6 Conspiracy Theories That Turned Out to Be True

Barney Wayne/Getty Images
Barney Wayne/Getty Images

Humans love conspiracy theories, and always have—there’s even evidence that ancient Romans had a few. Today, with the advent of the internet, they seem to be everywhere. But even though the term is generally pejorative, that doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you. What follows are some conspiracy theories that turned out to be (at least partially or presciently) true.

1. It wasn't a weather balloon that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico.

In 1947, the Army Air Forces announced that a mysterious object that had crashed in the desert outside Roswell, New Mexico, was not a flying saucer but in fact a weather balloon. As the years went on, interest in the crash site waxed and waned, but from the late '70s to the '90s, interest surged, and many believers alleged that the government was covering up what really crashed at Roswell. As the Los Angeles Times noted in 1994, “The ‘Roswell incident’ has been repeatedly dismissed by the Defense Department as nothing more than UFO fantasies triggered by the discovery of a downed weather balloon.”

As it turned out, there was a cover-up: What had crashed in the desert wasn't a weather balloon. But it wasn't a UFO, either. Instead, it was probably a balloon from Project Mogul, a Cold War attempt to spy on Soviet nuclear weapons development that used balloon-borne acoustic detection.

The cover-up came to light in the early ‘90s, after a New Mexico representative asked the General Accounting Office to pressure the Pentagon into declassifying documents related to Roswell. According to The New York Times, that led to an Air Force report on the subject, which was released in 1994. It concluded that the Roswell find was “most likely from one of the Mogul balloons that had not been previously recovered” [PDF]. According to a journal maintained by one of the people working on Project Mogul in New Mexico, one of the balloons launched in June '47 was never recovered after its mission. The Air Force report considered it probable that it was this balloon, battered by surface winds, that landed on a ranch in 1947. (Also, according to the report, "Air Force research efforts did not disclose any records of the recovery of any 'alien' bodies or extraterrestrial materials.")

The report also speculated that the weather balloon story could have been chosen as the official line either because the relevant authorities actually thought it was a weather balloon or perhaps because they knew of the highly classified Project Mogul and were trying to cover it up. The military would not have wanted its spy activities or technology to come to light, so even UFOs would have been a better option than the truth.

Of course, some think that the cover-up remains.

2. American scientists militarized the weather.

As part of their 2014 book, American Conspiracy Theories, Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent trawled through thousands of letters to the editors from over a century of newspapers to determine which ones had a conspiratorial slant to them. The letters either proposed a conspiracy or argued against a conspiracy that seemed to be in the air at the time. They found writers proposing or debunking conspirators as diverse as the Boers, conservationists, both Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and even the Prime Minister of Malta. One of the letters they discuss is a 1958 comment about “American scientists trying to find [a] method for controlling the weather.”

In the 1950s, controlling the weather was a major topic of discussion: There were Congressional hearings and articles in major publications about how such a thing might be possible. In 1963, Fidel Castro accused the United States of weaponizing Hurricane Flora, which killed at least a thousand people in Cuba. According to an article in a 1958 issue of Popular Science, American scientists worried that “[t]he Russians may be ahead of us in weather control.”

Publicly, weather modification was moving merrily along—and the threat of weather warfare was being downplayed. One expert during this time reassured a Senate Select Committee, “I would like ... to emphasize again that I consider it highly improbable that advances in the science of weather modification will make possible any extensive use of 'weather warfare.’” The expert cautioned that it couldn’t be completely ruled out, however, and said more research was needed.

Years later, rumors began emerging of weather warfare in the Vietnam War, with a 1972 Science article saying, “For the past year, rumors and speculation, along with occasional bits of circumstantial evidence, have accumulated in Washington to the effect that the military has tried to increase rainfall in Indochina to hinder enemy infiltration into South Vietnam.” But Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, flatly told a senator “we have never engaged in that type of activity over North Vietnam.”

It didn’t take long for people to recognize that this was not a denial of potential activity in Laos, Cambodia, or South Vietnam. While the senator didn’t follow up with Laird, reporters asked a Pentagon spokesperson, who also denied rain-making over North Vietnam. But when pressed about other regions, the spokesperson responded, "I can't enlarge on that.”

In 1974, they were forced to. That year, the government admitted to attempting to make it rain to slow down movement along the Ho Chi Minh trail, and Laird apologized for misleading Congress, saying that he had “never approved” the efforts. The New York Times also reported he wrote a 1974 letter to a subcommittee saying, contrary to his earlier denials, he had “just been informed ... such activities were conducted over North Vietnam in 1967 and again in 1968.”

