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Conspiracy Theory

Scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Lullaby for Naima / John Coltrane

Culture’s Leading Entertainment

John Fraim

Certain ideas and theories offer alternatives narratives to the general narrative of those in control of public discourse. Those ideas and theories most challenging to the general narrative of those in control and power of culture agents of the controlling state. Those in control constantly work to dismiss public discourse on alternative narratives by designating them as “conspiracy” theories. The designation is meant to preclude consideration of the theory by the populace. 

Ed Rankin notes in his PhD thesis “The conspiracy theory meme as a tool of cultural hegemony” argued that the intelligence community and other agents of the state have used mainstream media to limit and control public discourse. As he observes, “The intelligence community and other agents of the state have used mainstream media to limit and control public discourse. Evidence of direct involvement of these agents of power in the creation of memes such as ‘conspiracy theorist’ and the use of memes to limit challenges to power is compelling.” As Rankin notes:

 “Politicians, the media and other agents of power often label those rejecting the official accounts of significant suspicious and impactful events as ‘conspiracy theorists’ and their proposed alternative explanations as ‘conspiracy theories.’ Agents of power use these labels to dismiss the beliefs of those who question potential hegemonic control of what people believe. The conspiracy theory concept functions as an impediment to legitimate discursive examination of conspiracy suspicions. The effect of the label appears to constrain even the most respected thinkers. This impediment is particularly problematic in academia, where thorough, objective analysis of information is critical to uncovering truth, and where members of the academy are typically considered among the most important of epistemic authorities … the development and use of such terms as pejoratives are used to shutdown critical thinking, analysis, and challenges to authority.”

Despite the dismissiveness of conspiracy theories by controllers of the general narrative, several of them linger on in a culture’s collective mythology. While they are not discussed much in present culture, they present powerful symbols often at the heart of popular entertainment. 

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Such is the case of the alleged experiments relating to mind control undertaken in the 1950s by the government under the general moniker of mind control. First, a brief background on this program. The NSC (National Security Council) and the CIA were established in 1947 under the provisions of the National Security Act of 1947. In December 1947, the NSC held its first meeting where James Forrestal, the Secretary of Defense, pushed for the CIA to begin a “secret war” against the Soviets. Forrestal’s initiative led to the execution of psychological warfare operations (psy-ops) in Europe. CIA personnel were not opposed to working with Nazi doctors who had proven to be proficient in breaking the mind and rebuilding it. In some cases, military bases were used to hide these covert activities. It was decided that the communist threat was an issue that took priority over constitutional rights. 

The concept of running a secret “black” project was not a novel thing in 1947. In 1941, Roosevelt decided, without consulting Congress, that the US should proceed with the utmost secrecy to develop an atomic bomb. Secrecy shrouded the Manhattan Project (the atomic bomb program) to the extent that Vice President Harry Truman knew nothing about it.  The project meant that by 1947, the US Government had already gained vast experience in the initiation of secret operations. The existence of “black projects” funded by “black budgets” was withheld not only from the public, but also from Congress for reasons of national security. 

One of the areas to be investigated by the CIA in one of these “black projects” was mind control. The CIA’s human behavior control program was chiefly motivated by perceived Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean use of mind control techniques. Under the protection of “national security,” many other branches of the government also took part in the study of this area. The CIA originated its first program in 1950 under the name BLUEBIRD, which in 1951, after Canada and Britain had been included, was changed to ARTICHOKE. The program MKULTRA officially began in 1953 and – technically – closed in 1964. However, some of its programs remained active under MKSEARCH well into the 1970s. In 1973, tipped off about forthcoming investigations, CIA Director Richard Helms ordered the destruction of any MKULTRA records. 

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But the conspiracy theory of mind control could not be destroyed and has never gone away. Many whistleblowers have come forward with person experiences and information that the program was real. Mind control was one of the most secretive, disruptive activities ever conducted by clandestine elements within the U.S. government. Yet it is also one of the best documented of the cover-ups. Over 20,000 pages of declassified CIA documents prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that these programs not only existed but were very well funded. (You can read highly revealing excerpts of these documents with links to online versions of the originals and instructions to verify authenticity.)

