All conspiracy theories are based on a notion of mind control anyway, simply because they are based on a belief that a conspiracy is attempting to control people’s beliefs and actions. The term “sheeple,” used derogatorily by conspiracy theorists to describe those who believe official government (dis)information, implies aspects of propaganda, brainwashing, and control of people’s thoughts.
Such a term is based on a binary opposition of “us” and “them” that dominates paranoid discourses of conspiracy where there is, on the one hand, an elite group that is on the inside of power and who have true knowledge of how reality functions while, on the other, there is the “mass” who are on the outside of power and who only have access to reality through the lies and disinformation disseminated by the elite.
Mind control conspiracies have this structure at their base, but problematize the notion of “inside” and “outside.” The paranoid individual in conspiracy theory is relatively free from the control of the conspiracy (because she “recognizes” its existence and is therefore able to detach him- or herself from it), creating an objective and meaningful individuality in opposition to the brainwashed “sheeple.”
Mind-control conspiracies have a more complex position with regard to the notion of identity and the construction of the conspiracy that controls its victims, because the mind-control subject has an ambiguous status as to whether s/he is inside or outside the conspiracy.
On the one hand, they are “inside” because they are doing the work of the conspiracy group as a result of their conditioning, programming, or physical implant, but on the other hand, they are “outside” because they are doing so unwittingly as part of a conspiracy where they are a key element, but have no control over their actions.
Hence, many important conspiracy figures, such as Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, and Timothy McVeigh are presented in conspiracy theory in radically different ways, either as knowing participants within a larger conspiracy or as mind-controlled “patsies” who were used without their own knowledge. Mind control is therefore not easily understood as a conspiracy itself, because it does not have a recognizable goal other than to ease the way for a larger conspiracy group.
As such, it is more a “sign” that a conspiracy is at work in society, although in the works of Jim Keith, a seminal mind-control conspiracist, it has been imagined as the key form of social control for groups such as the Nazis and the New World Order.
Anxieties and Concerns of Mind Control
The problematic nature of mind control, not least in the question of whether it actually exists as a real practice or as a meaningful psychological condition, despite the documented evidence of the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program, leads to many issues that not only focus around identity but also around the body, reality, and knowledge. Mind-control conspiracies can be understood in terms of six key anxieties or cultural concerns:
- The death of the self
- The death of reality
- The “soulless” body
- The death of the human
- The end of “knowledge”
However, because conspiracy does not control the subject from outside, but from within his or her consciousness (either through hypnosis, brainwashing and behavioral modification, drugs, or implants), such an opposition becomes problematic. The conspiracy is both inside and outside the self at the same time, with the result that mind-control victims are never sure whether their thoughts and desires are their own or someone else’s.
Such a situation maps a cultural concern over the stability of the self that can be aligned with modern and postmodern concerns over consciousness and the question of how far identity is constructed within consciousness and how far it is a product of external reality systems such as the circulation of information and images in society or the operations of cultural ideology.
Related to this is the concern over the “death of reality.” If reality cannot be observed objectively as an empirical fact and then guaranteed by the sense-perceptions of the individual (because it is unclear whether it is a product of cognitive experience or created by a program, an implant, or a conditioning process generated by mind control) then it becomes an unknowable and uncertain phenomenon.
Such a concern plays out twentieth-century anxieties over the nature of reality, but also revisits older philosophical debates between empiricism and metaphysics about what exists and how we come to know it (ontology and epistemology, respectively), but from a paranoid perspective.
Where empiricism tends to believe in a reality that is knowable only through observation (arguably a paranoid perspective in itself), metaphysics assumes that knowledge of reality is pre-given (usually in form of the soul) where observation simply confirms what is already intuitively known.
Mind-control conspiracies reenact such a belief in a secular form, within which the soul is replaced by a material (and often industrial) agent such as a program or an implant, that has a malign, rather than a benign, influence, not only because it displaces free will, but also because it displaces God.
When considering such a position, it is unsurprising that many contemporary mind-control conspiracy theorists, such as Texe Marrs or Ron Patton, have a fundamentalist Christian outlook. The former sees mind control in the operation of “Project L.U.C.I.D.” which he claims is a far-reaching conspiracy to control all individuals through invasive technologies, while the latter concocts an occult and satanic conspiracy behind the mythical Nazi/CIA mind-control program “Project Monarch.”
