DURING THE DECADE AFTER CLOSE Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), more and more Americans claimed they’d been personally visited, probed, and temporarily taken away by extraterrestrials—abducted. Many Americans with impressive credentials started to believe them. None was more impressive or important than a distinguished Harvard professor named John Mack.
Mack had been a New York City preppy who attended Harvard Medical School, where he remained, becoming a talented and beloved psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry. In addition to his work as a therapist and teacher, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1976 biography of T. E. Lawrence, the dashing British Establishment figure who became Lawrence of Arabia, galvanizing and quixotically leading a battalion of disrespected irregulars against oppressive powers-that-be. The theme of Mack’s book, he said, was “Lawrence’s need to be heroic,” a need born of “childhood fantasies about the heroic past.” It seems plain to me that Mack, a dashing American Establishment figure, finally indulged his own need to be quixotically heroic, to galvanize and lead a battalion of disrespected irregulars against oppressive powers-that-be, by plunging into a world of fantasy.
In 1987, in his fifties, Mack attended a small conference of “alternative” physicians and scientists at the Esalen Institute. There he met the creator of Holotropic Breathwork™, a technique for inducing supernatural consciousness by means of hyperventilation. When Mack tried it, according to its inventor, he “remembered” one of his past lives in Russia. Then at an advanced training session up the coast in Sonoma County, Mr. Holotropic and others told Mack “about UFO abduction experience as a trigger of spiritual emergency.”
At the same moment, another member of the American elite, Whitley Strieber, a former advertising executive and successful author of horror fiction, published Communion: A True Story. It was his account of the nighttime visit, the day after Christmas 1985, by “non-human beings” with dark eyeholes and circular mouths who stuck a foot-long device up his anus. Communion was a number-one Times bestseller and sold two million copies. It encouraged many more Americans to announce they too had been visited and probed by aliens.
Soon Mack, still at Harvard, was dean of an alien-abduction truther movement. In 1992 he and an important physicist from down the street at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology organized an Abduction Study Conference. The premise of the five-day-long meeting at MIT was that the “abductees” were telling the truth—that creatures from outer space (or parallel universes) really had visited and examined and variously used them. The New Yorker writer C.D.B. Bryan attended and published a sympathetic book about the assembled true believers called Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind, further spreading the word and legitimizing the tales. With such luminaries now taking the storytellers seriously—and Mack’s new research institute, the Program for Extraordinary Experience Research, was funded by Laurance Rockefeller—why wouldn’t the supposed abductees and UFOlogists of every variety start taking their own beliefs more seriously? And why wouldn’t millions more people start to believe as well? The MIT conference was a watershed moment, giving immense new credibility not just to this particular sector of fantasists but by extension to any and every group of fervid believers.
Mack based his 1994 book Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens on the stories of dozens of supposed abductees he had treated as a psychiatrist—that is, whose apparent delusions he believed and encouraged. He called the people who imagined they’d encountered aliens not patients but “experiencers.” To help them remember and flesh out their amazing stories, he used hypnosis as well as “deep, rapid breathing…evocative music, a form of bodywork, and mandala drawing.” Many believed they had sexual interactions with the beings.
In Communion, Strieber wrote that any skepticism of people who believe they were abducted by aliens “is as ugly as laughing at rape victims”—and Mack never doubted. He began by regarding their subjective experiences as real, then groped to create some objective explanation that didn’t involve psychiatric pathology: “Quite a few abductees have spoken to me of their sense that at least some of their experiences are not occurring within the physical space/time dimensions of the universe as we comprehend it….The abduction phenomenon…I suspect, manifests itself in our physical space/time world but is not of it in a literal sense.” That hedge is like one a subtle Christian theologian might use to explain to doubters how the Holy Spirit manifests supernaturally. And one is reminded of the New Age godmother Jane Roberts’s pseudoscientific explanation of her imaginary friend Seth—how he might be a “dimensional aspect of my own consciousness not focused in this reality.” But Mack himself definitely believed in the presence of otherworldly creatures on Earth, nosy beings who had “invaded our physical reality and [were] affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people.”
The Boston Herald called Abduction “a transcendent, landmark work,” and The New York Times Book Review said Mack had “performed a valuable and brave service.” The PBS science series Nova devoted an episode to Mack.
