I sometimes feel that some pop-culture conspiracy theories, while sounding outlandish and/or batshit insane, have a symbolic component to them that does allude to some phenomenon or anxiety on the part of the public.
For example, on the surface the “Paul McCartney Died And Was Replaced With A Double” theory sounds batshit insane. But if we think about how some fans might of reacted when the Beatles suddenly switched from their neat suits and clean harmonies to more psychedelic stuff…the theory starts to make a bit more sense, at least psychologically on the part of the believers. How could Paul McCartney change so much so seemingly quickly? He must have died and been replaced with a clone. See? Makes complete sense! And far more comforting than the idea that culture was massively shifting in the mid-1960s in a way that some people found disorienting.
This recent Guardian piece, “Trapped in the Sunken Place: How Get Out’s Purgatory Engulfed Pop Culture,” is a very insightful study of how the symbolism in Jordan Peele’s horror movie mirrors the experience of being a person of color surrounded by white culture:
…the Sunken Place has taken on surprisingly real cultural resonance. It has come to express a widely felt political and social mood of liberal inertia and unspoken white supremacist hegemony, just as Peele’s acknowledged influences, Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Stepford Wives (1975), captured, respectively, cold war group-think and a Nixon-era backlash against second-wave feminism. Ben Carson’s political career in the Trump White House, and OJ Simpson’s life have all be said to indicate that these three prominent African Americans have entered the Sunken Place. Kim Kardashian recently spoke out against the number of Get Out memes about husband Kanye West, telling “people are so fucking dumb and stupid.”
Now, those memes Kardashian mentions? They refer to a popular conspiracy metatheory, presented largely by various people on YouTube (and you’ll have to scroll a little bit down that search to find them), that specifically equates Get Out with what they feel is the brainwashing or even cloning of various Black celebrities.
Kanye West is frequently a subject of these conspiracy theories, with the Kardashians and/or the Illuminati cast as the Get Out brainwashers/brainstealers. And a whole epic saga is also to be found regarding comedian Dave Chappelle, in which a supposed cousin tells the story of Dave’s “cloning.” Chappelle is often specifically compared to actor Lakeith Stanfield’s character in Get Out.
I’ve written a bunch on this topic as it relates to Chappelle, and one day I’ll post it all here. But the point of this post is just to show how the real social anxieties and realities referred to in the Guardian piece had been also “codified” and given narratives by these conspiracy theories on YouTube. That doesn’t discredit anything about that Guardian essay, which I felt was very well-written…but it leads me to wonder if looking at some of these pop-culture conspiracy theories as a type of “folklore” might yield new insights.
We have to ask ourselves: “why is this conspiracy theory so prevalent?” Why do people believe this? Why do some people feel so passionately that Chappelle has been literally replaced by a clone? Why do people believe to this day that the Paul McCartney we currently know is an impostor?
The first instinct with most people is to throw those theories away in the trash. YouTube has been really cracking down on them and I know that another Chappelle-themed “conspiracy epic” website, The Chappelle Theory, has been shut down. When you have these videos and sites basically saying all this stuff about real people…it does put these people at some degree of risk. I mean, it’s like the people who maintain websites saying that the victims of various mass shootings are fake—and then the parents of the victims (called out by name on the sites) get death threats.
But I can guarantee you that shutting down all these sites and pulling all these videos will not stop these theories. And that’s because for the masses, these theories are often a type of folklore that serves to manage collective anxiety about any number of issues in a symbolic way. These theories are not only shared on the internet, but from person-to-person at barber shops, at work, and around the family dinner table.
The problem, of course, is when the symbolic is taken to be literal.