6 Conspiracy Theories That Inspired Sci-Fi and Horror Movies

From faked lunar landings to invisible WWII warships, here are six conspiracy theories and the sci-fi movies they inspired...

“Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face,” Sterling Hayden’s General Jack D Ripper coldly announces in Stanley Kubrick’s breathtakingly funny satire, Dr Strangelove.

Ripper’s conspiracy theory, that the commies are secretly trying to compromise our “precious bodily fluids”, becomes his harebrained reason for unleashing a missile strike on the USSR. And just as Ripper was inspired by this strange notion to trigger a nuclear apocalypse, so filmmakers have been inspired by conspiracy theories to make all kinds of science fiction and horror movies – some funny, some tense and absorbing, others terrifying.

Here, then, is a selection of six real-world conspiracy theories and the varied sci-fi movies and horror movies they inspired – and funnily enough, Stanley Kubrick even pops up in one of the more familiar entries…

1. The Philadelphia experiment

The conspiracy: The story goes that, during the chaos of World War II, a group of scientists working for the US navy were carrying out an experiment that could have altered the face of the battle completely: they were attempting to make a warship invisible. The warship in question was the USS Eldridge, docked in the Philadelphia Naval Yard, and the experiment supposedly took place in October 1943.

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A scientist named Dr Franklin Reno was said to be the mind behind the project, having taken inspiration from Einstein’s unified field theory – and according to the legend, it was a success. Not only was the ship rendered invisible, but in subsequent experiments, apparently teleported to another location 200 miles away and back again.

The experiment wasn’t without its side-effects, however; sailors were said to have suffered from a range of ailments, including nausea, mental trauma, invisibility and spontaneous combustion. It’s even said that some sailors were found partly embedded in the structure of the ship itself.

For its part, the US navy has always denied that the Philadelphia experiment ever took place, but this has merely added to the claims that the incident was covered up. Despite repeated counter-claims that the experiment is a mixture of hoax and misheard information (the navy really were looking at ways of making ships undetectable to magnetic torpedoes at the time, which could have somehow been misinterpreted as ‘invisible’), the legend’s endured, partly thanks to books like The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility. 

The obvious question, though, is if the US navy managed to make a ship invisibile so long ago, why hasn’t this technology become widespread since? The supporters of the conspiracy would probably argue that the US navy uses invisibility all the time – we just can’t see the evidence.

The movies: “The experiment that should never have happened 41 years ago is still going on,” read the tagline to The Philadelphia Experiment, which took the legend and turned it into a time-travel adventure-romance. Michael Pare and Bobby Di Cicco play two sailors aboard the USS Eldridge who find themselves thrown 40 years into the future by the experiment, and then have to figure out a means of closing off a rift in time and space that could destroy the entire planet.

Although not a big hit at the time of release, The Philadelphia Experiment is almost as persistent as the legend behind it: a belated sequel materialised in 1993, while a made-for-TV remake appeared on the Syfy Channel in 2012. The Philadelphia Experiment is also a good example of how urban legends perpetuate themselves through storytelling.

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In the late 1980s, a chap named Al Bielek happened to catch a showing of the 1984 Philadelphia Experiment movie on television, which he claimed dislodged repressed memories of his own involvement in the 1943 project. In later interviews, he not only stated that he’d been a sailor aboard the USS Eldritch, but also that he’d been sent forward in time to the year 1983. Mind you, Bielek also claimed to have taken a time tunnel to Mars, conversed with aliens, travelled forward in time to the year 2137, and back to the year 100,000 BC. Bielek’s claims then appeared to inspire the makers of the film 100,000 BC, a straight-to-video action film where members of the Philadelphia Experiment go back to the time of the dinosaurs.

Like a feedback loop, legends grow and change as they’re told and retold. 

2. The Roswell incident

The conspiracy: On the 8th July 1947, the Roswell Daily Record ran a front page story which read, “RAAF captures flying saucer on ranch in Roswell region”. The US military later retracted their initial statement, saying instead that the debris they’d collected was from a crashed weather balloon rather than a unidentified flying object, but it was too late – one of the most discussed and famous conspiracy theories was born.

Accusations that the American government had recovered a flying saucer – or at least parts of one – grew in the years that followed, and stories began to circulate that living occupants of the craft had been taken to Area 51 (a now infamous military base) in New Mexico. By the 1990s, a range of books, eye-witness accounts, TV documentaries and even purported footage of alien autopsies had all materialised, all appearing to lend weight to the theory that the US government was hiding knowledge of flying saucers and visitors from outer space. 

The movies: Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) remains one of the most lavish and well-made films to deal with the UFO phenomenon, taking in sightings of lights in the sky, abduction by aliens, and also the topic of a conspiracy on the part of the US government. Close Encounters’ conclusion even suggests that America’s scientists have engaged in some kind of foreign exchange program with visiting aliens, as Richard Dreyfuss’ blue-collar hero clambers into a cathedral-like ship for a ride into the unknown.

