They've been watching us all along

From Joan of Arc to Oliver Stone, society has perfected the art of worrying about nothing.

Published February 13, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Paranoia has raised its ugly head and cut its beady little eyes throughout our history and culture. Some highlights of paranoia through the ages:

  • Salem: The events responsible for the term "witch hunt" were the result of a sort of mass psychosis in Salem, Mass., in 1692. Several girls who had been behaving unusually accused various women of the town of putting spells on them. A similar incident had happened four years earlier, resulting in the hanging of one accused witch. This time, the initial accusations sparked a flurry of charges of witchcraft, and eventually, 19 "witches" were hanged and another pressed to death. All were exonerated by decree in 1711. The Colonies had nothing on Europe in the witch-burning sweepstakes, but the auto-da-fé barbecues of the Spanish Inquisition probably had more to do with power and control (those interested in the sciences were routinely toasted) than with a paranoid belief that witches were undermining society. Massachusetts formally apologized for the trials ... in 1957.

  • Sen. Joseph McCarthy: The junior senator from Wisconsin played on Americans' Cold War fears of communism by leading a witch hunt so fierce that his name has become synonymous with such tactics. He came to national prominence in 1950 with a speech saying the State Department had been infiltrated by Reds. He provided no evidence for that or any of his many similar accusations, but as the chairman of a powerful subcommittee, he ruined many lives and careers. His power diminished after he was censured by the Senate in late 1954.

  • Joan of Arc: She kicked English butt and took names at Orleans in 1429 after becoming convinced that she'd been divinely chosen to, you know, save France. She had visions of saints and heard their voices. She's a saint herself now, but if she'd come along today with that story, she'd be labeled a paranoid schizophrenic and medicated heavily.

  • Various and sundry dictators, would-be dictators and cult leaders: From Adolf Hitler on down the old evil scale, these guys usually have an enemy they point to as responsible for all of the world's ills -- a classic symptom, although for many it has been more a matter of pragmatism than paranoia.

  • Richard Nixon: The disgraced 37th president's paranoia is well documented, and it has become something of a badge of honor for people ranging from Daniel Schorr to Joe Namath to brag that they were on his famous "enemies list."

  • Howard Hughes: The insanely rich and eccentric oilman, aviator and movie producer suffered a complete breakdown in the late '50s and lived as a total recluse from 1966 until his death a decade later. He lived in sealed-off hotel rooms, obsessed with germs and hiding from even his closest associates. Because he refused to be fingerprinted, he never received security clearance to see the details of military projects his own companies were working on.

  • The Illuminati: If I told you, I'd have to kill you, and then they'd have to kill me.

  • Franz Kafka: His works, particularly the unfinished novels "The Trial" and "The Castle," are masterpieces of paranoia, in which a faceless, unreasonable and unreasoning bureaucracy abuses the apparently innocent. Kafka had his reasons for exploring paranoia. As Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia put it: "As a Jew, he encountered anti-Semitism; as a German-Austrian [in Prague], the political resentment of the Czech population; and as the son of a well-to-do businessman, the class hatred of the poor." And that's not to mention his domineering father. As Dr. Johnny Fever said on "WKRP in Cincinnati": "When everybody's out to get you, paranoia is just good thinking."

  • The JFK assassination: The murder of our 35th president is to conspiracy theorists what a young Madonna's MTV Music Awards performance of "Like a Virgin" is to the Gen X music nostalgia industry: a defining moment, a central text, the few frames of moving imagery that shook the world. And conspiracy theorists are to paranoia as goth rockers are to low self-esteem. As Jerrold M. Post, M.D., of George Washington University and Robert S. Robins of Tulane wrote in their paper "Political Paranoia as Cinematic Motif: Oliver Stone's 'JFK'": "The paranoid message will give more and more, and then it will give even more ... If evidence appears that refutes the conspiracy, the suppliers of the discrediting material will themselves be accused of being part of the conspiracy. The paranoid explanatory system is a closed one. Only confirmatory evidence is accepted. Contradictions are dismissed as being naive or, more likely, part of the conspiracy itself."

  • Black helicopters: Unmarked and painted with special black paint that avoids infrared detection and absorbs radar, these aircraft are used by the unholy alliance of the FBI, the DEA and the military against U.S. citizens, with the Branch Davidian raid in Waco, Texas, being the most famous example. Black helicopters have become such a modern icon that they are now used as shorthand for paranoia. Someone about to spell out a conspiracy theory is likely to start by saying, "I'm not one to see black helicopters everywhere, but ..."

  • "The Caine Mutiny": Humphrey Bogart's Captain Queeg on the court-martial witness stand is the shining moment of cinematic paranoia. "They were all disloyal," he says, rolling three little steel balls in his hand. "I tried to run the ship properly by the book, but they fought me at every turn. Ah, but the strawberries! That's, that's where I had them." Other great moments in silver-screen paranoia: Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver ("Now I see this clearly. My whole life is pointed in one direction. There never has been a choice for me") and of course, for the conspiracy theorists, "JFK."

  • "The X-Files": "No matter how paranoid you are, you aren't paranoid enough." One of the main characters of this long-running and wildly popular TV show is paranoid, and the other is consistently skeptical of his ideas. And guess who's always right!

  • "The Trouble With Normal": This fall 2000 ABC sitcom was about four paranoid guys who became pals, even though they were all suspicious of one another. Sounds like a barrel of laughs. It has been canceled. Is that just because it was a bad show, or could it be that viewers confused it with the John Goodman vehicle "Normal, Ohio"? Which was also canceled, and by all accounts was a really bad show. Could it be that Fox just created a bad show with the word "Normal" in the title just to torpedo the ABC show?

    Eh ... Could be.

  • By King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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