For our purposes here, though, we are less interested in the truth or fiction of this conspiracy theory but rather how its theme has wedged itself deeply into the collective psyche of the population, making numerous appearances in top novels and films since the late 40s.

It is not insignificant that mind control conspiracy theories developed about the same time as a 1947 incident in Roswell, New Mexico. The Roswell incident involved the recovery of balloon debris from a ranch near Corona, New Mexico by US Air Force officers from Roswell Army Airfield. On July 8, 1947, Roswell Army Air Field issued a press release stating that they had recovered a “flying disc.” However, the Army quickly retracted the statement saying – instead -the crashed object was a conventional weather balloon. Later, there developed conspiracy theories claiming the debris involved a flying saucer and that the truth had been covered up by the US government. 

The result of the Roswell incident happening around the same time as the mind control experiments created a type of hybrid conspiracy theory that dominated the most popular films and novels many of the 1950s. One noticeable trait of these films was a form of amnesia of characters in the films. This amnesia was often a trait experienced by so-called “contactees” of aliens or government agents. In some situations, government agents themselves were presented as alien forms of life. 

The New House / Stranger Things 4

This article is not a survey of mind control novels and films but a brief explanation of a few of the most popular ones to help readers better understand how the mind control meme has played out in Hollywood as entertainment. Even as much as the government has worked constantly to dismiss mind control as another conspiracy theory. Yet commentators have noted that – as a narrative device – mind control serves as a convenient means of introducing changes in the characters behavior and as well as raising tension and audience uncertainty in the already uncertain context of the Cold War and terrorism. 

Mind control has often been an important theme in science fiction, fantasy and horror stories. The critic Terry O’Brien in fact observes, “Mind control is such a powerful image that if hypnotism did not exist, then something similar would have to have been invented: the plot device is too useful for any writer to ignore. The fear of mind control is equally as powerful an image.”  

The subject of mind control does not constitute a separate genre of film. However, it has found a steady home in the horror genre going back to early supernatural horror stories like Frankenstein, Dracula and stories from Edgar Allen Poe. The modern version of mind control in the horror genre is in the zombie, living dead, horror stories where people whose minds are controlled by evil forces run rampant over the world.

But after the experiments relating to MKULTRA in the early 50s, perhaps one of the first, as well as one of the most successful examples of this new mind-control subject in films was the 1956 science fiction-horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The film’s storyline concerns an extraterrestrial invasion that begins in the fictional California town of Santa Mira. Alien plant spores have fallen from space and grown into large seed pods, each one capable of producing a visually identical copy of a human. As each pod reaches full development, it assimilates the physical traits, memories, and personalities of each sleeping person placed near it until only the replacement is left; these duplicates, however, are devoid of all human emotion. Little by little, a local doctor uncovers this “quiet” invasion and attempts to stop it.

In 1959, Richard Condon published a best-selling political thriller titled The Manchurian Candidate about the son of a prominent U.S. political family who is brainwashed into being an unwitting assassin for a Communist conspiracy. The novel was twice adapted into a feature film with the same title: the first was released in 1962 and the second in 2004. 

The Ipcress File of 1965 advanced a similar premise as The Manchurian Candidate that controllers could hypnotize a person into murdering on command while retaining no memory of the killing. Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian crime drama of 1971 – Clockwork Orange – delves into the sheer madness and chaos inherent in human psyche. The film’s protagonist is a psychopathic maniac with an insatiable taste for violence. The “Ludovico Technique” is a form of mind control that causes the anti-hero Alex to feel sickness and pain whenever he has a violent or anti-social impulse. 

The film Total Recall of 1990 stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, who lives a normal life, except at night when he gets strange dreams about a mysterious lady in a mysterious place. Discouraged by everyone, upon asking about his dreams, he reaches out to Rekall, a company that specializes in planting memories for fantasy. He decides to have a memory planted inside his brain. But as the procedure starts, Quaid starts getting flashes of a subdued memory. And suddenly, his world does not seem to be the one he practically lived his entire life. Or so he believed. 