3. The U.S. government has investigated UFOs for years.

What could be a more definitive conspiracy theory than the U.S. government spending millions of dollars on UFO research? As the Washington Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. put it in 2017, “For decades, Americans were told that Area 51 didn’t really exist and that the U.S. government had no official interest in aliens or UFOs. Statements to the contrary, official-sounding people cautioned, were probably the musings of crackpots in tinfoil hats.”

But according to Albert Greco in his 2004 book Conspiracy 101: Beginning to Be Crazy (according to the foreword, "a beginner course in the world of conspiracy theory"), the Air Force, and then the CIA, had been actively investigating UFOs, at taxpayer expense, since the late '40s. Greco also noted, with more than a little sarcasm, that the 1950s “were filled with more government investigations into easily explainable, totally natural, anything but alien events. According to the government there was no validity to these reports of UFOs; but they were going to continue to spend millions of American tax dollars to investigate them.”

And in 2017, conspiracy theorists got official confirmation that the government was, in fact, looking into UFOs—or at least it had been, for a time.

That year, the Pentagon confirmed the existence of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which The New York Times reported was a $22 million program in a $600 billion budget. Started at the behest of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2007, the program was reportedly shut down in 2012 (though The New York Times says that some officials have worked on it on the side since). According to the Washington Post, the purpose of the program was “collecting and analyzing a wide range of 'anomalous aerospace threats' ranging from advanced aircraft fielded by traditional U.S. adversaries to commercial drones to possible alien encounters." Experts were quick to discount the little green men part of the UFO research, though, with former space shuttle engineer James E. Oberg saying, “There are plenty of prosaic events and human perceptual traits that can account for these stories ... Lots of people are active in the air and don’t want others to know about it. They are happy to lurk unrecognized in the noise, or even to stir it up as camouflage.”

4. Magnetic materials in money can be used to determine the number of bills a person is carrying.

The Lone Gunmen, from TV's The X-Files, might be pop culture's most famous conspiracy theorists. (They took their name from the conspiracy surrounding president John F. Kennedy's assassination.) In the season one episode "E.B.E.," Lone Gunman John Fitzgerald Byers tells Mulder and Scully about "a dark network, a government within a government, controlling our every move." The proof, he says, can be found in a $20 bill. He takes one from Scully and rips it up, revealing the anti-counterfeiting strip: "They use this magnetic strip to track you. Whenever you go through a metal detector at an airport, they know exactly how much you’re carrying.”

Snopes has debunked this story, saying that according to rumors, the security thread is “to allow the government to know exactly how much money anyone is carrying at any particular moment ... The rumor is bunk. The strip’s sole purpose is the foiling of counterfeiters.” But while that last statement is likely true, there's also evidence that the Lone Gunmen were technically kind of right.

In 2011, Christopher Fuller and Antao Chen, both of the University of Washington, released a study called “Induction detection of concealed bulk banknotes.” They reasoned that because American currency has magnetic materials it should be possible to detect how much money someone was carrying on them. According to a 2012 New Scientist article, the physicists “found an ordinary handheld metal detector was able to pick up a dollar bill from 3 centimetres away, and placing the notes behind plastic, cardboard and cloth did little to block the signal. Adding further bills in $5 increments increased the strength of the signal, making [it possible] to count the number of bills,” though they do caution that denominations couldn’t be determined from this technique. According to New Scientist, "large bundles of notes would contain enough magnetic material to be detected at a distance, potentially allowing police to catch people attempting to smuggle cash over the border."

5. People who are "chipped" can be tracked by satellites.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the '90s publication Relevance, with its high quality paper and nice layouts, was “one of the slickest examples of conspiracy theorizing.” Physician Philip O’Halloran, the man behind the publication, wrote in one issue that biochips, implanted under the skin, “will emit low-frequency FM radio waves that can travel great distances, e.g., several miles up into space to an orbiting satellite. The transmission would provide information on the exact location of the ‘chipee.’" A year later, a psychologist writing in a New York newspaper said that mental health professionals who heard someone describing what O'Halloran proposed “might make a diagnosis that the person was suffering from a severe paranoid disorder,” before going on to discuss the origins of these kinds of views.

But O'Halloran's idea was prescient: Just three years later, in 1998, a professor of cybernetics at Reading University in England named Kevin Warwick received a chip implant, which according to a contemporary Independent article “emits a unique identifying signal that a computer can recognise to operate various electronic devices, such as room lights, door locks or lifts.” While that was still a long way off from what O’Halloran was proposing, in 2018 The Atlantic reported on a group that is working on making GPS-enabled chips to track relatives with dementia. In the future, there might be GPS tracking of other groups—something that was dismissed as a paranoid disorder just a few decades ago.

