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The Culture of Conspiracy: Media Technology, The Moving Image, and Conspiracy Theories

On November 22, 1963 Abraham Zapruder accidentally recorded the death of the 35th president of the United States. As he watched the motorcade drive through Dallas, a reel of film filled with images of his family came to include a murder. At this moment, Zapruder’s 414 PD Bell and Howell Camera became the vessel for one of the most viewed and copiously analyzed reels of film in American media history. The reel has been viewed by FBI members, scholars, the general public, and, by many groups, it has been manipulated to generate alternative views. It is an object that set the stage for the culture of conspiracy theories and the theorists who give themselves the authority to make such claims. Since 1963 media technology has evolved, providing new ways to promote conspiracy narratives on a wide scale. Tools that can manipulate the moving image and change its context are key in this analysis of media made in a conspiracy narrative. Over time conspiracy theorists have manipulated various moving images to allow for scrutiny. This article will focus on three examples in which conspiracy narratives were generated by taking a moving image out of its context and transforming it into a still image with an agenda. This ability to manipulate the images also comes with a discussion on viewer control and power, as the position of the viewed has become a much more powerful and active experience over the evolution of media technology. Also important are the ways in which conspiracy theories are distributed through means such as documentaries and online forums. Combined with this image manipulation, each circulation type offers a set of standards that further contribute to the generation of a conspiracy narrative. These vessels for communication and promotion attract a wide audience and assist in the spread of these theories.

By beginning with the Zapruder film, one can trace the ways in which image manipulation became connotated with conspiracy narratives. The importance of the individual film stills and their assistance in generating theories such as the one seen in Oliver Stone’s JFK will be examined. Then, the focus will shift to a discussion of how more modern advancements in media technology have allowed viewers to exercise much more control over the experience of watching films, with the result being an environment in which a viewer can use zoomed in still images from a film to make larger claims about the integrity of the director and his motives. By analyzing Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the subsequent conspiracy theory documentary Room 237, one can see the distinct ways in which controlling the layout of a film gives the viewer a feeling of power over the content. From this authority comes the ability to confidently generate theories based on the film through manipulation of stills. Finally, to come to contemporary media, the Boston Bombing Reddit controversy will be examined.

The importance of the Internet and social media in regard to this development and subsequent misidentification will be examined with the concept of the “digital vigilante.” The overarching thread that connects these pieces together is the way in which each one has been made up of a series of still images removed from their filmic context to create a conspiracy theory. By breaking these individual images free of their originally intended medium, the viewer subsequently changes the way the pieces were meant to be understood. For film theorist Andre Bazin, this type of examination damages the integrity and structure of the object. An analysis of Andre Bazin by David Campany states, “deprive a frame of its place in that order and any amount of latent signification is made manifest. The extracted photograph is anarchic, untamed with a surfeit of radically open meanings.”1 Therefore, in taking these pieces of a film and using them as a foundation of an argument, the conspiracy theorist can create anything they want out of a still image without necessarily analyzing the entirety of the montage. The still and moving image can both be easily manipulated due to the dynamic nature of the respective mediums. This analysis centers on the ways that these types of images are altered in order to convey an argument through a combination of image manipulation tactics and rhetorical devices that are used in their distribution.

The Zapruder Film: Foundations of a Conspiracy Culture

Of those who analyze and study the Zapruder film for the sake of questioning its authenticity, there are two distinct sides: the conspiracy advocate and the commission defender.2 In the JFK assassination there is still no official factual timeline and shooter. The idea that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and was responsible for the death of JFK is, in fact, only a theory. Even those on the Warren commission who are dedicated to protecting the facts of the case are considered “theorists” for this reason.3 For many analysts, official or otherwise, the Zapruder film is considered the “Rosetta stone of solving the assassination mystery.”4 Due to the public demand for creating a foundation to try to understand a national tragedy, the film has become more available over time. However, due to various circumstances, the full film has never become completely available. Life Magazine ended up with the original reel, and subsequently damaged several frames of the film. Additionally, in the original film “four frames were removed, and large splices appear,” information that was not conveyed to the public until years later.5 This discovery became a huge catalyst that fueled the conspiracy and skepticism surrounding the assassination. After a certain point, “there was such mistrust of the government and resentment of LIFE that any inconsistency having to do with the film could get pulled into the gravitational force of various conspiracy theories.”6 Over time the film was released to the general public for viewing. Turning over the film to such a mass audience without a firm grasp on what actually happened to JFK has only encouraged spectator speculation.