What both articulate in their conspiracies is a fear of the soulless body, a dominant feature of many mind-control narratives, which see the self-willed body replaced by one that simply follows a program. Many recent conspiracy theories have made connections with mind control in order to envisage a society where people are simply bodies or pieces of meat.
Conspiracy theories that focus on alien experimentation on humans or the use of implants by governments represent an anxiety that the human body is just a thing or a functional unit (for example, in remote viewing conspiracies, where a person simply becomes a pair of eyes designed to observe and transmit data).
Related to such concerns are notions of the death of the human, something that is most obvious in those UFO narratives that focus on the probing of the human body and its modification for use by aliens. In such conspiracies, the human body is altered so that it no longer operates by human desires, feelings, or thoughts, but as an alien body by proxy (controlled by an alien mind), performing “inhuman” activities by unknowingly conspiring against the human species.
An extension of such concerns can also be found in mind-control narratives that have their basis in governmental conspiracies, as for example in the stories Cathy O’Brien tells of her experiences as a CIA sex slave, during which George Bush, Sr., is said to have transformed into a lizard alien in front of her, an imaginative trope that is designed to show the inhumanity of mind control. The development of telemetric implants and fictionalizations of cyborg technology on film have also led to a concern with the death of the human, but this time at the hands of technology.
In both alien and technological mind-control conspiracies, there is an anxiety that humans are becoming less than human and more like Descartes’s “animal-machine,” which is governed by its instinct (or program) rather than by rationality and thought. There is also a related concern that the mind and body have become separated because the body is simply a soulless piece of meat whose “mind” exists externally in the mind of its human, cybernetic, or alien controller.
Telemetric implant and cyborg mind-control narratives represent such a process by reference to the transformation of the human into the machine and articulate a pervasive technophobia or fear of science that can be seen in many other mind-control conspiracies, whether this control occurs through hypnotism (with its connections to mesmerism), Pavlovian conditioning, electroshock therapy, the use of laboratory-created LSD, or through the introduction of literal implants, such as the “stimoceiver” (see below), into the human body.
Finally, mind-control conspiracies can be seen to articulate a very postmodern concern with the end of knowledge. The fact that mind-control victims do not know whether their thoughts are their own or those of another, transmitted to them through conditioning, programming, or the telemetric transmission of signals, highlights a concern that information is no longer knowable as an objectively verifiable truth.
Knowledge has become untrustworthy, partly because the individual is unable to legitimate knowledge any more but primarily because the information received is either strategic (where the mind-control puppet only has a version of truth that will enable him or her to carry out the task, as with Sirhan Sirhan, according to Alex Constantine) or is composed of disinformation, designed to mislead the mind-control victim into believing that reality is other than it actually is.
The Origins of Mind-Control Conspiracies
Although the above ideas suggest that mind control is paradigmatic of postmodern conspiracy theory (because of the radical unknowability it creates with regard to every aspect of contemporary culture), mind control has its origins in industrial modernity.
As with many conspiracy theories, the genealogy of mind control takes in both fiction and history, albeit an invented alternative history where scientific experimentation is rewritten as a secret cabalistic plan that involves human torture and social engineering on a large scale.
In some respects, such a portrayal can be said to be accurate when applied, for example, to the Victorian practice of lobotomizing female inmates of mental institutions, which entailed an obvious and destructive form of mind control. However, most conspiracy discourses on mind control in the period of modernity are characterized by a paranoid anxiety over scientific inquiry, notably in the writings of Jim Keith.
In several texts, Keith has traced a history of mind control that incorporates early experiments with hypnotism, eugenics, Freudian and Jungian psychiatry, behavioral psychology, and John Dewey’s educational theories, that when imaginatively linked, by Keith, to governmental intelligence agencies through key figures such as Cecil Rhodes, H. G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley generates early signs of what was to become the New World Order.
Such a history is typical of mind-control conspiracies and many of the same figures or ideas constantly recur. The eighteenth-century Austrian physician Friedrich Anton Mesmer, for example, is given a key role in early mind-control narratives because “mesmerism,” which was actually the application of magnetism to animal or human bodies, has become synonymous with hypnotism in popular and conspiracy consciousness as a result of the belief that the use of magnetic induction creates involuntary bodily movements that suggest control of the mind.
