Conspiracy Theories

Faces in the Smoke

As long as our species survives, so will conspiracy theories.


This November will mark the 50th anniversary of two events that are of special interest to conspiracy buffs. One is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a killing that has spawned dozens of theories about the hidden forces that allegedly carried out the crime. The other is a lecture the historian Richard Hofstadter delivered at Oxford, which Harper's later published under the title "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Half a century of scholarship has either built on or pushed back against Hofstadter's conclusions, some of which don't hold up very well. But it remains the most widely cited essay on American political paranoia.

Some conspiracies are real, of course, but even a conspiracy theory that is entirely false has truths to tell us about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe it. More, it tells us something about the ways people perceive the world.

On 9/11, a Brooklyn, N.Y., photographer named Mark Phillips climbed to his roof and snapped photos of the burning World Trade Center, which were then distributed by the Associated Press. Later he learned that people were seeing an unexpected image in one of the photographs. When he examined the picture he saw it, too. "The image I saw was distinct," he later wrote. "Eyes, nose, mouth, horns." There, in the contours of the smoke, he found the face of Satan.

Search online and you'll see still more 9/11 pictures in which people have perceived the shapes of demons. There is no shortage of theories about what the faces mean, from the Christian conspiracist who said they were a glimpse of the devil boasting to the Muslim writer who declared they were a warning from God "that the use of terrorism is never permitted in Islam."

Then there is the explanation I prefer. The faces are the result of apophenia, the process of projecting patterns onto data. More specifically, they are pareidolia, in which those patterns are perceived as meaningful shapes or sounds. It is pareidolia that allows us to see a man in the moon, to hear a satanic incantation when "Stairway to Heaven" is played backward, or to conjure the image of your subconscious choice while taking a Rorschach test. Indeed, pareidolia makes the whole world a Rorschach test. The Web is filled with delightful pareidolia-themed photo sets, in which unexpected forms appear in mountains, pasta, fire, clocks, clouds.

Some people transform their experiences of pareidolia into artworks that others can enjoy. The Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí called this the critical-paranoiac method. At a lecture in Connecticut in 1934, he illustrated the idea with a slide: a postcard photo of tribesmen in front of a hut. He then showed the same image on its side, and pareidolia did its work: With some priming from the painter, the audience could see an image of a human head. "These more or less accidental ideas Mr. Dali is concentrating upon in his own work," The Hartford Courant reported the next day, "but instead of allowing them to be accidental, he is trying to cultivate them."

That act of cultivation can feel like an act of discovery. A group of scholars learned this in 2010, when they played a game they called The Paranoid Style. The historian Rob MacDougall, who organized the exercise, reported afterward that he started it with "a little briefing on pareidolia and apophenia." Then, after asking each player to pick a well-known historical figure, he "told them we were looking for evidence of the secret conspiracy of vampires that has pulled the strings behind the world for hundreds of years." They found "evidence" of each one's role for or against "the Great Vampire Conspiracy." The aim, MacDougall explained, was to feel the kick of that moment "when the evidence starts to line up all too well with the fantasy you have just concocted, and you skate right up to the edge of believing." He added, "it colors your relationship with 'real' history ever after."

Human beings have a knack not just for finding patterns in chaos but for constructing stories to make sense of events, especially events that scare us. And a conspiracy story is especially enticing because it imagines an intelligence behind the pattern. It doesn't just see a shape in the smoke; it sees a face in the smoke.

We will never stop finding patterns. We will always be capable of jumping to conclusions, particularly when we're dealing with other nations, factions, subcultures or layers of the social hierarchy. And conspiracies, unlike many of the monsters that haunt our folklore, do exist sometimes, so we won't always be wrong to fear them. As long as our species survives, so will political paranoia.

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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  1. OMG, Mr. Walker, that so-called Rorshach blot is filthy! It makes Larry Flynt look like Mr. Rogers! Wait…never mind, now I just see a bunny.

  2. Some nice flowers

    1. A pretty butterfly.

  3. “But it remains the most widely cited essay on American political paranoia.”

    No shit. And it’s a partisan hack piece that leftist historians still lean on to argue that all paranoia is on the right. I told some of my non-historians academic friends that most historians believe conspiracy thinking is only on the right and they were astounded that anyone could believe that.

    1. What is the word for rational fear?

    2. It is a partisan piece, but there is still a certain brilliance to it if you can see past the partisanship. He acknowledges paranoid consipiracy theories on the Left, but he sees them as the exception on the Left, the rule on the Right (but in part becuase he acknowledges that the mainstream of the early 60s is slightly Left, while conspiracy theorizing is a practice of those who feel marginalized).

