard when meat “which looked like beef” began to fall from above like snow. The sky was clear blue. Though historians of paranormal phenomena call this event the Kentucky Meat Shower, that name pales in comparison to the New York Herald’s coinage “carnal rain,” which captures the romance somehow pervading this tale of flesh and soap. 

As coronavirus-related misinformation continues to spread across America (special notice must go to the woman in Arizona who destroyed a mask display at a Target last week), Colin Dickey’s new book, The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession With the Unexplained, about the rise of conspiracy theories and paranoid thought in American culture, could not come at a better time. 

The Unidentified does not seek to resolve the intransigent problem of conspiracy theories in our public discourse, which have flourished under Donald Trump and snaked their way into the heart of Republican ideology. The Meat Shower is a good example of the specific phenomenon Dickey is analyzing. To be a truly American paranoid belief, in Dickey’s book, there must be a distinctly credible witness involved; an event which defies scientific logic; some aspect of the bodily horrible or uncanny; and a writer on hand to edit the facts into a story ready to hit the big time. People have all kinds of wild beliefs, but those who believe in the meat shower—or Bigfoot, or UFOs, or the FBI cover-up of the UFOs, or that Covid-19 is a hoax—only do so because somebody has told them about it in a compelling way. 

The American paranormal is as much a product of narrative, therefore, as events themselves. The transmission of a paranormal event can come via any medium, be it Breitbart or TV show or oral tradition. This parallel narrative history is the factor that distinguishes a true conspiracy from a mere daydream.

Dickey holds that the original cultural trauma behind conspiracy theories lies with the invention of the modern sciences. When Carl Linnaeus published his Systema Naturae in 1735, organizing all biological life into a neat binomial classification, Dickey writes that he also “wiped monsters off the face of the map” in a “single stroke.” Linnaeus’s work had the unintended effect of designating anything observed to be outside the system officially mysterious and magical. Sixty years after Linneaus’s binomials had become scientific fact, for example, Massachusetts went wild over rumors of a hideous and huge sea serpent undulating in the bay at Gloucester, the locals apparently only more titillated now that such creatures weren’t supposed to exist.

The Unidentified
Colin Dickey
Viking, 320pp., $27.00.

Dickey is not interested in debunking such stories, or in solving them. He seeks instead “to understand their genealogy: where they come from and how they came to take root in popular culture.” Every conspiracy theory or cryptid creature is the “result of two great shocks that shook the nineteenth century: the divorce of science and religion, and the disenchanting of the world.” 

These are very broad historiographical strokes, and Dickey is much more inventive where his subject is narrower and more recent. But he is right to ask: How did these shocks play out in the American context? UFO stories are a revealing example. Under the direction of Raymond A. Palmer, an eccentric publisher of pulp sci-fi magazines, lurid accounts of all-American heroes encountering aliens became wildly popular after World War II. 

Palmer made his name off the story of a respectable pilot named Kenneth Arnold who, on June 24, 1947, Dickey writes, was “flying from Chehalis, Washington, to Yakima, taking a short detour to scout for the remains of a recently downed C‑46 transport plane, when he saw nine metallic flying crafts near Mount Rainier, flying in an echelon formation at an extremely high rate of speed, faster than any known human technology.”

Arnold initially said that he had seen “bat-shaped” aircraft that moved “like saucers skipped over water.” By the time the AP reported the story, that description had become “nine bright saucer-​like objects,” conflating Arnold’s adjective with the crafts’ shape—a mistake which would turn into saucer-shaped illustrations in print, on the cover of Palmer’s brand new magazine, called Fate.

The case of Kenneth Arnold is a mixture of coincidence, hoax, and genuinely inexplicable information, but Dickey is brilliant to pick out the copy error which helped shape the sci-fi genre. 

Dickey locates America’s fear of aliens—a fantasy or a nightmare of our future selves, bodies withered and heads enlarged by our reliance on technology—in first the Cold War and then the fall of the Soviet Union. Losing its traditional enemy set America’s paranoia adrift. Americans still felt haunted but had no enemy to blame except their own authorities. And so they turned inward, exchanging the “Rosenberg spies and Manchurian candidates” for extraterrestrials and their Deep State conspirators.  

There is another dimension to the American obsession with outer space. In 2003, Dickey notes, Michael Barkun wrote with remarkable foresight that UFOs were a gateway drug to mainstreaming extremist beliefs. As long as “conspiracy theories, such as those that posit a New World Order plot, were strongly linked to antigovernment militants, anti-​Semites, and neo-​Nazis, the audience for conspiracism was limited,” he wrote. But UFO believers now believe in the New World Order plots too, because many alien enthusiasts are now more invested in the authorities’ alleged cover-ups than the spaceships themselves. It is increasingly normal now for conservative Americans to believe in once-fringe theories, like the idea that George Soros controls the world.

No writer has yet satisfactorily articulated the relationship between imaginary things and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. With so many outrageous lies in mainstream currency, Dickey’s focus on aliens feels almost beside the point. But, although he declines to write directly about the conspiracy theories that helped elect our ludicrous outsider of a president, it’s impossible not to draw a parallel between the classic conspiracy theorist’s fear-driven fantasies and the “Birther” wave Trump himself promulgated during Barack Obama’s time in office. 

The credulousness of Americans, he writes, “hints at the connection between post-traumatic stress disorder”—rife among a population numbed by perpetual war, 9/11, grinding inequality, police brutality, the pandemic; the list goes on—“and conspiracy, since both involve a hypervigilance that can’t be shut off, and an uncontrollable assumption that nothing is innocent, that threats are everywhere, and that everything has heightened meaning.” As popular histories go, The Unidentified is unusually terrifying, like one long gesture at an unspeakable truth Dickey is unable to express directly: the paranoid crisis afflicting American culture is exactly as bad as it seems.