FMST 43: Conspiracy

This course investigates the texts, narratives, and cultures of conspiracy as they are constituted in film, television, digital, and print media. We will concentrate less on the “truth” of any given conspiracy than on its popular and public impact and meaning – what it says, or might be saying, about ourselves, our world, and our times. The subject, then, is both conspiracy theory and theories about conspiracy. As this is a Film and Media Studies course, we will also pay attention to factors such as representation, technology, narrative, audience, and industry, and their relationship to both dominant and resistant ideologies.

Our focus is on the half-century dating from the late 1950s to the present, a period that extends from the Red Scare, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the Apollo moon landings to Waco, 9/11, and contemporary controversies about Barack Obama’s citizenship and an all-encompassing New World Order. Confining ourselves to the United States, we will explore the ways in which public perceptions of conspiracies spread and evolve through media practices both inside and outside the mainstream, as a mode of education, entertainment, and political activity. Areas we will explore (moving from specific to general) include:

  • The tropes, recurring patterns, and characteristic forms of conspiracy
  • The role of different media in shaping perceptions and understandings of conspiracies
  • The relationship of conspiracy narratives/theories to other media modes such as journalism and documentary, and genres such as horror, science fiction, and mystery
  • The light shed by conspiracy narratives on the production and legitimization of knowledge
  • The possibilities and limits of “diagnosing” conspiratorial trends in relation to specific historical and cultural moments
  • Conspiracy theory as an element of democratic discourse, grassroots political movements, and ideological critique

Textbooks & Readings 

  • The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories. James McConnachie and Robin Tudge. Rough Guides Reference, 2008.
  • Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. Mark Fenster. Revised and Updated Edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
  • Additional readings marked [PDF] will be distributed via Blackboard under “Course Documents.”


20% Participation. Assessed throughout term; includes discussion board presence and pass-fail participation in two in-class debates (Weeks 4 and 9).

20% Screening responses and discussion leading. Once during the semester, each student will introduce a screening with a brief overview at the end of Tuesday’s class. He or she will then post a short response to that week’s screening, along with discussion prompts. This student will then lead our in-class discussion for that week, starting with a clip. Weeks with two movies will have two respondents.

30% Short papers. Three 3-5 page papers, due by email at the end of weeks 4, 7, and 10.

Together, the first two papers will constitute the midterm.

  • Paper 1 (Week 4): Film Analysis
  • Paper 2 (Week 7): Conspiracy Analysis
  • Paper 3 (Week 10): Conspiracy and Documentary Form

30% Conspiracy wall display and reflection paper. Due the penultimate week of class, this project represents the culmination of your experiences in and thinking about Conspiracy. Working in teams, you will create a public display at McCabe Library, a “conspiracy wall” of texts and images mapping out an existing conspiracy or one of your own design.

You will also turn in a 3-5 page reflection paper that discusses the conspiracy and the presentation you have given it. Further details will be given later in term.

CALENDAR (may change during semester) 

Week 1 (Aug 30-Sept 1): Course Introduction; Types of Knowledge

Read for Thursday: Fenster, “Introduction: We’re All Conspiracy Theorists Now”; Birchall, “Know It All” [PDF], Lisker, “The MADE Manifesto” [PDF]

Screen: Conspiracy Theory (Richard Donner, 1997)

Week 2 (Sept 6-8): Reading and Paranoia

Read for Tuesday: Fenster Ch 3, “Finding the Plot”; Shapiro, “Paranoid Style” [PDF]; for Thursday,  Fenster Ch 4, “Uncovering the Plot” (pp. 118-142); Foucault, “Panopticism”

Screen: The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Week 3 (Sept 13-15): Red Scares and Pod People

Read for Tuesday: Fenster, Ch 1, “Theorizing Conspiracy Politics,” Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” [PDF]; for Thursday, Steffen-Fluhr, “Women and the Inner Game of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers” [PDF]; Marcus, excerpts from “The Manchurian Candidate” [PDF]

Screen: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956); The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962). NOTE: LONG SCREENING.

Week 4 (Sept 20-22): JFK

Read for Tuesday: Fenster Ch 4 “Uncovering the Plot” pp. 118-142 (review); Simon, “The Zapruder Film” and “JFK” [PDF]; Hidell, “The Center of the Labyrinth” [PDF]

Screen: JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Thursday: In-class debate 1

Due by Sunday night: Paper 1 (Film Analysis)

Week 5 (Sept 27-29): Watergate and the 1970s

Read for Tuesday: TBA; for Thursday, “Project Mind Kontrol” [PDF]; Simon, “The Parallax View” [PDF]; Jameson, “The Parallax View” [PDF]

Screen: The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974)

Week 6 (Oct 4-6): The Plot Against Women

Read for Tuesday; Knight, “The Problem with No Name: Feminism and the Figuration of Conspiracy” [PDF]; for Thursday, Valerius, “Rosemary’s Baby, Gothic Pregnancy, and Fetal Subjects” [PDF]

Screen: Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968); The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1975).


Fall Break 

Week 7 (Oct 18-20): Space Invaders

Read for Tuesday: Fenster Ch 5, “Plotting the Rush”; Kay, “Democratizing Paranoia: How the Web Revolutionized Conspiracism” [PDF]; for Thursday, Bara, “The Secret History of NASA” [PDF]

Screen: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon (Bart Sibrel, 2001); Astronauts Gone Wild (Bart Sibrel, 2004).

Due by Sunday night: Paper 2 (Conspiracy Analysis)

Week 8 (Oct 25-27): The 1990s: The Truth is Out There

Read for Tuesday: Fenster Ch 4, “Uncovering the Plot” pp. 143-end; for Thursday, Graham, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? Conspiracy Theory and The X-Files” [PDF]; Bell and Bennion-Nixon, “The Popular Culture of Conspiracy/The Conspiracy of Popular Culture” [PDF]; Waco reading TBA

Screen: Episodes of The X-Files TBA; Waco: The Rules of Engagement (William Gazecki, 1997)

Week 9 (Nov 1-3): 9/11

Read for Tuesday: Fenster Ch 7 “A Failure of Imagination”; Helms, “Lingering Questions about 9/11” [PDF]; Meigs, “Afterword: The Conspiracy Industry” [PDF]

Screen: Loose Change (Dylan Avery, 2007)

In-class debate 2

Week 10 (Nov 8-10): The New World Order

Read for Tuesday: Fenster Ch 2, “When the Senator Met the Commander”; Heimbichner, “The Idiot’s Guide to the Cryptocracy” [PDF]; Weidner, “The Culling: A Speculative Look into the Global Apocalypse” [PDF]; Weston, “FEMA: Fascist Entity Manipulating America” [PDF]

Screen: Endgame: Blueprint for Global Enslavement (Alex Jones, 2007)

Due by Sunday night: Paper 3 (Conspiracy and Documentary Form)

Week 11 (Nov 15-17): Birthers, Truthers, and Death Panels

Read: Kay, “Show Me the Birth Certificate: Conspiracism in the Age of Obama” [PDF]; additional readings TBA

Screen: TBA

Week 12: no class (Thanksgiving)

Week 13 (Nov 29-Dec 1): Approaching the End

Read: Fenster Ch 6, “The Prophetic Plot”; Marrs, “What Will Happen in 2012?” [PDF]; Wallace, “Four Horses of the Apocalypse: A Color-Coded Key to the Cryptocracy” [PDF]

Screen: Angels and Demons (Ron Howard, 2009)

Due: Conspiracy Wall displays and reflection papers

Week 14 (Dec 6): Last day of class

Student evaluations

Note: There is no final exam in this course.