As academics and intellectuals and bohemians had been doing since the 1960s, he blamed modernity and rationality for blinding us to the true nature of existence. Only the narrow-minded cling to “the ontological framework of modern science” and “accepted laws of physics and principles of biology.” Reason has created a “barrier between the spiritual and material worlds [that] has become so entrenched in the West….this false dichotomy that makes our confrontation with beings who do not respect this gulf so shocking.” Mack is a perfect exemplar of the mix ’n’ match snowballing. He went from believing he’d remembered a past life to believing other people’s alien-abduction tales and then down the slippery slope into a whole array of wishful woo. “What the abduction phenomenon has led me (I would now say inevitably) to see,” he wrote in Abduction, “is that we participate in the universe or universes that are filled with intelligences from which we have cut ourselves off, having lost the senses by which we might know them” due to “the prevailing materialist/dualistic worldview.” Those senses are restored during “near-death experiences…the use of psychedelic substances, shamanic journeys,” and so on.
He had settled into Fantasyland, on common ground with more conventionally religious true believers—Christians clustered on one side, Mack and his New Age tribe mostly on another, but all of them variously disgusted with the world, leading them to abandon reason and evidentiary standards in favor of amazing stories of cosmic purpose and supernatural saviors. According to Mack, because we’ve messed things up, the mysterious superbeings, interplanetary or interdimensional angels, have come to set things right.
Nothing in my work on UFO abductions has surprised me as much as the discovery that what is happening to the Earth has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in the universe….
The alien abduction phenomenon represents, then, some sort of corrective initiative….My overall impression is that the abduction process is not evil, and that the intelligences at work do not wish us ill. Rather, I have the sense—might I say faith—that the abduction phenomenon is, at its core, about the preservation of life on Earth at a time when the planet’s life is profoundly threatened.
THE POPULAR CERTAINTY that extraterrestrials are here among us seems like one of those thriving post-1960s fantasies we shouldn’t fret about too much. It’s a folk belief with some delusionally fervent believers—but it doesn’t really pick our pockets or break our legs, does it?
In fact, it’s an instance of complicated, consequential synergy—apparently harmless fictions blending and growing and spreading through the culture, combining with particular religious and political mindsets to become dangerous, with impacts in the real world. There is a line extending from flying-saucer obsessives to 9/11 truthers to Donald Trump.
As America’s UFOlogy hothouse expanded, its exotic beliefs generating new types and subtypes, many of the most ardent believers didn’t come from John Mack’s happy, hopeful Close Encounters and E.T. place. Instead, they imagined the extraterrestrials as part of a malign secret apparatus of power and control, attaching this exciting and terrifying new cosmic fiction to their beliefs in a New World Order, the boundless national and global conspiracy of interconnected elite oppressors.
The first important bridge between the Fantasyland regions of UFO true believers and conspiracists appeared in 1991, just before the MIT conference. Its builder was a standard-issue middle-class southern Californian with the generic name Bill Cooper. Cooper had been an enlisted man in the navy in the 1960s, where he claimed he became privy to an elaborate U.S. government conspiracy involving extraterrestrials. After he started using Internet bulletin boards to disseminate his pseudoinformation in the 1980s, he claimed that federal agents tried and failed to kill him twice by running his car off the road. They kept tailing him until he flashed his pistol to an agent and threatened he “would not hesitate to use” it.
He described all this in Behold a Pale Horse, his remarkable 1991 magpie collage of personal reminiscence, interconnected conspiracy theories, congressional transcripts, letters, newspaper articles, maps, and photos. “We have been taught lies,” he wrote. “Reality is not what we perceive it to be.” Its excellent title comes from Revelation, yet the book doesn’t spend much time on Christian exegesis; Mack’s New Age spiritual-savior vision of extraterrestrials is far more religious. Unlike Mack, Cooper was a nobody—his postmilitary career consisted of running trade schools, not teaching at Harvard—but at the grass roots, Behold a Pale Horse became enormously influential.