The 1998 Truman Show is about a man who doesn’t know his life is the focus of a reality TV show aired since his birth. In the show, he he’s the star and his hometown is a giant set piece, where everyone around him is an actor going by a script. His whole life is controlled to entertain TV audiences. In the 2002 film, The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon played an amnesiac assassin under a mind control program. The 2010 film Inception is an amalgamation of the genres sci-fi, mystery and heist. The movie keeps growing into an enormous dream sequence with layers in between – which ultimately is a method to control the mind and steal secrets out of it – yet brilliantly keeps the viewer engrossed into the complex plot. 

In 1999, The Matrix offered a story about machines taking over the world and using humans as a source of energy. Here, the mind is also controlled by machines and made to believe they exist in a world, that is virtual. It is a film that for the first time introduced the rather terrifying concept of simulated reality and in effect asked several vital philosophical questions about humanity and its actual purpose. 

There are many more. The films directly on mind control like The Manchurian Candidate. And the offshoot strains of mind control films. It was something that overlapped mainly the film genres of horror, science fiction and fantasy. Yet it’s use is always pushing outward

Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate

The greatest resurrection of mind control in entertainment is perhaps the Netflix series Stranger Things, the most successful tv series in the history of streaming television. While there are many story lines to get tangled up with after four seasons of the series, it’s key theme centers around the mind control experiments performed on El or Eleven in the Hawkings Lab run by Dr. Martin Brenner. 

As in the best mind control genre stories, Stranger Things combines additional subjects like amnesia, hypnotism and alien, supernatural life forms with mind control. There are several questions raised by the series but perhaps the key question revolves around the amnesia of El about her past. Moments of her past come to her in edgy flashes of terror often filled with supernatural, alien monsters. The question remains throughout the series: will Eleven regain her memory and understand about the forces controlling her mind? Her amnesia about her past and the control of others over it continues to provide the ongoing suspense of the series. 

But mind control in Stranger Things is not just a problem for El but for the other members of her gang who attempt to locate and battle the monster Vecna. As in stories of mind control by whistleblowers, certain things can trigger mind control by placing members of El’s gang in a hypnotic state. One object is a large old grandfather clock that the characters stare at before going into a trance leading to mind control. 

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In the end, for me, the most interesting question in all of this is not whether the top conspiracy theories are true or not. Rather, it relates to how they find their way into the top ranks of the leading entertainment in popular culture. Like the series Stranger Things. At a WSJ purported production cost of $30 million episode, or $270 for just ¾ of Season 4. The final two episodes of Stranger Things 4 have been held back from release by a month. Episodes 8 and 9. More than likely to cost perhaps $50 million per episode for the grand finale of season 4. Bringing the cost of Season 4 to more than a third of a billion dollars. And Netflix’s stock is way down as subscribers flee the streamer. And still no advertising (although an agreement with another company is in the works right now.)

Am I wrong to wonder where Netflix gets its money? Certainly, there are a lot worse sources than the government. In effect, might the government finance these popular entertainment explorations into the collective mythology of a leading conspiracy theory of the culture at a particular time? Perhaps it best, to maintain control, not to create alternative narratives but rather sponsor the leading alternative narrative of our time? 

Entertainment that brings up what is on much of the collective mind of a certain demographic of Americans today. A key mythology all who identify as Americans. Of a particular generation of these Americans who lived through the 1950s. The mythology of mind control. The grand villain in much Hollywood entertainment. Much more than we realize. There is not a mind control genre of films because mind control spills over into many other film genres. 

Camp Hero / Real Inspiration for Hawkings Lab in Stranger Things

In effect, mind control might be a battle between outside forces and the individual. But, at the same time, it is always a battle of forces inside the individual. All of this repeats the battle between the grand symbolism of the battle between the two paradoxical (opposite) founding symbols of America: freedom and equality. 

