Note: Guest post via Daniel Walker, Co-host of Black Mass Appeal
Conspiracy theories like QAnon are smothering American culture with bizarre and obsessive ideas about “Satanism,” devil worship, and ritual murder–and this is the most normal thing in the world.
After years of online discontent, Q believers are creeping out of cyberspace and into real-world spaces (including some political contests), bringing with them baffling dogma and a cultish attitude that leaves many to wonder just what is going on with some of our peers.
But although it’s treated as a novel development in the most recent news cycle, history and science tell us that this QAnonsense is a very old story. In fact, this one peculiar conspiracy belief may be the oldest story in human history–and the most predictable.
The Q Continuum
QAnon is an Internet-based conspiracy theory fixated on the idea that world leaders, Hollywood celebrities, and other “elites” are part of an ancient devil-worship cult that kidnaps children in order to molest them, ritually murder them, drink their blood, and consume their flesh.
Q subscribers believe that Donald Trump is waging a “shadow war” against this globe-spanning conspiracy. Any day now, they preach, he will engage the military to round up tens of thousands of Americans like President Barack Obama, financier George Soros, and Oscar-winner Tom Hanks, subject them to military tribunals, and swiftly execute them.
Believers call this scenario “the storm,” “the great awakening,” or simply “the mass arrests.” They believe these things because an anonymous message board user calling themselves “Q” tells them it’s true, claiming to be a highly-placed insider leaking vital information.
This has been going on for years, and although the prophesied arrests never happen, Q believers continue to hold out hope. “It’s always delayed, but you get used to waiting for the Great Event,” says Mike Rothschild, a journalist who has spent years observing digital conspiracies.
Waiting for the great awakening is “very addicting” for some people, he adds. It’s a bit like playing the lottery: Your ticket doesn’t win, but buying in feels aspirational anyway.
Most Q subscribers believe that public figures like Oprah, Lady Gaga, and Chrissy Teigen abduct thousands of children every year and murder them to create a miracle immortality drug. This “cabal” has supposedly ruled the world in secret for centuries.
Q-friendly social media occasionally seethes with even stranger claims about time travel, clones, and aliens. These spaces grow thick with white supremacy, transphobia, and anti-Semitism.
A lot of believers engage in violent fantasizing about the deaths of public figures they hate–particularly Hillary Clinton, by far the most vilified person in the mythology. “I want to see her blood pouring down the gutters,” a Q-loving Reddit user wrote in 2018, while another imagined watching “buzzards rip her rotting corpse to shreds.” Charming.
In 2019, an internal FBI memo referenced Q followers as among those “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” who pose a terrorism threat. Of course, Q people believe the FBI is part of the nefarious cult too.
Julian Feeld, cohost of the podcast QAnon Anonymous, tells me that QAnon, though rooted in fairly obscure sites like the digital plague ward 4chan and its mutant offspring 8kun, “has spread through social media to a larger population, and has been tacitly or directly reinforced by the Trump administration.”
It’s possible that several different people have been “Q” over the years, and the community’s consensus reality changes regularly too. But the core dogma–that liberals are baby-eating devil worshipers and that Trump is going to kill them–endures.
This is the world that many of our Americans are living in. How could anybody believe such a story? The answer is simple: Because people ALWAYS believe these things.
In an essay about moral panics and mass hysteria, cultural anthropologist Phillips Stevens Jr. describes what he calls “demonology,” the compulsion to blame problems on sinister hidden groups. “Demonology usually labels its referrents as horribly, unspeakably evil. When it refers to a specific group of people it often dehumanizes them,” he writes.
A demonology “explicitly states that [evildoers’] rights as human beings, even their lives, must be forfeit to the necessity of expunging the evil from society. Demonology both sanctions and gives impetus to the persecutory social-cleansing movement” that follows.
This describes Q obsessives to a T. But Stevens wasn’t writing about QAnon; his paper “The Demonology of Satanism: An Anthropological View” appeared in 1991 in a book called The Satanism Scare, describing the then-ongoing Satanic Panic of the 1980s and early 90s.
Many observers–and particularly many Satanists–have noted that the Q quagmire resembles the devil scare of a generation ago. The details vary–in the 80s, Americans were afraid that Satanists molested kids in daycare centers–but the core elements of secret cults, cannibalism, blood-drinking, and child murder repeat.
Stevens says this is not at all surprising. “All people have beliefs that somewhere out there are dangerous Others” plotting against society, he tells me via phone. Sometimes, such stories are simply “a boogeyman,” but he warns that “in times of stress” this belief takes on greater significance.
QAnon overlaps with the Satanic Panic because both are expressions of the oldest conspiracy belief known to humankind. Anthropologist Sherrill Mulhern called it “the myth of the blood-cult conspiracy,”–a tale as old as time.