Today, the entirety of the film is easily accessible on the Internet, both as individual cells and full videos playing at various speeds. This easy access combines itself with the important ability to play and pause, so that the viewer can select specific frames while watching the film and use the movement bar to slide the video footage around however they see fit. Viewer control is abundant, which can cause negative side effects for the integrity of the total documentation. A person’s ability to analyze and draw conclusions from source material is key to structuring an argument, and this ability to force the images to adhere to viewer control distorts the original footage. This physical manipulation of the moving image is problematic, and, according to David Campany, “in its assembly of shots, cinematic montage emphasized the partial, fragmentary nature of a single image.”7 The disruption of montage opens up a singular image to modes of interpretation that extend beyond what it was intended to actually mean. When applying this to a film that is completely historical documentation, the desire to input some sort of symbolic meaning or metaphorical representation irreparably turns the document into an open forum for people to interpret and change the film. Even the FBI originally interpreted the film by analyzing the individual frames to obtain meaning and some sort of trajectory.8 The film is often slowed down or analyzed in a series of still images to determine the movement that occurred after JFK was shot, which is integral to understanding where the shooter was positioned at the time of the event. Slowing down such an impactful moment in American history to determine significance can alter the things that people notice, which then damages the integrity of the full film by changing its sense of time.

The act of analyzing a film in pieces turns it into an entirely different form of rhetoric. Film theorist Laura Mulvey, who writes on the intersection of the still and the moving image, explores the ways that time affects the understanding of a fragment of a film. She quotes philosopher Raymond Bellour, who explains “as soon as you stop the film, you begin to add time to the image. You start to reflect differently on the film, on cinema.”9 This ability to freeze the image has become an extremely prevalent part of 21st century viewing practices, as the viewer uses their newfound control over the image to sometimes manipulate its meanings. In an essay on stillness within the moving image, Laura Mulvey further writes that “with the arrival of new technologies giving the spectator control of the viewing process, this kind of radical break can be experienced by anyone with the simple touch of a button.”10 By breaking the film down to its individual celluloid frames, it is easy to forget that they are a part of a larger narrative. In doing this, time is added to each individual frame, allotting for possibilities that do not necessarily exist when the images are moving at 24 frames per second. This is a technique that can be used in order to project individual thoughts and opinions onto the film as a whole while actually neglecting parts of the entire composition. As a result, the narrative is simultaneously strengthened and weakened. On one hand, the image the viewer is presented with fits the theorist’s narrative quite nicely, but, on the other hand, the image is only a part of a whole, and the theory could possibly be dismantled if the viewer were presented with even just a few seconds of the moving image. In the case of the Zapruder film, the technique of analyzing film stills has been used to produce both a coherent answer for the assassination, and in order to promote speculation against various theories.

