Stories are essential to what makes us human. We tell them constantly: to ourselves, about ourselves, and collectively, with other people, the stories we tell and are told make up culture at large. It is thus worth noting which stories we choose to tell and – vitally – how closely those stories map to the real world. This confirmation of our narratives with verifiable reality is a vitally important exercise that has become increasingly rare, and the effects have been especially pernicious on American politics. From the disastrous and counterproductive “War on Drugs” (driven more by Rambo and Miami Vice as by data and research) to the anti-scientific information illiteracy preached by programs like Ancient Aliens and The 700 Club, some political stories have bled into the culture in ways that make us, to be blunt, dumber, meaner, and crazier.
Stories of devils, monsters, and witches are much older than America, of course, and in our political history we’ve conjured up fearsome (and fictitious) adversaries ranging from Salem all the way to Joseph McCarthy, but just as “pop culture” and “horror fiction” can both be understood as products of modernity, the political weaponization of horror is a modern innovation; more specifically, it’s an innovation of the American Christian Right, beginning in the 1960s and culminating in its logical terminus, the apocalyptic death cult called QAnon.
When one digs just below the surface of modern American conspiracy culture, it’s remarkable just how much of it is unapologetically cribbed from movies, be it Alex Jones contention that the science fiction movie Oblivion literally contains “the globalist playbook for their endgame” or QAnon’s wholesale adoption of an outlandish blood libel based on a fictional drug invented by Hunter S. Thompson for the purposes of a story, conspiracism – for lack of a better catch-all term for the phenomenon – has been openly plagiarized to a truly shameless extent.
No genre of fiction – not even sci-fi – has had a deeper impact on conspiracism than horror. While anti-scientific, anti-Masonic, and anti-European themes had been explored by horror, it was horror’s embrace of diabolism beginning with Rosemary’s Baby that would prove to have the most lasting (and pernicious) effect. Rosemary’s Baby is a tale whose outlines would be familiar to anyone acquainted with the long, horrible history of blood libel, lies, and calumny that surround ideas of Satanic conspiracy; a young mother used as a “breeder” (apologies) by Satanists who conspire in a hidden cabal devoted to the service of Lucifer. One could argue, in fact, that Rosemary’s Baby – first the Ira Levin novel and then the Roman Polanski film – was the first truly modern proto-QAnon story. It’s essentially all there but the adrenochrome and Donald J. Trump busting in at the last moment to save Rosemary from peril.
If you weren’t previously familiar with the conspiracy theory to which I allude, consider yourself lucky. The days when America can dismiss the phenomenon as a nutty horror story are numbered. The QAnon cult – complete with its stories of mole children, blood-drinking Satanists*, and “frazzledrip”** – is essentially a horror LARP (live-action role playing game) or ARG (alternate-reality game) for unbalanced people and shut-ins, and would be laugh-out-loud absurd if it hadn’t already racked up a body count and led to kidnappings and shootings. QAnon is on the FBI’s list of domestic extremist threats (no shame there, necessarily, as the FBI has historically thrown this label around quite a bit). Despite this, they’re about to send a couple of people to Congress. In its apocalyptism, its cultic freneticism, and its encroachment into the realm of political power, QAnon is deeply reminiscent of another cult called Aum Shinrikyo (now rebranded as Aleph, and still a presence in Russia). Shoko Asahara, the madman at the helm of Aum, was hanged to death in 2018 for the mass murder of commuters in a 1995 subway gas attack, but before his arrest, Aum/Aleph made inroads into legitimate political power in Japan, despite the horror movie beliefs of its members and the overt doomsday fixation of its ideology.
I love horror — obviously. More than that, I love political horror, stories that examine the social issues that face us in real life through an exaggerated and Gothic lens. I’ve written on the subject here at Madness Heart, and have written political horror myself (if you’d like to read an example, my short story “stuffed” is available in the anthology American Cult). But this is vitally important to remember: when horror stories infect our politics in real life, when myths, hysteria, and outright fearmongering are fomented for ideological purposes, the results are inevitably catastrophic. Worth noting, too, is the short and brutal history of fascism’s relationship to such narratives. What we are seeing now is an unholy (or, rather, all too holy) union between the religious-political cultic milieu and the horror milieu, a fantasy world in which horror movie monsters are literally real and fear lurks in every shadow and beneath every bed. It would, like so much during the Trump years, be hilarious if we didn’t have to actually live through it.
At its most basic level, government is not about convoluted theory or flowery speeches. It’s a matter of resource distribution, public safety, infrastructure, and other mundane, wonky concerns. The injection of religion into this arena is heinous enough. What modern conspiracy culture represents is even worse; a degradation of theocracy into an overtly fascistic death cult with actual, literal witch-hunts as its goal. We’ve been here before, and “Michelle” isn’t the only one who remembers.
*: I am a Satanist. I have been to – get this – many Satanic rituals. I have yet to see someone consume human blood.
**: Be warned. No, really. QAnon goes to some places darker than you could possibly imagine. You were warned.