“There’s not much that’s new about QAnon,” says Chrissy Stroop, a journalist and ex-evangelical who writes about religious movements. “It’s new rhetoric, but there’s always a moral panic about protecting the children of the in-group. Romans did it, Christians did it–these ideas are quite ancient.”
To illustrate this, Stevens shared an outline of 14 different taboos conventionally associated with evil witchcraft. Most cultures in the world have a monstrous figure in their folk beliefs that do these 14 things, he claims.
Sure enough, Q people accuse their political enemies of most of the listed practices, including but not limited to “social subversion,” “secret meetings,” “illicit sexual behavior,” “abducting children,” “ritual murder,” “cannibalism,” “vampirism” “nocturnal activities,” and “ritual use of blood and body parts.” (All those weird-ass tweets about Planned Parenthood suddenly come into sharp relief.)
One particularly stands out: “spreading disease.” Many Q believers allege that the novel coronavirus is a biological weapon deployed by Trump’s enemies. Others believe that ALL diseases are products of the cult, which hoards secret treatments for every affliction.
Such claims, no matter how outlandish, will find an audience somewhere, Stevens says. “It’s probably rooted in our evolutionary biology,” he tells me. “It has an adaptive function” that creates unity and solidarity between members of a group.
Conspiracists believe they’re learning great secrets and exposing hidden truths. What they’re actually doing is acting out a script that’s perhaps as old as the human species.
Sociologist and psychologist Jeffrey Victor (author of the 1993 book Satanic Panic) agrees that these “rumor panics” are part of the human factory settings. “Conspiracy thinking is built into the brain cognitively,” he tells me via phone. If the pattern-seeking parts of the brain aren’t satisfied with what they observe, they invent explanations.
In Satanic Panic he notes that stories about child abduction are ubiquitous in folklore because they represent our fears about the future. “I don’t expect people to be rational,” Victor adds. “I’ve talked to people.”
Two thousand years ago, leading Romans believed that Christians ritually murdered children in secret rites. After the Christianizing of Europe, suspicion of kidnapping and ritual murder fell on Jewish people in the form of the old blood libel story. Some 19th century Americans even spread rumors that Melungeon–mixed-race people living in the Appallachians–were child-snatching ogres and monsters.
Social factors like war, demographic change, and above all economic depression make people more vulnerable to rumor, Victor tells me. Even he’s gone in for such tales occasionally, describing a debunked Latin American panic about rich capitalists killing to obtain transplant organs. “When I heard that story first on the news, I believed it,” he says.
“It’s very difficult to keep your mind set in the scientific method unless you’re taught from the beginning to think that way,” says Harq al-Ada, a Bay Area Satanist with an MA in counselling psychology. “People tend to go into magical thinking. That’s how kids think, that’s how we think automatically; it’s just easier.”
The universality of these beliefs doesn’t mean everyone will fall for it. But it remains the brain’s path of least resistance.
The End of the End of the World
For anyone who grew up in an American Protestant church, the idea of Q people sitting around waiting for a world-changing event that never quite seems to happen may sound like a familiar tune.
“I grew up around ideas like spiritual warfare and the Rapture, which was always right around the corner,” says Chrissy Stroop. “I had one teacher who would ramble about genetically engineered animals and things, and he would always conclude saying that Christ is probably coming back around Yom Kippur every year.”
In QAnon culture, Stroop says she recognizes the hallmarks of the same “conspiratorial types of faith” she grew up in. Q has indeed proven particularly popular with the religious right–in fact, a number of American pastors are sounding the alarm that Q is undermining their churches.
“It felt like there was someone else in the conversation, that I didn’t know who they were,” an Oklahoma pastor told MIT Technology Review, speaking of longtime church members who walked away from his congregation in favor of online conspiracies.
A Virginia youth pastor fretted to Religion News that Q creep may undermine conventional religion, and that “Jesus [may] be co-opted by conspiracy theories in a way that leads the next generation to throw Jesus out with the bathwater.”
(I spoke to several pastors while working on this story, but all declined to comment on the record.)
“We have noticed a strong pentecostal and evangelical population in both the original QAnon followers and the second wave,” QAnon Anonymous host Feeld says. Feeld suggests that some people may be less likely to closely scrutinize conspiracy beliefs if they resemble traditional religiosity.
A much-cited May article in the Atlantic even declared QAnon “a new American religion”. For the record, I pitched that exact same story a year ago, but the truth may be that conspiracies and religions in America both just happen to employ the same trope: apocalyptic thinking, the belief in a pending “final conflict” that will change or end the world.
“It’s textbook,” theologian Robert Fuller says of Q’s end-times vibes. “It’s tied with the satisfaction of knowing one’s group will be elevated and that others will be humiliated. And the assurance that this will happen despite worries and concerns that might make you think the outcome is in doubt.”