One day in the Pacific during his navy service, he says he saw “a flying saucer the size of an aircraft carrier come right out of the ocean and fly into the clouds.” He told his captain, and a commander from Naval Intelligence came aboard and ordered him to keep quiet about what he’d seen. Because Cooper followed that order, he was initiated into the cabal and given top-secret security clearance. And then began learning the unbelievable truth.
After the alien saucer crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947—and many more elsewhere in the United States over the next several years, Cooper reveals—a whole fleet of spacecraft arrived in 1953 and took up “very high geosynchronous orbit around the equator.” Meanwhile two different sets of extraterrestrials landed at two different air force bases, one in South Florida and the other in southern California. Each entered into negotiations with the Eisenhower administration. The Florida ones warned that the orbiting aliens were bad guys and “offered to help us with our spiritual development” if the United States agreed to “dismantle and destroy our nuclear weapons.” We declined. However, Ike met personally with the California extraterrestrials, struck a deal, and signed a treaty.
In order to finance building underground U.S.-alien military bases all over the West, the CIA took over the international illegal drug trade; one of its key early operators was the young private citizen and future CIA director George H. W. Bush—who was president when Behold a Pale Horseappeared. (According to Cooper, Whitley Strieber is also CIA.) Some Americans have visited the aliens’ planet(s), and a secret executive branch group, exposed in the 1980s by other UFOlogists, oversees our extraterrestrial partnership. The conspiracy is international—by 1961, “a joint alien, United States, and Soviet Union base [already] existed on the Moon,” years before the Apollo astronauts landed. President Kennedy, appalled by the CIA-drug-running part of the operation, told the conspirators he would “reveal the presence of aliens to the American people within the following year” unless the government got out of the narcotics business. Which resulted in his assassination—by his Secret Service driver.
By the way, it wasn’t only in the navy where Cooper learned all these astonishing secrets: in Behold a Pale Horse, he reprinted what he said was a secret federal document that one of his sources happened to find stuck in “an IBM copier that had been purchased at a surplus sale.” The supposed government memo spilled the beans about the conspiracy—in the fashion of Dr. Evil, with a lot of capital letters, referring to an “approach which is RUTHLESSLY CANDID, with NO AGONIZING OVER RELIGIOUS, MORAL or CULTURAL VALUES,” given its “extensive OBJECTIVES of SOCIAL CONTROL and DESTRUCTION OF HUMAN LIFE, i.e., SLAVERY and GENOCIDE.”
Like Mack’s evolution from Esalen breathwork to past lives to alien abduction to cosmic manifest destiny, Cooper’s slide from fantasy to fantasy also illustrates the snowball effect—from belief in the Book of Revelation to belief in extraterrestrials’ presence on Earth to belief in a mammoth conspiracy that combined both. The “aliens,” he wrote, constitute “the true nature of the Beast. It is the only scenario that has been able to bind all the diverse elements.”
The ultimate puppet masters, according to him, are the Illuminati—that secret society of eighteenth-century European intellectuals that frightened American conspiracy nuts two hundred years ago, got revived as a far-right obsession in the 1960s, then blew up bigger than ever in the 1980s and ’90s. The master plan “as far back as 1917” had been to use the “threat from outer space in order to bring humanity together in a one-world government.” And everybody has been in on it—“the Jesuits, the Masons…the Nazi Party, the Communist Party…the Council on Foreign Relations…the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group,…the Vatican…Skull & Bones…they are all the same and all work toward the same ultimate goal, a New World Order” that “is beating down the door.” Plus the Rockefellers, the RAND Corporation, the Federal Reserve, the CIA, and the United Nations. In fact, as Cooper noted, the masks were coming off—President Bush had started speaking openly about the plan to realize the Illuminati “dream of a new world order.”
THE NEW WORLD Order. At that moment, it was becoming the all-encompassing catchphrase for people who believed in a sinister conspiracy running the world, those elite entities named by Cooper as well as the ones—banks, news media, show business—McCarthyists and the John Birch Society had identified decades earlier. Now the American belief in globalist conspiracy was going wide, riding in the slipstream of extraterrestrial conspiracism, one fantastical suspicion leading to another. Previously, the political scientist Michael Barkun notes in A Culture of Conspiracy, New World Order beliefs had been “limited to two subcultures, primarily the militantly antigovernment right, and secondarily Christian fundamentalists concerned with the end-time emergence of the Antichrist. Their beliefs did not spread readily to outsiders. The extreme right constituted a pariah group whose viewpoints were systematically excluded from channels of mass communication and distribution.” Once Harvard professors and mainstream journalists made belief in extraterrestrial visitors “semi-respectable, a quasilegitimacy was conferred,” which in turn “advanced the process by which conspiracism was becoming culturally sanitized.” As a large fraction of Americans came to agree that the U.S. government had covered up extraterrestrials’ presence on Earth, “Ufology became…the vehicle for the New World Order to reach audiences otherwise unavailable to it.”
