In the last few years, much has been made of artists as moral agents, or the idea that artists, because of their standing and influence, maintain an obligation to enrich society through their works. If offensive art can inflict psychological pain, should certain subjects be verboten? How do you cover immoral art—or should you at all?
This gets to the heart of a problem facing society writ large: are ideas dangerous? Art, at its core, is an idea made manifest. But there are many different kinds of dangerous ideas we encounter every day. There is immoral art, yes, but there is also: offensive speech, inflammatory writing, classified information, and fake news.
One of the most interesting of all dangerous ideas—and something that encompasses all previous entries—is the conspiracy theory. Long misunderstood as the domain of cranks and kooks, conspiracy theories are, in fact, our common language. They’re in our media, on YouTube, in podcasts and on the radio; they’re even in our government. We all believe in some kind of conspiracy, whether it’s Russian microwave guns or Satanic cabals, yet conspiracy theories are among the most maligned of all the dangerous ideas.
What do we do with conspiracy theories? Do we ban them outright? What about conspiracy theorists? We recently spoke with Brad Abrahams, a documentarian who is trying to answer these questions through his art. Brad recently released the short film Do You See What I See? (2021) about conspiracy artist David Dees. Dees, a controversial figure both on and offline, has released art that is both wildly imaginative and wildly offensive, sometimes even bordering on hate speech. Abrahams created the film to understand how Dees, a one-time animator on Sesame Street, came to believe in the many strange ideas that proliferate in his art—and why conspiracy theories have taken over society.
DIABOLIQUE: You’re one of the few filmmakers currently working that examines conspiracies and conspiracy theorists in a mostly impartial manner. What attracted you to these subject areas?
BRAD ABRAHAMS: It’s been life-long love and part of that comes from when I was a child—that allure of maybe there are things that can’t be explained that do exist out there, that, for cryptozoology as an example, there could be living dinosaurs off on some island. As I’ve gotten older there is still a little bit of that but it’s been supplanted by the desire to understand where these beliefs come from; what’s the motivation for them, what they can tell us about the human psyche.
DIABOLIQUE: Have you come to a conclusion on where these ideas come from?
BA: I’ve found it’s different for each subculture. With conspiracy theories, it’s a mix of there being a kernel of truth behind almost every conspiracy even though the theory blows it completely out of proportion, but there’s always a little something that sets off the conspiracy. In that sense, it’s understandable why people fall into it. Then it becomes, why do people amplify it and turn it into a paranoid fantasy? That is a combination of a deep distrust of other people, a suspicion of other people, and it could also be… have you heard of apophenia?
DIABOLIQUE: I have not. What is it?
BA: That’s a tendency in all of us, and it’s good to a certain extent, where you see patterns. Humans are pattern-seeking, but for some people it’s in overdrive. You might see a face on Mars and to you it’s an actual face so that must mean it was constructed and that there are people on Mars, whereas the average person would be like, “Oh yeah, that looks like a face, but it’s not a real face.” Or it could be hearing something like a voice in something that doesn’t exist, seeing even Jesus’s face in toast. Some people are more sensitive to that, but if you keep following that spectrum you get into things like paranoid schizophrenia eventually, where you see patterns everywhere, where they don’t necessarily exist.
It’s also that the world is so chaotic—and getting more and more chaotic—that there’s a drive to make sense of that chaos, especially when it’s causing bad things in your life. If you can ascribe it to one group that’s doing it all, I think that probably makes life easier to understand, and to live.
DIABOLIQUE: You’ve covered a wide range of subjects, from Bigfoot and UFOs to your most recent short film on conspiracy artist David Dees; how do you select the subjects for your films?
BA: In the case of David, I had heard his name mentioned on the radio many years ago while listening to a show on the abduction experience. They were using David as an example of something too ridiculous for them to even talk about, and so that’s what drew me to him. I thought, “Well, that’s probably the most interesting thing that I’m missing out on.”