When predictions about “the storm”fall through, Q believers reassure themselves by scouring news and social media for secret signs and symbols (“comms”) they believe reveal what’s really happening behind the scenes.
“They give up things like traditional church or hobbies or entertainment” to spend hours on Q materials instead, says Mike Rothschild. As I write this, Q tweeters are burning up bandwidth debating the significance of a novelty Mickey Mouse watch that they’re certain is critical to “the plan.”
This constant search for meaning is another apocalypse trope, Fuller says. In his book Naming the Antichrist, he writes:
[People] fervently believed they were already in the last hour, yet all around them life was continuing as usual. The discrepancy between belief and outward appearance created a great deal of cognitive dissonance, but this dissonance could be reduced by interpreting world events. […] Evasive symbols associated with apocalyptic belief made it possible to see “signs of the times” being fulfilled, and therefore gave reassurance that the divine timetable, no matter how intricate and beyond full understanding, was nevertheless right on schedule.
This is Q behavior verbatim. In fact, Julian Feeld describes the conspiracy belief in strikingly similar terms, calling it “largely a coping mechanism for the cognitive dissonance people experience when they compare Trump’s campaign promises to their unchanging (or worsening) material conditions,” a belief that Trump is aiding them “invisibly or even spiritually.”
But Fuller’s book was written in 1995, and the passage describes not modern conspiracists but the trials of the earliest Christians, who were disappointed that Jesus did not return within the first 100 or so years after his death. The reason why all of these 25-30 year old books seem to be describing a modern online phenomena word for word is that they’re actually about things that always happen.
Fuller, who specializes in the psychology of religion, repeats the refrain that this kind of thinking is “evolutionarily ancient, intuitive, and automatic,” and hypothesizes that demographic shifts away from white Protestantism (“the browning of America”) are a likely cause of the anxiety.
“We’re all heroes of our own story, so when their prominence declines they can only believe some conspiracy is moving them from center stage,” he says.
Sense & Nonsensibility
Evan Anderson is the director of Grey Faction, a Satanic Temple campaign to debunk bad therapy practices and Satanic Panic-era pseudoscience. But Anderson tells me that when he was younger, he was prone to conspiracy thinking himself.
“The appeal of having secret knowledge, I definitely felt that,” he says. “Knowing things that nobody else knows gives you superiority, and membership in a kind of club.” But as he worked toward an MA in psychology and learned more about the nature of conspiracy thinking, it became impossible to keep taking such things seriously.
Most people assume that education is the key to defusing conspiracy beliefs, and that idea does seem to make sense. A 2016 paper in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology found that subjects with more formal education were less likely to believe popular conspiracies and less likely to feel powerless, and that they generally perceived their personal status as higher.
But we’ve all seen smart people fall for dumb things. On top of that, trying to debunk a conspiracy often makes it worse. Folklorist Bill Ellis says that since conspiracies are “top down” beliefs, the faithful will continue to believe the core idea even if all of the evidence proves false.
“The crusade against the baddies is usually occasioned by an existing but poorly defined conviction that Things Are Not Well,” Ellis tells me via email. And since the conclusion comes first, it endures even without supporting materials.
When challenged about the veracity of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a 20th century hoax text describing a Jewish plot to take over the world, leading American anti-Semite and Protocols evangelist Henry Ford said in 1921, “The only statement I care to make about the Protocols is that they fit in with what is going on. […] They have fitted the world situation up to this time. They fit it now.”
Rothschild says that Q followers, if pressed on what they would do if Q turns out to be a fraud, say “they may decide Q was a plant all along, but they’re never going to give up the belief that Democrats are evil and running pedophile rings.” Because these ideas are imagined to be always evident–as Ford would say, “they fit.”
So then why do specific rumor panics eventually ebb with time, as the Satanic Panic did? It would be nice to think it’s because conspiracy beliefs can’t hold up to empirical scrutiny, but Ellis tells me he suspects a more disappointing answer.
“Getting rid of witches became seen as a good thing to do” during stressful times, he says of European witch scares. After a while though, witch hunting is so disruptive to society that it loses its appeal, and so “witch panics often die of their own success”.
Others suggest that believers may just get bored as the novelty wears off. “Conspiracies give you a sense of power,” says Harq al-Ada. “That dissipates because you are always confronted with the reality of not having that power. You just don’t get that rush anymore.”
It’s disappointing to think that grand injustices may fade away simply because they become boring and inconvenient. But it’s likely that “reason plays a very small role in our moral and political beliefs,” Evan Anderson points out.
And that’s why the world’s oldest conspiracy theory will probably return again. Ellis provides a final, wince-inducing anecdote: “We covered some of this in a class, and a student blurted out, ‘This is just like what happened in Salem.’
“I corrected him: ‘This IS what happened in Salem.’”