To join Slate’s Conspiracy Thrillers Movie Club, visit Slate.com/thrillers.
Since the election of Donald Trump, paranoia has become the new normal. In his landmark essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter documented that the suspicion that there are sinister machinations taking place just beneath the surface of American life has existed as long as there has been a thing called American life. But in the 21st century, the omnipresent threat of terrorism and the mainstreaming of extremist media—largely, though not exclusively, on the political right—have joined forces to push conspiratorial thinking from society’s fringes to its center. The relatives you grew up playing Uno with every summer now hew steadfastly to the line that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim and global warming is a hoax, and even your neighbors are dead certain that vaccines secretly cause autism. New tweets from conspiracymongers on the right and the left tear through our timelines daily, vying for space with headlines from staid newspapers of record that a year ago would have seemed too outlandish to be believed.
In Slate’s Conspiracy Thrillers Movie Club, an eight-episode podcast series exclusive to Slate Plus members, we’ll look at how movies from the 1960s to the present day have helped us make sense of the feeling that there are shadowy figures in the darkness, malevolent figures who control our lives but leave only the faintest trace of their own existence. Perhaps they’re the communist brainwashers of The Manchurian Candidate or the indistinguishable aliens of They Live. Hell, maybe they’re the Obama-voting liberals of Get Out. The accumulating hints that the world is not as it seems drives the protagonists of these movies—almost always lone men—close to madness, insisting that there’s a hidden order to the world only they can see. In All the President’s Men, of course, they’re right, but being right isn’t good enough: They have to be able to prove it. Sometimes, it’s enough to convince one person, just so they’re not alone; in others, they won’t be satisfied until the whole world knows.
In 1970s classics such as The Conversation and The Parallax View, the paranoid mindset takes on a life of its own. One conspiracy exposes another, and another, and another, so the question becomes not how one exposes the truth but how to survive inside the lie. In the 1990s, in The Conversation’s unofficial sequel, Enemy of the State, the surveillance state has become a fact of life, and by the time the baton passes to Jason Bourne, it’s taken for granted that government conspiracies will always be with us. The best we can do is knock one down and watch attentively for the next.
Over the course of eight episodes, a new one every two weeks, we’ll be joined by a succession of top cultural critics, including Mark Harris, Alyssa Rosenberg, and Matt Zoller Seitz, who will help us get to the bottom of how these movies are shaped by the times that spawned them and why even those more than half a century old still resonate uncannily today. We’ll talk about the decisive role television, and later the internet, play in the growth of the conspiracy thriller, and why for a relatively small genre, it’s produced far more than its share of masterpieces. Most importantly, we’ll look at how even the most outlandish conspiracy thrillers reveal truths that might otherwise be too frightening to face and the strange comfort they offer in assuring us that the world really is as crazy as it seems. Let’s find out how deep this thing goes.
Listen to the first episode of the Conspiracy Thrillers Movie Club, with writer Mark Harris, on The Manchurian Candidate: