Last night Rachel Maddow featured footage from QAnon freaks marching around Dallas babbling nonsense about JFK, Jr. rising from the dead to run as Señor Trumpanzee's VP in 2024. It isn't the first time she ran a story like this. It was disturbing knowing that so many brain-dead zombies have the same right to vote as normal people do. I mean, if someone is so bought into these kinds of baseless conspiracy theories, should they be voting? Well... maybe they should have a say in deciding if their ward in the mental institution serves a twinkie or jello. But picking a president?
This morning L.A. Times staff writer Anita Chabria reported something that an L.A. Times reader from another decade might find reason to suggest the paper's editors be in that same mental ward: Lizard people, deadly orgies and JFK: How QAnon hijacked Hollywood to spread conspiracies. She noted that screenwriter Todd Robinson (White Squall) came up with the line "Where we go one, we go all." Directed by Ridley Scott, the 1996 male-bonding tale about teenage boys and their hard-nosed captain (Jeff Bridges) learn about life and loyalty sailing a 1911 brigantine through a deadly storm. Robinson's catchy line was roughly engraved on the vessel’s bell, which served as the emotional heart of the story. "Robinson," wrote Chabria, "even with a writer’s mind, never imagined that a quarter century later, those seven words would be the rallying cry of QAnon, a global conspiracy theory that seeks to undermine American democracy."
Q followers “entirely misunderstood and abused the actual point,” Robinson said in a recent email interview with The Times. “I would prefer to have my words kept in the context they were created for. Imposing unintended meaning on art, in this case, has been hurtful, and is untrue. White Squall is a story about initiation, growth and companionship. It was never intended to be political or divisive.”
In the convoluted and often nonsensical world of QAnon, Hollywood plays a big role-- and not just for providing its “Where we go...” mantra, often shortened to WWG1WGA for merchandise and social media.
Many of its story lines, including evil lizard aliens disguised as humans and a cabal of elite pedophiles secretly controlling society, are pulled, like White Squall’s words, from films and television shows-- embellished, distorted, but clearly appropriated.
For some of the writers who dreamed up the plots, it has been jarring if not wholly unexpected to see pirates repurpose them for dangerous and off-the-wall uses-- stolen stories are nothing new in the entertainment business. But the real-world consequences of the intellectual theft-- mass delusion, insurrection and even murder-- have left Robinson and others dismayed.
“It’s terrifying. It’s weird,” said Kenneth Johnson, author and director of the 1983 miniseries V and a subsequent film and books about a reptilian alien race that disguises itself as human in a bid to take over Earth.
“There is no question that it is disturbing to hear that people involved in QAnon … have embraced that fictional creation,” Johnson said.
“I’m happy to stand up and say out loud anywhere, anytime that this was a science fiction fantasy that had nothing do with reality.”
British conspiracy theorist David Icke is widely credited with spreading the idea of reptilian space invaders to the masses, but his first book on the topic came out more than a decade after Johnson’s popular miniseries. Icke in recent years has become a key spreader of QAnon conspiracies, linking COVID-19 to a looming herpetological takeover and naming well-known leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II and Bill Clinton, as secret lizards.
Extremist expert Mia Bloom, professor of communication and Middle East studies at Georgia State University and one of the first to study the QAnon-Hollywood connection in her book Pastels and Pedophiles, said the lizard idea has darker connections as well. Racist and antisemitic tropes are prevalent in the QAnon mythos, popping up in story lines that insinuate Jewish people are behind an effort to control the world.
Dating from at least the 1800s, antisemitic tropes associated Jewish people with snakes and reptiles (and vampires, but more on that later). And Johnson points out that the idea of oppressive overlords can be traced throughout literature, not just to V.
Johnson hatched the idea for V using well-documented villains: Nazis. The miniseries was inspired by Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, about the election of a populist president who promises a return to traditional American-Christian values but instead institutes an authoritarian regime complete with military courts and a curtailing of rights for women and minorities.
Johnson wanted to write a cautionary tale about how easily fascism can advance, even in the United States.
But when he presented the idea during a dinner meeting with Brandon Tartikoff and Jeff Sagansky, then the president and a senior vice president of NBC, Tartikoff wasn’t sure Americans would believe fascists could gain a foothold in the U.S., Johnson said.
Sagansky, he recalled, suggested changing them into aliens to make it more palatable.
“I just slapped my head,” Johnson said. Having developed and written sci-fi television hits including The Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk, Johnson didn’t want to be pigeonholed by the genre. But the switch stuck in his mind as a way to physically portray the repugnance of fascism through a rodent-eating alien race.
“I went home that night and thought, ‘It’s really a brilliant idea.’ It’s about power and how everyday people react to power. Some collaborate, some keep their heads down and hope they won’t be bothered, some will be the resistance fighters.”
As far-right factions have increasingly skewed American politics, Johnson has seen other concerning parallels from his work. In V, the invaders try to discredit scientists and media in a bid to protect themselves from scrutiny, similar to the push by some QAnon believers to reject facts and reality in favor of propaganda and lies, sometimes with tragic results.
