The Week investigates 17 of the most intriguing and bizarre theories doing the rounds
People have long been puzzled why, in the face overwhelming evidence to the contrary, a small minority choose to believe in an alternative truth.
Now, new findings from the University of California, Berkeley, suggest that feedback, rather than hard evidence, boosts people’s sense of certainty when learning new things or trying to tell right from wrong.
According to findings published in the journal Open Mind, developmental psychologists have found that people’s beliefs are more likely to be reinforced by the positive or negative reactions they receive in response to an opinion, task or interaction, than by logic, reasoning and scientific data.
In practice, this means that “if you think you know a lot about something, even though you don’t, you’re less likely to be curious enough to explore the topic further, and will fail to learn how little you know”, says the study’s lead author Louis Marti.
“This cognitive dynamic can play out in all walks of actual and virtual life, including social media and cable-news echo chambers, and may explain why some people are easily duped by charlatans,” says Berkeley News.
Here are some of the most intriguing and bizarre conspiracy theories:
Paul McCartney is dead
One of the most unusual pop-culture conspiracy theories concerns a member of the Fab Four. Beatles legend has it that Paul McCartney secretly died in 1966, at the height of the band’s fame, and that the other three members covered it up by hiring someone who looked and sang like him.
Beatlemaniacs point to numerous clues in the band’s later albums as proof of this. The Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album is, they claim, awash with “Paul is dead” clues such as the lyrics to A Day in the Life, which featured the line “He blew his mind out in a car” and the recorded phrase “Paul is dead, miss him, miss him,” which becomes evident only when the song is played backward. Lennon also mumbled, “I buried Paul” at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever” although he later denied there was any hidden meaning in the lyrics and what he was actually saying was “cranberry sauce”.
Much is also made of The Beatles’ use of imagery after 1966. The original cover of 1966’s Yesterday and Today album featured the Beatles posed amid raw meat and dismembered doll parts – “symbolising McCartney’s gruesome accident” says Time Magazine. The magazine also claims that “if fans placed a mirror in front of the Sgt Pepper album cover, the words Lonely Hearts on the drum logo could be read as “1 ONE 1 X HE DIE 1 ONE 1.”
Most famously, there is the Abbey Road album cover in which John Lennon, dressed in white, leads a “funeral” procession across the street. Ringo follows in black as a mourner with George in jeans representing a grave digger. Paul McCartney walks out of step with the rest of band and barefoot as, some had it, he would have no need of shoes in the afterlife.
Elvis is alive
Music legend Elvis Presley died on 16 August 1977 – or did he? If the latest conspiracy theory is to be believed, the King of Rock and Roll faked his own death and now works as a groundsman in Graceland.
Grainy footage of a bearded man has been posted on YouTube by “The Shadow”, who claims the figure is an 81-year-old Elvis.
In the caption for the video, which has been viewed nearly 700,000 times, The Shadow writes: “He raises his 2 fingers to the top of his left head as a proof of life signal. In Chaldean Numerology the numerical value of V sign in Numerology is: 9. Proof of life!!!….he told us he is alive with the simple V sign. Number 9 ,’I’m Alive’ He is giving us a clue that he knows we are all there watching him and to his most loyal fans that he is indeed with us.”
While some say the claims are “idiotic” and Elvis should be left to “rest in peace”, the belief that the King is out there looks unlikely to fade away.
The CIA and Aids
Ever since HIV/Aids was first identified in the US in 1981, rumours have persisted as to its cause and origin.
One of the most outlandish theories that has nevertheless captured the imagination of conspiracists is that the deadly virus was created by the CIA to wipe out homosexuals and African Americans on the orders of US president Richard Nixon.
It boasts a number of high-profile supporters including former South African president Thabo Mbeki who once touted the theory, “disputing scientific claims that the virus originated in Africa and accusing the US government of manufacturing the disease in military labs” says Times magazine. Meanwhile, a number of prominent scientists, including former Nobel Peace Prize Kenyan ecologist Wangari Maathai, have also backed the theory.
There is evidence that the CIA connection was, in fact, created by the KGB as part of a Cold War disinformation campaign to discredit the US.