Alexandra Zapruder, granddaughter of Abraham Zapruder, wrote an extensively researched book on the film that her grandfather made. In her own words, “on November 24th 1963 the Dallas FBI agents remained at Kodak for an hour or two, watching the film over and over again using an 8mm projector that allowed freeze frame stopping to analyze it, trying to determine what it showed.”11 On the surface it makes sense to pause and get a closer look at what is transpiring in individual frames. However, as previously discussed, this manipulation can also extract individual moments from the collective film in a damaging way. The grey area exists when the desire to push an agenda onto the object is greater than understanding the object for its part of the whole. It is a dangerous position, because obsessing over a particular segment in the film can lead to outrageous claims that do not reflect the entirety of the reel as a whole. For the FBI, an unbiased analysis can potentially come from this style of examination. Due to the lack of technology at the time, analysis of still frames was just a more practical way of taking time to view the images and obtain meaning in tandem with the full moving video. Contrastingly, this desire to obtain meaning from a particular handful of frames has led to specific claims about the Zapruder film from more biased parties. The theory of a second shooter is one of the more prominent ideas about JFK’s assassination that has come from still image analysis. To generate this idea, the viewer needs to watch the film at a slowed down rate to precisely view JFK’s movements as he is struck. The second shooter theory came about some time after the assassination, once the film was made widely accessible and the average viewer had the power to go over the frames at a slower speed. Because of the availability of this type of technology, theories can be generated more quickly and with more authority, as spectatorship has become more of a privileged position of power than an experience of viewing presented information. Therefore, the analysis of individual film stills became an important attribute surrounding the Zapruder film and its subsequent use for these theories.

JFK conspiracy theories have been the source of great entertainment value, the most notable being the 1991 Oliver Stone film that presented the theory of a second shooter in a fictional format that tried to adhere to the qualities of a documentary. The film, along with many other films about conspiracy, falls into a category that cultural historian Bjørn Sørenssen has dubbed the “conspiracy documentary.”12 This is a specific type of documentary in which films adhere to a historical or documentary style while conveying their own agenda and working to uncover the “truth” of a situation. For the general public, the theories often become something of a thrilling mystery to enjoy and follow along with. The desire to learn alongside the theories turns the film into an adventure, thus presenting a historical event within a skeptical framework. The construct of the narrative is also an important part of its success, feeding the idea that conspiracy theorists are the good truth tellers overcoming the evil governmental power. As a result, their ideas read more like good versus evil thrillers, an approachable rhetoric that can be followed and enjoyed by a large part of the population. The conspiracy theory in its display is “best recognized as putting forth a particular narrative logic that organizes disparate events within a mechanistic, tragic framework.”13 So, in regard to the many JFK conspiracies, the approachable and well-known subject matter draws the viewer into the “story” as they see it. By situating the film to start immediately after the death of JFK, the director binds the viewer to a shocking historical moment. The resulting phenomena is one in which the viewer is drawn into the contents and begins to believe them regardless of the facts that are equally available to them.

The distribution of conspiracy via media becomes the most lucrative way to present ideas to a general public. It is apparent that “although they do not usually yield extreme results… the culture of conspiracy theory nevertheless seems to be deeply prevalent in popular culture.”14 This is why films like Oliver Stone’s JFK are able to gain momentous popularity and draw in a large number of viewers. The goal of the film aligns itself with many of the tendencies of the documentary “with the explicit aim to persuade the viewer about this truth by analyzing and interrogating the facts pertaining to this event.”15 By sticking to a format that offers loose historical information, the viewer is drawn into a familiar story. Once this trust is established, the director can now run with the content and help the viewer to see things the way the they do. The narrative is established through a selection of images and clips combined with a discussion from varying sources that seem trustworthy. In the case of documentaries, this often includes scholars or government officials. Oliver Stone’s film follows a similar style by incorporating a real court case, officials, and other elements of government that convey the rhetoric of trust to the viewer. As a result, the fictional medium starts to feel as if it is a historical retelling, solidifying the film’s status as a theatrical conspiracy documentary. Furthermore, the film reinforces the desire of the theorist to feel empowered for subscribing to this kind of belief.

