Like the conspiracies themselves, the genre took various guises, one of the first being the science-fiction movie. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), alien entities assume the guises of loved ones and neighbors, making it impossible to know whom to trust — including those officially responsible for maintaining public security.
Moving from science fiction to the spy thriller, John Frankenheimer's TheManchurian Candidate (1962) poses a mind-control conspiracy that emerges from the highest ranks of government. This was a new contribution to the evolution of the genre. As Gordon B. Arnold writes in his book Conspiracy Theories in Film, Television, and Politics, "The enemy was no longer from the outside; it came from the inside. And with this change in focus, . . . fear and paranoia [were] slowly replaced by . . . cynicism."
These movies all came before the shit hit the fan (were they prophetic . . . ? Well, let's not get too paranoid.), and before people had any concrete reasons to be skeptical about the powers that be. Not that the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Vietnam War, or Watergate made them any more confident in their elected (or, in the case of Bush, unelected) officials. These doubts resounded in such films as Frankenheimer's next work, Seven Days in May (1964), Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View (1974), Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor (1975), and Pakula's All the President's Men (1976), where the bad guys ranged from rogue CIA elements to the commander in chief.
By the time Oliver Stone came out with JFK (1991), followed by the television show (later made into movies) The X-Files (1993–2002), Richard Donner's Conspiracy Theory (1997), and Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black (1997), the plots grew so interconnected and redundant that they became meaningless. Instead of illuminating the truth that's "out there," these works left one dazed, distracted, and paralyzed. Finally, with films such as Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998) and the Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix (1999), the conspiracies expanded to include the whole world. They became cosmological rather than political — self-contained and solipsistic and alienated from reality. With movies like that, who needed Facebook?
At that point, the conspiracy movie might have suffered the fate of dozens of other genres and evolved into extinction or irrelevance. But then the real world intervened: first 9/11, then the Iraq War, the biggest financial crash since the Great Depression, the election of the first African-American president, and the installation of an administration with the most sweeping liberal agenda since Franklin D. Roosevelt — these developments injected new life into paranoia for both the movies and what passes for real life. Consequently, conspiracy movies have proliferated more than ever before, reflecting the amorphous dread and chaos of the times through the distorting lens of the genre's enduring conventions and themes.
One of those, that old paranoid-conspiracy standby of a covert elite pulling the strings of events without our knowledge or control, goes back as far as Feuillade's Les Vampires (1915). In recent incarnations, the identity of the cabal has ranged from the wizards in David Yates's adaptation of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to the vampires in Catherine Hardwicke's adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight (look for werewolves in the upcoming sequel, New Moon). But unlike the superhuman puppet masters of past conspiracy movies, these other-worldly characters are benign and appealing. Audiences are drawn to them maybe for the same reason that audiences in Weimar Germany fell for Lang's Doctor Mabuse: better to submit to the will of a despot than take a chance on the alternative — chaos. In this case, the tyranny longed for is a benevolent one (just one reason why contemporary audiences prefer, say, Robert Pattinson to Hitler).