NASA faked the moon landing. The Earth is flat and hollow. Jeffrey Epstein didn't kill himself.

2019 was a peak year for conspiracy theories, with numbers of flat earthers rising (or just coming out of the two dimensional closet) and the Area 51 "raid" capturing our collective distrust of the government. At least 55% of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. In fact, Americans' trust in the government is nearly at an all-time low, according to decades of surveys. Of course, an individual's propensity for believing in conspiracy theories exists on a spectrum of paranoia, a desire to be unique, and personal experiences. But in 2019, the world of conspiracy theories transformed from an eccentric subculture to a dynamic realm of political and cultural discourse: Conspiracism is both a weapon and a lens through which to understand an unraveling world.

Under every conspiracy theory is anxiety about imbalances of power. Suspicion of the status quo is fundamental to Americans' political sensibilities. In the words of two political scientists from the University of Chicago, "Conspiracism is not only an important element in American political culture, but also is expressive of some latent and powerful organizing principles behind American mass opinion." In one recent study at the Australian National University, researchers found that many active online conspiracy theorists today show "sensible" interests. "These people might believe false things, but with good reason—because similar things have happened in the past," lead researcher Dr. Colin Klein writes. Belief doesn't stem from ignorance, but rather a sense that "unseen, intentional forces exist and that history is driven by a Manichean struggle between good and evil, particularly in the high proportion of Americans who believe we are living in biblical 'end times.'"

Our Inner Eye tells us that corrupt power structures are everywhere, and positions of power are filled by corrupt men who abuse the system and those weaker than they are for personal gain: Something is afoot, Big Brother is watching, and we're all being blue-pilled by The Man. But so does the news. Anxieties about gatekeeping and what information to trust in an age of "alternative facts" have demonstrably intensified in the age of social media. When millions of followers and a blue verified check mark denote authority, then a rapper tweeting that the earth is flat has the same reach as an astrophysicist. Information is about being prolific rather than accurate, feeling true rather than being supported by evidence.

conspiracy theories 2019 Huzlers

"But It Feels True...": Conspiracy Without Theory

Unlike the tin hat-wearing conspiracy theorists of the predigital age, also called "classic conspiracism" by Nancy L. Rosenblum in her book The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, today's version is conspiracy without theory. The echo chambers of social media, from Reddit and Twitter to extremist forums like 4chan, allow believers in "alternate facts" to find each other and rail against "disinformation" campaigns. Rosenblum writes, "Conspiracist thinking that was once on the margins of American political life now sits at its heart."

The new wave was ushered in largely with the election of Donald Trump, who rose in the public eye as tabloid fodder and then reality TV star—a man of slogans and catchphrases—and took America's highest office with the ethics of an influencer. That is to say, he's only interested in what feels true, as well as what will result in his personal gain. With 68 million followers on his private Twitter account, Trump's power to insert fallacies into public discourse is unprecedented. As of November 2019, he'd retweeted at least 145 unverified accounts that pushed conspiracy or extremist ideas. "There's no answer for it, which is why it is so seriously disorienting to people," Rosenblum notes. "We've never seen anything like it. We don't know how to meet it. It's an attempt to construct a reality, and when it comes from the president, he has the capacity to impose that reality on the nation." Myriad mental health professionals have analyzed his behavior and language to warn about his toxic narcissism, but one of its most sinister features is the disposal of foresight. Only the present matters, with the highest priority being to satisfy the needs of right now. There's no concern for evidence, society at large, or the future.

