By the time intergalactic warfare historian Laura Eisenhower told me that she was secretly recruited to go to Mars, I was way past the point of being surprised. I'd simply heard so much of this kind of talk over the past few days that it seemed totally normal. It was day five of the week-long Conspira Sea Cruise, a gathering of conspiracy theorists (for lack of a better umbrella term) and 80 or so curious followers. We had all boarded a massive cruise ship to listen to the speakers' musings and philosophies on a range of topics — ancient intergalactic warfare, crop circles, magical vibrations, chemtrails, the government's control of the weather, alien politicians, and wishing boxes — your normal vacation chatter. And all of this was more or less unbeknownst to the other 2,900 cruise passengers who were oiled up, buffet-ready, and vacationing all around us. For my part, I was there to host and produce a video on the seminar and its characters, and thus, I had been inundated with far-out tales since the moment I stepped onboard the massive, 18-deck ship, which was, at the time that Laura and I eventually sat down by the adults-only hot tub, hurling its way, well-announced by Motown music and exhaust smoke, towards Cabo San Lucas. It was too late, also, to have the kind of out-of-body, how-the-hell-did-I-get-here moments you might think I'd be having. (That moment had come the night before, at the cruise's Love Boat-themed disco, where I found myself doing the Hustle, as instructed by motivational dancers, alongside the self-proclaimed leading expert on Area 51.) Instead, what happened when Laura told me that she had been contacted to go to Mars was that I nodded my head, squinted into the sun, smiled, and leaned back on my sun-deck chair, not significantly more taken by the notion of her potential inter-stellar venture than I was by, say, the whereabouts of that evening's bingo game. I wanted to know what Laura knew, to understand what she experienced, but I didn't want to tiptoe further into the complicated attic of her memory by asking skeptical or damning questions, for fear of putting her too pointedly on the spot. What I came to find out was that she was targeted to "travel off-planet" by a man she dated. That she did not, in fact, fulfill the request to go to Mars because it felt like a dark journey with untrustworthy people. Conspiracy theorists have a reputation for being angry and relentless, but in our top-deck talk, Laura was none of that. She was fun and sweet and loving, wistful and thoughtful in the answers that she seemed to search for, peering out on the horizon line. Eisenhower describes herself as a global alchemist, astrologer, and educator on ancient intergalactic warfare. She is the great-granddaughter of president Eisenhower. She wears beads and silver spiral earrings. She is the kind of woman who you'd expect would teach your children about plants or art in school. Except, of course, she has tattooed representations of some of her philosophies in talisman symbols all over her body (like the labyrinth on her forearm) that serve as reminders of all she's been through in this life and lives past (cue the female-led Memento sequel set in space). So, yeah, her beliefs on, say, "beings from Venus" that Nixon "put on VIP status" and "invited to the Pentagon" may have felt foreign, but her being felt oddly familiar. Even if only by comparison. By this point, I had already spoken to a specialist on pyramids and crop circles, a guru who sells wishing boxes, a sharp-eyed and even sharper-tongued couple who claim Qatar and Ari Emanuel were behind the Paris attacks, and a man who has come back from the dead three times — only to refute that death is even a real thing (among other stories). So, yes, Laura's Mars recruitment may have been a cold splash in the face to some, but I’d long been swimming in the heavily chlorinated pool of the unimaginable, and even the wildest details had started to slick off my gills. Going into the cruise, my intention was simply to learn. I wanted to see how and what bonded such unique people with such strong beliefs. I thought I'd be met with paranoid skepticism. Instead, Laura's attitude was one of calm openness. Laura Eisenhower seemed to understand — to be one of the few theorists who understood — that I wasn't there to be converted, nor was I there to judge. I was just onboard to ask questions. Indeed, when I asked Laura what she says when people tell her that she's crazy, her frank reply was, "Accept what resonates and leave what doesn't. I don't mind if they just don't believe. I'm just worried for the human race. The truth doesn't need believers. The truth is the truth." This strong yet guarded approach was exactly how Eisenhower dealt with me, too. She let me seek out information myself instead of preaching it to me — though she had ample opportunity as we scooped mashed potatoes next to each other in the lunch buffet line or while we boogied at the cruise ship's karaoke night club. In fact, in most respects, Laura is a great representation of a lot of the theorists I met during my time onboard the Conspira Sea Cruise: earnest and well-intentioned, entertaining, even endearing.