Dubbed Operation Infektion, the USSR published letters from “anonymous US official sources” in scientific journals and newspapers throughout the 1980s claiming that virus was a CIA experiment gone wrong. This initially remained within the medical community but as the epidemic grew, the theory took hold and persists to this day.
Despite this, most scientist and doctors agree that the virus jumped from monkeys to humans somewhere in the Congo during the 1930s.
Chemtrails, which have gripped the internet of late, regularly feature high in any list of the top conspiracy theories.
Chemtrail conspiracy theorists “vary in their claims”, says the BBC. But some of the most popular include the belief that the white lines in the sky trailing planes are actually some kind of chemical sprayed by the government to control the weather; that scientists carrying out research about how to counteract climate change through a process called geo-engineering are secretly poisoning us; or even that secret powerful groups are spraying us with chemicals to make us pliant and easy to control.
Suzanne Maher, the founder of Bye Bye Blue Sky – a group established to raise awareness of chemtrails – dismissed suggestions they were a conspiracy theory. She claims the trails from planes have only existed for 20 or 30 years, a claim rubbished by the BBC, which says you can clearly see condensation trails left behind aircraft in images from the Battle of Britain during the Second World War.
So if they are not mind-controlling spray trails, what are they really? Cosmopolitan says they are just condensation trails, or “contrails”, the result of what happens when the chemistry of burning jet fuel meets the chemistry of air.
Scientists from the University of California, Irvine, and the Carnegie Institute have even got together and researched the topic, in an effort to debunk the myth.
They surveyed hundreds of experts in contrails as well as those who study atmospheric deposition (how various chemicals fall to the ground from the air), presenting them with the so-called evidence provided on various chemtrail websites asking them to evaluate it.
In the end, 77 scientists reported back, “and the results were not terribly surprising” says New Scientist, with 98.7% (76 out of 77) of the scientists saying they had encountered no evidence of a secret large-scale atmospheric programme.
However, that still leaves one expert who did not agree with the majority consensus – and that may be enough for conspiracy theorists.
Aliens helped build Stonehenge
The series of boulders that make up Stonehenge have long puzzled experts and provided material ripe for conspiracy theorists.
Most pertinent is the question: how were the stones – some weighing 50 tons – transported and arranged to where they sit today?
Without basic transportation technology, such as wheels (which were invented more than five centuries after Stonehenge is believed to have been built), there is no obvious answer to how the biggest stones were moved.
Much of what scientists do know about the construction of Stonehenge is from educated guesses and constantly evolving research, the newest of which suggests that in fact two of the largest boulders that make up Stonehenge have always been “more or less” where they sit today.
Alternatively of course, scientists could shun the research and read Erich von Däniken’s seminal book Chariots of the Gods?, “which makes the argument that many ancient megastructures such as Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids, and the Moai heads of Easter Island were built using know-how passed down from God-like aliens to mankind”, says The Independent.
Though why the extraterrestrials would pass on the knowledge of how to build Stonehenge but not the wheel is anyone’s guess…
The “reptoid hypothesis” is a conspiracy theory which advances the argument that reptilian humanoids live among us with the intention of enslaving the human race. It has been championed by former BBC sports presenter David Icke, who believes the likes of Bob Hope, members of the royal family and former US presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton are part of the “Anunnaki” race who came to earth for “monatomic gold”.
Critics accused Icke of anti-Semitism, alleging that his talk of reptiles was code for Jews – but he clarified that the lizards to which he referred were literal, not metaphorical.
Prince Charles is a vampire
Like all good conspiracy theories, this one has some basis in fact.
According to genealogy records, Prince Charles is believed to descend from Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. First revealed in Iain Moncreiffe’s 1982 book Royal Highness, the Prince can trace his lineage back through his great grandmother Queen Mary, the consort of George V, to Vlad IV, the half-brother of the notorious ruler.
The heir to the throne has even appeared in a promotional video for the Romanian National Tourist Office, joking “Transylvania is in my blood”.
In 2017, it was reported that Charles had even been offered the honorific title of ‘Prince of Transylvania’ because of his links to the region and promotion of Transylvania as a tourist destination.
All this has proved fertile ground for conspiracy theorists who claim, like the rest of the royal family, Prince Charles is not all that he seems and may in fact have more in common with his infamous ancestor than just a drop of blood.
