By: David Seddon and C. Rose Widmann
August 2nd, 2023
For some, the cartoons and movies enjoyed during childhood have remained timeless and enjoyable. However, happy memories of this media can be tainted by information that previously went unnoticed by younger minds, or by an introduction to conspiracy theories about beloved characters and fandoms.
There are dozens of these theories, and an article from Buzzfeed shows the writers sharing their favorite 17. One that isn’t covered in that list but was popular enough to warrant a response from the creator, is that the plotline of the cartoon Rugrats never happened. In this theory all of the kids, except for antagonist Angelica, died before being born, and the show’s events exist primarily as delusions.
Another very popular theory is that the title character of the late 80s animated movie Totoro is actually a god of death. Totoro is a fluffy, friendly and quirky monster who roams around rural Japan. In the theory, however, or some versions of it, he is also a messenger and guide for the dead, and the two main characters are able to see him because they’ll die soon.
The conspiracies don’t just center around late 80s and early 90s media, though, they continue up to today. This GameRant article about Pokemon conspiracy theories has theories which center around Pokemon Go and Detective Pikachu. The popular youtube channel, The Film Theorists, has videos about the shows Bluey and Paw Patrol. Clearly the theory crafters are still hard at work.
These conspiracy theories have mainly entered the popular culture zeitgeist because of their entertainment value, finding footholds on discussion-based websites like Tumblr and Reddit. But they may also appeal due to certain psychological traits or lived experiences.
In a 2023 article for Psychological Bulletin, researchers looked at why some people are more willing to believe conspiracies, and determined that some of the traits that correlated included a sense of antagonism, insecurity, impulsivity and withdrawnness. Researcher and doctoral student Shauna Bowes is quoted in the article saying, “Conspiracy theorists are not all likely to be simple-minded, mentally unwell folks—a portrait which is routinely painted in popular culture, Instead, many turn to conspiracy theories to fulfill deprived motivational needs and make sense of distress and impairment.”
Many members of the Millennial and Gen-Z generations are seeking ways to make sense of their situations, and it is reasonable to think that creating or discussing conspiracy theories about familiar media is a harmless way to exercise or process those feelings.
While the direct connection between media conspiracy theories and the collective mental health crisis of the 2020’s has not yet been specifically explored, many of the correlative symptoms listed in Bowes’ article also overlap with symptoms of ADHD listed by the CDC and the experiences discussed in the 2019 article “Why Are Milennials So Anxious And Unhappy?” by Loren Soeiro, Ph.D. ABPP for the Psychology Today Blog.
In an interview with a Michigan State University student who wished to remain anonymous, they described a recent obsession with conspiracy theories surrounding Pixar’s Cars and Planes universe: “I had a solid two weeks after rewatching Cars where all I could talk about to anyone were the questions I had. What happens when the doors to the Cars open? How are they born? How do they die?”
When asked if they looked up any supporting conspiracies, the student said that Reddit and Tumblr were the most accessible sources for information. They also disclosed that they were recently diagnosed with ADHD and often experience the symptoms of hyperfixation: “It was kind of fun. Focusing on these theories gave my brain something to do instead of stressing out about work and life.”
So it is possible that members of the Millennial and Gen-Z generations are merely coping with their lived experiences through imagination and online interactions.
For large numbers of those groups, fanfiction has been a popular mechanism for expanding on media conspiracy theories and turning them into fully-explored stories. To read more about Fanfiction’s overall impact on popular culture, read Caroline MacLellan’s 2023 article for The Current.
Fanfiction theories or motifs that become popular enough will be accepted by fans, expanded upon and replicated, such as Sasuke Uchiha’s love for tomatoes or Pikachu’s devotion to ketchup, which are details based in canonical lore that were popularized further by fanfiction authors. While these specific stories can barely be considered conspiracy theories because of their lightheartedness and confirmed connection to canon, fanfiction serves to expand on and popularize other, darker, trending theories about nostalgic media.
What can be interesting to note about these trends is how many sources will openly claim that these theories will “ruin your childhood.” Watchmojo both has 10 Dark Theories That Will Ruin Your Childhood, and Top 20 Cartoon Theories That Will Ruin Your Childhood. Ranker has 15 Fan Theories That Absolutely Ruin Our Favorite Childhood Movies. In a similar vein, ScreenRant published 15 Fan Theories That Will Ruin Your Favorite Cartoons. The list goes on.
This may suggest that a large number of these theories are made and spread precisely to “ruin your childhood.” To return to the aforementioned quote from Shauna Bowes, “many turn to conspiracy theories to fulfill deprived motivational needs and make sense of distress and impairment.” It’s possible that there’s a need to try and add a sense of maturity to familiar media.
In another lens, this trend may simply reflect a desire by the conspirators to figure out their own identities. In an article by Wired, The Psychology of Why Fan Art Is So Delightful, author Elisa Shoenberger covers some of the many appeals of creating fan works. Overall, though, she sees it as a great way to explore new ideas and build community. In her conclusion she says, “Ultimately, fan art is a healthy way to express one’s self and find inspiration to think about new worlds, skills, or new versions of self through the love of a fandom.”
While dark theories aren’t explicitly covered in this article, it isn’t hard to see how they may come from the same place. As we get older, issues which were previously invisible can move to the forefront of our lives. Dark fan theories may just be a way to explore some of those ideas in a healthy space online.
Similarly, while conspiracy theories about familiar media and fandoms may ruin childhoods for many adults, they can be a harmless, stimulating alternative to many real-life conspiracies. Communities on Reddit or Fanfiction websites can be safe havens for those interested in bonding over common interests, such as fandoms, for adults who still feel a strong connection to the media of their childhoods.
David Seddon is a senior undergraduate student with a major in professional and public writing and a minor in Chinese. A big fan of fantasy and sci-fi, David can often be found playing games, reading books or working on his own self-published books in his free time.
C. Rose Widmann (they/them) is a 2nd-year MA student in Arts and Cultural Management. They have been an editor and writer for The Current since 2021. When not reading or writing, they are competing for both the MSU club fencing and gymnastics teams. Insta: @C.rosewidmann