The deep, twisted roots of QAnon: From 1940s sci-fi to 19th-century anti-Masonic agitprop

The QAnon delusions aren't even original: Fantasies about demon-cannibal conspiracies go back at least 150 years

Published August 23, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Supporters of President Donald Trump hold up their phones with messages referring to the QAnon conspiracy theory at a campaign rally at Las Vegas Convention Center on February 21, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Supporters of President Donald Trump hold up their phones with messages referring to the QAnon conspiracy theory at a campaign rally at Las Vegas Convention Center on February 21, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

This is the second article in a series. Read the first installment here.

Those among you who are familiar with the strange realm of UFOlogy may know about William Cooper, one of the most outrageous figures to appear on the UFO lecture circuit in the 1980s and author of the 1991 underground bestseller "Behold a Pale Horse." Nobody else at the time could beat the wildness of Cooper's claims, which included the idea that the U.S. military, nefarious extraterrestrial forces and ancient secret societies like the Illuminati had banded together for the express purpose of destroying the United States and God-fearing people everywhere. 

As crazy as Cooper could often appear, in almost every lecture I've ever seen he would often pause to say something along these lines: "Don't believe me. Do your own research. Look at my sources and tell me I'm wrong!" He once dedicated an entire hour-long episode of his shortwave radio show, "Hour of the Time," to reviewing the lengthy list of books he had read in order to produce his epic, 43-part series entitled "Mystery Babylon," an in-depth analysis of how hermetic philosophies had impacted world history. You could disagree with Cooper's eccentric conclusions, but you really had to respect someone with the temerity to broadcast an hour-long bibliography over the radio. Even more surprisingly, his listeners hung on every word.

If Cooper's listeners decided to follow his advice to fact check his numerous claims, they would have to read such lengthy and difficult tomes as "The Secret Teachings of All Ages" by Manly P. Hall and "Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry" by Albert Pike — and that's just scratching the surface. 

Furthermore, Cooper never shirked from sharing details of his personal background, the sometimes sensationalistic episodes of his military career in the Navy, his years spent fighting in Vietnam, or the ruins of his many marriages. He was a real person. He wasn't "anonymous." It was possible to verify the facts about Cooper's military background, which were crucial to his claims of having had access to insider knowledge.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, mainstream UFOlogists with academic backgrounds (researchers like Jacques Vallée and Stanton Friedman) believed that Cooper represented the bottom of the barrel of P.T. Barnum-style hucksterism in the fields of UFOlogy and conspiratology. Neither of them could possibly have predicted what was coming: a 21st century in which QAnon cultists — a word I do not use lightly or flippantly — believe that performing "research" means typing a few names into Google images, seeing QAnon's own posts pop up, and concluding within seconds that QAnon's theories have all been confirmed. Why bother reading Hall's 578-page "Secret Teachings" when you can just glance at a subject header in Reddit and convince yourself you've solved the mysteries of the universe? 

Compared to QAnon, William Cooper was Buckminster Fuller.

It wouldn't take much research to figure out that many of QAnon's claims can be traced back to the late 19th century, and some even earlier than that. This is one of the reasons it's important to study conspiracy theories. If more people understood their origins, perhaps they would be a little more skeptical when they see these theories being strategically repackaged as political propaganda aimed at a new generation of easy marks.

The supposed links between devil worship among the "elites" and secret societies like the Illuminati can be traced back at least as far as the 1870s, when French journalist Léo Taxil published "Les mystères de la Franc-Maçonnerie," a volume that purported to reveal the eyewitness accounts of a woman named Diana Vaughan. After converting to Catholicism, Vaughan confessed to having engaged in numerous satanic rituals with Freemasons. During one of these rituals, she saw a demon shape-shift into a crocodile and play the piano. The book was a huge success among Roman Catholics, many of whom were eager to lap up the most insane claims as long as they made the Masons look bad. Then, on April 25, 1897,  the French newspaper Le Frondeur published Taxil's confession that Vaughan was wholly fictitious. Taxil boasted that his book was "the most fantastic hoax of our times." 