6. The government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition.

Just because the government made booze illegal doesn't mean people stopped drinking during Prohibition. But when those who chose to get tipsy started dying, accusations flew that the government was poisoning alcohol to enforce Prohibition. “When the government puts poison into alcohol, a large percentage of which the government knows will ultimately be consumed for beverage purposes, such action is reprehensible and tends to defeat the very purpose of prohibition,” a 1926 issue of The Camden Morning Post opined. A number of people, including a senator, put the blame for the deaths firmly at the hands of the government, and said that the practice was, essentially, "legalizing murder."

In fact, the government was poisoning alcohol, and freely admitted to it—and even published an entire short book on the subject. However, according to the government, the purpose wasn't to enforce Prohibition, but for Federal Revenue purposes: Booze meant for consumption would have to be taxed, but denatured booze was tax-free.

In 1906, Congress passed the first tax-free denatured alcohol act, which was designed to safeguard industries that required industrial alcohol. In order to keep suppling the industries that required alcohol, the government began to denature the alcohol (adding something to make the alcohol unfit for consumption) to make it “wholly unfit for beverage purposes.”

After reports of several deaths in the 1926 holiday season, the poisoning became an increasingly controversial tactic, though the government denied that their denaturing of the alcohol had anything to do with it. According to a 1929 Congressional Record, an expert who testified regarding deaths in New York City said that “There was not the slightest evidence adduced at any point, so far as I am aware, that these deaths were caused by industrial alcohol, either in the form in which it was denatured under Government supervision or after it had been manipulated by criminals.” Instead, the expert said, the deaths were caused by drinking straight wood alcohol. In the Minerva's Mail column in Nebraska's The Lincoln Star, Minerva drove the point home, saying, "The thing that kills the unfortunate, who in his craving will drink anything, is the alcohol itself in its raw state ... it is hard and raw and disastrous in its effects on the stomach."

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

11 Unusual Christmas Traditions Around the World

A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
R. fiend, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

We all know about the typical trappings of Christmas—Santa, the tree, eggnog and carols, turkey and ham, that fruitcake that’s made three trips around the country and counting. But what about traditions that are generally less well-known in America—the ones that might take place halfway around the world? Traditions like the Swedes watching the same Donald Duck cartoon each year, the Japanese devouring KFC, or Austria’s “bad Santa,” Krampus? Allow us to take you on a journey with the international Christmas traditions below.

1. Sweden // Watching Donald Duck on Television

Every year at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, around half of Sweden sits down to watch the 1958 Walt Disney TV special “From All of Us to All of You.” Known in Swedish as Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul, the title translates to “Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But, really, it’s usually known as Kalle Anka. Since 1959, the show has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time every December 24 on TV1, Sweden’s main public television channel. According to Slate, it’s one of the three most popular TV events each year, and lines of the cartoon’s dialogue have become common Swedish parlance.

Slate’s Jeremy Stahl, who remembers his first Christmas visiting Sweden with his soon-to-be-wife, observes, “I was taken aback not only by the datedness of the clips (and the somewhat random dubbing) but also by how seriously my adoptive Swedish family took the show. Nobody talked, except to recite favorite lines along with the characters." Stahl notes that for many Swedes, other Christmas Eve festivities revolve around watching the show—what time they eat the Christmas meal, for example—and that, although the tradition may seem strange, it also makes some sense: “For many Swedes, there is something comforting about knowing that every year there is one hour, on one day, when you sit down with everyone in your family and just be together.”

2. Venezuela // Roller Skating to Christmas Eve Mass

Roller skates on a wooden background
xavigm/iStock via Getty Images

In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, it’s a long-established tradition to strap on your skates and roll on over to morning Christmas mass. According to Metro.co.uk, legend has it that children go to bed with a piece of string tied to their toes, with the other end dangling out the window. As the skaters glide by early the next morning, they give the strings a firm tug to let the children know it’s time to wake up and put on their skates. Firecrackers accompany the sound of the church bells, and when mass is finished, everyone gathers for food, music, and dance. The custom continues today.

3. Japan // Eating KFC on Christmas Eve

A KFC in Japan at Christmas
A KFC in Japan at Christmas
Robert Sanzalone, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Christmas isn't a widely celebrated holiday in Japan—a mere 1 percent of Japanese people are estimated to be Christian—and yet a bucket of KFC “Christmas Chicken” is the popular meal on December 24. According to the BBC, 3.6 million families celebrated this way in 2016.