One night on a very windy deck, dimly lit by fluorescent bulbs on lampposts, I played mini-golf with Andy Thomas, author of The Truth Agenda and (self-proclaimed) conspiracy theorist with a specialty on crop circles. Thomas has an English accent that makes any statement sound incredibly convincing; once, as I went to fish my golf ball out of whatever gutter it had landed in, I had to stop and remind myself that I was listening to theoretical conjectures on UFOs and alien light beams, and not an Ivy League law lecture. On this occasion, Thomas was wearing all black with a black vest that added to the distinct magician vibe he was giving off. As he spoke, his ever-widening eyes darted around the putting green and grew as he emphasized his favorite points. He was enthusiastic about his claims that serious efforts have been put forth by our government to cover up everything from crop circles to Princess Diana's death. But he exhibited reserve, balancing out each of his arguments with counterpoints in a strong yet casual way that showed he controlled the power of his supposed knowledge. He had this way of making me believe he knew something I didn't, even if I didn't end up finding out what exactly that was. My eyes widened back. You see, Thomas is a man (one of many, really) who claims to have seen bright, inexplicable lights shoot down from the sky, lights similar to the ones that others claim to leave fully formed crop circles in their wake. He doesn't claim to know what causes the light, but is open to the idea of extraterrestrial foul play, and, for that matter, foul play on the part of those who cover up these lights and their residual effects on fields. What set him apart from the others on the cruise, to me, though, was his thirst for proof and his radical embrace of skepticism. He tells me, "I'm really interested in stuff that have proper evidence, because you can believe what you like...but if you've got no evidence, it doesn't mean anything." Still, the "proof" at hand is his first-person account, some covered-up government documents, and the lingering mystery of shapes in corn fields. Whether or not I believe that crop circles are representative of a global, if not intergalactic, issue doesn't change the fact that I enjoyed my conversations with Thomas. He exhibited another side of the various textures of beliefs these theorists hold. But these theorists and their followers are not alone. As Thomas told me that night, most Americans actually do believe in conspiracies, even if they won't admit it in public. True enough, in a 2014 study from the American Journal of Political Science, researchers found that nearly 50% of Americans believe in one conspiracy theory or another. And belief is not all or nothing, I learned. Onboard the ship, I spoke with people who dedicate their entire lives to mastering the art of belief. There was something marvelously human about all of the theorists and conference attendees — what they really wanted was to be heard, to be seen, to belong. That belonging shone through in the bonds of sheer belief, often even in the face of obvious fact.
Nearly 50% of Americans believe in one conspiracy or another.
There is no better example of the strange beauty that can be found in the desire to believe than in cruise speaker Dannion Brinkley. I met Brinkley for the first time over a ping-pong game on a highly saturated cruise deck while others clamored off the boat at our first port in Mexico. Brinkley was the "Big Dog" of the cruise, known for hugging everyone as soon as he met them and again when he said goodbye. His signature move is cuddling his face close enough to the hug-ees so that they can feel his breath escape his mammoth body, his heart beating hard against theirs (and also harder than theirs). When I asked him what he thinks about while hugging, his reply was simply, "I become them." Then, once he eventually releases them from his comfortable grip, he looks at them through his transitional indoor-outdoor optical sunglasses and gives a broad-strokes reading of what's going on in their lives, sidewalk-fortune-teller style. Brinkley claims to have been struck by lightning, twice, to have been declared "dead" for 28 minutes, and to have survived open-heart and open-brain surgery as a result. He purports that all of this serves as proof of the greatest conspiracy ever: that "death” is actually a myth and that, in reality, "no one ever dies — it just doesn't happen." Instead, according to Brinkley, what we will experience when we meet our maker, so to speak, is what he calls a "360-degree panoramic of [our] lives" where we will "become everyone [we've] ever met" and decide "what difference [we] and God made" at the end of it. By this, I'm pretty sure he meant: What good did we do, and how did we help those we sat next to on the bus? His excessive hugs, then, serve to spread joy and love to those he meets, and then later those feelings will return back to him when he relives every moment of this life at its end. (Still with me?) In essence, "I'm hugging myself!" he