The 1986 adventure film Flight Of The Navigator may also have taken a hint of inspiration from the Roswell incident and other stories like it, as a young boy takes a ride in a crashed, metallic UFO secretly held by NASA. Vaguely echoing what theorists argue happened in 1943, Flight Of The Navigator’s scientists had whisked the ship from public view and attempted to cover up the craft’s true nature by describing it to the police as an experimental space laboratory.

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Interest in the Roswell incident began to rise again in the 1990s, possibly due to the publication of several books which brought forth new claims of downed saucers and conspiracies. One of these would become Roswell, a 1994 TV movie starring Kyle MacLachlan  as a US major attempting to uncover the hidden truth about the crash. The quest for uncovering buried truths also provided the basis for The X-Files, Chris Carter’s TV series that received a movie spin-off (itself about aliens and government cover-ups) in 1998.

Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) made explicit use of Roswell lore; amid the destruction of an alien invasion, it’s eventually revealed to Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore that the military really had captured an alien space craft and three occupants in 1947, and that they’d been stored and studied for the past 49 years at Area 51. The repaired space craft then came in handy for the third act, where it was used to plant a computer virus in the invaders’ mother ship – a plot point that’s still derided by some movie geeks 18 years later.

About 12 months before Independence Day came out, a piece of black-and-white footage purportedly shot at Area 51 first appeared on television. Appearing to depict the autopsy of a humanoid creature, the 17-minute film caused an immediate fuss in the media, despite widespread suspicions that it was a hoax.

The chap who first brought the film to the public’s attention, a British entrepreneur named Ray Santilli, later admitted that the footage had been faked, but insisted that it was based on some real film he’d seen a few years earlier – when the film degraded past the point where it was watchable, Santilli said he’d funded a reconstruction of what he’d previously witnessed. The whole curious incident became the basis of the 2006 comedy Alien Autopsy, starring British TV entertainment duo Ant and Dec.

If you want an example of how one single event can inspire a range of stories, look no further than the Roswell incident.

3. Men in Black

The conspiracy: Sinister figures with connections to UFO conspiracy theories, the Men in Black are said to turn up in the wake of UFO sightings, and have done so since the 1950s.

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Wearing dark suits and occasionally driving black Cadillacs according to some accounts, the MiBs are often described as anonymous government agents bent on silencing the witnesses of UFO-related events. People who’ve encountered MiBs have also described them as threatening and somehow strange; some have even suggested that the MiBs might be aliens or maybe robots.

The modern MiB phenomenon is thought to have originated in a 1956 book called They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, written by Gary Barker. That book has widely fallen from public consciousness, and those close to the author have said that Barker didn’t take UFOlogy at all seriously – he simply wrote about a popular subject to make money. Whether Barker seriously believed in the Men in Black or not, he’d inadvertently created a familiar staple of modern pop culture.

The movies: Although the most obvious inspiration taken from the MiB legend is undoubtedly the 1997 film Men In Black, adapted from a comic book series and spawning a successful franchise, these spooky characters have turned up regularly elsewhere both before and since. In John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet (1984) Sayles and David Strathairn play a pair of MiBs, who are in fact aliens on the hunt for Joe Morton’s escaped extra-terrestrial slave.

The Men in Black were also a common sight in The X-Files, have been known to turn up in Doctor Who, while Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith and his cronies in The Matrix trilogy are clearly modelled on them, even if they aren’t explicitly named as such.

The faintly terrifying figure in a black suit played by Frank Langella in Richard Kelly’s 2009 thriller The Box is also clearly an MiB – he drives a black car, works for the US government, and certainly exudes some of the MiB’s supernaturally intimidating presence.

4. Moon landings

The conspiracy: As well as representing one of the largest scientific undertakings in 20th century history, the Apollo missions of the 1960s were also a key part of the US-USSR Cold War battle for technological superiority.

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This might explain why, shortly after Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon in 1969, some began to suggest that the landings were faked – after all, if America was in a race to get to the Moon first, wouldn’t it be easier to fake the landings in a studio? Despite the repeated debunking of the various pieces of evidence put forward in favour of a conspiracy theory – the rippling flags, the perfect footprints, and so on – the suspicion that the events of the 20th July 1969 took place in a studio still persists in some quarters. 

The movies: One of the first lunar landing conspiracy books published was Bill Kaysing’s We Never Went To The Moon (1974), which seemed to fit right in with the post-Watergate era’s atmosphere of distrust and cynicism. The same could be said of writer and director Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One (1978), a brilliantly taut thriller about a bogus mission to Mars and the government’s murderous attempts to sweep the fakery under the carpet.

Hyams himself has little time for Moon landing conspiracy theorists (“It’s absolutely absurd”, he told us last year), but the way the movie keyed into the mood of the time made it an unexpected hit. Capricorn One may have inadvertently popularised the notion of a faked space mission, too, which continues to linger and, if anything, grow more elaborate.

