WHEN I WAS a child I was afraid of the dark.
Truth be told, I still am.
My nanny growing up, a vitriolic Scottish expat with a heart of lead named Jackie, believed that youth should be scourged from one’s corpus by the fire of experience. This is essentially why, as a 7-year-old of little character, I found myself watching Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare with her one night while my parents were at a trade show in New Jersey. I still remember myself pleading for mercy as Wes Craven’s blade-fingered creation led the viewer into a demented hellscape, culminating in dynamite being strapped to his balls to blow him into merciful oblivion. At many times throughout I implored for Jackie to turn on my favorite film, The Care Bears Movie, instead, unable after seeing what I’d seen to peel myself from the couch and play with my toys in solitude. But whilst petting her murder-trained Rottweiler, whom she’d named Jack O’ Lantern, Jackie simply glared at me and with a rueful smile said, “If you don’t want to watch, than off to bed you go!”
I did eventually go to bed. That night, as Jackie tucked me in, she proceeded to sing the Nightmare On Elm Street song–One, two, Freddy’s coming for you–flicking the lights off with–Nine, ten, never go to sleep again–before shutting the door and leaving me to my broken Sesame Street tape recorder and creaky car bed. As the shadows bloomed, I remember most of all that I couldn’t take my eyes off the closet. I wasn’t afraid of falling asleep and being killed inside a nightmare, though that certainly would have made more sense. Instead I watched the small crook of darkness left exposed by my not sliding the closet shut earlier. And since I was too afraid to get out of bed and finish the job, I just continued to stare at it, letting the shadows play their tricks. Every once in a while I thought I saw the door rumble a little. I envisioned the claws of an unspeakable menace scratching open the wood and roaring its way into my dimension with sole intent to flay my skin. I sat up in bed with my flashlight, afraid to breathe, all because an imperishable Boogeyman, an origin-less apparition, would emerge slinking from the darkness to destroy me. I wish I could say that such irrational fears have abandoned me in my adult life. That would be nice.
The memory of that terrifying night returned to me as, last week, I watched the infamous Sandy Hook Truther video, ‘The Sandy Hook Shooting—Fully Exposed,” recently put out by an Internet group called ThinkOutsideTheTV. Brought into relevance by an endorsement by Florida PhD, James Tracy, it achieved CNN coverage, and a thorough disavowal from Anderson Cooper. I must say that the repercussions from me contributing yet another page view to this organization’s near-10 million almost outweighed my desire to write this essay. Watching this slander of the murder victims and their families nearly provoked me to rage. I won’t attempt to refute the thrust of their argument here, but here’s a basic recap: through a series conjectures centered around a heavily edited clip of a medical examiner (not a particularly reliable looking one) claiming that the gun used to murder the Sandy Hook victims was an assault rifle (as opposed to handguns, as were discovered in the school), TTOT comes to the conclusion that FEMA staged the entire massacre as a cover-up to further President Obama’s gun control agenda. The entire film is put to the background of a Joe Satriani ‘Always With Me, Always With You,’ guitar knockoff that sounds an awful lot like the backdrop to a DMV Driver Safety video. The performance proves classic in its provisioning of schlock. The voiceover takes seeds of truth and chews them to cud. According to Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller’s brilliant 2011 article A Bestiary of the 9-11 Truth Movement: Notes from the Front Line, the creators of this now two-part video, Idahoepicker and Max Malone, would likely fall into a Truther category somewhere in between ‘Hard Core’ and ‘Critically Turned’ for being Internet savvy enough to spread the word, while claiming organizational status in the movement. These people are not illiterate, and can drag together a narrative. I suppose anyone with a MacBook Pro can these days (see Westboro Baptists).