In August, a Santa Barbara man drove his 2-year-old son and infant daughter to Mexico, where he killed them with a spearfishing gun. A federal indictment said he confessed to the killings and to being influenced by QAnon, believing that his wife “possessed serpent DNA and had passed it on to his children,” and that he was “saving the world from monsters.”
In Seattle in 2019, another man, who is schizophrenic and frequently posted on conspiracy forums, according to court records, killed his brother with a sword, believing he was a lizard person. He was found incompetent to stand trial and committed to a mental hospital.
Bloom, the extremist researcher, said the familiarity of recycled Hollywood plots may be part of what eases followers into QAnon’s depths: Although the claims are outlandish, they tickle at recollections, whether from fiction or reality.
That sense of recognition gives them a level of believability, said Bloom-- an “I’ve heard that before” effect. Part of the QAnon logic, she said, is that films and television shows that contain the conspiratorial story lines are viewed by believers as kernels of truth dropped by the elites-- a sort of taunting acknowledgment of their misdeeds.
“Part of the idea is that Hollywood has been doing this for ages and ages, and they have been hiding in plain sight by putting it in film,” Bloom said.
That idea of using art to hide life is sometimes reinforced by actual events, she said. She uses the example of the 1999 Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, about a New York doctor, played by Tom Cruise, who stumbles into a deadly orgy attended by society’s power players. Some QAnon adherents believe that there is a cabal of influential pedophiles who murder children during ritualistic events to harvest a hormone that provides eternal youth and that the film was a nod to that activity.
She points to the Jeffrey Epstein case, and the current trial of his confidante, Ghislaine Maxwell, as factual instances of high-profile sex-trafficking allegations that seem pulled from those story lines, and have now been folded into the QAnon narratives.
“That’s one of the reasons some of the more outlandish things resonate, is because it sort of seems plausible,” Bloom said.
She also points out that the fear of sacrifices fits with the antisemitic trajectory of QAnon-- it ties into centuries-old conspiracies about “blood libel”-- the false belief of Jewish people killing Christians for their blood-- which in turn can be tied to myths of European vampires.
Like others whose work has been co-opted by conspiracy theorists, Eyes Wide Shut screenwriter Frederic Raphael said he was “not terribly shocked” to find his ideas had been swiped. But he finds the notion that the film was an unmasking of Hollywood misdeeds to be absurd.
“I had no idea of doing an exposé. It’s hard enough to write a good screenplay,” Raphael said. “It baffles belief that some secret organization is really running Hollywood, the world or anything else. No, actually, human beings bumble around picking the fruit they can reach.”
The screenplay was based on a 1926 novella, Traumnovelle (Dream Story), by Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler, that had long intrigued Raphael and Kubrick.
“Kubrick had been wanting to make a movie of that particular story for a very long time, and I think it’s mainly because it was very dark, and as you know, he did like the dark,” Raphael said. “I don’t think he had any great interest in whether it was true or not.... To persuade people that [the things] they think are not true are true, that is the general game we all play when we write fictions.”
But he is not dismissive of the harm of current conspiracy theories.
“Please understand that I am not pretending that it doesn’t matter,” he said. “What I fear is that it does matter and there is nothing we can do about it.”
Though QAnon has faded from headlines in recent months, Bloom and others caution that its adherents are still active-- though many have splintered off into particular conspiracies contained in the vast universe of Q lore and away from the unifying mission of advocating for the reinstatement of Donald Trump as president.
Nearly 100 candidates who ran for office in 2020 expressed QAnon ideas, she found. She expects to see at least a similar number of QAnon-affiliated candidates in the next election as school boards and other local offices are targeted by extremists angry about vaccine mandates, race-inclusive history curricula and other hot-button issues.
Recently in Dallas, hundreds of QAnon followers have gathered for about a month near Dealey Plaza, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, believing he and his namesake son are going to show up-- either having faked their deaths or after being resurrected.
In QAnon legend, the White Squall bell belonged to John F. Kennedy and was on his yacht, the Honey Fitz-- part of a labyrinthine belief that John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash more than 20 years ago, is still alive and working with Trump to expose the elite cabal and perhaps run as his vice president in the next election.
Some at Dealey Plaza have carried banners that read “Trump Kennedy 2024,” with “Where we go one, we go all” as a tagline.
Robinson, the White Squall screenwriter, said the bell never belonged to JFK-- it was made for the movie and is still in the possession of the film’s director, Ridley Scott, despite its many appearances in photos on conspiracy social media sites.
The phrase was never meant to be a rallying cry, he said, but rather describes the symbiotic relationship between sailors and their ship.
“Moreover,” he said, “it’s a metaphor that describes the cooperation necessary between all of us, if we are to be good stewards of the planet and navigate spaceship Earth through the stormy environmental and social seas that affect us all.”
About a year and a half ago, Robinson became aware of the QAnon fascination with both the motto and the bell, when a distant acquaintance began sending him cryptic texts, he said.
Eventually, “I was asked flat out about White Squall and “where we go one, we go all” and if I had some inner knowledge or connection about any of this,” he said.
It made him amused, perplexed and concerned.
“How could something I wrote 24 years earlier have anything to do with some modern-day conspiracy theory?” he wondered. “It defies logic and any level of critical thinking.”