Other important figures in the genealogy of mind control are Sigmund Freud and the behaviorists B. F. Skinner and I. P. Pavlov. The latter is central to mind-control conspiracies because his experiments to induce dogs to salivate at the sounding of a bell (which indicated that food was on its way) have become a paradigm for anxieties over the possibility of a similar conditioning being applied to human beings.
Although the origins of mind control can be found in a reinvented history of psychological and medical science, there are also elements that are based solely on fiction. George du Maurier’s novel of 1894, Trilby, with its representation of the figure of Svengali, introduces one of the first images of a puppet-master controlling his protegé, Trilby, by means of hypnotism and mesmeric induction.
The omnipotent master controlling a slave in this way has become one of the dominant images of contemporary mind-control narratives and finds form, for example, in conspiracies surrounding Project Monarch and CIA sex slave stories.
Another fictional influence of mind-control conspiracies can be found in cinematic representations where the concern over the robotic or zombielike nature of mind-control victims indicates how far mind-control conspiracies are a product of science fiction and horror film.
The unthinking robot, controlled by its program, or the zombie of 1930s Hollywood cinema, who is given an order that it slavishly obeys, are dominant figurations of the mind-controlled puppet who similarly has no mind of his or her own. Specifically, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) has a significant place in forming the discourses of mind control.
It has an omnipotent controller in the Svengali mould, in the figure of Rottwang, whose representation as a “mad scientist” has been applied in conspiracy theory to historical figures such as Sidney Gottlieb and Ewen Cameron of the MK-ULTRA program and to John B. Watson, who attempted to apply Pavlov’s experiments to humans.
The most important facet of mind control in the film, however, is Rottwang’s creation of a robot that can be controlled and its subsequent use as a replacement for the rebel heroine, Maria, a substitution of the human by the machine that acts as a displaced figuration of the mind-controlled victim.
A further aspect of the film that is of note for mind control is the depiction of the worker-slaves, who are presented as no different from the robot Rottwang creates because they are already programmed to act and work in a regimented fashion.
These influences suggest that mind-control conspiracy theories have their origin in anxieties over the development of industrialization and its concomitant technologization of society in the period of modernity. The two main cultural forces that mind-control conspiracies respond to are the rationalization of industrial production and social organization, and the development of a mass culture.
These are concerns that are articulated by Metropolis, for example, and that are extended in the contemporary societies of advanced economies (and most particularly, in the United States) in the hyper-rationalization and bureaucratization of everyday life (by governments and, increasingly, corporations) and in the extension of mass production to mass consumption.
Fear of rationalization is not confined to mind-control conspiracies and, indeed, can be seen to be a staple of any conspiracy theory’s fear of a hidden system controlling everyday life, but one feature that is specific to mind control is the identification of the Nazis as key players in the creation of postwar projects such as Project Monarch (as Patton claims) or the influential role their eugenic experiments and propaganda techniques have apparently had on areas as diverse as MK-ULTRA’s claimed involvement in social engineering or on the development of subliminal advertising.
The Nazis, as proponents of a totalitarian form of rationalized social control and as architects of a mass culture based on propaganda, become the nightmare of modernity that generates much mind-control conspiracy theory. They are also one of the reasons why eugenics is frequently mentioned in relation to mind control, although this is also part of a more general distrust of science that characterizes mind-control theories.
The location of the origins of mind control in modernity can thus be seen in the fears of rationalization generated by the creation of many national and global institutions in this period, as well as by a fear of the “mass” that accompanies processes of industrial production, particularly as these are applied to society in Nazi ideology.
Such concerns can be identified in mind-control conspiracies’ anxieties over the mass programming of individuals in contemporary society as part of a wider attempt to control society by a conspiracy group.
Mind control thus represents not a conspiracy in itself but constitutes, for conspiracy theorists, a symptom of larger conspiratorial projects based on anxieties over social and cultural structures that developed at the beginning of the twentieth century and that have been extended into contemporary culture.
