I was still living at my parents’ house when I had to write my first graduate-level research paper. It was about a Theodore Dreiser novel, Sister Carrie, and I argued that the external appearance of the characters determined their inner truths. I obsessed over that paper for days, long after it was finished—I very much wanted to prove myself. I was working and reworking it, over and over; tweaking it and printing fresh copies, reorganizing and revising. I worked on it for three full days with no sleep. On the evening of my fourth day without sleep, my brain said, “Enough.” I was sitting at the computer with my back to the sliding glass door to the dark backyard and I heard mumbling behind me. I got up to look. The light cast out the door illuminated a bit of the porch and nothing beyond.
I checked the lock, just in case, and went back to my paper, but the mumbling outside continued. Finally, I was creeped out enough by the feeling that people were watching me that I went upstairs to work on the computer up there. When I sat in front of that monitor, something strange happened. The mumbling that I had heard outside now came from downstairs, again, as if the mumbler were following me but remained just outside my field of vision. I freaked out, woke up my entire family, and stalked through the house with a tennis racket, fully intending to brain whoever had come into the house. That was when I was put to bed.
What I think happened that night is that one of the symptoms of my sleep deprivation was an audio hallucination of indistinct murmuring. But because what I was feeling—that people were talking—did not line up with what I was seeing, my brain interpreted the murmurers as being just outside of my range of visual perception: outside when I was downstairs, and downstairs when I was on the second floor.
I’ve often wondered if the conspiracy theorist doesn’t have a similar experience of the world. The source of the dread, foreboding, or control that conspiracy theorists sense is often outside the range of the normal experience of everyday life, which in no way diminishes the sense of a real threat. Therefore, they locate the locus of power just beyond the normal citizen’s perceptual range: the Oval Office, the board room, the annual Bilderberg meeting, the lunchroom at the CIA (surely they have one).
Often it seems to me that the more outrageous the claim, the harder it becomes to disprove. Let’s say that during the Cold War an alien spacecraft managed to crash in New Mexico. In that case, it is not inconceivable that the government would want to assess the national security implications of the crash, including its origins and technology. They might very well decide to house the wreckage at a secure military base. (Whether or not they would be able to keep it a secret—and for how long—is another story.) Regardless, a relatively inaccessible hangar on a military base is in any case a tempting target of speculation when left unchecked by disconfirming evidence.
A less plausible conspiracy theory, in my mind, is that the aliens and humans have not only encountered each other by means of a crash, but have established diplomatic relations and have even engaged in armed conflict. An elaborate X-Files-like plot has been built up on this premise. As the story goes, the great Alien/Human war broke out underground in an installation underneath Dulce, NM, in 1979. In the version I’m familiar with, the aliens—in this case the “grays”—had entered into an agreement with the American government, which provided the aliens with the biological material that they needed for research in exchange for alien technology. The grays reneged on their deal, however, and a battle broke out on the underground military base between human security forces and the aliens. More than sixty brave Earthican patriots died protecting us from the extraterrestrial menace. The underworld has long been a popular place for locating the source of elusive, otherworldly evils. In a way, I think it makes a certain sense that someone whose innate “threat detection equipment” detected malevolent agency everywhere would locate that evil underground, which is in a sense also everywhere, only inaccessible.
The apotheosis of extraordinary conspiratorial claims is David Icke’s claims about the reptilian, shape-shifting, inter-dimensional space-alien bloodlines who control our minds from the moon, which is not only hollow but also a spaceship. Each elaboration on the story addss another layer designed to make it even more un-falsifiable (not unlike the invisible dragon in Carl Sagan’s garage). Again, it seems to make a weird sort of sense that one would need to be a deity to see through veil upon veil of lies posited by Icke—a role that Icke gladly accepted [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiyrHZCksDM].
At this point, I expect that the essayistic form demands that I summarize everything that I’ve said, but it’s hard to do. Conspiracy theories are as variable as the people who endorse them. I’ve never met two conspiracy theorists who believed precisely the same thing, even if they agreed on the broader themes of conspiracy. The problem for the conspiracy theorist, even if he doesn’t recognize this fact, is that by locating the sources of conspiracy in inaccessible places he has made his own story harder to prove and no easier for the skeptic to believe.
Oh, and for the record, I have not heard voices since that night in graduate school. None worth listening to, at least.