How I Became a Conspiracy Theorist

Being a conspiracy theorist was not a choice. It was an assignment.

I took Film and Media Studies 043: Conspiracy on a whim, as an unfocused, pass-fail freshman with an empty spot in his schedule. I didn’t even know I was minoring in Film and Media Studies yet, and I thought conspiracy theories were pretty stupid.

That hasn’t really changed. I still think conspiracy theories are pretty stupid, but I’ve developed a deeply personal appreciation for them.

When I first found out our final assignment was going to be a conspiracy wall, I was confused. What’s a conspiracy wall? It turns out this is a conspiracy wall, a giant map of a conspiracy:

Conspiracy wall from A Beautiful Mind.
Conspiracy wall from A Beautiful Mind.

I’d seen these all over the place in movies and TV shows. They seemed absurd, unrealistic, but also endlessly rich maps of troubled, disturbed minds, seemingly made for mental organization but also having an element of showmanship. Making one myself seemed like a kind of fun idea. It turned out to be probably the most fun I’ve had with an academic assignment before or since.

First, we had to come up with a conspiracy: this wasn’t too hard; I soon had a vague idea in my head and ran with in, realizing that the execution mattered much more than the concept.

My idea was this: Target stores are somehow run by an alien civilization with ties to the Chinese communist party, its ultimate goal to invade the United States and establish global dominance.

To do the assignment well, I realized I had to think like a conspiracy theorist. I holed myself up in a classroom, projected my laptop’s screen onto a blackboard, and started researching. I looked into all kinds of leads, credible and absurd, trivial and central. Ultimately, I came up with something like this, a proto-wall:


This was a start. I presented the picture to my class for critique, got helpful feedback, and moved into my final phase: full immersion. I wrote my conspiracy up in a short chain-mail summary, with all-caps, colorful text, and an abundance of exclamation marks; I sent it to all my friends without explaining what it was. They got worried.

Then, I decided to take my research into the real world. I contacted a Target representative under a pseudonym, asking in an angry, insistent tone for an explanation for some of my observations. They responded very nicely, saying they would take my concerns up with “Leadership.” Their email ended up on the conspiracy wall.

Now that I had assembled enough “data,” I had to start thinking about the wall. What were the most important parts of my theory? How did they relate to one another? I also had to step outside of my conspiracist self: What were the theorist’s motives? What drove them ideologically? As I asked these questions, thought them through, and put them into practice, I feel like I finally had at least a hint of understanding about what conspiracy theories are made of.

And here’s my wall:

My conspiracy wall, on display in McCabe Library.
My conspiracy wall, on display in McCabe Library.

Featured Image: My conspiracy wall, up close.

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