‘Shadowland’: Illuminating docuseries sizes up conspiracy theorists and the suffering they cause
The activists profiled on Peacock show seem certain about their outlandish convictions, but never offer any proof.
“If you get obsessive about these conspiracy theories, it separates you from society. You’d think that your friends and your family would be happy to find out they’ve been lied to, but instead, they turn on you.” — Anti-vaxxer activist Zach Vorhies in “Shadowland.”
Over the course of the sobering and illuminating six-part Peacock documentary series “Shadowland,” we find a number of common traits shared by the rogues’ gallery of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, QAnon fanatics, doomsday prophets and snake oil hucksters on display:
- No matter how outlandish, improbable or factually challenged the cause (the election was stolen, drinking bleach will give you immunity from viruses, there are witches among us, the Democratic party is engaged in a widespread campaign to kidnap and devour children), they come across as devoted and, in some cases, obsessed believers who are 100% convinced they’re right and you’re wrong.
- They’re often willing to go to great lengths, including the commission of crimes and the destruction of relationships with friends and family, in the name of their causes.
- Even as they state their beliefs with furious conviction and righteous anger — over and over and over again — and laugh at the mainstream media and the supposedly uninformed masses for not understanding what’s REALLY going on in the world, they never offer anything resembling concrete evidence to back up their claims.
A six-part documentary series available now on Peacock.
As we’re told in the opener, “In 2020, the Atlantic Magazine launched ‘Shadowland,’ a series of articles exploring how conspiracy theories are tearing the country apart.”With the prolific and gifted documentarian Joe Berlinger (“Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich,” “Murder Among the Mormons”) as executive producer and directors including Stephen Bailer, Alex Braverman and Eve Van Dyke helming, a team of talented journalists from the Atlantic fanned across the country to tell these stories on films. We meet a number of fringe activists and conspiracy theorists, including:
- Pauline Bauer, a pizzeria owner in Pennsylvania who was largely apolitical until 2020, when she started doing her own research on the coronavirus and also became convinced the election was stolen. Bauer is charged with a number of crimes related to the Jan. 6 insurrection, at which she can be heard on tape shouting, “They need to hang!” Says Bauer, who claims she is a sovereign citizen: “There are some people who still don’t believe in the New World Order … a one world government, controlled by the 13 elite families of the world.”
- The podcasting couple of Zach Vorhies and Maryam Henein, who live in San Francisco and have a wall of computer screens logged into OAN, Fox News, InfoWars and Steve Bannon, among other sites. “People want to know who’s pulling the strings,” says Vorhies, “because obviously there’s a puppet master. … We don’t know who they are!Google … they’re just a front group, in the same way that Facebook is a front group, the bagmen of the New World Order.” We see footage of Henein speaking into the microphone in a whispery, sing-songy voice, saying, “This corona, f---- you, corona, is an opportunity to usher in many things. Brilliant Trojan horse!”
- Christopher Key, who calls himself the head of the “Vaccine Police” and has his own self-made “uniform” and badge, and touts the supposed benefits of ingesting chlorine dioxide.
- Greg Locke, the paster of Global Vision Bible Church in Tennessee, who claims autism is demonic, hosts burnings of the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series of books and says he can identify six witches in his own church.
We also see town board meetings across the country where anti-maskers made wild proclamations about political conspiracies (“It’s a long-term agenda … which is called depopulation by the New World Order’) and scream at board members, and we meet a woman who believes massive numbers of children are being sold into slavery. We feel outraged and frustrated as we see these people flailing about after falling into a deep and dark rabbit hole — but also sad and sorry for them.
On the other side of the coin, we see the emotional collateral damage caused when someone goes rogue and a family is ripped apart. In one of the most poignant segments in the series, we meet a woman in Louisiana who was married for 18 years and has two children and thought she had an idyllic family life, until the summer of 2020, when her husband started following the beliefs of “Q” and eventually went full-blown paranoid conspiracy theorist. “It killed the man I know,” she laments, through tears.
I do wish we had seen more direct, on-camera challenges to the various conspiracy theorists. Questions are asked, graphics are utilized to provide balance, but this series is more about fly-on-the-wall observational journalism and after-the-fact analysis than simply asking someone to PROVE the existence of a New World Order run by 13 wealthy families, to PROVE global warming is a total scam, to PROVE vast numbers of children are being taken off the streets by monsters who sell their internal organs. Of course, they wouldn’t be able to provide anything resembling evidence because it doesn’t exist, but it would have been interesting to see their responses.
Then again, if there’s one thing we should have learned in these polarizing times, it’s that very few people ever change their mind about anything. Perhaps the more journalistically conservative, neutral approach taken by “Shadowland” is best, leaving it up to the viewer to either side with the carnival sideshow characters and their mad tilting at windmills, or continue to place our belief in science, math and reality.