What it's like to be the subject of a conspiracy theory


46 Responses to “What it's like to be the subject of a conspiracy theory”

  1. Steven Lord says:

    About the time Penn started calling at 2 and 3 in the morning is about the time I would have seriously looked into a restraining order or a police investigation into those “vaguely threatening” statements.

    • jandrese says:

      Back in the early 80s he had the FBI involved, but the FBI was stumped looking for a motive (extortion?  but he didn’t ask for anything…) and weren’t able to help.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      Or even “unplugging the phone” when retiring for the night. Even crazy people may give up when nobody answers.

  2. Arthur Delaney says:

    This seems like less of a conspiracy theory and more just obsession. I mean, shouldn’t a conspiracy theory involve more than one dude?

    • jandrese says:

      Maybe he’s conspiring with the real Zodiac killer to deflect attention away from him?

      • Arthur Delaney says:

         My god, man! It’s perfect! Deflection from the actual crime by honestly claiming you didn’t commit the crime! If you falsely claimed you did, the FBI might look into it, the community would get briefly riled up, and then forget about it, irritated by some yahoo trying to insert himself into the Zodiac’s story. But if you claim, and keep claiming, you didn’t do it the community will be too busy to look into the real killer. A huge mass of people crowd-sourcing the analysis of Zodiac evidence rendered impotent by chasing the wrong man.

        So we shouldn’t be analyzing O’Hare’s data for information about the killings, we should be analyzing it for information about the killer’s identity, whereabouts and contact information! Quick, what was the name of O’Hare’s seventh-grade biology student aide?!

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      This seems like less of a conspiracy theory and more just obsession. I mean, shouldn’t a conspiracy theory involve more than one dude?

      Did your reptilian masters tell you to say that?

  3. James Churchill says:

    Or “what it’s like to be targetted by a mentally-ill person”. Either way, it doesn’t sound like much fun. Still, he seems to handle the situation with intelligence and grace.

  4. John Fleming says:

    Professor O’ Hare is lucky he didn’t consult Charles Carreon about filing that lawsuit…

    Seriously though, he’s taken the whole thing with much better humor than I would.

  5. corydodt says:

    > “[. . . ] I know little about the man, beyond the odd detail [ . . . ] he is a member of Mensa”

    What is it about Mensa that attracts people like this? Something to do with monomania, persecution complex, what?

    • cleek says:

      the Mensa qualifying test is full of pattern matching, math tricks, word games – brain teasers. and so Mensa itself is a group of people who are better than average at clever-little-monkey stuff. it’s not necessarily intelligence or wisdom; it’s an affinity for (and an enjoyment of) a certain kind of quick symbolic thinking. 

      now tip a mind like that just a bit off-balance and all that pattern matching cleverness is going to come up with some crazy stuff…

      that’s my theory anyway.

      • corydodt says:

        I like your theory. It fits the pattern.

      •  With a little work you could transition your theory into a bad-ass conspiracy theory.  Like MENSA exists as a sort of sociological experiment intended to identify those (see: Penn) who can be deployed to harass an individual (O’Hare) who, in his policy research, is dangerously close to messing with the anonymous third party’s nefarious plans.

        Oh, and the new-to-us theory that that 90 year old cuckolded alcoholic is the Zodiac Killer should fit in there somewhere.  With the pattern.

      • I always thought that Mensa was one of those groups that probably made a lot of sense back in the 1970s, when there were probably a lot of people who didn’t live in large cities where a measure of weirdness was accepted, but really wanted to find the other handful of people near them that they could have a really fun, geeky conversation with. And then the Internet happened. 

    • LinkMan says:

      The bar to joining MENSA isn’t that high.  My guess is that a significant percentage of Boingboing readers have scored high enough on a standardized test at some point to qualify.   I personally know hundreds of people who I’m sure qualify, and yet I can’t think of anybody I know who ever joined MENSA.

      My own theory is that people join MENSA for self-validation because they haven’t found success or been satisfied with the recognition of their abilities in more typical academic, economic or social spheres.  This is why the Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons and Gareth Penn are members, while I’ll bet $5 that the overlap between MENSA and Harvard Law Review membership is miniscule (even though I’ll bet that almost every HLR member has a MENSA-qualifying LSAT score).

    • knappa says:

      I think that it is because Mensa is a stupid person’s idea of what a club for smart people would be. (To paraphrase a description of Newt Gingrich.)

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      What is it about Mensa that attracts people like this? Something to do with monomania, persecution complex, what?

      I wonder if there’s much overlap with the Large Penis Support Group (no I didn’t make it up), where men complain about how difficult it is having a big dick and how regular people can’t possibly understand.

    • Repurposed says:

       Seems to be the sort of club a narcissist joins.

  6. Armless Ambidextrian says:

    For another take on what it’s like to be the subject of someone else’s conspiracy theory take a listen to Jon Ronson’s interview of Rachel North for This American Life. After blogging about her traumatic experience of being on a London subway train when a bomb exploded, conspiracy theorists started claiming that she didn’t exist:

  7. angusm says:

    I once received email from someone who accused me – on the evidence of a photograph of an Olmec altar that had I posted on my website – of having “shut God up in a rock”. He was understandably upset about this, and threatened to have me gang-raped by the Crips (or was it the Bloods?) to teach me not to go around immuring major deities.

    His attention span seems to have been shorter than Mr Penn’s, however, because when I failed to respond to his second email, he stopped writing to me.

  8. Kaitlin K says:

    This American Life has a story about Rachel North, a survivor of the 7/7 London tube bombings, who became a target of conspiracy theorists after she started blogging about her experience: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/338/the-spokesman 

    Many of them didn’t believe she was a real person even when she showed up at one of their meetings.

    (Ah, previous comment wasn’t there when I started this comment. Sorry.)

  9. Warren_Terra says:

    This being the Internet, I suppose it’s worth noting that Dr. O’Hare occasionally blogs as part of “The Reality-Based Community”, typically on public policy and university administration issues; I don’t recall him discussing this story there.

  10. chris jimson says:

    Three glowing reviews of Penn’s  self-published book on amazon, all by the same author. . . hmmmmm, I smell a conspiracy.

  11. doranchak says:

    One of my hobbies is to analyze and debunk claims people make about solving the Zodiac cryptograms.  More info here:


    I have a recent article analyzing Lyndon Lafferty’s claims of finding his suspect’s name in the codes.  I also analyzed Corey Starliper’s solution, which he seems to have completely fabricated:  http://oranchak.com/zodiac/corey/hoax.html

    I’m interested to see how Penn extracts O’Hare’s name from the codes.  It’s very likely he uses techniques similar to all these other bogus claims.  In general, they all suffer from a varying combination of pareidolia and too many “degrees of freedom.”

  12. Preston Sturges says:

    There’s also some guy living in Cornwall or someplace who is supposedly the mastermind of the Bilderberg Group or something. Some reporter tracked him down and found a pensioner living in a cottage without an internet connection who was completely unaware he was supposedly an international puppetmaster. 

  13. chris jimson says:

    Interestingly enough, Penn was also a suspect for a while (go figure, a guy obsessed with numbers, just like the Zodiac, and who lived in California near where the murders took place.)  

  14.  This really makes me think of one thing…
    I can’t believe we are STILL using a system so ancient that you can’t block a phone number’s calls as ubiquitous communication.

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