Paranoia: Fear for connoisseurs

Welcome to a special week's worth of articles on the darkness that strikes deep, takes hold and never lets go.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Published February 12, 2001 6:37PM (EST)

Like superheroes, good words somehow show up when they're most needed. For those of a certain age, the paranoia-conjuring lyrics of Buffalo Springfield's 1967 hit "For What It's Worth" came along only a year or two after the word itself began to emerge in everyday conversation. Suddenly, an entire generation realized it wasn't merely afraid, or a little anxious -- it was paranoid. The concept's been a cash cow ever since. And why not? Life's scary and it gets scarier by the minute. Yet living lives of quiet (or not so quiet) desperation shouldn't preclude turning a profit. Just because we're scared witless doesn't mean we want to be worthless -- after all, we're capitalists because we're terrified of being broke.

But before pondering the commodification of paranoia, consider its history. While the concept dates to the big bang, maybe earlier, the word can be traced to ancient Greece -- where it was apparently used in the same way we use the broader term "insanity." It wasn't until the late 19th century that paranoia was first employed to refer to a specific array of delusions. And it was only about 35 years ago that it was embraced by what was then known (among other things) as the counterculture and is now known as many of the middle-aged people reading this. That generation passed on the word in its common usage to their children, who now also pepper their discourse with it. But while paranoia is often used as a synonym for fear, it's more than that; it's better. Paranoia is for those of us who savor a deep and abiding unease; it's fear for connoisseurs.

These days, we use the term to connote a popular recipe of high anxiety and persecution complex spiced with a few heaping tablespoons of self-obsession. Generally, we manage to contain our paranoia on the interpersonal level -- we imagine lovers are cheating on us, co-workers are plotting against us, people on the bus are looking at us strangely, friends are ostracizing us and so on.

But some prefer to work on a bigger canvas: CONSPIRACY, in which the most intriguing scenarios are implemented by dark-hearted, clandestine government (or quasi-government) organizations. Given that there's never been a shortage of such agencies, the fact that some individuals choose to torment themselves by imagining that big bad groups -- real or fictional -- have an unhealthy interest in them is not surprising. If you're in the market for a delusion, it's a no-brainer.

There are, of course, individuals afflicted with bona fide mental illness in which paranoid delusions play a central role. That's not the sort of paranoia being discussed in this week's collection of articles (though it's a relative). Our interest is in the contagion so many of us share: pop paranoia, the domain of the quirky, the obsessive, the slightly loopy dot connector, the compiler of bent facts, curious coincidences and curly conundrums, the sociopolitical fantasist, the darkly imaginative hobbyist -- neurotics, perhaps, but not psychotics. In other words, you, me and almost everybody we know.

For the confirmed paranoid, one of paranoia's most useful aspects is what we'll call the "Roger Rabbit" component. Much like animation and live action were intermixed in the 1988 film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" threads of paranoid delusion can be so seamlessly woven into the fabric of reality that even the most acute, well-balanced mind will be hard put to tell where one stops and the other begins.

The "Roger Rabbit" phenomenon applies equally well to the two most popular strains of paranoia: personal and political. Dilettantes compelled to dabble in paranoia's interpersonal sphere find that benign comments are easily extrapolated into proof of betrayals or vendettas; the absent-minded, thoughtless remark is one of the molecular building blocks of paranoia. But for those who see an evil plot behind every grassy knoll and who crave drama with a global echo, nothing really satisfies like wading into the deep, dank swamp of far-reaching misdeeds -- an entire glorious terror-inducing genre starring corrupt governments, churches, international secret police agencies and their renegade paramilitary units, cults, surveillance, dictators, black helicopters, billionaires, impossible-to-trace toxins, multinational corporations, mind control, creepy technology and underground fraternal orders.

Its "Roger Rabbit" quality is what makes paranoia so seductive. Just about the time, say, you've convinced yourself that JFK was indeed shot by a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald, out comes another book, movie, article or TV documentary using facts and speculation that make it abundantly clear (don't they?) that no such thing could possibly be true. Six months later the whole process occurs again, and you find yourself with renewed belief in the Oswald theory. Then, six months later, well, you get the idea.

In the case of the JFK assassination (as with myriad other paranoia favorites), this surreal Ping-Pong game has been going on for so long now (nearly 38 years) that not only is the likelihood of discovering the truth exceedingly slim, but a defining conclusion is probably not even wanted by many true paranoids. What would we obsess about then? I know, I know, we'd find something.

Or take the United States' own international spy club, the Central Intelligence Agency -- a veritable source Perrier of paranoia. Once upon a time the agency's image, to the degree that it had one, was that of a bunch of Yankee James Bonds, nobly doing whatever it took (thanks, we don't want to know) to keep Americans safe from the scum of the earth. Long ago and far away, the idea that the CIA would ever do anything less than that -- like test psychoactive drugs on unsuspecting human guinea pigs or traffic in narcotics -- was unthinkable. But then, by golly, come to find out ...

That's why paranoia is endlessly satisfying, and nearly impossible to shake. You never know when a sneaking suspicion is going to turn into pay dirt. Just when you think you're losing it, reality and delusion combine to fuel what's either paranoia or common sense, depending on your point of view.

And that, for reasons I'm not at liberty to reveal, brings us back to paranoia as commodity. How did we (and the economy) ever get along without it? I don't suppose anybody tracks such a thing, but the paranoia business must be a multibillion-dollar industry by now. There are the basics, of course, like personal hygiene products, which capitalize on our insecurities, and which no one ever needed in the first place. Then there are those goods that turn a nice profit by playing on our fears and amplifying our need for protection -- in our homes, in our cars and on our nations' borders. Finally there are the books (from "The Turn of the Screw" to "The Crying of Lot 49"), movies (from "The Birds" to "The Matrix"), songs (Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" was the legendary band's only No. 1 hit), TV programs (from "The Prisoner" to "The X-Files") and other products that keep paranoia in the black as it continues to creep into our lives.

Think about it.

On second thought, don't -- we've done it for you: Each day this week Salon People will feature a top 10 list of the best books, movies, songs and the like with paranoia at their heart. In addition, we go far beyond the marketing of paranoia with this week's feature articles, which cover the angst spectrum from Katharine Mieszkowski's look at Y2K activists and Dana Hull's survey of 1980s paranoia nostalgia to Carina Chocano's essay on paranoia in relationships and King Kaufman's wry cataloging of paranoia's greatest hits and hit makers -- from Joe McCarthy to Joan of Arc.

So, stay with us this week and read People every day as we scare the bejesus out of you and ourselves while exploring the wonderful world of paranoia. With any luck at all, come the weekend you'll be a nervous wreck.

Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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