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The Man in the Iron Mask

23 Jun

During the reign of King Louis XIV, an enigmatic man spent several decades confined to the Bastille and other French prisons. No one knew his identity or why he was in jail. Even stranger, no one knew what he looked like—the prisoner was never seen without a mask covering his face. The anonymous prisoner has since inspired countless stories and legends, yet most historians agree that he existed. The mysterious prisoner lived during the reign of Louis XIV. To his supporters, Louis was le Roi Soleil (“the Sun King”) in whose reign France expanded and strengthened her borders. To his detractors, he was a near tyrant, whose belief in absolutism—the idea that he ruled as God’s representative on Earth—had turned France into a police state. After his death, the unknown prisoner’s story began to take on a life of its own as gossips said that his punishment stemmed directly from the French throne. From the very outset, the “masked man” stories were more than just lurid tales: They played directly into anti-Louis propaganda. During the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) the Dutch, fighting to protect their republic from French expansion, exploited the rumor to undermine the legitimacy of Louis XIV. Agents of the Dutch spread claims that the masked prisoner was a former lover of the queen mother, and was the king’s real father—which would make Louis illegitimate. Historians have, however, discounted the theory popularised by famed philosopher Voltaire and writer Alexandre Dumas that the masked man was the twin brother of Louis XIV. So who was he?

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The Grandfather Paradox

26 May

Time-travel has long been a staple of genre films, novels and television shows serving as everything from a backdrop to teen-comedy hi-jinks in Back to Future to thoughtful contemplation in Ray Bradbury’s short story A Sound of Thunder. Perhaps the craziest of the time travel paradoxes was cooked up by Robert Heinlein in his classic short story All You Zombies. But in the ‘real world’ time travel is thought to be impossible. The world-famous late physicist Professor Sir Stephen Hawking famously once threw a party at the University of Cambridge which was, he said, “a welcome reception for future time travellers,” a tongue-in-cheek reference his 1992 conjecture that travel into the past is effectively an impossibility. The ‘grandfather paradox’ outlines both philosopher’s and physicist’s main objection to time-travel: the possible violation of causality. The term for this comes from the paradox’s common description: a person travels to the past and kills their own grandfather before the conception of their father or mother, which prevents the time traveller’s existence. Whilst time-travel itself remains in the realm of pure speculation, the possible results of the violation of the principle of causality and how nature may prevent them, are hotly debated topics beyond the realms of pulp-fiction with philosophers and physicists speculating on possible solutions.

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The Mandela Effect

18 Nov

The Mandela Effect refers to a phenomenon in which a large number of people share false memories of past events, referred to as confabulation in psychiatry. Some have speculated that the memories are caused by parallel universes spilling into our own, while others explain the phenomenon as a failure of collective memory. This form of collective misremembering of common events or details first emerged in 2010, when countless people on the internet falsely remembered Nelson Mandela was dead. It was widely believed he had died in prison during the 1980s. In reality, Mandela was actually freed in 1990 and passed away in 2013 – despite some people’s claims they remember clips of his funeral on TV. Self-described ‘paranormal consultant’ Fiona Broome coined the term ‘Mandela Effect’ to explain this collective misremembering, and then other examples started popping up all over the internet. If you have ever been convinced that something is a particular way only to discover you’ve remembered it all wrong, then it sounds like you may have experienced this phenomenon.

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Jerusalem Syndrome

21 Jul

Jerusalem syndrome is a mental disorder characterised by delusions, fantasies or other similar states of mind triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem. It is not endemic to one single religion or denomination but has affected Jews, Christians, and Muslims of many different backgrounds. The syndrome manifests itself in different ways. Sufferers could be convinced they are biblical figures, like Ronald Hodge who started referring to himself as the Messiah during his time in Israel. After turning 40 and experiencing the dissolution of his marriage, Hodge (who was given a pseudonym) turned to the Bible for comfort and embarked on a trip to Jerusalem. There, he began referring to himself as the Messiah and received treatment at Herzog Medical Centre in Jerusalem. Others may become obsessed with an idea or duty that they need to fulfill. In 2007, Dr. Pesach Lichtenberg, who was the head of men’s psychiatry at Herzog Medical Centr at the time, said many sufferers feel a relentless need to make the world better and they believe they have a messianic mission which they must fulfill. The most contentious point of debate among scholars of Jerusalem Syndrome is what one group of doctors has called Type III cases: people with no history of mental illness who become overwhelmed by the city’s religiosity and temporarily lose their minds.

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London After Midnight

15 May

Lon Chaney’s ability to transform himself using makeup techniques earned him the nickname ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’. Today he is regarded as one of the most versatile and powerful actors of early cinema, renowned for his characterisations of tortured, often grotesque and afflicted characters, and his groundbreaking artistry with makeup – as well as being the father of The Wolfman (1941) star, Lon Chaney Jr. Whilst Chaney senior is best known for his starring roles in such silent horror films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), it is one of his lesser-known films that remains perhaps his most infamous: London After Midnight (1927). The movie is now lost and remains one of the most famous and eagerly sought of all lost films, the last known copy having been destroyed in the 1967 MGM vault fire. The reason it is so infamous (and perhaps also the reason why it was destroyed) is that, according to urban legend, anyone who watches the complete, original cut of the film is doomed to become suddenly, incurably insane. This defence was most famously used in the 1928 murder trial of a man accused of murdering a woman in Hyde Park, London – unsuccessfully in that case.

