9 Photos That Launched Popular Conspiracy Theories
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. But whether or not those words are true is a whole other story.
Pictures don’t lie…or do they?
“Within the murky world of conspiracy theories, photography plays a crucial role,” the BBC noted in a 2017 examination of conspiracy theories and the images that inspire them. The reason? Photographs have long been an accepted form of eyewitness evidence. Like any narrative, however, photographs can be misleading, and sometimes intentionally so. Here, we explore some of the famous photos that inspired conspiracy theories, some of which persist to this day. Check out the craziest pop culture conspiracy theories of all time.
A faked moon landing
Roughly 6 percent of Americans believe the Apollo 11 moon landing was nothing more than a cinematic tour de force produced by a government bent on “winning” the “space race” against Russia at all costs, including by gaining the confidence of the public. This photo of Buzz Aldrin beside an American flag is often cited—for its eerie lighting and the “mysterious” flapping of the flag—by those who believe the moon landing was “just a movie.” Conspiracy theories aside, here are 13 moon mysteries scientists are still trying to figure out.
Amelia Earhart didn’t die in a plane crash
Amelia Earhart’s plane disappeared over the Pacific on July 2, 1937, and more than 80 years later, people still really want to believe that she survived that fateful flight. There are a number of conspiracy theories about what happened to her, and here’s the latest, sparked by this photo: She was taken hostage by the Japanese military after accidentally ending up in the Marshall Islands. Presented in a 2017 History Channel special, this photograph shows a Caucasian woman with short hair who resembles Earhart (from the back, anyway). She’s the one sitting on the dock, and her navigator, Fred Noonan, is supposedly nearby. Plus, according to NBC News, “the photo shows a Japanese ship, Koshu, towing a barge with something that appears to be 38-feet-long—the same length as Earhart’s plane.”
It seemed like pretty solid proof…but shortly after the special aired, new evidence emerged that this image was actually published in a Japanese-language travelogue in 1935, two years before Earhart’s disappearance. But that hasn’t stopped people from believing that this is the real deal, especially since there were also local accounts of a plane crash in the area at the time and schoolkids who swore that they saw the famous aviator.
The body of an “actual” alien
On July 8, 1947, the U.S. Army reported that a flying saucer from outer space had been found in the desert outside Roswell, New Mexico. Within a day, the Army retracted the statement, clarifying that the “saucer” was actually a weather balloon, but by then it was too late. Rumors of a dead “alien” recovered from the saucer had already begun fueling conspiracy theories that the U.S. government was covering up the existence of life on other planets. This photo, when cropped to exclude evidence that it’s merely an artistic rendering in a museum exhibit, is one of many used to support those theories. Learn more about the debunking of those theories.
Satan in the smoke?
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, were so beyond what the ordinary human mind could grasp that those tending toward conspiracy theories began to superimpose the extraordinary onto the events that took place that day. That includes seeing the image of Satan in the smoke billowing out of the decimated towers…because how else could anyone truly explain such an inexplicably horrific event except to blame it on the embodiment of all that is evil.
Why the second tower fell so quickly
Another popular conspiracy theory concerning the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center is that it wasn’t a terrorist act at all, but rather, a controlled explosion orchestrated by the government for the purpose of justifying our declaration of war in the Middle East. For support, conspiracy theorists cite the swiftness with which the second tower to be hit fell, suggesting the possibility of a carefully planned explosion, carried out exactly according to plan. Photos like this one have been cited as evidence. Ultimately, investigators determined the second tower was simply hit at a higher speed. Here are 12 questions people still have about 9/11.
Contrails are visible aircraft trails made of condensed water. Ask virtually any pilot and they’ll tell you that contrails are harmless. But ask a conspiracy theorist and you might hear that the trails aren’t merely water vapor and aren’t anything close to harmless. In fact, some go so far as to suggest the trails are laced with chemicals intended to exert mind control on humans. In other words, they’re “chemtrails,” not contrails, at least according to the conspiracy theorists. Don’t roll your eyes too much, though, because some conspiracy theories actually turn out to be true…including all of these.
Elvis is still alive
More than 40 years ago, Elvis Presley died suddenly of a heart attack, bringing his fans to their knees and spawning endless conspiracy theories that Elvis didn’t actually die but has merely been in hiding. So-called Elvis sightings over the years have fueled the “Elvis is still alive” conspiracy theories, and photos of such sightings serve as “evidence.” That includes this photo of the moon during an eclipse in 2001. If you look closely—and really want to believe that Elvis never left the building—you can “clearly” see an impression of Elvis’ face. There are also some conspiracy theories about Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.
Holding out hope for Steve Jobs
The 2011 death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs at age 56 was a blow to many, for multiple reasons, including the belief that money can buy medical miracles (such as a cure for advanced pancreatic cancer) and the fervent wish for more innovation from the man who invented that nifty little phone you’re holding in your hand. Just as there have been Elvis sightings, there have also been Steve Jobs sightings, including a recent one in Egypt and the one shown in this photo that was taken in the Shaanxi Province of China less than a year after Jobs’ death. These are the rumors—and truth—behind Steve Jobs’ last words.
Happy birthday, Mr. President
This photograph of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy in May of 1962 has been inextricably intertwined with the mystery behind Monroe’s death less than three months later. Monroe’s sultry performance ignited the longstanding rumors of an affair between herself and Kennedy, according to Biography. It also marked the end of their interactions. The two never saw each other again. While many believe her death was an accident or a suicide, others believe it was orchestrated by someone who had a problem with the alleged affair (including, some think, Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, who also was rumored to be having an affair with Monroe). Check out these 20 stunning, rarely seen photos of Marilyn Monroe.