It’s a Paranoid World Out There

A new course in Film and Media Studies traces the enduring role of paranoia and conspiracy in American culture and politics

Now might seem like an especially ripe time to be paranoid—from conspiracy theories to actual conspiracies (think January 6), not to mention digital surveillance that is sometimes Orwellian. But paranoia has been a feature of American life for a lot longer than we realize, says Jonathan Knapp, a lecturer in the Film and Media Studies Program.

That’s what led him to create the course Screening Paranoia, which debuted in fall 2022. Aimed at students who major in film and media studies, the class includes a weekly screening of a movie that embodies the longstanding strain of paranoia in America.

The films begin with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and work forward through the likes of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) all the way to The Matrix (1999) and Citizenfour, the 2014 documentary about Edward Snowden’s leaks of highly classified information from the National Security Agency, which revealed global surveillance programs.

“Paranoia really flourished in genres like 1950s science fiction as well as 1970s conspiracy thrillers,” Knapp says.

The class readings help round out the understanding of the issues at hand. Students learned through the texts that paranoia “is an inherent part of our political culture,” says Knapp, “not necessarily a phenomenon of the left or the right, although paranoia runs rampant in contemporary right-wing conspiracy culture, and indeed this was one of the inspirations for the course.”

One key text is Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” “He takes a broad historical approach and connects it to early points in American history,” Knapp says. “I think some of the connections he made in terms of very early American history were new to the students.”

It is important “to historicize the idea of paranoia and conspiracy,” he says, and that often includes new technology. “There’s a long history of new technologies being greeted with fear.”

Is That Camera Looking at Me?

Knapp understands how that paranoia can take hold. Earlier generations, he says, were concerned when radio and television were introduced, fearing that the devices might be spying on them.

During an interview on Zoom, Knapp holds up a small Post-it note—it’s what he uses to cover his computer camera when not using it. So who’s being paranoid now? To his students, digital technologies are simply a given. “They have trouble understanding how I could feel anxious about them,” he says, which makes for good class discussions.

“I wanted to really hammer home that it’s not just with the rise of the internet and digital media and walking around with devices like smartphones that people suddenly become paranoid about technologies,” Knapp says. “There’s a long history of this. It also puts some of the fears that people like me sometimes have about these devices in perspective. I take for granted technologies that people in earlier generations were very anxious about.”

While his students don’t recall the circumstances of Snowden’s revelations—they were too young—Knapp does. When the class screened Citizenfour, the film got a different response than he expected. “They are automatically suspicious of Snowden in a way that I was not when he first came forward,” he says. They seemed less anxious about the NSA snooping, and more wary of Snowden’s asylum in Russia.

A Logical Sort of Paranoia

Discussions in the upper-level film theory class often revolve around how feelings of suspicion are created in a movie. Take John Frankenheimer’s classic The Manchurian Candidate.

“He uses very kinetic camera work that builds tension,” Knapp says, creating an aesthetic of paranoia. One of the most famous shots, which centers on the brainwashing of American POWs in the Korean War, has the camera “spinning around gradually, doing a 360-degree turn, and by the time it comes back to the group of women we first see, they have become male Russian and Chinese military officials—it really contributes to the sense of paranoia visually.”

Frankenheimer films—including Seconds from 1966—are among “the most forceful and influential in terms of crafting something we might call a paranoid aesthetic,” Knapp says, “not just thematically, but also in terms of the way the film is shot and edited.”

The students’ final research class projects ranged from a video essay on the British television series Fleabag, which breaks the fourth wall, heightening the sense of being surveilled, to a paper looking at cults and secret societies.

Another video essay took up the idea of justified paranoia, focusing on the plots of Citizenfour, The Matrix, and Ready Player One. The project’s theme sounds very familiar to our lives, says Knapp: exploring the ways “in which the constant stream of new and often transformative technologies overwhelms us, leading to a logical sort of paranoia.”

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