When a conspiracy theory gains enough traction to provoke a worldwide following, however, such as in the case of 9/11, the London Bus Bombing, the Birthers, and Sandy Hook Elementary, there tends to be a resultant fallout. I speak about a cultural failure that claims both physical and ideological victims. On the front line, of course, are those who came in contact (directly or indirectly) with the tragedy, having their memories and experiences spit on and shamed. When TOTT slanders the testimony of one of the Sandy Hook’s victims’ fathers by challenging the verity of his emotional reaction to a television interview (they slow down a scene in which the father uncomfortably laughs to infer he is a stage actor) they rob him of his grief, and, by extension, the verity of his child’s existence. TOTT also accuses one of the children who survived Sandy Hook of fabricating a testimony. And why? Because when a newscaster asks the child what the gunshots sounded like, he responds by saying they sounded like someone trying to ‘kick down a door.’ Kick down a door. A fairly terrifying sound, in my opinion, and especially palpate coming from a six-year-old. But not so according to the experts at TOTT, who find the description lacking, and would prefer, I suppose, a stentorian narration of the timbre and frequency of each boom.
According to TOTT and other rabid conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones, who gained exposure on Pierce Morgan, men like Gene Rosen, who sheltered six children from the carnage on the day of the massacre and cried on camera when recalling the tale to reporters, are nothing more than a fraud vetted by a company called Crisis Actors (in league with FEMA) to fool the American public. Though I suppose this is better than StormFront.org, where Rosen is depicted as an “emotional, Jewish guy,” who will lie to inflate his heroics (“Pretty soon the 6 is going to magically transform into 6 millions”, a direct quote from the forum reads). Stormfront in particular seems directly anecdotal to a feature run on Iran’s propaganda news’ source Press TV that espoused it had been Israeli death squads who slaughtered the children of Sandy Hook as revenge for Netanyahu’s recent intransigence with President Obama. An American Republican candidate for Govorner and GOP campaign finance chairman, Michael Harris, is seen talking about Jewish control of the media on Press TV here in flagrante delicto. While a marginalized figure who will surely be out of work soon, the fact that education (Harris is indeed a college graduate) can’t always be relied on for clarity boggles the mind. Also worrying is the fact that these conspiracies, especially concerning the 9/11 Truther movement, cannot be pegged down politically. The left occupies a significant portion of the conspiracy sphere, just as much, or sometimes more so, than the right.
What is it then that allows for such a lack of perspective in the current, information-saturated age of the Internet? You’d think that a surfeit of voices at anyone’s disposal would be a good thing. But intellectuals such as Sherry Turkel show that we can be connected but alone. Though the Web allows for millions of people to communicate with each other, they can do so from a point of total anonymity. People who agree can compound in the blink of an eye, disguised by avatars and never having to commit so much as a handshake, while those they disagree with can become the target of massive onslaughts of vitriol, manifesting itself in racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like. In effect, being able to move at the speed of a hyperlink provides for easy entrances and even easier escapes, a constantly frantic and ever-expanding world of unsubstantiated argument. In this world, you can create your friends and enemies, warriors of light against warriors of darkness, not altogether unlike how humans interact with each other in the real world, but absent of physical commitment. The Internet is a perfect place for people to speak without challenge. The freedom people have always had to believe in the Boogeyman can be built into pillars of belief, and beasts of bullshit can become large and vicious enough to penetrate the average citizen’s mind.
When I was a child, I looked to the closet for that manifestation of my fears to come slinking forth to claim me. This creature I awaited had no real identity. It didn’t speak and, for all I knew, didn’t come from anywhere in particular. This Boogeyman emerged from my limited worldview, my personal fear of the unknown. Within the closet was a realm both supernatural and entirely normal. Similarly, Truther movements use the Internet as a place to peddle super-normative claims on the existence (and fear of) malevolent others, whether manifested in shadowy government organizations, world-bleeding Jews, or make-believe birth certificates. The world of conspiracy acts as a convenient stand-in for a complex and difficult reality. Like the closet where for so many years my fears were collected and kept, inside was nothing but the sheddings from my childhood. My disorganized toys, my clothes and school folders jammed together in discord. If fear overwhelmed me one particular night, I would call Jackie, or one of my parents, to open my closet and expose the ordinary lack that was there. Truther movements are created from the same frenetic inner terror, unable to leave behind the natural narcissism of youth, that which causes you to think that every coincidence you perceive is a matter of divine providence. The real truth, however, leads to a sober investigation into human frailty, which is largely terrifying. No wonder Truthers close their eyes and imagine schemes The League of Shadows would find difficult to exact. The shadows on the walls are far easier to fear than the reasons for which your mind distorts them.