Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Conspiracy Theory

Oxford English Dictionary:

conspiracy: 1. The action of conspiring; combination of persons for an evil or unlawful purpose . . . 3a. Union or combination (of persons or things) for one end or purpose; harmonious action or effort . . .

conspiracy theory n. the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties; spec. a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event.



This concept has become popular in both practice and criticism as change becomes more rapid and people seek simple, dramatic answers to complex phenomena.


Popular literature and media are full of conspiracy stories, which also constitute many urban legends.

The Da Vinci Code

The X-Files



Three types of conspiracy theories (Michael Barkun):

1. "event" conspiracy: Kennedy assassination (by Mafia, CIA, Cuban exiles, etc.); 9/11;

2. "System" conspiracy: Catholics, Masons, Jews, International Communism, ATF, Multinational Corporations (gas prices), Roswell + other alien invasion theories

3. "Superconspiracy" theories: David Icke, Milton William Cooper (nearly all systems in #2 cooperate)


Symbols associated with popular conspiracies

Black Helicopters

Code-breaking devices

video surveillance

mastermind figure





Attractions to conspiracy thinking: 

  • Dramatic: impersonal bureaucracy becomes personalized; agents of frustration are identified (and possibly removed)

  • Simplifies complex social processes.

  • Paranoia and self-importance:

  • Sense that a deeper reality behind surface appearances is revealed

  • Mysteries and symbols are interpreted and their power turned

  • Populist: evil agents are usually wealthy, educated elites, who are exposed and removed by representatives of the people, who are pure and good

  • Morality affirmed


Detractions to conspiracy thinking:

  • association with fringe elements

  • people get tired of hearing a single answer to any question

  • If so many people are in on this scam, don't you think one of them would talk by now?

  • No real learning follows, only confirmation of previous biases or conceptions




How does Conspiracy Theory resemble Millennialism?


  •  symbolism

  • emergence of secret leader commanding forces of evil (Satan)

  • single large dramatic story is imposed on all phenomena



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