Have you ever woken up in the dark in an unfamiliar place and felt like something was wrong? That tinny adrenaline taste in your mouth, the taste of fear coursing through your body. In Warsaw, back in October 2016, I experienced this every night.
I’d wake up in my hotel room to see someone standing at the end of my bed. I could hear breathing, make out the shape of a shoulder in the half-light, hear the shuffle of a foot on the rough hotel carpet. Then I’d switch on the light. Nobody there. Every time.
While nothing had snuck into my room, something had definitely got into my head.
Warsaw is a pretty cool city, mixing classic Soviet architecture with a plentiful supply of cheap pickles and vodka. But that’s not why I was there. In July 2016, a British conspiracy theorist called Max Spiers died under mysterious circumstances in the Polish capital.
The Post-Mortem was inconclusive and his mother is desperate for answers, so my colleagues and I decided to investigate.
Before heading to Warsaw, we spent hours watching Max’s films, and films about Max, online. Max believed that Nazis were controlling the moon and that the CIA had altered his brain so that he could fight in other dimensions.
It’s all quite far-fetched. But, the more we watched, the more we found ourselves wondering: what if the Nazis DID create a secret, mercury-fuelled, anti-gravity spacecraft? Maybe there IS a network of Illuminati tunnels under Denver airport. Or a bunker in Mexico filled with aliens.
It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, right?
Broadly speaking, conspiracy theorists believe that some secret but powerful organisation is responsible for unexplained events. Research by Professor Viren Swami suggests that, in the UK, 30-40% of people believe in ‘conspiracies’.
Belief in conspiracies has been pretty consistent since the 1960s but, according to Andrew McKenzie, a historian with Conspiracy and Democracy at Cambridge University, “Trump and Brexit seem to be symptomatic of a rise in populism… and there’s a strong link between conspiracy theories and populism.”
He tells me, “it wouldn’t be surprising to see a rise in conspiracy theorising in society at the moment.”
There’s also the fact that, as Andrew says, “A lot of people receive their news through social media where the vetting of facts doesn’t occur to the same degree as it does in traditional media.”
That makes it even easier for conspiracy theories to spread – and for people to fall down the rabbit hole.
Feelings of slight paranoia came on surprisingly quickly.
One morning in Poland my colleague Rachel told me she woke in the night, convinced she could hear someone going through her bin. Back in London our editor, Trace, was making a cup of tea when her computer suddenly started playing the clip ‘Max Spiers was a conspiracy theorist’ on loop.
The lights flickered in meetings when we mentioned Max’s name.
One night, as I was logging off at work, I got a call. The woman on the other end got my number from a conspiracy theorist I’d been talking to. She wanted to tell me about the alien implants in her brain, and emailed me x-rays of her cranium, showing tiny white dots in her skull.
Doctors have told her this is normal, but she’s adamant she can hear transmitter waves. She sees people following her, cars watching. I’m worried about her and ask her if she has support – but she won’t listen to the doctors. She says they’re “in on it”. At one point, she hangs up, convinced someone is listening in.
According to Rob Brotherton, a psychologist and the author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, believing these things is “evolutionarily built into us”. It’s important to question the world around us and its effect on us. He considers them, “a staple of human psychology”.
I met several conspiracy theorists who think they’re becoming more popular. They even complain about the growing number of ‘sheeple’, as they call them, who regurgitate existing theories rather than investigating their own.
Igor Witkowski is one of Poland’s leading conspiracy theorists (though he calls himself a ‘historian of civilization’). He’s written so many books about secret Nazi weapons that he lost count at 60, and told me he sees more and more books at sci-fi book fairs – written without “proper research”, apparently – about conspiracies.
According to the psychologist Rob Brotherton, conspiracies appeal to us for three main reasons.
The first is that, if “something big happens we assume there must be a big explanation for it”. For example, the idea that JFK could have been shot by a lone gunman doesn’t ring true for a lot of people. (This is called ‘proportionality bias’.)
We’re also prone to ‘intentionality bias’. This is where our brains assume that things can’t be coincidental.
And then there’s ‘confirmation bias’ – once we have a hunch about something we start noticing things that confirm it. “We all do this,” Rob says. “There’s lots of information out there so it’s easy to find stuff to back you up, and equally ignore things that contradict you.”
The longer I spent around conspiracy theorists, the more I started to feel distrustful and on edge.
Wiktor Solar, a researcher at Warsaw University who spends his days looking into conspiracies, told me, “Belief in conspiracy theories can lead to feelings of powerlessness. It’s not that conspiracies are making people feel more frightened, but we do know that frightened people are more prone to believing in conspiracies.”
I’ve stared down the void and, believe me, I can see how easy it would be to fall.
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