I have been posting about how some religious movements and “cults” show a strong overlap with the worlds of show business, entertainment, and popular culture. Tracking such ideas or memes can be an enlightening way of understanding how themes originate on the cultural margins before being accepted quite widely. Often, these ideas have a strongly religious or mythological quality. Never underestimate the role of science fiction and fantasy in driving innovation on the religious margins.
Here is a case in point. Last time I wrote about QAnon, the online-based conspiracy theory that has gained such traction since 2017. As a Wired story noted earlier this year, “Its core premise is that Donald Trump is waging a secret war against a cabal of celebrities and Democratic politicians who abuse children in Satanic rituals. In one lurid variation, Hollywood stars harvest the chemical adrenochrome from children’s bodies.” If you follow that adrenochrome thing, it will take you down multiple rabbit-holes, and not the ones that attract the better class of rabbit. On the respectable side, Aldous Huxley wrote about the drug in Doors of Perception, and in 1971, it featured in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with the additional note that, in order to be effective, adrenochrome must be extracted from a living human body rather than a corpse. That has left a legacy in the QAnon idea that “harvesting” or “farming” must involve live child victims, who are subjected to dreadful suffering. Brian Friedberg speaks of the “blood harvesting conspiracy,” and properly notes the resemblances to the medieval anti-Jewish blood libel. No argument there.
But there is another genesis story that tracks us back to an excellent science fiction novel that in its origins had nothing whatever to do with real world conspiracy or anti-Semitism. But it unwittingly created some of the foundations of modern pseudo-scientific superstitions and cult beliefs. In the late 1960s, my chief Holy Writ was the British science fiction magazine New Worlds, which among other astonishing pieces (J. G. Ballard! Michael Moorcock!) originally published Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron, which appeared in novel form in 1969. Adding to the general sense of fun around the book, the fact that New Worlds received a government subsidy meant that Bug Jack Barron was denounced in Parliament for its alleged obscenity and cynical views of politicians (no, really), amidst attempts to ban it formally. More effective publicity campaigns could not be imagined.
The problem reading Bug Jack Barron today is that so many of the ideas that then seemed totally bizarre and off the wall now seem so obviously rooted in reality. Can you imagine a world where the media are so powerful that a TV talk show host gains national power and visibility, to the point of gathering his own political party, and even running for president? I mean to say… And as for people chatting to each other all day on little portable vid-phones, there are some limits to plausible speculation. The book even ends with the prospect of a Black president of the United States.
Weirdly, the book is not well known today. Maybe the real world just caught up to it.
The book is a terrific satire on many aspects of life, with a proto-cyberpunk sensibility. The key plot concerns a Foundation for Human Immortality, which is accused of racial discrimination in the services it offers.
CRITICAL SPOILERS HERE BEGIN
The Foundation’s deadly secret is that Black children are being bought or abducted in large numbers. In summary, “The treatment is, in essence, transplantation of glands of children (the children that were abducted) to the persons that get it and that the children are being killed off by very strong and fatal radiation.”
Let me stress how novel this is. The idea of the rich exploiting the children of the poor, even to the point of cannibalism, is nothing new in satire: Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal dates from 1729. Equally familiar is the motif of children being kidnapped for various ritual or sacrificial purposes. Nor is this all just legend. In his harrowing recent book, The Kidnapping Club, Jonathan Daniel Wells describes the very real rings of well-connected slave catchers that abducted Black children off the streets of Antebellum New York City, with the goal of selling them in the South. But in the particular form I am describing – abducting children to harvest biological products for the benefit of wealthy consumers – I really know of no pre-Spinrad precedents.
Bug Jack Barron is a great piece of fiction. But that theme then, so to speak, entered the national bloodstream, and I don’t know how. Perhaps a couple of people read the book and started pamphleteering, or just holding forth in bars. Almost certainly, Spinrad’s account influenced Hunter Thompson’s 1971 excursus on adrenochrome. But by whatever means, by around 1980, the abduction/harvesting thing had become a mainstay of Black urban folklore. Science fiction became urban legend.
A truly excellent source on this is an older but still precious book by Patricia Turner, I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1993). The book “explores how rumors that run rife in African-American communities, concerning such issues as AIDS, the Ku Klux Klan and FBI conspiracies, translate white oppression into folk warnings, and are used by the community to respond to a hostile dominant culture.” One of her case studies involves the Atlanta child murders of 1979-81, a horrible and badly investigated crime series that recently returned to public attention with the five part HBO program Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children (2020). Now, the Philip Jenkins theory of serial murder, based on long observation, posits that when any such murder sequence goes on long enough, popular explanations pass through a couple of standard and inevitable phases to explain the lack of an arrest. “It must be a cop (or group of cops)” is one, and after a good while, that is followed by “It’s a cult!” (with the occasional variant of “The cops must be working with the cult!”). The Atlanta murders reached that cult phase in 1981, and the question then arose what the cult was doing with the missing children.
The answer was a script derived straight from Bug Jack Barron. According to the general rumor, Black boys, specifically, were being murdered to harvest chemicals found in their genitals, which were then transplanted for the benefit of wealthy white consumers. The analogies to the novel are so overwhelming that it must be a key source. That Spinrad influence was augmented by accounts and legends concerning the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, which first attracted public notice (and horror) in 1972, and which percolated through popular culture over the following decades.
I stress the dating here, in the early 1980s, before the widespread use of the Internet – although an awful lot of conspiracy speculation did flourish on the BBS cultures of that decade. But most of that rumor work was much more face to face and grass roots. Folklorists talk about FOAF-tales, things heard from a Friend of a Friend, a FOAF. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the major focus of specifically Black concern about official plots shifted to AIDS as a supposed weapon of racial genocide. Meanwhile, White obsessions focused on the supposed mass abductions and murders of children, which were supposedly claiming tens of thousands of victims each and every year in the US. Fifty thousand missing and murdered each year was a popular figure largely because, hey, why not? It’s a good round number. Scoff as you like, but that Stranger Danger story became a regular fixture through the 1980s on all the main MSM news outlets (ie, which was basically all of them). And it has returned full force with QAnon.
Nor did that central biomedical oriented “child-harvesting” theme ever truly go away. All of which raises the interesting question of how, in 2017, not only did the Bug Jack Barron theory return so strongly, but in such pure form. This reinforces the idea that QAnon began as a deliberately constructed online game, in which early designers or activists consciously built in those literary and legendary elements. Oddly, the Spinrad reference is virtually unknown in the many proliferating accounts of the QAnon/adrenochrome mythology, but it is critical.
Someday, I’d love to write a history of the Bug Jack Barron harvesting theme from its inception to its end, but the last person to promulgate such a myth as gospel truth hasn’t yet been born.
By the by, Norman Spinrad’s other books include The Iron Dream (1972), arguably the best and most perceptive work ever written about the mind of Adolf Hitler, whether by scholars or non-scholars (Discuss!). That also got widely banned.