JFK is an example of a fairly successful attempt at creating a theory out of the original Zapruder film and presenting it to a wide audience. Oliver Stone proves that the viewer too can become an analyst and look for messages to interpret. In doing so, the film elevates itself to a teaching tool as well as a source of general entertainment. According to Barbara Kilinger, this viewer empowerment is not uncommon in the digital age:

When media industries portray filmmakers as all-knowing and all-seeing manipulators of such detail, they define the viewer in a complementary fashion. As a savvy decoder of a text’s mysteries, the viewer becomes something of an authority – an intrepid explorer who has discovered a terra incognita and mapped every path.16

In this way, Oliver Stone is transferring his authorship and abilities over to the viewer. His film essentially saying that the viewer also has the tools to make these judgments and assumptions. He encourages the audience to go back to the Zapruder film and pour over its contents, to try to see the same things he found. Furthermore, he provides the framework of how to be skeptical about things that seem to be set in stone. The overarching theme of the film is that Stone took something that was supposedly solved and threw the case open through his use of analysis as portrayed by his on-screen characters. They mimic the job of the conspiracy theorist, and their confidence in presenting information is transferred over to the viewer, who looks to the characters as truth tellers trying to overcome the evil that is covering up reality. Stone’s compelling narrative and desire to overthrow a cover up draw the viewer in and teach them to also question reality. So, although some elements of the film are in fact real, the narrative and actions of the characters blur the line between reality and fiction while also encouraging the viewer to follow along and insert themselves into the web of conspiracy.

The JFK assassination is still discussed and even disputed, making the film into one of the earliest objects that helped to promote conspiracy. Zapruder’s film has become a symbol of conspiracy culture, a documented artifact that has birthed theories, arguments, and discussions surrounding the death of JFK. Most importantly, it has been the source of countless viewings that are used to create theories, and the ways in which it has been analyzed are sometimes damaging to the reality that the film captures. By viewing the film as still images, viewers have been able to inject meaning into frames that are ripped from their own continuity. As a result, the film as a whole suffers from a lack of coherence. The rhetoric used to examine these pieces changes, and “as the indexical moment suddenly finds visibility in the slow or stilled image, so spectatorship finds new forms.”17 This, combined with the distribution of theories introduces an alternative reality to the audience being targeted. The ability to analyze an image detached from its full context has become an integral part of the culture of conspiracy. The Zapruder film stills set this concept in motion, and over time technology has evolved to further aid this desire to separate the still image from its reality in order to create one’s own narrative.

Room 237 as a Conspiracy Documentary

As we have seen in the previous case, the uncoupling of a still image from its moving narrative framework can completely change the way that the theme and meaning of the object are received by a wider audience. In using this formula of image and discussion, the conspiracy documentary has become an important way of distributing these claims in a neatly framed setting. Bjørn Sørenssen’s concept of the conspiracy documentary is used to describe films that convey conspiracy theories through use of narration, story, and the documentary style format.18 While these types of documentaries usually respond to historical events such as 9/11, recently there has been a documentary made that discusses filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and his film The Shining. The 2012 documentary Room 237 brings together several different narrators, including a historian, a musician, a theater performer, and several other people who just generally enjoy Kubrick’s films and feel that they have made some sort of discoveries regarding his work. Their speculation is conflated with access to media technology, which is discussed in the documentary as a tool that has allowed each narrator to better analyze The Shining. The narrators in this film use a combination of their preferred methods of analysis, which include slowed down clips, static images, and analysis of dialogue, and they combine this with their own rhetoric to create a film that accuses Stanley Kubrick of embedding hidden meanings into The Shining, with some of the said meanings relating to bigger events such as the moon landing, Native American Genocide, and even the Holocaust. To bring the viewer on board with these claims, the narrators speak and present themselves in a way that seems to give them authority over the content of the film, causing the viewer to become immersed in their claims about Kubrick’s films without necessarily getting the full story of The Shining.

Room 237 relates to the model of the conspiracy documentary in the way that it takes Kubrick’s film out of its historical moment and tries to uncover hidden meaning. The documentary here tries to show that Kubrick had ulterior motives in his creation of The Shining, and this team of narrators is working to show the viewer how the film is actually meant to be portrayed in their eyes through their theories. Several of the film’s interviewees scrutinize even the smallest painting in the corner of a scene, or slow the film down to one frame per second to analyze the location of characters during camera transitions. Their ultimate goal is to uncover Kubrick’s motives and finally understand his film, but they do so in such an obsessive way that their judgment seems clouded by their analysis. Throughout the film the narrators remind the viewer of their dedication to the cause, stating that “you have to be a fanatic to find all of this,” or comforting the viewer by explaining that the things they have uncovered “might seem arbitrary” to the untrained eye. The narrators use this language and personal anecdotes to create a bond with the viewer.