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Legend of the Black Swine

13 Jul

London has been the capital of England, more or less, for almost a thousand years. Much of the capital’s history is either hidden or forgotten, and this is especially true of the London beneath the feet of its residents. London’s sewers, tunnels and underground network stretch for uncounted miles deep below the bustling city, home to millions, which exists on the surface. Within those hidden depths lurk all manner of mysteries – the source of rumours, legends and nightmares down the centuries. There was a sensation in the 1860s, when it was feared, following the death of a well-known politician, that a band of criminals were stalking the capital, garroting anyone unfortunate enough to come into their path, then disappearing below ground. Then there was a string of news stories around the turn of the twentieth century, concerning reports of archaeological discoveries of hidden subterranean habitats and strangely large human remains found in the city’s sewers. But there is perhaps no story more terrifying than the persistent rumours over the years that the sewers of London are full of monstrous pigs that will one day free themselves from their foetid home and run riot through the city. The Black Swine in the sewers of Hampstead is one Victorian urban legend that has proved to be horrifyingly resilient.

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The Curious Case of Lord Kitchener

6 Oct

It’s fair to say that, during World War I, Herbert Kitchener’s face was just about the most famous in the country. His commanding image, appearing on recruiting posters demanding “Your country needs you!”, remains recognised and parodied in popular culture to this day. Before the First World War, Kitchener won fame for the imperial campaigns, most particularly in the Sudan and South Africa, which made him a national hero. This made his unexpected and bizarre death in the middle of the war a demoralising shock. The official story is that Kitchener was killed in 1916 when the warship taking him to negotiations in Russia was sunk by a German mine of the coast of Scotland. But some suspected that this was a cover-up – a convenient explanation put out to appease a puzzled public who were in need of some sort of closure. Locals spoke of mysterious events that took place on the night of Kitchener’s apparent death. A variety of rumours, speculation and conspiracy theories have since then refused to be dismissed entirely. A further investigation was requested by many who remained unconvinced by the official version of events. This was impossible at the time due to the ongoing war effort but, in all the years since, the call for the case to be re-opened has never quite gone away. The question of what actually happened to Lord Kitchener has still to be answered definitively.

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Immortal Beloved

14 Jul

Ludwig van Beethoven remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers, a household name even for non-musicians. He was a virtuoso pianist and composed 9 symphonies, 5 concertos for piano, 32 piano sonatas and 16 string quartets. What he is lesser known for, perhaps, is the Unsterbliche Geliebte (German for ‘Immortal Beloved’) – the mysterious addressee of a love letter which he wrote on 6–7 July 1812 in Teplitz. The apparently unsent letter, written in pencil and consisting of three parts, was found in the composer’s estate after his death. At the time even an exact dating of the letter and identification of the addressee was speculative, since Beethoven did not specify a year or a location. It was only in the 1950s that an analysis of the paper’s watermark yielded the year, and by extension the place. To this day, however, scholars have been divided on the intended recipient of the Immortal Beloved letter. This intriguing musical mystery inspired a Hollywood adaptation, 1994’s Immortal Beloved, starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven, which focuses on the efforts of the great composer’s biographer Anton Schindler to ascertain the identity of the intended recipient of the famous letter. While the film, and the many theories put forward in the years both before and since, have identified some likely candidates, a definitive solution to this particular mystery remains somewhat elusive.

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The Smiling Pope

16 Jun

Pope John Paul II – the second-longest serving Pope in history – remains a familiar figure even almost a decade after his death. How many, however, remember his immediate predecessor Pope John Paul I, who only served for a matter of weeks back in 1978? Born Albino Luciani, this pope was a humble, almost timid man, without any prior high-profile career in the Vatican hierarchy – a surprising choice in many ways. Catholics all over the world responded warmly to his modesty, however, and he soon acquired the nickname ‘The Smiling Pope’. At his coronation on 26 August 1978 he refused the customary papal tiara and only reluctantly agreed to be carried aloft on the traditional gestatorial chair. His reign was to last only 33 days, however; shortly after 5am on 28 September Pope John Paul I was found dead in the papal lodgings. The Vatican claimed initially that his body was found by his papal secretaries but afterwards it was revealed that he was discovered by a nun who had brought him his morning coffee. The papal doctor declared him dead of a heart attack and there was no autopsy. For any pope, let alone such a popular one, to die just a month after his election was unimaginable. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, conspiracy theories have abounded ever since. Rumours of foul play have circulated, implicating a bizarre triumvirate of Vatican conservatives, Mafia bankers and right-wing Italian Freemasons. What really happened to the Smiling Pope?

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Paul is dead?

19 May

One of the (many) strange things to come out of the 1960s was the bizarre rumour that, before George and John died, the first Beatle to pass away was Paul McCartney. Weird? Yes. In bad taste? Almost certainly. According to the main source, an article written by a Michigan University student in the Daily newspaper in 1969, Paul died in a fiery car crash in 1966, the only survivor of which was his then girlfriend Jane Asher. According to the rumour, as this would have finished off the Fab Four, a lookalike replacement named Billy Shears (or William Campbell) was found. With a little plastic surgery and the growth of some scar-covering facial hair – matched by George, Ringo and John for the sake of fashion consistency – The Beatles kept on rocking. The ongoing aversion of McCartney (or Shears, or Campbell, depending on whom you believe) to spontaneous photography is said to be owing to his fear that the cover-up will be rumbled. However, The Beatles could not keep the truth hidden, and their post-Paul songs and albums are riddled with hints of McCartney’s ‘death’. Let’s look at the so-called ‘evidence’.

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