And with David Dees I had always seen his art popping up in places but didn’t know who he was until I started doing research for my Conspiracy Cruise (2019) movie—that’s my narrative film about conspiracy theorists. I started to look up David and realized he’s someone who I should definitely interview.
DIABOLIQUE: One thing I find interesting about your films is that, on some level, you appear to empathize with your subjects. You don’t pity them, you don’t condescend. You meet them at their level even when you don’t agree with what they believe. How do you prepare for the interviews, especially when you know you’re going to disagree with the person?
BA: I almost always do a pre-interview by phone or in-person. My criteria for going forward is, does it seem like this person has a pronounced mental illness? If the answer is yes then I wouldn’t go through with it because it seems exploitative. That’s number one. And then: do I like the person, can I connect with them on a human level? If I can then I know I can tell their story even if myself and the audience doesn’t believe it—or in David Dees’s case, if we find it abhorrent—and you’ll still connect with them on an emotional level. I like to create a cognitive dissonance between the viewer and the subject where they know they shouldn’t like this person but they can’t help to do it because of how they’ve been humanized.
DIABOLIQUE: You mention abhorrent and I want to touch on that with regard to your new Dees film, Do You See What I See?, when you confront David over the antisemitic nature of some of his art and identify to him that you’re Jewish. Because you cover conspiracy theories and theorists, and the field is rife with white supremacists and antisemites, have you encountered any pushback from your subjects; if so, how did you deal with it?
BA: For David himself, no. He was the type of person who would say, “Oh, I’m not anti-Jewish, I love Jewish people. I just don’t like zionists.” But more so his followers or fans of his work. I haven’t gotten any direct messages, but the film was uploaded to Bitchute, the quote-unquote free speech YouTube.
BA: Yeah, and just the comments on the upload there—at least half of them are antisemitic, super antisemitic. Reading that, I guess I’m not surprised. It obviously doesn’t feel good, and it makes me feel less hope for the human race. But I was ready for it.
DIABOLIQUE: Following up on that, in your films you approach the subjects by allowing them to tell their own stories without inserting academic perspectives or subject matter experts. Why do you present your subjects in a way where they are uninterrupted with their thoughts?
BA: That’s what I love about documentaries, and those are the types of documents I like. Otherwise, if I’m imposing my narrative over it or presenting an investigative style of questioning, that, to me, feels like something on the news. That’s not interesting to me, and that’s not a documentary. A documentary is living in someone’s shoes or through their point of view for however long the film is. The best way to do that is to let them tell the story.
DIABOLIQUE: In Do You See What I See? David is evasive on certain subjects. How did you get him to agree to do the interview?
BA: Surprisingly, he was really open to it. I had emailed him a few years ago, saying, “I would like to do something with you, probably a documentary, would you be interested?” He said it sounded fun, then he immediately mailed me a bunch of books of all of his art. We kept in touch and everything seemed good. I told him I wasn’t making a puff piece about him, that it wasn’t promoting his work and I disagreed with much of it, but it was also not a journalistic hit piece. He said he understood and that he liked being asked tough questions. But the day before flying out there to film with him I got a message saying, “Brad, I’ve been talking with some of my friends and they’re telling me I shouldn’t film with you, that you’re not a good person, and that you’re going to expose me. But you seem nice, so I’m very confused. What should I do?” I replied earnestly. I later found out the person he was talking to was one person, his neighbor.
DIABOLIQUE: One of the things you bring up in Do You See What I See? is the sub-Reddit r/Dees_Nuts, shorthand for David Dees is Nuts. Dees gained notoriety over the last few years in part because of an ironic embrace of his art. Why do you think his art became so popular on the Internet?