Harper’s Bazaar says that one of the reasons this theory carries weight is because the disease Porphyria is present amongst the royals. Porphyria is an iron-deficiency disease that makes skin sensitive to sunlight.
“Spooky” says New Idea.
Beyonce is a clone
Remember the classic Paul is Dead conspiracy? The theory that Paul McCartney was killed in a car accident at the height of the Beatles’s fame and replaced by a lookalike? Well, the 21st century music industry now has its own twist on the tale. And in keeping with its modern origin, it’s a little more tech-savvy.
In recent years, a small but vocal subculture has argued that the Beyonce we all remember from the days when she was lead singer with Destiny’s Child has been replaced by a clone.
The outlandish theory was first spotted by The Root, which shared the following screenshot of a Facebook post showing the supposedly clear physical difference between the ‘old’ Beyonce and her cyborg replacement.
The Daily Dot has unearthed a video uploaded to YouTube showing the pop goddess at a basketball game behaving in a way considered a little bit…clone-ish.
Video of Weird Beyonce at Basketball Game
It’s far from the first conspiracy theory to involve Queen Bey, who was accused of faking her pregnancy and is frequently identified by Illuminati enthusiasts as one of the leading players in the so-called New World Order. But as far as we can tell, it’s easily the wackiest.
Meghan Markle is a robot
This one has been doing the rounds on the internet ever since a clip emerged in June apparently showing Meghan Markle and Prince Harry at the finale of Britain’s Got Talent.
The clip, which has since gone viral, shows the royal couple sitting in the audience and applauding, while their faces remain motionless, not even blinking.
Video of Meghan Markle is a robot ( @Lildonatello )
It sparked wild speculation that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are robots, or at least have android doubles they use for royal engagements.
In fact, the creepy royal cameo was a stunt to promote the new Live Figures exhibit at Madame Tussauds London, the company revealed on its official website.
The new feature, which is expected to include other famous celebrities in the Madame Tussauds collection, will allow visitors to view and interact with the royals’ wax clones much more closely than usual.
Harper’s Bazaar says “it appears the ‘Harry and Meghan’ in the viral video were just two audience members wearing masks of the royals’ faces”.
Jesus married Mary Magdalene
Sometimes the best conspiracy theories are the oldest – and prove they existed well before the invention of the internet.
For those who take the stories of Jesus Christ as matters of historical fact, there remain some aspects of his life that are highly contentious. Central among these is the personage of Mary Magdalene. Discovered in 1945, and still disputed by religious scholars, the Gospel of Phillip refers to Magdalene as Jesus’s koinonos, a Greek term for “companion” or “partner”.
While there is scant evidence elsewhere in the scriptures to support the claim that Jesus and Magdalene were married, this has not stopped a host of theories springing up.
Most famous of these is undoubtedly Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci code which also wraps in conspiracy shibboleths like The Illuminati, Opus Dei and the Knights Templar for good measure.
Yet, dismissed as a mostly-fictional thriller, it could be that Brown was nearer to the truth than even he knew after a 1,500 year-old manuscript was recently unearthed at the British Library which appears to reveal Jesus not only married the prostitute Mary Magdalene but had two children with her.
Dubbed ‘The Lost Gospel’, it also made the startling claim that the original Virgin Mary was Jesus’ wife and not his mother.
In 1947 claims that an “alien spacecraft” had landed in Roswell, New Mexico, were dismissed by the US military, which said the alien craft was merely a weather balloon.
Ufologists believe the spacecraft was taken into Area 51 – a division of Edwards Air Force Base – and the US government has been researching alien technology and life forms on the site ever since.
Video footage of an alleged “alien autopsy” has been shown to be fake, but Area 51 is known to be a secretive and heavily guarded base. The reasons, however, may be more earthly than the conspiracy theories suggest: the U-2 spy plane, and several other top-secret aircraft, were developed and tested here.
On 11 September 2001, four planes were hijacked by al-Qaeda and two of them were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, killing 2,996 people.
However, some believe that the attack was an inside job, orchestrated in order to cement the US’s place as the top global power or to secure the oil reserves in the Middle East.