How do popular conspiracy theories like mind control invade popular entertainment? Despite being (outwardly) dismissed by all mainstream media and agents of government control. The prevailing popular narrative of those controlling culture works hard to kill conspiracy theories or narratives that go against the prevailing narrative. 

The interesting fact to me is that those in control cannot kill the greatest conspiracy theories like mind control. For all their power, wealth, and control of all aspects of popular culture, those in control cannot prevent mind control stories appearing all over popular entertainment and media. 

Today, in 2022, the subject that first surfaced over 70 years ago, has not gone away. Rather, it units the complex story lines of four seasons of Stranger Things.

In some ways, it’s almost as if the government has played a part in creating the popular resurgence of the mind control theme. Might the government attempt to assuage conspiracy theories by providing stories about them in popular entertainment? After all, are there any more potent forms of mind control than binge watching all episodes of Stranger Things 4

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The topic of mind control is hardly ever discussed today. Usually, it’s related to conspiracy theory and quickly dismissed (or accepted) by others.  One hears about it through conspiracy sites or others one subscribes to. As well as streaming radio and podcast programs. 

It is a large and important topic within the inner circles of our government intelligence departments. There was a reason the government was leading mind control experiments in the 50s. Or, in the 60s at the fictional Hawkings Lab in the Stranger Things series. In Stranger Things, twenty years after these initial experiments in mind control, the results of these experiments are presented in the first season of Stranger Things

Before us, in episode one of the series, appears a young girl with short crewcut hair named Eleven. She has supernatural powers and is a product of events connected to the mind control experiments of the 60s. A reference certainly to the government lab set up for mind control experiments in the 40s and 50s. A connection to these mind control experiments is Eleven. The grand suspense sub-text underlining the entire story is the amnesia of Eleven. Will she recover the true memory of her past? Will she regain control over her own mind? The theme of mind control runs through all parts of the series. 

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With Netflix’s fading fortunes, will there ever be a season 5 of Stranger Things? Did the series creators, the Duffer Brothers, forecast this and wrap up the series with the upcoming final two episodes of season four of Stranger Things. An innovative move of releasing 7 episodes of a season at one time for binge viewing and holding the final two episodes for one month later. A new combination of streaming with the old appointment television. It might offer a revival for streamers out there and a new strategy of release dates. Dividing up streaming into two periods. 

I have watched all former seasons and episodes of Stranger Things. Last week, I binge-watched in two days all seven episodes now available for streaming of season four of Stranger Things. The final two episodes are held for a release date of July 2. 

The Russian part of the story developed in season four is very much about mind control. As are the activities of other characters in the story. For example, at any moment, any one of the leading characters might become subject to the mind control experiment. By staring at an old grandfather clock. A particular hypnosis draws over them. They lose control of their mind. Is all this related to the research at the Hawkings Lab in the 60s?

Story arcs spread out like the live, undulating, tenacles of Medusa’s hair. Watching the seven episodes of season four involves an attempt to track the meaning of the various story arcs through the seven episodes of season four. Somewhat of an impossibility not worth spending any more than ten seconds thinking about. The overall meaning and symbolism of Stranger Things is about mind control. 

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The relationship of this topic to the government is something they don’t want you to know about. At the same time, the government just might be sponsoring, in some large way, the production of season four of Stranger Things. A weird season four as it comes three years after season three of the series. The pandemic between season three and four ofStranger Things has put the grand weight of expectations on season four.

Mind control is really the leading idea in season four of Stranger Things. This topic of mind control is something always challenged by the forces of evil, capable of quickly hypnotizing someone by them looking at an old clock. The emphasis on mind control in season four of the series is as powerful as ever. It is a theme that underlies the depths of the film and gives it much of my rating as one of the best episodes in television history. But after all, what could possibly be a more important topic than mind control in 2022?



Documentary on Mind Control from the History Channel.

For a concise summary of CIA mind control with links to declassified documents, click here

For an excellent essay on both the negative and positive aspects of mind control, click here

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