When it comes to protecting the leader of the free world–even from himself–that means cover-ups. In late 2018, a senior White House official wrote an anonymous op-ed in The New York Times, exposing the administration's inner alarm about Trump's impulsivity and loss of reason. The source warned of his lack of "any discernible first principles that guide his decision making … his impulsiveness [that] results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back, and there being literally no telling whether he might change his mind from one minute to the next." In agreement was Yale psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee, one of 27 mental health experts who conferred to assess the president's stability in their book The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. Lee followed up with a Vice article, noting, "These reports are also consistent with the account I received from two White House staff members who called me in October 2017 because the president was behaving in a manner that 'scared' them, and they believed he was 'unraveling.'"

trump conspiracy theories Dataminr via NY Times

To the American public, today's political divisiveness (at its worst since the Civil War) isn't just a matter of picking sides in the culture war–it's grounds for suspicion. Just as in the 1890s, 1960s, and 1970s, which were peak times for American conspiracy theories, as well as times of great cultural and political upheaval (the turn of the century was rocked by the Industrial Revolution, and the '60s and '70s saw the Vietnam War, Cuban Missile Crisis, and Watergate Scandal), truth is being obfuscated by our dominant power structure. To some, the most closely guarded secret is Donald Trump's worsening mental instability, while to others it's alien spacecrafts being hidden in Area 51. Rosenblum argues that modern conspiracism, one without theory or evidence, "betrays a new destructive impulse: to delegitimate democracy." Just look at Trump's Twitter feed, and it's clear that conspiracy theories can be wielded as weapons to undermine facts, manipulate public information, and create chaos.

But for most people, conspiracy theories have become a sensible response to the existing chaos that defines modern existence, from imminent climate crisis to impeachment trials. Dr. Rob Brotherton, psychologist and author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, notes that people often feel as if they're living in a golden age of conspiracy theories, but it's usually just our mind's survival instinct to make sense of a chaotic, unstable reality. "Our brain has a bias towards seeing meaning rather than just chaos," he writes. "So sometimes we may think we see a pattern when it doesn't really exist." While our deepest survival instincts tell us that there's unseen danger in the world, our minds refuse to send a warning signal without a good explanation; and if we can name it, then we can fight it. White House raid, anyone?

CULTURE

What Secrets Does Bill Murray Know About the ATL P.F. Chang's?

That It's the Illuminati Headquarters, Duh

Scrooged

Why does Bill Murray want to work at the P.F. Chang's in the Atlanta Airport?

In his recent appearance on Amy Schumer's podcast 3 Girls 1 Keith, Murray expressed his admiration for that specific branch of the "Chinese" restaurant chain, remarking that it's "one of the great places."

Trip Advisor

Anyone who's eaten at a P.F. Chang's can see the issue with this statement, and if you never have, you can simulate the experience at home with their range of microwaveable frozen meals. At best, it's an underwhelming pastiche of east Asian cuisine. At worst, it's an underpaid service job in the world's busiest airport. Is Bill Murray just being his wacky, random self, inserting himself into random contexts to the surprise and delight of strangers? Or maybe you think he was making some ironic commentary on the hellish existence of corporate service employment. No, no, and wrong. Bill Murray knows something that we don't about Concourse A of the Atlanta Airport.

Think about it. For decades, conspiracy theories have swirled around the Denver International Airport, which is supposedly a hub for the elite secret society known as The Illuminati. But why would this secretive organization make their home so obvious? One of the DIA's most notable landmarks is a 30-foot demonic horse that killed its creator. That is just way too on the nose. The only reason to mark your secret evil lair with such an ostentatious sign of evilness is if that's not your real evil hangout spot at all.

Thrillist

The DIA is just the distraction to keep us from looking too closely at the real evil airport. Bill Murray has given us the key. He didn't say that the P.F. Chang's there is a great place. He said it's "One of the Great Places." It's time to go full-on Jeff Goldblum-in-Independence Day and crack this conspiracy wide open.

The Symbol of Change Getty Images/iStockphoto

First, the evidence: Coca-Cola and CNN. I dare you to think of two organizations more aligned with elite global power than those. And where are they headquartered? New York? LA? Denver? No. They're both in Atlanta! We've already covered that Atlanta's airport is the busiest in the entire world, with more than 50 million travelers passing through each year. How else would you hide the dark, illicit activity of the Illuminati headquarters, if not through a constant flurry of human activity? ATL is also the hub for Delta Airlines—a famously evil company—and Delta is the triangular Greek symbol for change, as in: "the Illuminati uses the Delta Sky Club in Concourse A of the Atlanta Airport as the control center for changing the course of global events."