This bond is also exercised by the director, who uses cinematic techniques to establish trust with the viewer and situate an environment in which the audience will accept these claims. The narrators are not necessarily scholars; rather, they are self-proclaimed Kubrick fans trying to dismantle the hidden constructs in the film. Their names are only shown once throughout the film as they are introduced in separate voice-overs with an image of each narrator. The rest of their comments are played over clips from The Shining. This detachment from the person allows their voices to become more authoritative, as they guide the viewer through the analysis from the perspective of a faceless higher authority. The employment of these tactics shows the narrative in a visually engaging way without the narrator’s physical presence interrupting the dynamic. In his article on conspiracy documentaries, cultural historian Bjørn Sørenssen discusses this tactic in more detail, discussing how these types of films are often

dominated by the use of expository narrative techniques of mainstream ‘history films’ (Discovery Channel, The History Channel, etc.) based on an established verbal discourse with images functioning as illustrations and/or proof of what is being said in the voice over. Rhetorically, this is a way of utilizing the trust instilled… while at the same time latching on to popular ideas about objectivity and truthfulness of mainstream documentary.19

By ascribing to a familiar layout, the film easily fits into the documentary style familiar to a wide audience. Their narrators’ rhetoric is authoritative and also personal, speaking out to the viewer. This theme of language in combination with media as a tool to further the distribution of the conspiracy narrative continues into the Minotaur example from the film.

In this particular example, narrator Juli Kearns poses the idea that The Shining portrays Jack Torrence as a Minotaur trying to find his way through a symbolic maze. She spends time discussing the famous maze from the film, but focuses mostly on one small discrete object in a different scene. Kearns begins her argument with a personal anecdote about transitioning from watching the film in theaters, to VCR, and eventually to DVD. Her excitement about the film builds as she discusses this trajectory, because for Kearns it is exciting to finally be able to ‘really sit down and take a good look at [the film]’ while being able to pause on specific frames. Her excitement about the possibilities of the home theater are exactly what media theorist Barbara Kilinger writes about in her book Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home. Klinger explains, “familiarity enables views to experience both comfort and mastery. Foreknowledge of the story alters the narrative experience by lessening the tension associated with suspense. Viewers can be more relaxed, shifting their priorities to a knowing anticipation of events to come.”20 Kearns seems to be experiencing this type of familiarity with the film, and because of her relationship with it she exudes a confidence when discussing her theories about the Minotaur. Using the technique of the other narrators to convey a comforting word to the viewer, Kearns explains that “the casual viewer isn’t going to see so many things in Kubrick’s films.” The repeated viewing process of the narrator evolves into an obsessive ritual of analysis in order to uncover and convey a larger meaning regarding Kubrick’s work, disrupting the normal flow of montage. Kearns’s introduction to her theory in the film displays the viewing process that has allowed her to feel confident in her claims.

For Kearns, the ability to focus on a still image from the film holds the key to the theory she puts forth in Room 237. With the freedom of repeated screenings comes the ability to control the viewing experience. The DVD and VCR both have a “pause” feature, and the DVD player has even more features—including the ability to play a film back in slow motion. These pieces of media technology are arguably the most important tool used in the various Room 237 conspiracy narratives. According to Klinger, the narrator in this Room 237 scene gains momentum from repeated viewings and “along the way, the repeated text becomes a launching pad for experiences of mastery, solace, and observant engagement.”21 Kearns uses this function to point out a scene in which a poster of a man skiing has caught her attention. The scene she refers to is the first appearance of the infamous twin sisters from The Shining. Upon an introductory screening of the film, the characters might distract the viewer. But Klinger’s ideas apply to the way Kearns’s repeated viewings have given her the time to move beyond the main part of the scene and explore the rest of the environment around the characters. The scene in the film only lasts a few seconds, but Kearns is able to pause on the scene with her DVD player, and even zoom in on the corner in which she is trying to look. In doing this, she distorts the image of the poster because of the capabilities of the zoom feature, but for her this distortion looks like a Minotaur, and she builds a narrative around this concept. Kearns argues that the skier’s cap and positioning look a lot like a Minotaur. She also uses another part of media technology that contributes to conspiracy narratives: drawing arrows on the screen to ring the viewer’s attention to her reference. In combining these techniques and using her expansive dialogue that brings the viewer in to relate to her, Kearns is able to establish her conspiracy narrative within the documentary.