Communism was the main focus of American conspiracists for most of the century. After the USSR and its empire finally fell apart between 1989 and 1991, however, they didn’t calm down or give up. Instead they imagined a larger, not-necessarily-Communist conspiracy—as the Birch Society had pioneered in the 1960s—and redoubled and widened the focus of their fears. They required a fervent antifaith in some monumental scheme of evil. The first President Bush, Cooper wrote in Behold a Pale Horse, was “loyal only to the destruction of the United States and to the formation of the New World Order”—proving that “the Communists are not going to be much happier with the New World Order than we.” That’s the delirious beauty of an overarching master conspiracy believed with absolute conviction: contradictory new facts, rather than undermining or disproving the scheme, are recast as affirmations of the undeniable larger truth. Don’t be fooled by the Communist collapse—the omnipotent overlords have just reshuffled and rebranded.
Revelation-fixated Christians were ready to go, post-Communism. They’d been blending global conspiracy ingredients into their end-time batter for a generation, and by the late 1980s and early ’90s that cake was fully baked. When the fundamentalist preacher and media mogul Pat Robertson ran for the Republican nomination in 1988, he won four states. His politics were his theology and vice versa. His bestselling 1991 book The New World Order is essentially Behold a Pale Horse with more Christianity and no aliens: according to Robertson, the familiar conspiracy, running from the Illuminati to the Federal Reserve, was creating the satanic pre-Armageddon one-world government that Revelation predicted. New Age sorcerers were meanwhile creating the satanic replacement for Christianity. Like Cooper (and perhaps not unlike Vladimir Putin today), Robertson posited that the Illuminati contrived to make Russia Communist so that seventy-five years later it would fail and thus become dependent on the Illuminati-run global financial system—to which he added a neat plot twist: the Cold War was also contrived by the Illuminati to bankrupt the United States and thus make it ripe for their takeover as well.
It was no longer just a few powerless crackpots in the patriot and militia movements who believed the United States was about to surrender to the tyranny of the New World Order. Unregulated talk radio was instructing a large constituency full time, while respectable politicians were galvanized by and further galvanized those true believers. By the 1990s, the fear of a UN military takeover of the United States was so widespread and impassioned that the Indiana Department of Transportation, for instance, was obliged to abandon its internal system for tracking the age of highway signs. Indianans had become convinced the colored dots on the backs of the signs were coded navigation instructions for the impending invasion by the UN’s armed foreigners.
Alarmed citizens decided that the federal government was massacring Christian gun owners for being Christians and gun owners. Seventh-day Adventists, you’ll recall, were prophetically counting down to the end of the world and Christ’s return a century before that became standard. Starting in the 1980s, one of their spin-off sects in Texas, the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, had a long-haired young folk-rock guitarist named Vernon Howell as its prophet and leader. He was in the Joseph Smith mode, a charming Heaven-sent alpha-dog outcast who holed up in the hot desolate West with a harem of believers and fathered a dozen children by multiple wives. The name Vernon Howell wasn’t a strong messiah brand, though, so he took the names of two biblical kings—David and Koresh. David Koresh prophesied that he would be martyred. And at thirty-three, just like Jesus, he was killed by the empire’s henchmen. Unlike Jesus, he took four government agents and seventy-five of his disciples with him, all killed in a gun battle and fire after a federal team came to check out their arsenal of semiautomatic rifles.
