Ah. The 1990s. A time when the JFK assassination was the source material for a mainstream, big-budget movie which questioned the official story; when The X-Files and their “monsters of the week” loomed large; when the legendary Men in Black was the subject for a comedy; and when people tuned in every week to be thrilled by the weird stories in Sightings.
With the key X-Files Revival episode “The Lost Art Of Forehead Sweat” just about begging to go back to a time when The X-Files was fun, a new In Search Of series about to film, and even a reboot of the series Roswell greenlit…are we going back to that hallowed era of “Conspiracy Lite”?
Let’s first define what we mean by “Conspiracy Lite.” Esoteric topics such as UFOs, psychic phenomena, ghosts, and cryptids all had a golden age of coverage in the 1970s with shows like In Search Of, and books/documentaries like Chariots Of The Gods?. This was “out there” material introduced in a manner palatable to the masses, to fire up their imagination and get them to think somewhat outside the box. Paranoia was not the #1 priority; rather, it was Wonder.
And in the Nineties, with the success of The X-Files but probably “seeded” by In Search Of clone Sightings, you had another wave of this Conspiracy Lite pop-culture. The icon of the alien grey (or, green) was omnipresent. Where there was a bit of paranoia—with The X-Files and movies like Men In Black—it was counter-balanced by comedy.
But as The X-Files progressed—and we all headed towards Y2K and possible “Apocalypse”—things began to darken. When FEMA was mentioned in the first X-Files movie, in 1998, my ears pricked up—here was the Conspiracy being blamed not on a generic bunch of shadowy guys in trenchcoats, but an actual U.S. governmental agency.
Even Roswell, which launched in 1999, was a far more paranoid/dark show than X-Files in its prime. And of course, in ’99 you also had The Matrix coming out, with its Man In Black the sinister Mr. Smith rather than Will Smith.
Y2K came and went without a hitch…but then a year later 9/11 happened. 9/11 effectively ended the age of Conspiracy Lite, various theories not only being infused with a far heavier political/paranoiac component, but also blending together to create comprehensive “Meta-Theories”—postulating global conspiracies that tied together everything from aliens to the JFK assassination & 9/11 to the Freemasons.
Mainstream pop-culture initially resisted this darker/grittier strain of Conspiracy Culture, especially in respect for the still-recent 2001 tragedy. But as the Aughts progressed, 9/11 imagery began to creep into big-budget action and sci-fi/superhero movies—culminating, you might say, with the 2009 movie The Watchmen.
The Watchmen—taking its source material, of course, from the Alan Moore graphic novel written in the equally-political Eighties—wore its Conspiracy Culture roots on its sleeve, and a close reading of the film, coupled with an examination of its self-consciously “Illuminati-inspired” symbolism, could easily fit in with a 9/11 Truther meta-narrative.
The positives of this brand of Conspiracy Culture is that it urged readers and viewers to look beyond the entertainment value of the “monster of the week” and research things like how their government and financial systems really work. The negatives were…well, as things progressed to “Mayan Apocalypse” year 2012 and beyond, more and more xenophobia snuck into many of these theories—blaming whole groups of people (often various minorities) for the Conspiracy. And politicians both in the United States and abroad, in conjunction with the rise of social media, learned to “weaponize” conspiracy theories.
You see this so clearly in the first episode of the X-Files Revival in 2016, “My Struggle.” First of all…if you are going to give such a pivotal episode the same moniker as the autobiography of one of history’s biggest genocidal dictators…you better have a goddamn good reason. (the episode was kind of meh, so no I don’t really think they had one)
But “My Struggle” also perfectly aligned with the darker Conspiracy Culture of the era, including paranoia over vaccines & a character very obviously based on Infowars host Alex Jones as one of the heroes.
Of course…in the Aughts, Jones was the darling of some of the hipper folks in Hollywood, with David Lynch appearing on his show & Slacker director Richard Linklater placing him in the movies Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. What happened?
The Trump era—and specifically, the several years after 2012 leading up to it—killed the mainstream Conspiracy Culture cachet. And you see this so clearly in “The Lost Art Of Forehead Sweat,” which was basically a massive apology for the “My Struggle” episodes last season. That episode made clear, in no uncertain terms, its “break” from the culture that helped Trump get elected—Mulder asking why we can’t go back to tracking Bigfoot instead.
I very much doubt that the new In Search Of will be a very “political” show…it will more likely follow in the (big)footsteps of the original 1970s series and its Nineties clone. But will Conspiracy Lite once again make a comeback?
One thing I know for sure…the recent unexpected success of more “family/adventure” movies like the Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle and Paddington 2 indicates that the American public, weary of the very real conspiracies, paranoias, and divisions back home, want to again retain that sense of Wonder. (I mean…heck, add 2017’s Wonder Woman to that list)
It may appear to Hollywood that the Conspiracy Culture brand from at least the last ten years has been severely tainted. (and of course Hollywood is currently chin-deep in its own harassment/assault conspiracies being revealed to the public) In which case…it might be time for Conspiracy Lite to make a revival.