One theory is that Stanley Kubrick had been contracted by NASA to help direct the faked lunar landing footage, having just directed the groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey. The story then goes that Kubrick left hints of his involvement in his horror film The Shining – which is why little Danny Torrance is seen wandering around the Overlook Hotel in a knitted Apollo 11 jumper.

In 2002, French filmmaker William Karel made Dark Side Of The Moon, a mockumentary offering a tongue-in-cheek ‘exposé’ of how the US government and Kubrick had faked the landings. But the resulting film has been misread as a straight-faced exploration of the truth, and is even shared on YouTube as a serious piece of supporting evidence on occasion. The 2012 documentary Room 237, which explores the various interpretations surrounding The Shining, also contains theories over Kubrick’s involvement in the landingsm and the clues buried in the film’s symbolism.

Other lunar conspiracy-type films include Transformers: Dark Of The Moon (2011), which suggests that, although Neil Armstrong really did go to the Moon in 1969, it was to recover a crashed Autobot space craft (the Ark) rather than stick an American flag in the lunar surface. In the found-footage horror film Apollo 18 (also 2011), it’s ‘revealed’ that astronauts of the Apollo 18 mission – officially said to have been cancelled in the early 1970s – really did go to the Moon, and were terrorised by horrible extra-terrestrial creatures.

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Whether astronauts stay in a warm studio on Earth or head into the chilly vacuum outside our planet, space travel in the movies is fraught with intrigue and danger.

5. The Dyatlov Pass incident

The conspiracy: One of the less widely-known stories on this list, the Dyatlov Pass incident took place in the Ural mountains in February 1959. The deaths of nine otherwise healthy people on a ski trek in the snowy wastes of Russia became a commonly-explored topic in Russia, particularly because of its more inexplicable details: investigation revealed that the trekkers’ tent had apparently been ripped open from the inside, while strange wounds were found on the bodies of the victims.

The incident’s records were kept locked away until 1990, when the story began to spread more widely. There were suggestions that the trekkers may have stumbled on some form of secret Soviet weapon experiment, and that some of the bodies were found to be highly radioactive. It’s a strange and tragic story, and as is often the case with these kinds of mysteries, it’s the lack of a definitive account of what happened that makes it the subject of so much speculation.

The movies: Various books and documentaries have explored the facts of the Dyatlov Pass case, but the first (and so far as we’re aware only) feature film to be inspired by its events was 2013’s Devil’s Pass (also known as The Dyatlov Pass Incident). Directed by Rennie Harlin, it’s a found footage horror about a second group of students who, years later, venture to the scene of the tragedy to find out what happened. In the course of making the film, Harlin delved into archives kept in Moscow and maintained that:

“There was a military experiment that went wrong, and the government there has spent years doing what they can to keep it from being discovered. It’s really the only logical explanation I’ve got.”

It’s fair to say, however, that Harlin’s film is a rather outlandish interpretation of what might have occurred back in the 1950s – there’s a yeti sighting, and even a reference or two to the weird events of the Philadelphia Experiment to look out for.

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6. Project MKUltra

The conspiracy: MKUltra differs from the other theories on this list, in that it’s a confirmed, very real and highly disturbing conspiracy rather than one based on urban legends or bits of half-truth. In the 1950s, the CIA began to conduct secret research into mind control, and how the use of drugs (such as LSD), sensory deprivation and other extreme physical experiences could affect the human brain – in many cases without the test subjects’ knowledge or consent.

The scale and scope of MKUltra is far too broad and grim to describe in detail here – it’s merely sufficient to say that, although many files pertaining to MKUltra were destroyed, the declassification of 20,000 documents in the late 70s meant that the breadth of what went on between 1953 and 1973 is now officially acknowledged. 

The movies: Adrian Lyne’s unforgettable 1990 psychological horror Jacob’s Ladder (1990) dealt briefly with the topic of using hallucinogenic drugs on unwitting victims (though not in connection with MKUltra), while The Men Who Stare At Goats (loosely based on the book of the same name by Jon Ronson) brushes on a similarly dark subject.

As far as we’re aware, though, Blair Erickson’s indie horror Banshee Chapter(2013) is the first film of its type to directly reference MKUltra, and it’s an effective, if very strange genre movie (you can read our review here). Blurring the lines between the CIA’s real-world experiments and a plot that openly references HP Lovecraft’s short story From Beyond, Banshee Chapter sees a journalist (Katia Winter) investigate the disappearance of her friend and the origins of a hallucinogenic drug he took moments before he went missing.

What the reporter find involves a gonzo counter-culture writer (brilliantly played by Ted Levine) and a growing realisation that there may be a supernatural edge to the conspiracy. Like many of the mysteries touched on in this piece, Banshee Chapter is maddeningly light on closure, but it’s the film’s mysterious, unexplainable nature that also makes it so memorably scary.

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