The Mass Media and Subliminal Advertising
One of the first mind-control conspiracy theories of the postwar period is related to this general sense of a secret manipulation of consciousness as a sign of some unknown conspiracy at work in society.
Fears over the mass media and its apparent brain-washing of the U.S. public were a pervasive anxiety in the 1950s when the development of television in conjunction with a culture of consumerism and visual advertising led to an unease over the application of mass and rationalized structures to the social scene.
Such anxieties had already been raised by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their Marxist analysis of media institutions such as the Hollywood studio system and national radio in the United States of the 1940s, which, while predominantly a discussion of the operations of ideology in society, can be seen as a paranoid response to mass culture in their concerns with the way citizens’ active involvement in social relations is replaced by a more passive reception of social and cultural values and beliefs.
The concern over the influence of television and the mass media that developed in the 1950s, as detailed by Marling, follows such a structure, but stems from a liberal intellectual concern over the “dumbing down” of society.
A more particular example of mass-media mind control can be found in one of the founding mind-control texts, Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, published in 1957. Here, Packard drew attention to the practices used by the advertising industry to influence consumers in their choice of products, implying a form of mind control in the process, but he also mentioned experiments with subliminal advertising.
During the 1950s an advertising executive, James Vicary, allegedly developed subliminal advertising when he flashed the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coke” onto a cinema screen over the course of a six-week experiment.
He claimed that there had been a large rise in sales of these products as a result of his campaign, claims that led to popular fears about subliminal advertising, their investigation by the Federal Communications Commission, and their banning in Britain and Australia.
Subliminal advertising has had a significant impact on conspiracy theory’s distrust of official media institutions as a result of such claims, despite the fact that Vicary later admitted that he had fabricated his findings.
As a consequence, fears about subliminal messages on television have continued to have currency in a variety of ways, as Dan Kelly notes, in his discussion of Wilson Bryan Key’s allegations that the mass media is corrupting society by inserting images of sex and death into its televisual programming.
Similarly, Texe Marrs’s claims about the development of a cyber-conspiracy involving the tracking of individuals through their purchases aligns itself with a fear of the practices of the mass media, in its corporate forms, and grows out of this early subliminal-advertising conspiracy theory.
More specifically, the acceptance of subliminal transmissions has also led to the conspiracy belief that media institutions are an extension of governmental forces or a manifestation of larger conspiracies because of the implication of brainwashing that this alleged practice entails.
Such a belief is argued by Alex Constantine, who claims that a secret governmental project called Operation Mockingbird was created in order to use television as a propaganda medium. He goes further than this, however, and also alleges that there was another program, called Operation Octopus, begun in 1948, that was a surveillance project designed to turn televisions into transmitters that would, in Big Brother fashion, send images or messages to and from people’s living rooms.
CIA Mind Control: MK-ULTRA, and Manchurian Candidates
At the same time that subliminal advertising was allegedly brainwashing the consumers of the United States, an actual mind-control program was in operation, run by the CIA and military intelligence under a variety of code names (Projects Chatter, Bluebird, and Artichoke) but which in 1953 developed into an umbrella project called MK-ULTRA.
Documented evidence of these mind-control experiments became more widely known following governmental investigations in the 1970s, which revealed that MK-ULTRA, under the control of Sidney Gottlieb, had engaged in 149 projects and sub-projects between 1953 and 1963 and had investigated a wide range of areas including the use of electroshock, sensory deprivation, hypnotism, radiation, and drugs such as LSD in order to effect behavioral modifications in the tested subjects.
Many of these experiments were carried out on CIA and other governmental employees, but there were also LSD projects that involved tests on unwitting subjects either within the military (such as Frank Olsen, who committed suicide after a psychotic trauma, possibly as a result of having been given LSD without his knowledge), in hospitals or, in one case, a prison for people convicted of drugs offenses.
Although MK-ULTRA dealt with many areas of mind control, it is the development and testing of LSD that has attracted the most attention because, in the form of Operation Midnight Climax, it was taken out of governmental institutions and applied to the general American public. In this phase, members of the public were tested in apartments in New York and San Francisco, while their responses were filmed or recorded through two-way mirrors.
