The monthly "Fortean Times" is the leading brand in "strange phenomena and experiences, curiosities, prodigies and portents". It is widely available on both sides of the Atlantic. In its 29 years of existence it has covered the bizarre, the macabre, and the ominous with panache and open-mindedness.
It is named after Charles Fort who compiled unexplained mysteries from the scientific literature of his age (he died in 1932). He published four bestsellers in his lifetime and lived to see "Fortean societies" established in many countries.
A 12 months subscription to "Fortean Times" costs c. . With a circulation of 60,000, the magazine was able to spin off "Fortean Television" - a TV show on Britain's Channel Four. Its reputation was further enhanced when it was credited with inspiring the TV hit series X-Files and The Sixth Sense.
"Lobster Magazine" - a bi-annual publication - is more modest at a year. It is far more "academic" looking and it sells CD ROM compilations of its articles at between (for individuals) and 0 (for institutions and organizations) a piece. It also makes back copies of its issues available.
Its editor, Robin Ramsay, said in a lecture delivered to the "Unconvention 96", organized by the "Fortean Times":
"Conspiracy theories certainly are sexy at the moment... I've been contacted by five or six TV companies in the past six months - two last week - all interested in making programmes about conspiracy theories. I even got a call from the Big Breakfast Show, from a researcher who had no idea who I was, asking me if I'd like to appear on it... These days we've got conspiracy theories everywhere; and about almost everything."
But these two publications are the tip of a gigantic and ever-growing iceberg. "Fortean Times" reviews, month in and month out, books, PC games, movies, and software concerned with its subject matter. There is an average of 8 items per issue with a median price of per item.
There are more than 186,600 Web sites dedicated to conspiracy theories in Google's database of 3 billion pages. The "conspiracy theories" category in the Open Directory Project, a Web directory edited by volunteers, contains hundreds of entries.
There are 1077 titles about conspiracies listed in Amazon and another 12078 in its individually-operated ZShops. A new (1996) edition of the century-old anti-Semitic propaganda pamphlet faked by the Czarist secret service, "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion", is available through Amazon. Its sales rank is a respectable 64,000 - out of more than 2 million titles stocked by the online bookseller.
In a disclaimer, Amazon states:
"The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion is classified under "controversial knowledge" in our store, along with books about UFOs, demonic possession, and all manner of conspiracy theories."
Yet, cinema and TV did more to propagate modern nightmares than all the books combined. The Internet is starting to have a similar impact compounded by its networking capabilities and by its environment of simulated reality - "cyberspace". In his tome, "Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America", Robert Alan Goldberg comes close to regarding the paranoid mode of thinking as a manifestation of mainstream American culture.
According to the Internet Movie Database, the first 50 all time hits include at least one "straight" conspiracy theory movie (in the 13th place) - "Men in Black" with 7 million in box office receipts. JFK (in the 193rd place) grossed another 5 million. At least ten other films among the first 50 revolve around a conspiracy theory disguised as science fiction or fantasy. "The Matrix" - in the 28th place - took in 6 million. "The Fugitive" closes the list with 7 million. This is not counting "serial" movies such as James Bond, the reification of paranoia shaken and stirred.
X-files is to television what "Men in Black" is to cinema. According to "Advertising Age", at its peak, in 1998, a 30 seconds spot on the show cost 0,000 and each chapter raked in million in ad revenues. Ad prices declined to 5,000 per spot two years later, according to CMR Business to Business.
Still, in its January 1998 issue, "Fortune" claimed that "X-Files" (by then a five year old phenomenon) garnered Fox TV well over half a billion dollars in revenues. This was before the eponymous feature film was released. Even at the end of 2000, the show was regularly being watched by 12.4 million households - compared to 22.7 million viewers in 1998. But X-files was only the latest, and the most successful, of a line of similar TV shows, notably "The Prisoner" in the 1960's.
It is impossible to tell how many people feed off the paranoid frenzy of the lunatic fringe. I found more than 3000 lecturers on these subjects listed by the Google search engine alone. Even assuming a conservative schedule of one lecture a month with a modest fee of 0 per appearance - we are talking about an industry of c. million.
Collective paranoia has been boosted by the Internet. Consider the computer game "Majestic" by Electronic Arts. It is an interactive and immersive game, suffused with the penumbral and the surreal. It is a Web reincarnation of the borderlands and the twilight zone - centered around a nefarious and lethal government conspiracy. It invades the players' reality - the game leaves them mysterious messages and "tips" by phone, fax, instant messaging, and e-mail. A typical round lasts 6 months and costs a month.
Neil Young, the game's 31-years old, British-born, producer told Salon.com recently:
"... The concept of blurring the lines between fact and fiction, specifically around conspiracies. I found myself on a Web site for the conspiracy theory radio show by Art Bell... the Internet is such a fabulous medium to blur those lines between fact and fiction and conspiracy, because you begin to make connections between things. It's a natural human reaction - we connect these dots around our fears. Especially on the Internet, which is so conspiracy-friendly. That was what was so interesting about the game; you couldn't tell whether the sites you were visiting were Majestic-created or normal Web sites..."
Majestic creates almost 30 primary Web sites per episode. It has dozens of "bio" sites and hundreds of Web sites created by fans and linked to the main conspiracy threads. The imaginary gaming firm at the core of its plots, "Amin-X", has often been confused with the real thing. It even won the E3 Critics Award for best original product...
Conspiracy theories have pervaded every facet of our modern life. A.H. Barbee describes in "Making Money the Telefunding Way" (published on the Web site of the Institute for First Amendment Studies) how conspiracy theorists make use of non-profit "para-churches".
They deploy television, radio, and direct mail to raise billions of dollars from their followers through "telefunding". Under section 170 of the IRS code, they are tax-exempt and not obliged even to report their income. The Federal Trade commission estimates that 10% of the 3 billion donated to charity each year may be solicited fraudulently.
Lawyers represent victims of the Gulf Syndrome for hefty sums. Agencies in the USA debug bodies - they "remove" brain "implants" clandestinely placed by the CIA during the Cold War. They charge thousands of dollars a pop. Cranks and whackos - many of them religious fundamentalists - use inexpensive desktop publishing technology to issue scaremongering newsletters (remember Mel Gibson in the movie "Conspiracy Theory"?).
Tabloids and talk shows - the only source of information for nine tenths of the American population - propagate these "news". Museums - the UFO museum in New Mexico or the Kennedy Assassination museum in Dallas, for instance - immortalize them. Memorabilia are sold through auction sites and auction houses for thousands of dollars an item.
Numerous products were adversely affected by conspiratorial smear campaigns. In his book "How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where it Comes From", Daniel Pipes describes how the sales of Tropical Fantasy plummeted by 70% following widely circulated rumors about the sterilizing substances it allegedly contained - put there by the KKK. Other brands suffered a similar fate: Kool and Uptown cigarettes, Troop Sport clothing, Church's Fried Chicken, and Snapple soft drinks.
It all looks like one giant conspiracy to me. Now, here's one theory worth pondering...
About the Author
Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, and international affairs.