Wednesday, July 06, 2011


HOW I CAME TO WRITE THIS BOOK: Barna William Donovan’s

“Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in the American Conscious”

Several years ago I was watching what would turn out to be the final episodes of NBC’s science fiction series Surface. The plot revolved around giant sea monsters appearing in the world’s oceans. It was a novel premise, I thought, and I often gravitate toward high-concept TV shows. But around the same time, I also started watching a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries I had recorded earlier about the Bermuda Triangle. Then just about the same thing happened in Surface and Triangle. As the plots of both started sagging, along comes a major twist! There were “shocking” government conspiracies behind both the sea monsters and all the weird goings on in the Bermuda Triangle. For some reason, the creative teams behind both of these programs just didn’t seem to be able to sustain stories about Godzilla-sized sea monsters or the Bermuda Triangle without trudging out the tried-and-true government conspiracy, the mysterious men in dark suits, the hidden labs and the corrupt bureaucrats who manipulate the world from behind the scenes. This prevalence of paranoia in entertainment suddenly got me thinking about an in-depth look at conspiracy theories in film and pop culture. My book, coming out this month from McFarland press, Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in the American Conscious is the result.

At that point I already had two books about film history under contract, The Asian Influence on Hollywood Action Films (also with McFarland), and Blood, Guns and Testosterone: Action Films, Audiences, and a Thirst for Violence (Scarecrow Press). With my Master’s degree from the University of Miami’s film school and Ph.D. in action-film fandom, I was always fascinated with finding the profundity in popular entertainment. Looking closely enough at even the most mainstream genres, I believe, will give us a glimpse of a very sharp and clear mirror of ourselves and our society. Plus, I just enjoy being one of those horrible pop-culture professors who leads America’s youth astray and tells them that studying Lost is as valid as studying Dickens or that if Shakespeare came through a time machine, he would go to Hollywood and make blockbusters with Michael Bay.

So I decided to take a closer look at whether all the conspiracy theories in film and on TV are merely a form of creative laziness, the use of unimaginative plot twists when a story slows down, or if all this paranoia is a sign of a world where so many people are profoundly afraid of being victimized by invisible forces beyond their control. To that end, I trace some of the most popular conspiracy theories from the early 1960s to the present day, alternating chapters between the theories and the films they helped inspire.

The end result, I believe, is the most extensive book written so far about conspiracy theories in entertainment. From the assassination and political corruption films of the 60s and 70s to the aliens and crashed UFOs of The X-Files, hidden Biblical codes and secret societies after the turn of the millennium, if it believes that some sort of a big picture is hidden by “them,” then I tried to cover it in this book.

As for what makes us afraid, conspiracy theory films, I came to realize, speak not only to how we are nervous about big government or big business, faceless bureaucrats and “power elites,” but of conformity, of the pressure to be rank-and-file followers, to fit in, to be trendy and go along with the crowd. With the offbeat and eccentric characters who usually become the heroes of conspiracy films, we might be looking at audiences’ desires to see fantasy heroes who are not afraid to be themselves, to follow their own beliefs, and march to their own tune.

However, I also chose to end the book with a question I’m not sure I know the answer to. It’s a question I often ask when I hear about conspiracy theorists who believe government weather experiments caused Hurricane Katrina and the Midwestern tornadoes, or who believe that Osama bin Laden is still alive and the CIA was behind 9/11. Just how much of this conspiracy culture is good and how much is bad? Have conspiracy theories become the tools of con men now, grifters shilling their latest self-produced videos about the “biggest secrets?”

For anyone who likes a good conspiracy film or novel, yet feels slightly ill at ease with every conspiracy theory after a major crisis or national disaster, I hope Conspiracy Films might be a thought-provoking read.


Anonymous said...

Patti - Thanks for hosting Barna.

Barna - You raise some really interesting questions about the way conspiracy theories crop up, are passed along and are used in film. I think there really is a lot of fear of becoming a victim. I also think people want things to make sense. They want to explain things. I think for some cases, a conspiracy theory is a way for the inexplicable to make sense in some way.

Charles Gramlich said...

I have to admit I've used the Government conspiracy angle in a book, my first published novel, COld in the Light. It wasn't the whole government, though, just a small segment of it in association with a scientist.

Barna W. Donovan said...

Thanks for the feedback! And yes, I often hear people saying that conspiracy theories sound so confusing and convoluted, but at their heart I think they're really about giving a safe and clear view of the world that makes sense. There's always a cause and effect chain. For every problem, no matter how random, there is always an explanation for how "they" caused it.

While I've become more skeptical after reading so many conspiracy theories, I do admit that I still love them in movies and in books. I'm still proud of the fact that I've seen every single episode of The X-Files in its first run!

Todd Mason said...

The other advantage of a conspiracy theory is that a small conspiracy, as opposed to a large mass of societal inertia and tangled interconnection, can be fixed/overthrown/extirpated relatively easily. The Can Stop Attitude in American Politics and related culture. Very popular with politicians of nearly all stripes.

Dorte H said...

Shakespeare would love Hollywood, not so sure about Dickens. Last year when I read Hamlet in a class I told them old Will wasn´t any different from modern writers who had realized readers wanted witches, ghosts etc - so of course he gave them what they wanted.

Steve Weddle said...