But even after his confession, people continued to believe in his 12-year prank. Indeed, fundamentalists of all varieties insist on quoting Taxil to this day. Jack T. Chick, the wildly successful cartoonist who founded Chick Publications (a California-based Christian publishing company designated as an "active hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center) used Taxil as a source in his most popular anti-Masonic tract, "The Curse of Baphomet."

Rick and Gene's wild tales about "underground wars" between "white hats" and "black hats"  — discussed in the first installment of this series — appear to have a more recent source: the H.P. Lovecraft-style 1940s horror stories of Richard Sharpe Shaver. In 1943, at the age of 36, Shaver became infamous among American science fiction fans for a series of allegedly true accounts he began publishing in the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. Shaver claimed he had discovered a race of prehistoric extraterrestrials known as the Titans. Most of the Titans had abandoned Earth long ago, but a few remnants of their society had been left behind. There were two types of Titans still living on Earth, although they were hidden deep underground: the angelic Teros ("white hats" who sometimes intervened positively in human affairs) and the demonic Deros ("black hats," whose entire existence revolved around kidnapping, torturing and eating human beings).

Unbeknownst to the fake-news-spewing mainstream media, the Deros often snatch humans from the surface world and drag them down into their underground caverns where they rape, torment and kill their captives in creatively sadistic ways. How did Shaver know about the Deros' existence? Because, he claimed, he had been imprisoned in their subterranean realm for eight years. This is from Walter Kafton-Minkel's 1989 book, "Subterranean Worlds: 100,000 Years of Dragons, Dwarfs, the Dead, Lost Races & UFOs from Inside the Earth":

Shaver witnessed many of the horrible dero torture sessions, in which young women abducted from the surface were flogged, torn to pieces, roasted, or devoured by the evil dwarfs.

More than anything else, the dero are sexual perverts. Although they must reproduce somehow, they do not seem to engage in conventional sex; they … find their arousal in torture and dismemberment. Sadomasochistic sex was one of the dero's major pleasures. One of the weirder stories in [Shaver's magazine] The Hidden World was illustrated with a crude drawing by Shaver of a dero pitching dagger-tipped darts into an unfortunate young woman who had been stripped naked and chained to the wall of a cave.

And here's a brief passage from Fred Nadis' 2013 book "The Man From Mars," a biography of Amazing Stories editor Ray Palmer:

[Shaver] recalled a woman with a spider's body visiting him in his cell, offering both horror and ecstasy. He reported, "It mounted me and playfully bit me — its fangs shooting me full of poison — tobacco juice you know — with appropriate sexual sensations of impregnation. After a time my skin began to pop with little spiders and they swarmed out of me by the million." [A helpful Tero named] Sue … had a blind daughter with whom he fell in love. He called her Nydia. They became lovers. Nydia helped teleport him to an underground cavern where he saw amazing machinery and a chamber where the thought records and history of the Elder Races were recorded.

Even after Shaver's dramatic escape from their underground realm, the Deros continued to beam negative messages into his head. In fact, the Deros had been using their "amazing machinery" to invade the minds of humans for centuries, manipulating them to commit the darkest sins imaginable. 

To the dismay of rationalist science fiction fans the world over, hordes of readers began writing letters to the magazine insisting that Shaver was correct — they, too, had encountered the subterranean Deros! Soon, Shaver's followers became part of the ongoing saga, adding suggestive tidbits of intrigue that were then woven into the growing tapestry by Shaver and Ray Palmer. 

Much the same is being done today by QAnon, whose posts often contain only a few words or a single image, but whose cryptic messages will spark endless internet speculation that adds to the unfolding drama, upon which QAnon will then build yet another layer. Not long ago, on May 29 of this year, QAnon posted a link to Mike Rothschild's Daily Dot article entitled "Inside the First Church of QAnon, Where Jesus Helps Fight the Deep State," in which Rothschild analyzes the cult-like aspects of QAnon:

Since its first 4chan posts in 2017, the QAnon conspiracy theory has become a movement encompassing everything from commerce to politics. 