I’m not suggesting Koresh and his followers are typical of Christians awaiting the supernatural end of the world, or of Americans whose gun love is driven by dreams of an armed citizen uprising against tyranny. But the Branch Davidians’ theology is not so different from that of a large fraction of Americans. We call Koresh a “cult leader,” which allows us to file him away reassuringly as a one-off nut, like Charles Manson or Jim Jones. But it’s important to recognize that his church was a long-standing subgroup of a 150-year-old Protestant denomination that is one of the twenty largest churches in America, with six thousand U.S. congregations.*1
The standoff in 1993 at the compound near Waco lasted seven weeks before its horrible end, so naturally a carnivalesque camp arose, with hundreds of journalists, gawkers, protesters, and souvenir hawkers. One of the latter, a government-hating vendor, was a twenty-four-year-old army veteran, a nomadic fixture on the national gun show circuit and compulsive gambler who’d made a pilgrimage to Waco to bear witness and stoke his anger. He sold bumper stickers off the hood of his car—BAN GUNS: MAKE THE STREETS SAFE FOR A GOVERNMENT TAKEOVER and A MAN WITH A GUN IS A CITIZEN, A MAN WITHOUT A GUN IS A SUBJECT.
“The government is afraid of the guns people have,” he told a Dallas reporter who interviewed him there, “because they have to have control of the people at all times. I believe we are slowly turning into a socialist government. The government is continually growing bigger and more powerful, and the people need to prepare to defend themselves against government control.” The fellow was also ferociously antitaxation and despised the United Nations—in other words, his views were standard talking points on the right.
For the overwrought millions of people who imagined themselves as the real Americans, whether besieged patriots or persecuted Christians or both, the Waco siege and its finale were thrilling confirmations of every fear. A year afterward and a few hours north, the legislature in Oklahoma passed a bill demanding that Congress “cease any support of the establishment of a ‘new world order’…either under the United Nations or under any world body in any form of global government” because that “would mean the destruction of our Constitution and corruption of…our way of life.” Oklahoma wasn’t the only state to pass such a resolution around that time.
And a year later right there in Oklahoma City, a couple of miles from where the state legislature had declared its opposition to a liberty-quashing New World Order, that young bumper-sticker salesman from Waco detonated a truck bomb that destroyed the city’s main federal office building and killed 168 people. One response was to consider Timothy McVeigh a hero, a John Brown for his time; the more common public conclusion of his fellow travelers was to imagine he’d been a patsy of the government, which had surely staged the bombing in order to justify a crackdown on patriots.*2
FULL-TILT EXPLAIN-IT-ALL CONSPIRACISM was being mainstreamed in America. Ross Perot, the first billionaire to make a creditable run for president, believed in highly unlikely conspiracies. During one of his debates with President Bush and Bill Clinton in 1992, the moderator politely wondered about his steadiness, given that he’d quit the General Motors board in a huff and suspended his presidential campaign in a huff. Perot’s defense of his completely presidential temperament on national TV was very curious. “Again and again, on complex, difficult tasks,” he said, “I have stayed the course. When I was asked by our government to do the POW project”—his unsuccessful freelance attempt to airlift food and medicine to POWs in North Vietnam—“within a year the Vietnamese had sent people into Canada to make arrangements to have me and my family killed.” The assassins, he’d told a Senate committee a few months earlier, were Black Panthers. “And I had five small children, and my family and I decided we would stay the course, and we lived with that problem.” By the way, Perot was certain the Vietnamese had kept and enslaved hundreds of U.S. POWs after the war—a belief shared by the 1990s by two-thirds of Americans.*3 So why had the CIA and four presidents kept that terrible truth hidden? “When you look into the prisoner cover-up,” he explained, “you find government officials in the drug trade who can’t break themselves of the habit.” Perot won 19 percent of the vote in the November presidential election.
If in the past a White House deputy counsel had gone to a park across the Potomac from D.C. and shot himself in the head, it would’ve been a small, tragic two-day story. But in 1993? Six months into the administration of a president whom conspiracy theorists had already accused of being a cocaine trafficker? Vincent Foster’s “suicide” must have been a murder arranged by his old friends the Clintons as part of a conspiracy, so we were required to have investigations by two different special prosecutors and two separate congressional committees in order to decide, officially, that he killed himself because he was depressed.
In the 1990s too, a major character in the right’s dark fantasies adopted some of the mindset herself. “The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it,” Hillary Clinton said in 1998, when the news first broke about her husband’s affair with an intern, “is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.” Calling the right’s concerted opposition a “conspiracy” was unfortunate and did its little part to normalize such thinking and such talk.
