How to build your own conspiracy theory

With a little paranoia and a vivid imagination, the Web can help you make the most unreasonable connections seem downright logical.

Published October 2, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

It's 3 a.m. The red neon light from the movie theater marquee across the street floods my living room. The only sound is the churning of my liver struggling to filter the mixture of the liter of coffee and Jack Daniels that I have guzzled in the last few hours -- they've been hours of speeding up and slowing down, knowing that somewhere in between I would find the road that led me to this horrible truth.

Through the window, I see a soft rain beginning to fall. The ashtray is full of half-smoked Winstons. And somewhere in my coffee cup are the dregs of the fruit of knowledge. I swallowed the sucker whole. I can never go back now.

Netscape keeps whirring as if on some sort of virtual treadmill. It appears to be moving, but obviously isn't going anywhere. And I have serious work to do. I've been at it for hours now -- I rushed home as soon as I read Tuesday's headlines:

"Driver who hit Stephen King is found dead"
"John Lennon's killer seeks jail release"

It was not the first time I'd seen the horror writer linked to Mark David Chapman, the man serving time for the assassination of John Lennon, and it immediately reminded me of a 1994 article in the University of California at Santa Cruz student paper, the Fish Rap Live. When I first came across the piece, King was in town for a reading, and a man by the name of Steve Lightfoot was waiting with a message -- for the writer, and for the world.

Lightfoot was the owner of a van plastered with newspaper and magazine clippings, all of which, he claimed, revealed a plot devised by a nefarious conspiracy between Time, Newsweek, Richard Nixon and members of the Santa Cruz City Council to hide the identity of John Lennon's real killer: Stephen King. His theory was based on his observation that Chapman bears a resemblance to King, and that this three-named doppelganger was a willing fall guy to give cover to the writer/celebrity. Also part of the scheme, Lightfoot asserted, were "hundreds of falsely issued parking citations," which he'd found on his van.

Between Paul Auster and Oliver Stone, I learned long ago that there is no such thing as a coincidence. So now I am caught amid a swirl of information -- sources from Milan, Italy, to Bombay, India -- searching for clues as to what it all means on the only place where the answer can be found: the Internet.

As I begin to float around on the Web, the loose ends move toward an undeniable convergence. It's like that old video game "Missile Command": Slowly it becomes clear that seemingly random, wayward streams are actually moving, incontestably, toward one final direction.

The Internet is made for conspiracy buffs. It is a fundamental principle of geometry that a straight line can connect any two points. On the Net, just type in a search for any two celebrity names, any two cities, any two anything, and you're bound to get something back. And that little something, sometimes, is all you need. So it goes for Stephen King and John Lennon. The Internet simply helps us connect the dots. And one of the Web's key defining characteristics -- the ability to create associations, links, between unrelated information -- can almost, as if by magic, make the degrees of separation disappear. Observe:

A quick info-harvest performed by search engines reveals a handful of stories about Lightfoot and his King/Lennon/Chapman theory. But in that mix, I stumble upon a site in Italian buried among the search results. Now, I don't speak Italian, but the item titled "King soffre della sindrome di Lennon" tells me all I need to know. I continued my search.

Soon, I come across a story reprinted from the London Observer:

"King, a citizen of a country he nicknames the People's Republic of Paranoia, has sometimes trapped himself inside his own plots. For years, he explained his reclusiveness by describing a brush with John Lennon's killer. He emerged, he claimed, from a television interview at Rockefeller Center, and was accosted by a weedy youth who breathed: 'I'm your No. 1 fan.' King distinctly remembered signing an autograph 'with best wishes to Mark Chapman.'"

Ah ha! And as if that weren't the proof right there, check this out, from an old "60 Minutes" interview with King's wife, Tabitha: "It makes me nervous. I worry about his security ... The possibility that someone might try to do what was done to John Lennon to him. He is very well known, and there are real crazy people out there."

King. Lennon. Need I say more?

Soon, I begin to come up with my own. The guy who ran down King, the one who "mysteriously" turned up dead, was named Bryan Smith. Rearrange the letters and you have "hit man (rybs)." Hit man! Can you believe it? As soon as I figure out what the other letters stand for, I'm sure I'll have my answer. Repent You Beatle Slayer! Revenge, Yoko's Big Scheme!

Conspiracy theories do not need impenetrable bonds to survive. They are strings of circumstantial evidence which together create a maze of intrigue. And what better place for conspiracy buffs to congregate in a kind of global support group than the Internet. Yes, the Web offers us a chance to find people of like minds -- even if those minds aren't running on a full tank.

The spam I get on a weekly basis, on everything from the Kennedys to aliens, only underscores this fact. Here, we can all preach to our own choirs who will agree with any conspiracy, no matter how far-fetched. Already this week, an e-mail spread like wildfire naming "a well-placed Republican source" who claimed Dick Cheney's resignation from the GOP ticket was imminent. Other e-mails followed "confirming the rumor."

All the clues are there, just waiting to be connected. It is the vacuum and the echo chamber folded conveniently into one. Here, urban myths becomes gospel truths. Remember, the crazy man is only crazy until he is proven right. I think George Gershwin said that. And that proof remains only a click away.

It's too late for me, I am too far gone by now. Dawn has begun to creep over the bay, and I am still lost in the Web, looking for reasons. I see them hovering over me -- King, Lennon, Chapman, Lightfoot -- all of their heads take turns on the spider's body, while I, the lowly fly caught in the Web, struggle to make sense of it all.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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