And increasingly, this includes religion, as QAnon believers infuse their complex mythos with elements of spiritual warfare and Biblical theology. 

But some Christian QAnon followers are taking this merger even further, using the text of Q drops as scripture to form what seems like a hybrid Q/Christian denomination.

And it might be the future of QAnon.

Along with the link, QAnon posted the following message: "Fear. Panic. Loss of narrative control. You are the news now."

You hear that? You are the news nowParticipatory fiction. Choose your own adventure. A role-playing game for Christians. Virtual reality, but with no goggles necessary.

To Shaver's credit, he never tried to base a church on his theories. What became known as "The Shaver Mystery" continued to be a popular, though highly controversial, topic in science-fiction fandom for about 10 years. Eventually, Shaver drifted into obscurity and began turning his attention to more artistic pursuits, producing one wonderfully bizarre painting after another, all of which fall into the category we would now deem "outsider art." After his death, Shaver left behind scores of bizarre tales from which the real mind manipulators — not subterranean Deros, but human beings who work for political think tanks — can plunder nifty ideas and reboot them for our New Dark Age of Unenlightenment. 

A strange fascination with subterranean beings kidnapping humans, dragging them underground and sexually assaulting them recurs throughout the QAnon theories that have spread across the internet since 2017. Similar obsessions also run throughout Cathy O'Brien's infamous 1995 memoir, "Trance Formation of America," which, like QAnon's theories, is a fascinating mixture of truth and untruth, information and disinformation, reality and unreality. At one point in "Trance Formation," O'Brien claims she was sexually assaulted by Hillary Clinton in a hotel room. She describes this encounter with such intense attention to detail that one can't help but feel that the true goal of the book is something other than pamphleteering. 

I sent a copy of this book to my friend Damien sometime around 2001. He was working as a fry cook in San Diego, and had no academic background whatsoever. His immediate reaction to the book was to say, "This is just pornography for right-wing Christians!" Since Damien had actually been paid to write pornography (for a company called Evil Angel Productions based in Van Nuys, California), I'll take his word for it. His instinctive conclusion was that Christians felt safe reading O'Brien's lurid tale because they could unconsciously get off on the pornographic details while feeling outraged at the same time. Who else but Christian conservatives could figure out how to merge sexual gratification with judgmental loathing? 

QAnon's obsession with penny-dreadful tales of Hollywood and Washington "elites" raping underage children becomes suspicious when seen in such numbers, in post after post after post, in video after video after video. QAnon followers just can't stop themselves, it seems, from dwelling on this disturbing notion. Some of the Christians who make these videos will even illustrate their outrage with digitally blurred photographs that barely obscure the illegal images. One wonders if "outrage" accurately describes the emotion they're experiencing while viewing — and reviewing and re-reviewing — these salacious images.

This reminds me of the numerous past occasions when the respectable "PBS NewsHour" featured roundtable discussions about the worst excesses of what its hosts and correspondents called "tabloid media." The hosts would lead a high-toned conversation with academics and fellow journalists about how the nasty tabloids had been irresponsibly publishing graphic, bloody crime photographs just to raise sales. Of course, the producers of the "NewsHour" would invariably spotlight these same images throughout the segment, reframing them as educational illustrations of how low the depraved tabloids would go to sell newspapers. The truth, of course, is that PBS producers desperately wanted to draw in the same numbers as The Star and The National Enquirer, but the only way to approximate that was to air the same images while pretending to be disgusted by it all.

Who else but intellectual liberals could figure out how to merge capitalism with judgmental loathing? 

In the end, one thing is clear when it comes to the creation of QAnon: Someone who was highly familiar with conspiracy-theory folklore figured out how to give these retro spook stories a facelift, specifically warping them to match the paradigm of Donald Trump's America.

By Robert Guffey

Robert Guffey is a lecturer in the Department of English at California State University, Long Beach. His books include the novel "Until the Last Dog Dies" and "Chameleo: A Strange but True Story of Invisible Spies, Heroin Addiction, and Homeland Security." Visit his website.

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