MK-ULTRA has probably had the most impact on mind-control conspiracy theory because it provides substantiated evidence for government involvement in attempts to control people’s behavior. What began as a response to military concerns that the Soviet Union and China had developed truth drugs and brainwashing techniques has become, in conspiracy theory, part of a large-scale attempt by the government or other groups, such as the New World Order, to exercise domination through social engineering.
For conspiracy theorists, the government argument that MK-ULTRA was a response to Soviet brainwashing during the Korean War is a cover to conceal the reality of the program: the use of mind control against U.S. citizens.
Alex Constantine, for example, dates the start of Project Mockingbird, the government/media conspiracy to control people’s minds through propaganda, to 1963 in order to signal that the end of the internal MK-ULTRA experiments was only the beginning of their real purpose, which was their external application to the people of the United States. MK-ULTRA has also spawned “Manchurian Candidate” conspiracies, which have their origin in John Marks’s The Search for the Manchurian Candidate.
Marks’s book is predominantly an account of the LSD experiments of MK-ULTRA, but includes many oft-quoted chapters toward the end on the work of Dr. Ewen Cameron in Montreal and on CIA hypnosis programs that apparently dealt with the question of whether it would be possible to program a human being in the first instance and then whether an individual could be programmed to be a mind-controlled assassin. This hypothesis has gained much popularity in conspiracy theory, particularly in relation to the assassinations or attempted assassinations of political figures or celebrities since the 1960s.
It has variously been claimed that Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, Mark Chapman, and John Hinckley were all in some way programmed to perform deeds that they would otherwise be incapable of as conscious human beings, but which they could perform if they were hypnotized by governmental or conspiracy groups (Oswald and Sirhan) or brainwashed by a conspiracy-controlled media (Chapman and Hinckley).
The latter position has become increasingly evident recently, with claims that the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were indoctrinated to act as “Manchurian Candidates” by a media culture that will produce more of the same, a conspiracy theory that, like Constantine’s Operation Mockingbird, sees the successful extension of CIA mind control into a program of social engineering on a national scale.
Project Monarch and CIA Sex Slaves
Project Mockingbird is only one of several mind-control programs that has been imagined as a result of revelations about MK-ULTRA. One of the most significant of these other mind-control conspiracies is Project Monarch, which originates with Cathy O’Brien’s book about her experiences as a CIA mind-controlled sex slave, Trance Formation of America.
O’Brien relates how she was programmed under Project Monarch, by use of the creation of a multiple personality disorder, hypnosis, and the use of visual and auditory stimuli (such as Disney films) as well as occult training, to generate an alternative personality that is able to perform degrading acts at the will of a controller.
Such a conspiracy theory highlights the notion of the death of the human that inheres within mind-control conspiracies, in that O’Brien develops a personality that can be triggered so that it will perform “inhuman” acts that her real human self could not contemplate. Similar stories have been offered by Candy Jones, who, like O’Brien, makes much of the her sensational revelations about sex with political figures and with celebrities.
Although even many conspiracy theorists (such as Keith) are skeptical of the sensational aspects of O’Brien’s story, many of her “revelations” about mind control in Project Monarch have entered conspiracy culture.
As a result of her book, belief in satanic and occult practices as well as allegations of child abuse often accompany contemporary stories about Project Monarch, associations that, like the earlier linking of eugenics with mind control, are designed to demonstrate how unnatural and inhuman a process it is to divorce someone from his or her real identity by creating a substitute personality that can be triggered at will.
It is the Project Monarch conspiracy theory that has done much to spawn the notion of the mind-controlled puppet, and its use of programs and “trigger” devices has become widely accepted as real processes in the practice of mind control. Project Monarch conspiracy theories also list in detail the code-names and levels of mind-controlled subjects that the CIA has operating for it:
- Alpha, which is general programming
- Beta, sex-slave programming
- Gamma, programming to allow the subject to deceive and misdirect
- Theta, psychic programming designed to create assassins
- Omega, a self-destruct programming
What such a view also indicates is that, unlike other mind-control conspiracy theories, Project Monarch is no longer simply a functional way of getting people to do a conspiracy’s bidding or even a sign of a conspiracy at work, but has become a conspiracy in itself with its own objectives, operations, and connections with other conspiracy groups, such as the Illuminati, Skull and Bones, or the New World Order.