The meticulously designed atmosphere combined with the use of media tools has helped to elevate Room 237 to its status as a conspiracy documentary. The film itself has received positive reviews and sustained placement on streaming websites such as Netflix. The elevation of these narrators into respected theorists is aided by their manipulation of The Shining through digital tools. By enlarging frames, slowing them down, and drawing over them, the narrators have embraced technology in aide of their conspiracy theories. This 2013 analysis of a movie from 1980 provides new ways of interpreting Kubrick’s intentions. However, these ideas toe the line between interpretation and distortion, a problematic result of the ability to take frames of the film out of its original moving context. The evolution of technology to allow for this extraction has become the most important part of creating the narrative. The evolution from theater, to VHS, and on to DVD has greatly influenced the accessibility of objects to scrutinize. The positing and use of media technology have only elevated the ability to distribute these theories in ways that can attract a wider audience through the use of streaming sites and social media campaigns.

/r/findbostonbombers and The Future Trajectory of Conspiracy Culture

The future of conspiracy theories and image manipulation is propelled largely by the accessibility of the Internet. The function of the World Wide Web in these narratives is primarily to act as a source of distribution and collaboration. The Boston Bombing, a terrorist attack which occurred on April 15, 2013 became one of the most highly profiled instances of conspiracy unfolding in real time on the Internet. When closed-circuit television photos were released of the possible bombing suspects, Reddit users jumped into action, evolving into what many journalists have begun to call “digilantes.” In the forum /r/findbostonbombers many Reddit users gathered together to figure out how to identify the men in these photos. What came about was a wide range of conspiracy theories wrapped up in the forum, complete with images that were altered and drawn on in order to convey particular points about the suspects. By taking these closed-circuit images out of their moving context, the viewers were presented with a wide variety of possible directions to go in without knowing how the images fit together.

To understand why this release of photographs went out of control, photographer and writer Oliver David gave a talk at the International Center of Photography in 2015. In the discussion, he explained the importance of having a narrative attached to a photograph, and what can go wrong when the viewer is not given said narrative:

The Boston Marathon bombing marks a watershed moment in this relationship between narrative and image. A huge volume of photographs, from spectators, journalists and CCTV cameras were available almost in real time. These images were received before any attempt at narrativising, or making sense of what had happened, could be attempted by the media. Within this absence of narrative, the ambiguity of photographic imagery became readily apparent; a photograph shows something but could mean anything.22

With the invention of social media came the ability to post instantly, and, by cutting down on time, these posts often lose a form of structure or narrative that is needed to make sense of the whole picture. Oftentimes images like this are presented by journalists, with accompanying textual support to give the audience some idea of the situation being depicted. In the case of the Boston Bombing, images came in too quickly to be interpreted and were thus thrown at the audience with no explanations. This caused emotional chaos as a response, while people struggled to make sense and meaning out of the still images through their own means of technology and image manipulation.