exclaimed in one workshop, met by hysterical laughter from his enthusiastic crowd. When he's not riling up audience members or selling books ("Buy it on Amazon! It'll be cheaper!" he said after this particular talk — a rare suggestion for those theorists looking to profit from their followers), Brinkley works as a hospice volunteer with The Twilight Brigade, a group that he helped organize and that extends end-of-life care to veterans. Whether or not I believe in the afterlife, the "360-degree panoramic view," or his obtuse fortune-telling abilities is no matter. I believe in his effort to comfort those afraid of dying and those who are close to it. To me, there's very little harm being done here. Joshua Warren offers a seemingly more sinister example of what it means to be a thought leader in the conspiracy world. I accompanied self-proclaimed "educator," salesman, screenwriter, producer, and all-around-guru Warren to the cruise-ship's cigar lounge so that he could drink white wine and enjoy a smoke, which he said was a rarity, despite his eagerness to do so on camera. It was there that I heard about Warren's magical wishing machine. Not only was the machine mystical in its powers but, I was told, it couldn't be opened without it breaking. What it was, exactly, I really didn't know. It looked (almost ironically, perhaps) like a cigar box with knobs and plastic on it. It did not need to be plugged in. Now, Warren didn't invent this "technology" himself, nor does he even claim to know how it works. Somehow, though, it — or the money from its sale, rather — has brought him the life he's always dreamed of (or rather, wished for): a house in North Carolina and a condo in Puerto Rico that he did, in fact, wish for on this very machine. I had to try it out for myself. I decided to wish to win money at the blackjack table. Under Warren's watch, I placed some symbols of that vision (a strand of my hair, a dime, and a representation of a playing card) on a copper disk, affixed to the box. Then I rubbed a plastic plate next to the copper plate while I systematically turned every knob in a small grid of knobs. There was no rhyme or reason to the turning; I was just told to stop when I "felt it." Once I was done, I was meant to put the box in the corner and wait. But I couldn't wait. I'm impatient. And, after all, we only had so much time onboard. I played five hands of blackjack with Warren hovering Oz-like behind me and — drumroll please — I had no luck. No loss, but no luck. I, unlike the hundreds of followers posting successful testimonies on Josh's website, broke even that night. My feelings on Joshua Warren? Well, also undecided. I enjoyed talking to him, and he was game, fielding everything from questions like, "Do you feel like you're peddling fiction?" to my request to gamble on the spot. Still, as I digested the week's events, I couldn't shake the thought that somewhere, Warren, with his exotic houses and gold diamond bracelets, was gaining off of his entranced followers who regularly send in money in exchange for these boxes. In hopes of what? Fame? Success? Love? More money? If the cruise was an extreme testament to our ability to believe (and what that belief can do for an individual and for a group), it was clear that Joshua Warren took advantage of that ability, capitalizing on blind faith partially by keeping that faith blind through lack of clear answers about his tactics. It's worth noting that, as I type this, there is a link to buy a "Money Magick Kit" promising to make you more money ("or your money back guaranteed") on Warren's website for $99.95 (plus $9.95 shipping and handling). To his credit (or against it, depending on how you see it), Warren advises against using the wishing machine when it comes to health concerns, which separates him from some other conspiracy salesmen that he might otherwise get lumped in with. He's not about to bet someone's life on this contraption. And, he claims, most people find solace or strength in their experiences with the boxes. It's used to "allow people to seek and find coincidences in their own lives." When I asked for statistics, Mr. Warren said he could only go by what he hears from testimony. He said that of 3,000 wishing box users across the world, only eight had ever complained of it not working. That's a supposed 99.7% success rate, y'all. Still, Warren admits there could be a positive "placebo effect" when it comes to this device. Meaning, someone could use it, wish for money, find a $100 bill on the subway, and credit this win to the box instead of, say, a hole in someone else's pocket. There's a twisting of logic here that seems to buoy up the box as miraculous in cases where it works and shrug it off in cases where it doesn't. The placebo effect is all fine and good if it brings someone joy and happiness, but, when all reason and money are at stake, I just couldn't bring myself to swallow the pill.
There's a twisting of logic here that seems to buoy up the box as miraculous in cases where it works and shrug it off in cases where it doesn't.
