In the conspiracy story, a hero (sometimes a small band of heroes) fights a powerful organisation that wishes to keep their covert activities, or malpractice, hidden from public view. That activity can vary from organised crime, to incompetence, corruption, or a threat to the nation. Knowledge of this secret information places the hero in direct conflict with the organisation.
‘Knowledge can be a dangerous thing’: this is the hero’s dilemma. They must decide what course of action to take — or not to act at all. Obviously, for the story to progress they need to act, and if the disturbing knowledge, which they possess, fails to motivate them into exposing the organisation, the plot usually adds the murder or mysterious ‘disappearance’ of a friend to goad them into action.
The hero may have a ‘mentor’, this is usually a wise person who has experienced something similar if their life, and this turns out to be related to the hero’s dilemma. The mentor is a prophetic character who guides the hero, advises him on how to evade, and tackle, the shadowy organisation. He may also save the hero, sacrificing himself to add further motivation for the hero to expose the conspiracy.
Along the way, the hero may create his own team, or, more likely, work on his own. He may have a helper inside the shadowy organisation, or a journalist, who is able to provide limited assistance. The protagonist may have a ‘buddy’ with a moral conscience, or some peripheral contact who turns out to be incredibly useful (by providing access to a secret facility, equipment, or information). Another support character, the love interest, assists him and may act as his public face (when he is in hiding), as well as providing an external reaction to his inner emotional turmoil.
The hero’s goal is to expose the lie, sometimes this is also the basis for another story genre, the disaster movie (for example, the hero notices the danger of inadequate safety, which the organisation refuses to admit). Once the truth is exposed — with the all-important evidence to back it up — the organisation, or renegade group within it, automatically capitulates, or flees: because ‘the game is up’ for them and they know it. The remaining ‘dark’ forces are either killed or rounded up by the authorities, who finally realise what has been happening. The shadowy group, or organisation, is a modern ‘monster’ that must be overcome. It can only be slain by exposing the lie.
The denial of truth is central to the conspiracy story. First, the self-denial of the hero who has witnessed the action, second, the denial of those he exposes to the truth, which they find so disturbing, or unlikely, they figure he must be mad. The ‘mentor’ character frequently comes across as an obsessive, mentally unstable, or otherwise ‘flakey’ type because his message also seems preposterous. This difference between ‘the truth’ and mainstream society’s unwillingness to accept it introduces the theme of the duped ignorant masses, and expectations of social normalcy. It’s a reminder to the audience that a thriving society cannot stagnate: it must question the status quo, challenge socially accepted norms, and hold a complacent authority to account.
The classic conspiracy stories — as we know them today — have their origins in the mystery and adventure tales of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. They play on the British fear of being overtaken by rival industrial nations. In John Buchan’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), set in the prelude to the outbreak of World War One, the hero encounters a shadowy organisation (later revealed to be German intelligence). When the hero allows a desperate stranger to hide in his apartment, and this man is murdered, the hero flees, realising he will be framed for the murder. The Thirty-Nine Steps incorporates many of the ‘classic’ conspiracy story components: an initial chance encounter (in this case with a stranger who is murdered) provides the call to action; the hero is framed for murder and must go on the run to prove his innocence; an enemy that has mastered subterfuge and has successfully infiltrated the system; paranoia, and the fear of not knowing who to trust, or what to believe; a chance encounter that shackles the hero to the love interest (literally, in the case of The Thirty Nine Steps); an extended chase sequence that occupies much of the narrative; and dire consequences are expected for society and democracy should the hero fail. Other notable early examples include: The Riddle of the Sands (1903), an adventure, mystery, and conspiracy story, that involves the unmasking of German plans to invade Britain (when an amateur sailer happens on secret dredging activities in the sands), and The Lady Vanishes (1936) which is centred around a missing train traveller in a Germanic speaking, continental country (alluding to a fear that the Germans are not ‘playing fair’).
During the 1970s, with the West in crisis, and the morally dubious, or downright illegal activities of governments — deliberately circumventing democratic accountability — a wave of public scepticism spread about ‘the system’, government, and big business. This led to paranoid conspiracy thrillers with unclear, sometimes cynical endings: even when the hero ‘wins’, the shadowy organisation is able to regroup, and start again.
The conspiracy story reveals the hero’s resilience, emphasised by his lack of resources, and being outnumbered by the shadowy organisation that can appropriate government manpower, and materials. The hero exemplifies the idea of ‘one man against the system’.
Here are some examples. In Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Borne identity (2002) and Enemy of the State (1998), all classic conspiracy stories, a lone hero fights to expose the truth about a rogue element within the intelligence services. The conspiracy of the X-files (1998), Society (1989), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 / 1978), and They Live (1988) revolves around the truth that aliens have already arrived on earth. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) follows the central character’s discovery of a bizarre sexual cult for the elite (combining the conspiracy story with a classic ‘voyage into a strange world’ plot). Serpico (1973) examines police corruption, while The Parallax View (1974) highlights political subterfuge. In The Conversation (1974) the system is listening in on you. The threat in The Boys From Brazil (1976), and Marathon Man (1976), comes from a creepy Nazi network — and the misuse of technology provides the plots for Futureworld (1976), and The Net (1995). Covering up incompetence in the nuclear power industry forms the basis of The China Syndrome (1979), and faking a manned Mars landing provides the drama in Capricorn One (1977). The science fiction stories THX 118 (1971) and Logan’s Run (1976) are conspiracies where the whole of society is a lie: the hero seeks out an alternative to the prevailing totalitarian, technocracy. In Soylent Green (1973) the conspiracy involves food. The Prisoner (1967) introduces satirical humour into the conspiracy story, and North by Northwest (1959) has romance. And finally, The Matrix (1999), and Dark City (1998) explore what may be the ultimate conspiracy of all — the fear that our perception of reality is itself fake.
The conspiracy story is a metaphor for fear, even if it celebrates the hero’s audacity, it remains, fundamentally, a warning. The shadowy organisations (or renegade sections within legitimate ones) are modern monsters eating away at democratic transparency, and circumventing due process — threatening to spread their corrosive influence on everything they encounter. Luckily, there are heroes out there willing to stop them.