Without a guiding narrative to obtain meaning, many Internet users distinguished their own interpretations of the situation and posted them to social media platforms. The still frames of the Boston Bombing that were obtained by social media posters and users found their way into many online forums, Reddit being the most infamous due to the misidentification of the suspect. The images were changed from their original state. Many theorists drew on the image with arrows, directing viewer attention to their curated narration of what they thought people were doing in the images. They also wrote small cues to spur critical thinking. One example from David’s lecture is an image of a crowd with a man standing off to the side. The theorist here has drawn a sort of angle to convey where this man is looking, and has written “1: alone, 2: brown, 3: backpack, 4: not watching.”23 These broad descriptors, and the drawing to articulate his sight line, turn an unassuming man into a suspect that the viewer finds threatening without really understanding why. As David goes on to explain, “None of these things are unapparent from looking at the un-annotated photograph. However, the image then becomes overdetermined by these annotations.”24 Like the narrators in Room 237 or theorists who overplay the direction that JFK’s head went when the bullet hit him, people are using even further updated technology to separate the image from its moving context.

The types of images discussed above were plentiful in the subreddit /r/findbostonbombers, which ultimately led to the misidentification of a suspect. While the online manhunt was taking place, Alexis Madrigal, columnist for The Atlantic had this to say about the problematic nature of this rag-tag militia style search for the truth:

But they are not real cops. They are well-meaning people who have not considered the moral weight of what they’re doing. This is vigilantism, and it’s only the illusion that what we do online is not as significant as what we do offline that allows this to go on. Imagine if people were standing around in Boston pointing fingers at people in photographs and (roughly) accusing them of terrorism.25

And, just as she explained, there were many ethical issues about this search that caused dire consequences for Sunil Tripathi, the misidentified bombing suspect whose family became the victims of a social media firestorm. Tripathi had gone missing a month before the attacks, and the same social media platforms his family members used to plead for his safe return were used aggressively against them in an online witch hunt for Tripathi as “suspect 2” throughout many online conspiracy and vigilante forums. His brother recounts the evolution of the attack as “What started off as people saying, ‘This image and your brother look the same’ became, ‘This image is your brother’ became, ‘How are you providing a cover for your brother to do this?’”26 On the same day as the misidentification, the real suspects were apprehended. Tripathi was later found dead by means of suicide.

The harrowing ordeal caused by these forums has caused widespread controversy about what is referred to as “crowdsourced investigation” and the dangers of exposing untrained viewers to photographs that need to be analyzed, such as the photos of the bombing. The Boston Bombing is a recent type of event, but it has a lot to teach about the underlying dangers of media and changing the narrative of a still image As has been demonstrated throughout the course of this article, the desire to take an image out of its context, moving or a still image, can inhibit the understanding of a preconceived narrative. This slicing of narrative in order to create a new theory is a primary way that conspiracy theorists work to uncover their respective truths. Combined with cinematic techniques while distributing the claims, these narrators and analysts create an environment in which they can isolate a piece of their object, force their own ideas on the viewer through the use of technological effects, and subsequently distribute a theory attached to a fractured image, a part separated from the whole.

Much of what is articulated in the culture of conspiracy has to do with the interruption of montage, whether it be in film or in a story that is narrated through still images. When people watch a film, they don’t always have to see all of the action that happens leading up to a moment. As explained by film theorist Sergei Eisenstein in his book Film Form, “the concept of the moving (time-consuming) image arises from the superimposition—or counterpoint—of two differing immobile images.”27 For Eisenstein, the interactions between scenes depend on the viewer’s ability to make assumptions that are constrained by the narrative of the film. When an image of a gun being fired cuts to an image of someone falling in Eisenstein’s example, the viewer can fill in the blanks and assume that the person was shot. This is montage, and by using the assumptions of the viewer, conspiracy theorists create their own disjointed concepts into a supposed reality based on the viewer’s ability to piece single images together. The culture of conspiracy works to separate these images from their montage context, causing the viewer to assume concepts based on the conspiracy theorist’s narrative because the images being presented are separated from their filmic environment. Montage, or lack thereof, is a key element of the Boston Bombing, and a theme that ties together many of the films and objects discussed in this article. Conspiracy theories are easily creatable and accessible by the general public; there is no formal training required to instigate some sort of claim against an event. As conveyed in the incidents following the Boston Bombing, the idea of becoming a hero through use of the Internet was enticing enough for thousands of Reddit users to create their own individual versions of conspiracy in relation to the photos being distributed. The chronological case studies displayed in this article are meant to convey the way that media technology has made image manipulation and distribution even easier over time, but with negative consequences in instances of conspiracy narratives.