BA: His art first started to gain popularity back in 2003 or 2004 before social media because it was hosted on the site of another more popular conspiracy theorist. That’s when I started seeing it, because I had a girlfriend whose parents were really into conspiracies. Even then it captured me and it captured anyone I showed it to. There’s a frenzied intensity of the images that really encapsulates this chaos and uncertainty and fear but also contains an absurdist humor, and that captures the time we’re living in. I think, not even intentionally, that’s what all of his images do: even if you hate the subject matter, they make you scared and laugh at the same time. That seems like perfect fodder for social media culture, people that have embraced the chaos of the world and the nihilism of everything. He seems to get more and more popular as time passes.
DIABOLIQUE: There’s one of his more famous images that became a meme which depicts a Walmart as a FEMA Camp, and I have a personal favorite where he has a child dressed up as a suicide bomber but with ears of corn replacing the explosives, that, I imagine, was intended as some kind of commentary on Monsanto. Many of these images are darkly humorous regardless of whether you understand what you’re looking at. Do you have any personal favorites?
BA: I was a fan of his Bush-era work where he had Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld waterboarding people. Those seemed dead-on, and he lampooned Fox News at that time and anything to do with the war in Iraq. That was a golden age of Dees, where it aligned with some of my own beliefs and politics at the time and there was nothing overtly racist or antisemitic. Later on, before he died, many of his recent images were very pro Black Lives Matter, he was into that movement. He was into Occupy Wall Street and the protests of various pipelines and Native American sovereignty. Not any images people share now, probably because they’re not cool or funny, but that’s what he was headed towards.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you see the lack of a coherent ideology in Dees’s work as indicative of any larger cultural or political trends in the conspiracy community today?
BA: In the conspiracy world there was a political agnosticism where you didn’t trust anybody in the government or any power structures like the police or the military. That was a thread but I think Trump threw a monkey wrench into all of that. Somehow Trump became the only power structure and politician that you could trust. Conspiracies then, with Trump, became partisan. They’re all mostly right-wing, for the most part, now. There were conspiracies with Obama, especially racists coming out of the woodwork, but Trump pushed it to the right. In the 1980s and 1990s it was all over the map, but now it’s almost exclusively right-wing.
DIABOLIQUE: Are you currently working on any films about conspiracy theorists?
BA: The David Dees piece was seen, a rough-cut, and I got hired to co-direct a feature documentary that profiles conspiracy theorists in a similar style. We’re going to go on the hunt for interesting people with interesting stories, some ex-believers, family members of conspiracy theorists, and then people like Dees who have compelling stories and bizarre beliefs. We’ll also sprinkle in experts and historians and psychiatrists and philosophers.
I also have a cryptozoology project, which is a documentary series that focuses on the cryptozoologists themselves and not the animals. We’re going to go on expeditions with them to find these animals but it’s really about them and trying to understand how someone can devote their whole lives and sacrifice their work to find an animal that might not exist. And then I’m also working on a documentary series about folklore, Keep Folklore Alive. Our pilot episode, “Telos or Bust,” is about all of the strange beliefs at Mount Shasta, California.
DIABOLIQUE: You operate in the artistic medium of conspiracy, covering people who believe in conspiracy theories—are there any conspiracies you yourself believe in? I want to distinguish between conspiracies and conspiracy theories because the latter implies a kind of a priori knowledge that the subject is only a theory and has no grounding in reality.
BA: There are conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. I’m talking about MKULTRA, the government secretly dosing people with psychedelics to study mind control. That would sound crazy if it wasn’t true. There’s also the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the Tuskegee experiments. And then there’s Edward Snowden. It sounded so crazy that the government is spying on everything that you’re doing—every tech message, every phone call—but that turned out to be true.
In terms of theories that haven’t yet been proven, I’m a skeptic but I’m not a cynic, so I keep my eyes and mind open. There are fun ones, like the idea that we’re actually in the 1700s and 300 years were added onto our history, for some bizarre reason to do with the Catholic Church. That seems benign. Or the Mandela Effect and the idea that there might be branching, alternate universes, but the only thing we notice somehow are the product names are different. But that’s pretty much it.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you see yourself becoming a subject of one of your own films?
BA: I don’t think I have the charisma for that.