From faked lunar landings to invisible WWII warships, here are six conspiracy theories and the genre films they inspired…
“Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face,” Sterling Hayden’s General Jack D Ripper coldly announces in Stanley Kubrick’s breathtakingly funny satire, Dr Strangelove.
Ripper’s conspiracy theory, that the commies are secretly trying to compromise our “precious bodily fluids”, becomes his harebrained reason for unleashing a missile strike on the USSR. And just as Ripper was inspired by this strange notion to trigger a nuclear apocalypse, so filmmakers have been inspired by conspiracy theories to make all kinds of science fiction and horror movies – some funny, some tense and absorbing, others terrifying.
Here, then, is a selection of six real-world conspiracy theories and the varied movies they inspired – and funnily enough, Stanley Kubrick even pops up in one of the more familiar entries…
1. The Philadelphia experiment
The conspiracy: The story goes that, during the chaos of World War II, a group of scientists working for the US navy were carrying out an experiment that could have altered the face of the battle completely: they were attempting to make a warship invisible. The warship in question was the USS Eldridge, docked in the Philadelphia Naval Yard, and the experiment supposedly took place in October 1943.
A scientist named Dr Franklin Reno was said to be the mind behind the project, having taken inspiration from Einstein’s unified field theory – and according to the legend, it was a success. Not only was the ship rendered invisible, but in subsequent experiments, apparently teleported to another location 200 miles away and back again.
The experiment wasn’t without its side-effects, however; sailors were said to have suffered from a range of ailments, including nausea, mental trauma, invisibility and spontaneous combustion. It’s even said that some sailors were found partly embedded in the structure of the ship itself.
For its part, the US navy has always denied that the Philadelphia experiment ever took place, but this has merely added to the claims that the incident was covered up. Despite repeated counter-claims that the experiment is a mixture of hoax and misheard information (the navy really were looking at ways of making ships undetectable to magnetic torpedoes at the time, which could have somehow been misinterpreted as ‘invisible’), the legend’s endured, partly thanks to books like The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility.
The obvious question, though, is if the US navy managed to make a ship invisibile so long ago, why hasn’t this technology become widespread since? The supporters of the conspiracy would probably argue that the US navy uses invisibility all the time – we just can’t see the evidence.
The movies: “The experiment that should never have happened 41 years ago is still going on,” read the tagline to The Philadelphia Experiment, which took the legend and turned it into a time-travel adventure-romance. Michael Pare and Bobby Di Cicco play two sailors aboard the USS Eldridge who find themselves thrown 40 years into the future by the experiment, and then have to figure out a means of closing off a rift in time and space that could destroy the entire planet.
Although not a big hit at the time of release, The Philadelphia Experiment is almost as persistent as the legend behind it: a belated sequel materialised in 1993, while a made-for-TV remake appeared on the Syfy Channel in 2012. The Philadelphia Experiment is also a good example of how urban legends perpetuate themselves through storytelling.
In the late 1980s, a chap named Al Bielek happened to catch a showing of the 1984 Philadelphia Experiment movie on television, which he claimed dislodged repressed memories of his own involvement in the 1943 project. In later interviews, he not only stated that he’d been a sailor aboard the USS Eldritch, but also that he’d been sent forward in time to the year 1983. Mind you, Bielek also claimed to have taken a time tunnel to Mars, conversed with aliens, travelled forward in time to the year 2137, and back to the year 100,000 BC. Bielek’s claims then appeared to inspire the makers of the film 100,000 BC, a straight-to-video action film where members of the Philadelphia Experiment go back to the time of the dinosaurs.
Like a feedback loop, legends grow and change as they’re told and retold.
2. The Roswell incident
The conspiracy: On the 8th July 1947, the Roswell Daily Record ran a front page story which read, “RAAF captures flying saucer on ranch in Roswell region”. The US military later retracted their initial statement, saying instead that the debris they’d collected was from a crashed weather balloon rather than a unidentified flying object, but it was too late – one of the most discussed and famous conspiracy theories was born.
Accusations that the American government had recovered a flying saucer – or at least parts of one – grew in the years that followed, and stories began to circulate that living occupants of the craft had been taken to Area 51 (a now infamous military base) in New Mexico. By the 1990s, a range of books, eye-witness accounts, TV documentaries and even purported footage of alien autopsies had all materialised, all appearing to lend weight to the theory that the US government was hiding knowledge of flying saucers and visitors from outer space.
The movies: Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) remains one of the most lavish and well-made films to deal with the UFO phenomenon, taking in sightings of lights in the sky, abduction by aliens, and also the topic of a conspiracy on the part of the US government. Close Encounters’ conclusion even suggests that America’s scientists have engaged in some kind of foreign exchange program with visiting aliens, as Richard Dreyfuss’ blue-collar hero clambers into a cathedral-like ship for a ride into the unknown.
The 1986 adventure film Flight Of The Navigator may also have taken a hint of inspiration from the Roswell incident and other stories like it, as a young boy takes a ride in a crashed, metallic UFO secretly held by NASA. Vaguely echoing what theorists argue happened in 1943, Flight Of The Navigator’s scientists had whisked the ship from public view and attempted to cover up the craft’s true nature by describing it to the police as an experimental space laboratory.
Interest in the Roswell incident began to rise again in the 1990s, possibly due to the publication of several books which brought forth new claims of downed saucers and conspiracies. One of these would become Roswell, a 1994 TV movie starring Kyle MacLachlan as a US major attempting to uncover the hidden truth about the crash. The quest for uncovering buried truths also provided the basis for The X-Files, Chris Carter’s TV series that received a movie spin-off (itself about aliens and government cover-ups) in 1998.
Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) made explicit use of Roswell lore; amid the destruction of an alien invasion, it’s eventually revealed to Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore that the military really had captured an alien space craft and three occupants in 1947, and that they’d been stored and studied for the past 49 years at Area 51. The repaired space craft then came in handy for the third act, where it was used to plant a computer virus in the invaders’ mother ship – a plot point that’s still derided by some movie geeks 18 years later.
About 12 months before Independence Day came out, a piece of black-and-white footage purportedly shot at Area 51 first appeared on television. Appearing to depict the autopsy of a humanoid creature, the 17-minute film caused an immediate fuss in the media, despite widespread suspicions that it was a hoax.
The chap who first brought the film to the public’s attention, a British entrepreneur named Ray Santilli, later admitted that the footage had been faked, but insisted that it was based on some real film he’d seen a few years earlier – when the film degraded past the point where it was watchable, Santilli said he’d funded a reconstruction of what he’d previously witnessed. The whole curious incident became the basis of the 2006 comedy Alien Autopsy, starring British TV entertainment duo Ant and Dec.
If you want an example of how one single event can inspire a range of stories, look no further than the Roswell incident.