The fetish for grand conspiracies was a virus that spread more widely and deeply on the right—much more—but the left had its growing constituency of infected zealots. The CIA as global narcotics moguls, for instance, became a certainty not just on the Behold a Pale Horse right and the Perotista middle but among the elite and grassroots left. The belief was given permanent credence by a series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996. It posited a mammoth and elaborate federal conspiracy to sell cocaine in the United States, and even though other journalists promptly and persuasively discredited the story, it nevertheless swelled with affirmation on the new Web and talk radio, especially among African-Americans. Southern California congresswoman Maxine Waters promoted the idea that crack was a way for the government to make money and enact its genocidal designs on black people. Right and left agreed, too, that AIDS was a genocidal plot: a year after Behold a Pale Horse asserted that the virus had been invented and spread by “the ruling elite” to kill “the black, Hispanic, and homosexual populations,” Spike Lee said he was convinced that, yes indeed, “AIDS is a government-engineered disease.”
In 1996 a TWA 747 crashed near JFK airport after a short circuit made a fuel tank explode. However, a few months later Pierre Salinger—who had been John Kennedy’s White House press secretary and for decades an ABC News investigative reporter—decided that a navy missile had brought down the plane and that the government was covering it up. Writing about it for The New Yorker, I called Salinger to ask about the source for his “scoop.” He said he’d been given a document by “a top intelligence agent in France, a guy who’s been a fantastic adviser to me.” The basis of that document, it turned out, was a purely speculative scenario posted to the Internet by a retired airline pilot in Florida. And when Salinger had searched online himself for information about the crash—“You see,” he told me, “I’m not a person who looks into the Internet”—he was impressed to find “forty pages of material.” The missile and cover-up story therefore looked true to him, so he broadcast it. If a famous, award-winning, well-connected American journalist (and former presidential adviser) bought the exciting fictions he found on the Internet, why should we expect ordinary people to be any more scrupulous and skeptical?
Google didn’t even exist yet, but already the Web was helping people to confuse fiction and reality in dangerous ways. The Internet was a particular boon to conspiracy-mongers. “One of the impressive things about paranoid literature,” Hofstadter observed in the 1960s in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, “is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows”—McCarthy’s ninety-six-page pamphlet had 313 footnote references, and the John Birch Society founder’s attack on President Eisenhower had a hundred pages of notes. With the Web, this concern for pseudofactuality could be more elaborately expressed than ever.
In 1999, not long after the New Yorker journalist Michael Kelly coined the term fusion paranoia to describe how a conspiracist paradigm was increasingly shared by left and right, thousands of progressives assembled in Seattle for a few days to demonstrate their hatred of the global capitalist apparatus. They didn’t chant about the gun confiscators and UN invaders, but their enemy was more or less the same shadowy, ruthless, omnipotent, multitentacled international conspiracy that had obsessed the far right for a long time. If you’d circulated a petition among the Seattle protesters consisting of unattributed passages from Behold a Pale Horse, who would’ve declined to sign? “We have been taught lies,” Cooper wrote. “Reality is not what we perceive it to be.” Right? Battlers in Seattle definitely would’ve bought into his outrage over “the Haig-Kissinger depopulation policy in Central America.”
BROADCAST MASS MEDIA built two more crucial bridges between UFO-mania and conspiracism, in one case nominally nonfiction and in the other pure entertainment, both funneling millions more Americans into Fantasyland.
A national news-talk radio program called Coast to Coast AM became a huge hit in the 1990s, syndicated on hundreds of stations. The creator and host was Art Bell, who talked for four or five hours every night from a studio near his home in the desert between Las Vegas and Death Valley. His guests were conspiracy theorists and promoters of the implausible and impossible of every sort, political and paranormal and pseudoscientific and apocalyptic. Compared to the strictly political new stars of talk radio, Bell sounded friendly and low-key, almost reasonable, not pushing one clear agenda but open to practically any claim or allegation or belief. Coast to Coast AM became the go-to broadcast venue for the excitingly untrue, and when celebrities appeared, the whole demented buffet seemed all the more legitimate. Of Americans awake each night between midnight and dawn, by my rough reckoning, during the 1990s as many as a fifth were listening to Coast to Coast AM.