Next, Bill Murray. He does whatever he wants at all times and seems to be fully immune to cancellation. He's done some genuinely terrible stuff, yet the whole world loves to fawn over him. Is all that adulation just good will left over from Caddy Shack and other movies where he attempts to murder large burrowing rodents? Impossible. The only answer is that he controls his reputation as a member of the Illuminati, with access to all the Elite Powers and Great Places that membership entails.

And finally P.F. Chang's. Other than the fact that it's not the real name of any person ever, and must therefore stand for Powerful Forces (of) Chang(e), what's suspicious about this location in particular? How about the fact that it opens at 6:30 AM? Every other location I've found is closed before 11:00 AM. Who in the world wants to eat bad fake Chinese food pre-dawn? Not even bad fake Chinese people want that. There must be another purpose!

At this point the only explanation should be obvious, but I'll spell it out so the Powers That Be know that I'm watching them: The P.F. Chang's in the Atlanta International Airport contains a secret entrance into the Illuminati's subterranean headquarters, and Bill Murray was expressing his desire to move up in the ranks and gain access to the highest levers of power. We'll have to wait and see how Beyonce and Zuckerberg and Jonathan Taylor Thomas choose to respond.

CULTURE

Charles Manson Could Never: Five Cults That Put a Spell On Hollywood

These cults had some of Hollywood's brightest stars in their shadowy grips.

Celebrities are not known for their ordinary lifestyles.

In fact, sometimes it can seem like they're a different species of human, living elite existences of wealth and opulence that none of us average Joes can imagine, let alone attain. Maybe that's why people are so obsessed with the idea that our favorite celebrities are actually members of ancient, mysterious cults.

Actually, it seems that real-life cults are typically comprised of people who want to be in this celebrity culture, or who are otherwise seeking escape or meaning in their lives. On the 50th anniversary of the Manson murders, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood brought a leader of one such cult—Charles Manson—back to the public's consciousness (if he ever left).

Manson was a wannabe folk singer as well as a psychopath, and the specter of Hollywood held power over him in the same way he held power over the women he led.

That said, here are five of the most notorious cults with connections to Hollywood and celebrities. As for the first two, whether they're actually real (or just manifestations of the public's dreams of tapping into whatever mysterious powers celebrities possess) is up to you to decide.

Image via The Wrap

Illuminati

The Illuminati is by far the most famous celebrity cult. Its members apparently include Beyoncé, Madonna, and Katy Perry, as well as a multitude of world leaders and very rich people. Conspiracy theorists believe that the illuminati is seeking world domination and wants to establish a totalitarian "New World Order."

The Illuminati was real at one point. In 18th century Bavaria, Adam Weishaupt created a society called the Order of Illuminati in order to escape the confines of the Christian church. His society was stamped out by a government crackdown on cults, but many believe it still exists today, forming a subterranean, diamond-lined web that controls the motions of our ordinary lives.

The modern-day perception of the Illuminati originated in the 1960s, with the help of LSD, counter-culture, and a book called the Principia Discordia that preached civil disobedience through jokes, hoaxes, and misinformation. In this spirit, a man named Robert Anton Wilson wrote letters to Playboy claiming to be speaking on behalf of a secret society called the Order of the Illuminati, and the idea caught fire, gaining more traction with the rise of the Internet age. Today, everyone from the Founding Fathers to Rihanna has been accused of being a part of this peculiar organization. (Rihanna, for her part, has embraced her Illuminati membership, even calling herself 'Princess of the Illuminati').

Lizard People

The Illuminati theory is closely tied to an even stranger one—the idea that famous people are secretly intelligent lizards from the moon who are masquerading around Earth disguised as humans. If that sounds insane, it's true, and people do believe it—around 12 million Americans, according to some (admittedly questionable) polls.

