TO ERR IS HUMAN, BUT SERIOUSLY, FOR FUCK’S SAKE…
Fortean writer John Keel’s 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies tells us that the devil never went to West Virginia.
I’ve never been to West Virginia either, so I knew there was something I liked about that guy. This is the anecdote from the book’s intro, in which a mysterious figure shows up at a remote farmhouse in the middle of the night:
“He was over six feet tall and dressed entirely in black: black suit, black hat, black tie, and black overcoat. His face sported a trimmed goatee. In the days that followed the couple told their friends about the apparition. Perhaps it had been the devil himself!”
But it wasn’t of course. As Keel writes, the “devil” on the doorstep that night was actually him, looking for a phone after his car broke down. Later he picked up the urban legend he accidentally started. Cute.
Here’s the thing: Assuming this all really happened (it’s hard to tell with this guy), Keel’s correction did not quash the legend. In fact, if anyone expected it to, I’d conclude that you must be new here…
In 1884, infamous French smear writer Gabriel Jogand-Pages (who wrote under the penname Leo Taxil) announced that after years of abusing the Vatican with books like The Pope’s Mistress, he’d suddenly converted to Catholicism himself.
Taxil credited this transformation to a biography of Joan of Arc. Because if a mentally ill teenager being set on fire doesn’t move you to orthodoxy then what in dog’s name will?
Now that he was amazingly graceful, Taxil swore to expose the secret devil-worshiping sect he had previously worked for all along:
The race of man is separated into two diverse and opposite parts. One is the kingdom of god, the other is the kingdom of Satan. The partisans of evil seems to be combining together, and to be struggling with united vehemence, led on or assisted by that strongly organized and widespread association called the Freemasons.
You probably got really nervous he was going to say Jews, right? No, the franc landed on tails this time.
Taxil went on to write a four-part “history” of Masonry as a conspiracy of Satanism, which I believe sold quite well. Then at an 1897 press conference he gleefully announced he’d made the whole thing up and “there wasn’t the least Masonic plot” after all—try to contain your shock.
Getting mad at this guy was like trying to tell off shit for breeding flies, but a few people tried anyway. When one Catholic reporter admonished him, Taxil just said, “You wanted someone to tell you this,” which was only a good argument as far as it was both true and very obvious.
In his 2016 Satanism history/isometrics exercise Children of Lucifer, Rubin Van Luijk writes that even after Taxil indecently exposed himself, some of the public took after Steve Perry and didn’t stop believing.
“A number of anti-Masonists found themselves unable to accept the non-reality” of the conspiracy, Van Luijk writes. Which is presumably why THERE ARE STILL PEOPLE WHO BELIEVE THE TAXIL HOAX TO THIS DAY, and wouldn’t you know it, they have Internet connections.
One hundred years later, stage magician and borderline Jedi master James Randi orchestrated a slightly less antagonistic version of essentially the exact same trick when he organized a press tour of Australia for Carlos (no surname), “a 2,000-year-old entity returned to manifest through a young American artist.”
I can see why he just went with “Carlos” in conversation, it’s punchier. Carlos toured around offering people astral healing and selling Atlantean crystals and such.
Of course this was all crap; according to New York Times Magazine, Carlos was just Randi’s boyfriend, Florida man Jose Alvarez. (Although to be fair a huge amount of crystal does come out of Fort Lauderdale.)
After Randi revealed the punchline, an interesting and completely predictable thing happened: Some people kept believing the story anyway.
In his book The Demon-Haunted World, cosmologist Carl Sagan recounts how people would approach Alvarez in the airport and tell him that they didn’t care what “the media” said, they knew he was real. He’d counter this by explaining that he was not in fact real, with mixed results.
In a similar fashion, some conspiracists continue pushing Satanic Ritual Abuse hokum to this day. Why do people do this? Are they stupid? The empirical answer would be no, they’re just a victim of their own brain chemistry.
“We all have a disposition to view circumstances as the product of conspiracies,” Joseph Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami, told Elemental last month.
Psychologists and sociologists have told me in recent weeks that such thinking, though destructive, is normal and inevitable. By conventional wisdom, it’s short-sighted and self-serving to write such people off as mere rubes.
That’s the scientific answer. My private answer is different:
Yes. Of course these people are stupid. Of course.
I know full-well that I am just as vulnerable to conspiracy thinking, confirmation bias, and self-serving prejudice as anyone else. I’m human. I’m fallible.
And yet I DON’T THINK THE EARTH IS FLAT, so there is obviously another variable at work here.
This is not a scientific or empirical opinion. What it is is an opinion that feels really, really good, and one I’m feeling a little bit gaslighted about by the discourse over the past four years.
Now, the science does tell us that just because people believe irrational things doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stupid. But they can be stupid independently. And they are. Have you talked to them? Who are we fooling here?
Ordinarily I use this space to argue for more nuance in our thinking. Nevertheless, we’re still allowed to have clarity on things. Otherwise, what are any of us even doing?