I Want to Believe. Believe to Understand. Trust No One. The various taglines for The X-Files, which premiered in 1993, are perfect Fantasyland slogans. The makers of The X-Files weren’t asked to justify themselves—it was straight-ahead entertainment, scripted fiction, with actors playing FBI agents and conspirators and aliens. But it and Coast to Coast AM were just different forms of infotainment distributed by adjacent branches of the fantasy-industrial complex, one on radio and the other on TV, tag-team propaganda vehicles for spreading and hardening belief in evil all-powerful secret government conspiracies and magical thinking. In the 1910s and ’20s The Birth of a Nation had glamorized white supremacy and helped induce the rebirth of the real-life Ku Klux Klan; in the 1990s, The X-Files glamorously codified an important swath of the new conspiracist paradigm.
The symbiosis of The X-Files and Coast to Coast AM is especially clear in a half-hour segment of the latter featuring Chris Carter, the creator of the former. (Art Bell had recently played himself on Carter’s X-Files spin-off series Millennium.) Bell discusses The X-Files as if it’s a dramatization of actual events. Given that X-Files plotlines “brush so close to reality,” Bell says, he wonders if Carter agrees that there is indeed “an ET presence on Earth.” “Every time I get on a commercial airliner,” Carter replies, “I ask the pilots if they’ve seen a UFO, and the flight attendants for that matter….Almost always they say they have.” When he’s talked to “people who work in government in classified areas…[they] ask me where I get my information and say ‘You don’t know how close you are.’ ” When Bell asks if X-Files has been pressured by the government to keep certain truths hidden, Carter replies that the FBI abruptly and suspiciously froze out his researchers just before the series went on the air.
Time was correct to include Carter on its list of the “25 Most Influential Americans” in 1997, the year twenty-seven million people watched one of his episodes. And The X-Files’ fusion paranoia was total, with plotlines to scratch every ideological itch: a character explains that the flying saucer crash at Roswell was “just a smoke screen” to serve the “global conspiracy of silence,” the federal government’s (real) Tuskegee syphilis experiment was part of the (fictional) master plot, the alien-government-corporate co-conspirators killed both JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr., and had a hand in the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas affair. In the 1998 X-Files feature film, an apostate member of the conspiracy reveals the plan to have the president declare a state of emergency, after which “all federal agencies will come under the power of the Federal Emergency Management Agency—FEMA—the secret government.”
By the end of the 1990s, this was no longer crackpottery dispensed only in self-published books. X-Files was a successful prime-time network television program on News Corp.’s Fox network. Coast to Coast AM was distributed by one of the biggest radio syndicators. The Web was exploding. Mainstream media and book publishers enthusiastically embraced and promoted the ostensibly nonfiction stories of alien conspiracies.
A decade after he put out Behold a Pale Horse, the movement’s godfather Bill Cooper was killed in a shootout with sheriff’s deputies at his home in rural Arizona. They’d come to arrest him for threatening a neighbor with a gun. It was 2001, and the police had originally planned to arrest him on…September 11. The coincidental timing naturally burnished his martyred-hero status among New World Order believers, for whom there are no coincidences. Not long after that, Fox stopped airing new episodes of The X-Files.Any more would’ve been superfluous, anyway. The show had already succeeded in training us to Believe and Trust No One, because The Truth Is Out There. In 2001, Americans reported seeing a lot of UFOs, but by 2015 they reported they were seeing 241 percent more.*4
*1 Including those attended by the current U.S. secretary for housing and urban development. “I mean, Seventh-day Adventist,” President Trump said suspiciously of Ben Carson’s religion when they were rivals for the 2016 nomination. “I don’t know about, I just don’t know.”
*2 Not long before he became famous, Timothy McVeigh traveled to gawk at the air force’s so-called Area 51 in Nevada, the place UFO conspiracists believe the government keeps extraterrestrials and their downed spacecraft, and on death row he watched the movie Contact.
*3 1991 Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey.
*4 Cheryl Costa and Linda Miller Costa, UFO Sightings Desk Reference (2017).