Another sinister (in my view) example of conspiracy theorists' control on those willing to believe is Sean David Morton, "legal and constitutional expert," financial analyst, Area 51 "expert, producer, and radio show host." (If he were here, reading over my shoulder, Sean David Morton would scream "Doctor! Sean David Morton" as a correction, even though he is by all accounts not a doctor.) Upon disembarking the ship, Morton and his wife were arrested by the IRS on tax fraud charges. If convicted, Morton could face a maximum sentencing of 650 years in prison. Despite not having a law degree, he has reportedly chosen to represent himself in his own trial. Two days before he found himself shackled by the hands of the law, Morton told me about his psychic ability to "remotely view," well, anything — from where a friend might be on a college campus to the way the stock market would turn. What he failed to mention (or to predict), though, was a 2013 order by the SEC demanding he pay out $11.5 million in reparations for tax fraud. Looking back on my time with him, I zoom in on a moment with a particularly incensed Conspira Sea Cruise participant who cornered Morton for not giving her the specific, detailed advice she was looking for. The problem she needed help with? How to get out of debt without the government's interference. I had a similar experience with a couple by the names of Len Horowitz and Sherri Kane, or, as their self-assigned conspiracy-celebrity-couple name goes, "The HoroKane." The pair lives in Hawaii, where they broadcast homespun documentaries about everything — from the beauty of the 582hz frequency (which they claim, through a series of perplexing diagrams, is the genesis of love and creation), to the Paris attacks (which they insist can reportedly be traced back to Qatar and Ari Emanuel). You can see the full hour-and-22-minute Paris effort here. Horowitz and Kane have grown wary of the media, having been chastised for their beliefs in the past. Still, it came as a shock to me that the day after my sit-down lunch and interview with the couple, they approached me on the sundeck one more time. This time, a camera was in their hands. Horowitz looked excited to see me. He said he had been looking for me and wanted to discuss one of the questions I had asked him during our interview the previous day. The topic at hand was whether or not he felt like a messiah. He said I'd only asked him that question for one of two reasons: Either it was my true curiosity, and therefore a reflection of my own messiah complex; or I was sent by "True Ott.” True Ott, I later found out, is a fictitious-sounding nemesis of Horowitz and Kane, out to ruin them. Horowitz also told me that True Ott was 7'5" tall. I effectively convinced him that I knew no such man and that it was, instead, my journalistic instinct, more specifically, a genuine reaction to his previous answer, that inspired me to asked that question. Eventually, we settled into a calmer exchange. Horowitz dropped the camera and let us resume filming as he carried on with stories of FBI investigations and persecution. Though the encounter was intense, we left on good terms and later made plans to do karaoke. What may not have ended so well, though, was the couple's later and more direct attack on a fellow journalist covering the conference. The photographer had been using flash during a screening of Horowitz and Kane's Paris attacks documentary screening, and the pair were growing increasingly unsettled by her presence. When the movie wrapped, Kane called the woman up in front of the crowd of theorists and conference participants and essentially berated her in front of the entire audience. Instead of garnering support from the crowd, though, the plan to embarrass the photographer backfired. What ensued was a very tense, very awkward town hall meeting. When I arrived on the scene, Dannion Brinkley, the "Big-Dog," well respected by his peers and audience alike, was walking out and shaking his head. Turns out, not all conspiracy theorists back each other in every situation. For full disclosure, I wasn’t personally afraid at any point on the ship, but I understood why the targeted members of the media left the room totally rattled. And, after Susan Shumsky, the well-meaning organizer of this group (and other similar cruises) did her best to gently and genuinely calm the room and maintain the media’s right to be onboard (we had all paid for our tickets, after all) I gathered with her and a friend in her cabin for one last game of Scrabble. It was appropriate to spend the last hours of my time onboard with Shumsky, since I had met her as she stuffed schedules into gift bags and made name tags in an airport hotel room in L.A. the night before the ship departed. Shumsky has studied under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru of the Beatles and Deepak Chopra, and has lived in a RV, van, or trailer since 1989. She likes it better that way. She has a high, shaky voice but means business. She wears crystal hair clips for the boat’s dress-up nights. In her room, after the big blow-up, I could tell that Shumsky was shaken. She said everyone meant well. I felt horrible for the woman who was publicly shamed by the theorists. But, there in her room, I felt bad for Shumsky, too, for having to watch everything she spent so long organizing fall apart. She won the Scrabble game, and the next morning before I took off, she assured me that all had been resolved. Still, the image of Horowitz and Kane coming towards me on the deck, their hands gripped so tightly on the mic, their eagerness for emphatic voice-raising, stuck with me. When I got back to the office, a little seasick and a little shell-shocked, the number-one question I was asked was "So, are you crazy now?" The answer is no. What I said, instead, was that I now know more, in a way. Not that I have seen the light, have shifted worldviews, or have adopted any of these beliefs, but rather that I know more about what others believe, and I feel a bit more of the fabric of how and why conspiracy theorists operate. And, truth be told, it's a lot more similar to the way “non-conspiracy theorists” operate than one might think. Onboard the Conspira Sea Cruise, I found myself face-to-face with a group of individuals whom much of society has deemed totally insane. I danced with them, played games with them, dined with them, made friends with them, and I even argued with them. The result was a better understanding of what it means to believe. And the chance to hold my own beliefs up against a group's beliefs — perhaps ironically, as these individuals do regularly in the outside world. It resulted in a more strong-willed empathy to defend the right for others to believe and evangelize what they hold to be true to them (as long as others aren't getting swindled, tricked, or hurt). And I came out of the experience with a better understanding of what it means to belong. I got to watch a group of unique and disparate minds find community in the unlikeliest of places: onboard a gigantic cruise ship, dwarfed by the sky and sea.