      His mouth-frothing partisanship is mostly because of this personal hatred of Barry Goldwater and Joe McCarthy – as a Left-Wing Jewish New York Intellectual, for some reason Hofstadter felt a certain resentment toward people who blamed all the country’s problems on Left-Wing Jewish New York Intellectuals.

      At the same time, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” is essentially a diatribe about the Right Wing Conspiracy against the “Liberal Consensus,” and therefore proves the universality of its own point while attempting to attack only right wingers.

  4. I see the Great Pumpkin.

  5. Two small dogs standing on a glass table, chewing on a stag beetle’s head — viewed from below.

  6. Mmmmmmm, road kill.

  7. “I see an Eastern European village where the inhabitants have coins for heads.”

    “Now it’s a piece of veal.”

  8. It’s a vagina. They’re all vaginas.

  9. I’ve got 2 guys each with a backpack and knitted cap with a tassel on top, arms behind back, climbing on breastplate armor with a pair of little birds on top, beaks up, and it’s got wings and a tailbone. The guys look like gnomes, maybe Santa’s helpers.

  10. Two old craven schoolmarms arguing over the artistic merit of Pink Floyd’s The Wall: The Movie.

  11. Conspiracies do exist. Just go to your nearest federal courthouse and sit in on a term of criminal court. It is the US Attorneys Office favorite charge. The little people can be prosecuted and imprisoned every day because of their conspiracies.

  12. The culture, as defined, guided and molded by those at the top, is “moving against” dissent on the internet. And in doing so, it is attempting to define dissent as ‘conspiracy theorizing.’

    The true modern definition of ‘conspiracy theorist’ is something like the following: someone who goes on the internet and says bad things about rich people, powerful people and or corporations, but not in a democrats vs republicans sort of way, but in a way that is divorced from the dem vs gop little world. If you try to point out that american politics, culture, entertainment industry, academia, etc is an ecosystem, an ecosystem in which the rich and powerful and their corporations, control, mold, shape, and evolve the culture, the public discourse and debate, then you are a conspiracy theorist. In a de facto sense. That is what is happening.

    If you say that the elite are a parasite/predator on the workers, then you are a conspiracy theorist.

    If you say that our culture has been domesticated by the plutocrats and their corporations, then you are a conspiracy theorist. De facto.

    If you try to say that political correctness, multiculturalism and feminism etc are tools of the corporations in their drive for cheap labor and control of the government, then you are a conspiracy theorist.

    They try to denigrate, smear and belittle true political dissent, as defined above, by associating it with JFK assassination theories.

    1. It is true that politicians and others engaged in conspiracies will attempt to dismiss their critics by calling the criticism a “conspricay theory.”

      On the other hand, I have to whole-heartedly agree with the statement that “If you try to say that political correctness, multiculturalism and feminism etc are tools of the corporations in their drive for cheap labor and control of the government, then you are a conspiracy theorist.”

      If you really do think that feminism and multiculturalism were some sort of plot cooked up by “Corporations” to take control of the government, then you do have a touch of paranoia about you that you might do well to examine in yourself.

      Also, studying up on the history of some of these movements might be helpful.

  13. I think Jesse’s error is in thinking that these psychological processes, discerning an underlying pattern, necessarily lead one down the garden path. They sometimes lead one to the truth of the matter. And when this happens, often we see another psychological process kick in, the denial of the existence of an underlying pattern and the insistence on its meaningfulness. In keeping with Jesse’s Freudian terminology, we can call it denial.

    The number 7 tower fell at free fall speed for some time as it collapsed. The conspiracy theorist sees this as evidence of controlled demolition, while the supposedly clear thinking observer can only deny the implications of a free falling office tower. Denying these underlying patterns can be just as pathological as projecting them.

  14. Notice how we are not hearing the evidence, now unfolding, of our government’s and the NSA’s program to rob all of us, en masse, of our privacy, described as a “conspiracy theory”.

    Yet it is very much a CONSPIRACY.

    Perhaps when confronted with sufficient evidence, such disclosures rise above some ill-defined threshold of “theory” and become demonstrably obvious, we no longer think of them – for some odd reason – as “conspiracies” themselves, but simply as predictable government overreach.

    If so, it is worth taking a moment to reflect upon the extent to which actual conspiracies do exist and which are on a par with those previously dismissed as wild and fevered imaginings.

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