The lizard people idea originated with New Age philosopher and TV presenter David Icke, who claims that world leaders like George W. Bush and Barack Obama are secretly all scaly aliens. Other purportedly reptilian people include Bob Hope, Angelina Jolie, Katy Perry, and Queen Elizabeth (or, should we say, Elizardbeth?)

Like the Illuminati, lizard people want world domination. According to the theory, these lizard people have been on Earth since ancient times, and they've been breeding with people for centuries—so in all likelihood, you too may have a few drops of lizard blood flowing through your veins.

Image via punkee.com

Scientology

There is nothing that tabloids love more than Tom Cruise and his belief in scientology. Unlike the Illuminati and the lizard people cult, scientology is very real and very present in Hollywood. So what is this strange form of worship?

Scientology was actually founded by science fiction writer Ron L. Hubbard, and among other things, it proposes that man is an immortal being with a divine purpose that can be attained through enlightenment. It's also been called a malicious commercial enterprise and a cult by critics, so there's a bit of a contradiction there. Celebrity scientologists include John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Juliette Lewis, Elizabeth Moss, Laura Prepon, and more, and the cult is still going strong in the Hollywood hills.

Self-Realization Fellowship

This group is very much still alive and well. It was founded in the 1920s by the guru Paramahansa Yogananda, who eventually gained followers in luminaries such as Elvis Presley and George Harrison. Before joining the Manson family, Leslie van Houten also spent time in Yogananda's Mount Washington ashram.

According to Yogananda, the fellowship's central practice—called Kriya Yoga—was originally given to Manu, the first man on Earth, according to Hindu scripture. Their temple on Sunset Boulevard is the oldest in America, and dozens of others are in operation around the world. While not known as a malicious cult, the Self-Realization Fellowship deifies Yogananada as Christ reincarnated, and its sacred lessons are kept super-secret from the public, so it's hard to know what actually goes on in there.

NXIVM

This very real, very ugly cult was only recently disbanded by law enforcement, after the founder of NXIVM was accused of sex trafficking and child abuse, and members have testified about a culture of lies, deceit, and violence.

The cult was led by Keith Raniere, with Smallville star Allison Mack as his right hand woman. According to reports, members of the cult were branded with Raniere and Mack's initials, referred to as "slaves," and subjected to corporal punishment at the hands of their leaders.

The cult found its footing in the wellness industry, which is very popular in Hollywood (and is arguably a cult in and of itself). It drew members in by promising to help them find more meaning and joy in their lives. Many of its members were very wealthy, and when money failed to satisfy them, they began turning to spirituality and wellness as ways of improving themselves.

The wellness industry and cults go hand in hand, because both often request large sums of money and promise that various levels of suffering are required in order to achieve the promised results. Still, Raniere and Mack's cult obviously spiraled way too far into darkness and corruption to continue masquerading as a healing force—and they'll face the jail time to prove it.


Image via Medium

Clearly, celebrity status and fame do not equal happiness—if they did, celebrities wouldn't be pulled into these cults so easily (and they wouldn't overdose on drugs so often, either). Still, for those of us on the outside, it's so easy to fall for the mystique of Hollywood, with its glorious parties and its brilliant stars, glorified to godlike levels by their fans and the media.

In the surrealistic circus of Los Angeles, ecstasy often blurs into suffering, and so it was, is, or may be with these cults. In this world, power breeds corruption, beauty equals pain, and metamorphoses towards greatness quickly become awful mutations. In the shadow of these truths, it's easy to understand why suspicious minds have crafted illusions like the Illuminati in order to explain why the world's elite are the way they are and to feel some semblance of power over humanity's mysterious actions. Now, is the real cult here a secret conspiracy of the rich and famous—or is it simply advanced capitalism? Well, just remember, comrades: A cult leader has no power without his followers.