Another theory is that the building’s owners were responsible for the event (they stood to gain $500m in insurance profits). For more detail, read our feature on the top ten 9/11 conspiracy theories.
Mass shootings are staged by the government
While the latest Parkland school massacre has sparked a nationwide debate and increased calls for tighter gun controls, some believe mass shootings are actually orchestrated by the government as an excuse to restrict the sale of firearms.
Many of the Parkland survivors have been vocal about gun control, leading to accusations they are not really students at all. Memes and videos on YouTube claim some of the students are “actors” working for anti-gun groups who travel around the country to the sites of mass shootings.
Earlier this week, a video alleging Parkland survivor David Hogg, 17, was a “crisis actor” who’s been “coached” on anti-gun talking points, was one of the top trending videos on YouTube.
In response, Hogg thanked all the conspiracy theorists and detractors he believes have helped amplify his real message.
“These people that have been attacking me on social media, they’ve been great advertisers. Ever since they started attacking me, my Twitter followers are now a quarter of a million people. People have continued to cover us in the media. They’ve done a great job of that, and for that, I honestly thank them,” Hogg told CNN’s Brian Stelter.
Yet effort by social media companies to crack down on false stories claiming teenage survivors are actors hired to promote gun control “shines a light on a seemingly intractable problem of the modern conspiracy theory epidemic: that censoring the content can reinforce and enhance false beliefs and that there is no easy way to change the mind of a conspiracy theorist”, says The Guardian.
The Holocaust did not happen
One of the most contentious conspiracy theories concerns the systematic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War.
Evidence for the Holocaust is overwhelming – consisting of thousands of photos, films and first-hand accounts. Yet that has not stopped a number of people questioning its validity.
Most Holocaust deniers claim, either explicitly or implicitly, that the Holocaust is a hoax – or at best an exaggeration – arising from a deliberate Jewish conspiracy designed to advance the interest of Jews. While most deniers agree that some killings were orchestrated by the Nazis, they claim the figures have been greatly inflated.
One of the most famous cases is the 2000 trial, later dramatised in the film Denial, in which historian David Irving sued author Deborah Lipstadt for her description of him as a denier.
The landmark case effectively put the Holocaust itself on trial, with the judge eventually ruling that Irving was “an active Holocaust denier; that he was anti-Semitic and racist and that he associated with right-wing extremists who promoted neo-Nazism”.
Irving was later sentenced to three years in prison in Vienna after admitting to denying the Holocaust. Some countries, including Austria and Germany, have made Holocaust denial a criminal offence.
However, this has not stopped the theory from entering the mainstream, garnering support across the world.
According to a large 100-country survey by the Anti-Defamation League, only 54% of the world’s population has heard of the Holocaust, and of these just a third believe it is portrayed correctly.
The highest levels of awareness and trust in the historical accounts of the Holocaust exist in Western Europe (77% believe it has been accurately described in history) while just 23% of people in Asia and 12% of sub-Saharan Africa believe the historical accounts are accurate.
Neil Armstrong’s giant leap kicked off one of the most persistent conspiracy theories of the 20th century – that the 1969 landings, and all those that followed, were faked by Nasa and that no human being has ever set foot on the surface of the moon.
Even though there is substantial evidence to the contrary (including moon rocks brought back to Earth and manmade objects left on the moon) some remain adamant that film director Stanley Kubrick was hired to produce the footage after his experience on 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In November 1963, John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Lee Harvey Oswald, a former US Marine who defected to the Soviet Union before returning to the US, was accused of the crime but was shot dead before he could stand trial. But was he just a scapegoat? Did the real killers get away with murder?
No official investigation has turned up evidence of a conspiracy, but theories implicating everyone from the KGB to Jackie Kennedy continue to circulate. Read more about the JFK conspiracy theory here.
Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory
To the most dedicated conspiracy theorists, none of these plots on their own is sufficient to explain the sustained malevolence of the world in which we live. Instead, each one is a manifestation of what RationalWiki describes as “an interlocking hierarchy of conspiracies”, in which all the world’s events are controlled by a single evil entity.
It is a complex and self-reflexive premise: if it is correct, then it must be the case that awareness of the Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory is itself a part of the conspirators plan – and so, of course, is this list.