The Monster at
The End of this Book
We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity
if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and good will
to everything that hurts or pleases us.
--- David HumeAs soon as Mark Phillips heard that the World Trade Center was on fire, he ran to the roof of his Brooklyn home. He didn't know what had set the building ablaze. He just knew, as a journalist, that he needed to photograph what was happening. He took his first picture right after the second plane crashed, and within half an hour the Associated Press was distributing his images to the world.
It wasn't till later that week that he learned what people were seeing in that first photo. "Mark," his agent told him on the phone, "you have a face in your picture."
Phillips took another look, and there it was. "The image I saw was distinct," he later recalled. "Eyes, nose, mouth, horns. It was an image from a nightmare, leering at us, triumphant in its evil as it hung onto Tower 2 of the World Trade Center." There, in the contours of the smoke, he found the face of Satan. Search online and you'll see still more 9/11 pictures where people perceive the shapes of demons. Some of the photos are fakes, but not all. And if some of them require you to squint pretty intently to see the spirits allegedly encoded within them, there are others, like the photo Phillips took, where the face isn't hard to see.
There's no shortage of theories about what the faces mean. "An act of hatred and violence is a thrill ride for a demon," one website suggests. "Demons knew what was going to happen in New York and they gathered there to jump in at the point of the impact, like a human jumping onto a moving train to have a thrill." The Christian conspiracist Texe Marrs identifies the imagery with the Enemy Outside: "Just as the Arab terrorists led by the Devil left their own trail of evidence, wanting the world to know their names of infamy, so, too, does the Devil, as proven in this photograph, cackle out loud and boast, "I did it --- and I'm proud of what I did!" Another writer, on the other hand, sees the Enemy Above at work: "Don't these photos of Satan at the World Trade Center catastrophe tell us that the current seat of Satan's power is the World Trade Center? Don't these photos depict Satan being awakened from his hiding place in the World Trade Center? For it is the international bankers who operate from Fed, the CFR and the World Trade Center who create first, second and third world debt."
Some even see the face as a signal from a Benevolent Conspiracy, or at least from a benevolent power. One website calls the image "a much needed edict from Allah --- a final ruling from the highest authority possible which decrees once and for all that the use of terrorism is never permitted in Islam."
Then there's the explanation I prefer. The faces are the result of apophenia, the process of projecting patterns onto data. More specifically, they are pareidolia, in which those patterns are perceived as meaningful shapes or sounds. It is pareidolia that allows us to see a man in the moon, to hear a Satanic incantation when "Stairway to Heaven" is played backward, or to conjure the image of your subconscious choice while taking a Rorschach test. Indeed, pareidolia makes the whole world a Rorschach test. The Web is filled with delightful pareidolia-themed photo sets, where unexpected forms appear in mountains, pasta, fire, clocks, clouds.
The apparitions in the pictures range from an octopus to an angel, but we are especially prone to seeing faces. That sink's knobs and spigot look like two eyes and a nose. That house's windows and door look like two eyes and a mouth. That cloud of smoke billowing from an unimaginably evil attack looks like the author of evil himself.
Spotting such images is an act of creativity, though it's a kind of creativity that is often invisible to the creator. It's easy to believe the face is really there in the photo rather than in the interaction between the photo and the observer. Remember what Robert Anton Wilson said about Nesta Webster: "She was so modest that she didn't recognize herself as the artist creating all that."
Many people do understand that they're the artists in the situation. Some even transform their experiences of pareidolia into artworks that others can enjoy. The Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali called this the critical-paranoiac method. At a lecture in Connecticut in 1934, he illustrated the idea with a slide: a postcard photo of tribesmen in front of a hut. He then showed the same image on its side, and pareidolia did its work: With some priming from the painter, the audience could see an image of a human head.
More examples followed, including a vulture that Freud had perceived in Leonardo da Vinci's The Virgin and Child with St. Anne. "These more or less accidental ideas Mr. Dali is concentrating upon in his own work," The Hartford Courant reported the next day, "but instead of allowing them to be accidental, he is trying to cultivate them."
In a conspiracy context, the ironic approach entails a similar sort of cultivation. A group of scholars learned this in 2010, when they played a game they called The Paranoid Style. The historian Rob MacDougall, who organized the exercise, reported afterward that he started it with "a little briefing on pareidolia and apophenia." Then, after asking each player to pick a well-known historical figure, he
told them we were looking for evidence of the secret conspiracy of vampires that has pulled the strings behind the world for hundreds of years. So we went through what we knew about each of our historical figures and found "evidence" of each one's role for or against the Great Vampire Conspiracy. . . . If anything, they were too willing to indulge me: we very quickly spun out a goofy little chronicle of the vampire-vs-electricizer war behind the world, but we probably didn't work at it long enough to get to the real kick of autohistoric apophenia, when the evidence starts to line up all too well with the fantasy you have just concocted, and you skate right up to the edge of believing. It's a powerful and uncanny feeling, and if it serves as good inoculation against pseudohistorical thinking, it also colors your relationship with "real" history ever after.
Tim Powers, whose novels often attribute historical events to supernatural conspiracies, encounters something similar when he researches his books. You reach a point, he has said, where you need to start "resisting paranoia" because "your research genuinely does seem to support whatever goofy theory you've come up with." As Paul Krassner put it after his Manson satire seemed to come to life around him, "Had I accidentally stumbled into a real conspiracy when I thought I was merely making one up?"
Human beings have a knack not just for finding patterns in chaos but for constructing stories to make sense of events, especially events that scare us. I can hardly condemn that habit. I just devoted an entire book, after all, to the patterns I think I've glimpsed in American history. But when building a narrative you can fall into a trap, one where a combination of confirmation bias and serendipity blinds you to the ways your enticing story might fail to describe the world.
A conspiracy story is especially enticing because it imagines an intelligence behind the pattern. It doesn't just see a shape in the smoke; it sees a face in the smoke. It draws on one of the most basic human characteristics, something the science writer Michael Shermer calls agenticity --- a "tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency." Sometimes the story a conspiracy theorist tells is correct. At other times he mistakes a chicken joint for a sterilization scheme, an unusual sect for a body-snatching cult, a Mooninite for a terror plot.
The conspiracy theorist will always be with us, because he will always be us. We will never stop finding patterns. We will never stop spinning stories. We will always be capable of jumping to conclusions, particularly when we're dealing with other nations, factions, subcultures, or layers of the social hierarchy. And conspiracies, unlike many of the monsters that haunt our folklore, actually exist, so we won't always be wrong to fear them. As long as our species survives, so will paranoia.
Yet we can limit the damage that paranoia does. We can try to empathize with people who seem alien. We can be aware of the cultural myths that shape our fears. And we can be open to evidence that might undermine the patterns we think we see in the world. We should be skeptical, yes, of people who might be conspiring against us. But we should also be skeptical --- deeply, deeply skeptical --- of our fearful, fallible selves.