Ascher, Rodney. Room 237. DVD. Directed by Rodney Ascher. New York: IFC, 2012.

Broffman, Neal. Help us Find Sunil Tripathi. DVD. Directed by Neal Broffman. One Production Place, 2015.

Campany, David, ed. The Cinematic. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007.

David, Oliver. “Conspiracy Theory 2.0: Photographic practices on conspiracy theory websites following the Boston Marathon bombing.” International Center of Photography. Published September 17th 2015. Accessed November 10th 2016. (

Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. New York: Harcourt, 1969.

Fenster, Mark. Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and power in American Culture. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Klinger, Barbara. Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Madrigal, Alexis. “Hey Reddit, Enough Boston Bombing Vigilantism” The Atlantic, Published April 17th 2013, Accessed December 8th 2016. (

Mulvey, Laura. Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Mulvey, Laura. “Stillness in the Moving Image: Ways of Visualizing Time and Its Passing,” in The Cinematic, ed. David Campany. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007.

Sørenssen, Bjørn. “Digital Diffusion of Delusions,” in New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses, eds. K. Nash, C. Hight, and C. Summerhayes. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014.

Wrone, David R. The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.

Zapruder, Alexandra. Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016.


  1. David Campany. The Cinematic (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 13. ↩︎

  2. David R. Wrone, The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 98. ↩︎

  3. Wrone, The Zapruder Film, 98. ↩︎

  4. Wrone, The Zapruder Film, 98. ↩︎

  5. Alexandra Zapruder, Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016), 95. ↩︎

  6. Zapruder, Twenty-Six Seconds, 95. ↩︎

  7. Campany, The Cinematic, 13. ↩︎

  8. Wrone, The Zapruder Film, 39. ↩︎

  9. Raymond Bellour, qtd. in Laury Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 186. ↩︎

  10. Laura Mulvey, “Stillness in the Moving Image: Ways of Visualizing Time and Its Passing,” in The Cinematic, ed. David Campany, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 137. ↩︎

  11. Zapruder, Twenty-Six Seconds, 90. ↩︎

  12. Bjørn Sørenssen, “Digital Diffusion of Delusions,” in New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses, eds. K. Nash, C. Hight, and C. Summerhayes (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), 201. ↩︎

  13. Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and power in American Culture, (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 111. ↩︎

  14. Sørenssen, “Digital Diffusion of Delusions,” 201. ↩︎

  15. Sørenssen, “Digital Diffusion of Delusions,” 212 (emphasis in original). ↩︎

  16. Barbara Klinger, Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 161. ↩︎

  17. Mulvey. “Stillness in the Moving Image,” 134. ↩︎

  18. Sørenssen, “Digital Diffusion of Delusions.” ↩︎

  19. Sørenssen, “Digital Diffusion of Delusions,” 214. ↩︎

  20. Klinger, Beyond the Multiplex, 154. ↩︎

  21. Klinger, Beyond the Multiplex, 156. ↩︎

  22. “Conspiracy Theory 2.0: Photographic practices on conspiracy theory websites following the Boston Marathon bombing,” International Center of Photography, published September 17th 2015, (↩︎

  23. David, “Conspiracy Theory 2.0” ↩︎

  24. David, “Conspiracy Theory 2.0” ↩︎

  25. Alexis Madrigal, “”Reddit, Enough Boston Bombing Vigilantism,” The Atlantic, published April 17th 2013, (↩︎

  26. Neal Broffman, Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi. 2015. ↩︎

  27. Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (New York: Harcourt, 1969), 55. ↩︎

About the Author: 

Jennifer is a Professor of English and Art History, splitting her time between St. Joseph’s College and Manhattan College. She received her MA in Art History and Criticism from Stony Brook University, and a BA in English Literature from St. Joseph’s College. Her research focuses on interactive spectatorship and the psychological implications of film.

Volume 4, Issue 1

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