Over fifty years ago, a group of pranksters founded a satiric religion devoted to creating conspiracy theories so insane that nobody would ever believe uncritically in conspiracies again. They called themselves the Discordians. And their weird ideas are still influencing us today.
Painting of Eris by Emily Balivet
History does not record Robert Welch's reaction when he received a letter on Bavarian Illuminati stationery in 1970. Welch was the founder of the John Birch Society, a conservative group with a paranoid bent, mostly focused on communist conspiracies but also willing to expand its gallery of villains to include other secret cabals. The Illuminati are an 18th-century secret society whose alleged efforts to control the world were regularly decried by groups like, well, the John Birch Society.
Welch may have been a nut but he wasn't a fool, and he was probably pretty sure someone was pulling his leg by the time he saw that the note had been written by "Ho Chi Zen, Cong King of Gorilla Warfare." But I like to imagine that curiosity compelled him to read on.
"We have been meaning to write you for some time," the message began. They claimed they had held off until Harper's magazine—which, the letter assured him, the Illuminati controlled—had interviewed Welch in its August issue. It continued:
All this is in keeping with our new policy of allowing alert and sophisticated persons such as yourself and your followers and associates a more comprehensive review of our activities. For with 96.5% of the entire world now under our collective thumb, we just no longer see any point in sneaking around behind the scenes all the time.
The letter went on to give Welch a list of high-ranking members of the Illuminati, among them Uncle Remus, "Rabbi Koan," and one of the Birch Society's star writers, Gary Allen.
This prank was the brainchild of Kerry Thornley (AKA Ho Chi Zen), co-founder of the satiric religion Discordianism. In theory, Discordians are devoted to Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos. In practice, they're devoted to a worldview that mixes anarchistic politics, a general disdain for dogma, and an interest in the illusions that emerge when the mind tries to find order in a disorderly world. They are especially intrigued by the mind's capacity to imagine vast conspiracies, which helps explain their fascination with the Illuminati.
In the late 1960s, the group launched a project dubbed Operation Mindfuck. One prominent Discordian, the novelist Robert Anton Wilson, later explained that they wanted to be a "Cosmic Giggle Factor." They would create "so many alternative paranoias that everybody could pick a favorite, if they were inclined that way." He added, "I also hoped that some less gullible souls, overwhelmed by this embarrassment of riches, might see through the whole paranoia game."
Besides letters like the one sent to Welch, they planted pieces in the media—including one in a teen magazine and another in Playboy—blaming the Illuminati for everything from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the career of Bob Hope. They concocted ads for the Illuminati too, including one that began, "How was Adolph Hitler able to take over a whole country, starting out with only five followers? (Have you ever tried to take over even a single city block? It isn't easy!)"
Both the Welch letter and the Hitler ad appear in Historia Discordia, an entertaining new omnibus of Discordian detritus edited by Adam Gorightly. Gorightly, whose other books include a biography of Thornley, fills in the details on who the Discordians were and how their history progressed, but mostly he lets the documents speak for themselves. What emerges isn't just a frequently funny collection of put-ons and self-published manifestos. The group also had an earnest desire to break down the boundaries between the real world and fiction.
The Discordians created characters — "Ho Chi Zen" and others had pasts and personalities of their own. And they engaged in a haphazard kind of worldbuilding, outlining a constellation of competing conspiracies. Two Discordians, Wilson and Robert Shea, eventually turned that world into a science-fiction trilogy, Illuminatus!, that was published in 1975 and still has a devoted cult following. Illuminatus! was not the summation of Operation Mindfuck so much as a gateway to it. Indeed, it included an appendix that more or less urged the reader to join in.
In these ways, the Discordians helped set the stage for two important elements of our pop culture today. One is a wave of stories that refuse to stay on the screen or page, leaking into the outside world in unpredictable ways. This has long been a part of the genre-fiction world. "No weird story can truly produce terror," H.P. Lovecraft once claimed, "unless it is devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax." But it has exploded in the Internet age.
The most obvious examples are alternate reality games (ARGs). People have been known not just to mistake elements of an ARG for the real world, but to mistake artifacts of the real world for an ARG. The online horror genre called creepypasta, similarly, appears "in a deeply social environment, getting shared, remixed, embedded, commented upon, edited, and spread around again," writes Bryan Alexander, author of The New Digital Storytelling. "There are no clear boundaries around the tale, as there would be for, say, a Hollywood movie or a novel, making the mythos more mysterious." That's one reason some people have managed to convince themselves that Slender Man actually exists.
The Discordians' second descendant is a kind of absurdist prankster politics. They did not invent the politically charged hoax, of course, nor were they the only anti-authoritarian pranksters of the '60s. Operation Mindfuck began at about the same time that Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner, and the other radicals known as the Yippies were doing a somewhat similar set of stunts. (There was some overlap between the Discordians and the Yippies, and there was some tension too: Wilson was close friends with Krassner, but he found Hoffman "nasty and mean.")
Kembrew McLeod's recent book Pranksters locates both the Discordians and the Yippies in a tradition that stretches at least as far back as the early 17th century, when the Rosicrucian pamphlets excited European intellectuals by claiming to describe an order secretly working to usher in a new age of enlightenment. The modern manifestations of prankster politics span the political spectrum, from James O'Keefe's right-wing provocations to the anti-corporate hoaxes of the Yes Men.
Some of these hoaxers, obviously, are closer in spirit to the Discordians than others. The most Mindfuckesque efforts are the ones that try to make a subversive point by disorienting people in a playful way. Take the Barbie Liberation Organization, which made a media splash during the Christmas shopping season in 1993. In McLeod's words, the BLO "purchased multiple Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls, switched their voice boxes, and 'reverse shoplifted' them back into stores. Holiday shoppers brought home Barbies that grunted, 'Dead men tell no lies,' while gender-bending G.I. Joes gushed, 'I like to go shopping with you!'" Eris must have approved.
Robert Welch didn't live to see the BLO's infiltration of America's malls, but he did have at least one more encounter with the Discordians. Shortly after his letter from Thornley arrived, he received another letter, this one written by Robert Anton Wilson and signed "George Washington IX." It too is reproduced in Historia Discordia. "Pay no attention to the recent letter from Ho Chi Zen," it began, and then it threatened Welch with a libel suit if he dared to quote or reproduce the earlier letter. It concluded by confusing Welch with the manufacturer of Welch's Chocolate Covered Fudge Bars: "Your fudge is quite good with hashish, but even then it sticks to my teeth. Any suggestions?"
Jesse Walker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of The United States of Paranoia, which includes a chapter on the Discordians and their brood.