It all began with a 1974 marketing campaign—“Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” (Kentucky for Christmas). According to Smithsonian, when a group of foreigners couldn’t find Christmas turkey and opted for KFC instead, the company saw it as a fabulous marketing opportunity and advertised its first Christmas meal—chicken and wine for the equivalent of $10, which, Smithsonian notes, was rather pricey for the mid-'70s. These days, the Christmas dinner includes cake and champagne, and costs roughly $40. Many people order their meals far in advance to avoid lines; those who forget can end up waiting for as long as two hours.

4. Ukraine // Decorating the Tree with (Fake) Spiders and Webs

A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
Marty Gabel, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to Ukrainian folklore, there was a poor family with a widowed single mother who couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. One night, as they all slept, a wonderful Christmas spider decorated the tree with a beautiful, sparkly web. The rays of the sun touched the web, turning it to silver and gold, and from that day on the family wanted for nothing. Ukrainian families decorate their trees with glittering spiders and their webs in honor of the tale.

5. Guatemala // La Quema del Diablo, “Burning the Devil”

Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Conred Guatemala, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every December 7, beginning at 6 p.m. sharp, Guatemalans build bonfires to “burn the devil” and kick off their Christmas season. The tradition has particular significance in Guatemala City, according to National Geographic, due to its association with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which honors the city’s patron saint. The tradition evolved from simply lighting bonfires during colonial times to burning a devil figure to clear the way for a celebration of the Virgin Mary. In recent years, devil piñatas have been added to the festivities, too. These days, an estimated 500,000 bonfires burn in the course of an hour on the holiday, and fireworks explode across the smoky sky.

6. Catalonia // Caganer, the Pooping Christmas Figurine

A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
J2R/iStock via Getty Images

A regular figure in Catalonian nativity scenes, the caganer is a bare-bottomed man with his pants around his knees as he bends over to poop. He typically wears a white shirt and a barretina, a traditional Catalan hat. The caganer most likely first appeared in nativity scenes in the early 18th century; nativity scenes in the region typically represent pastoral scenes with depictions of rural life. The caganer often appears crouched behind a tree or a building in a corner of the nativity. Caganer literally means “pooper” in Catalan, and no one is certain of his significance, though one theory is that he represents good luck and the wish for a prosperous new year, since the pooping could be construed as the fertilization of the earth. Another theory is that he represents the mischief that resides in all of us. Yet another theory: he could merely represent humility and humanity. After all, everyone poops.

7. Wales // Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare”

Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare,” is the name given to the ghostly looking horse figure often brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales. Typically constructed of a horse skull, a white sheet, and adorned with colorful ribbons and bells, the Mari Lwyd is carried around Welsh towns by singing revelers who challenge their neighbors to a battle of wits through poetry. Atlas Obscura explains that despite often being associated with Christmas, Mari Lwyd is actually a pre-Christian practice, and some Welsh towns choose instead to parade their horse skulls on other days, such as Halloween or May Day. However, the Christmas season is the most popular time for Mari Lwyd, and the practice often includes wassailing, which involves the drinking of a boozy, sugared-and-spiced ale.

8. Austria and German-speaking Alpine region // Krampus, the Christmas Devil

Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day
Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day in Italy
dario_tommaseo/iStock via Getty Images

While well-behaved children in Austria and elsewhere look forward to St. Nicholas rewarding them with presents and sweets, those on the naughty list live in fear of Krampus. Part demon and part goat, Krampus is a “bad Santa” devil-like figure with origins in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Later, Krampus became a part of Christian traditions alongside the celebrating of St. Nick. During Krampusnacht, or “Krampus night,” right before St. Nicholas Day, adults dress up as Krampus, and Krampus might also be seen on a Krampuslauf—literally a “Krampus run.” He also appears on Christmas cards throughout Austria, and enjoys a long-held place in the country’s holiday traditions, as well as in other German-speaking areas near the Alps.

9. Iceland // The Yule Cat

Iceland has its own frightening Christmas figure, the Yule cat, which lurks in the snow and waits to devour anyone who has not received new clothes to wear for Christmas. National Geographic did some digging into the origins of this tradition, and notes that in Icelandic rural societies employers often rewarded members of their households with new clothes and sheepskin shoes each year as a way to encourage everyone to work hard in the lead-up to Christmas. “To this day Icelanders still find it important to wear new clothes on Christmas Eve when the celebrations begin,” the website writes. So, basically, the Yule cat punishes the lazy by devouring them, though, as National Geographic observes, “According to some tales, the Yule Cat only eats their food and presents, not the actual people.” Whew!

10. Greenland // Whale Blubber Dinner

Although women around the world have often traditionally prepared the Christmas meal, in Greenland the men serve the women. The main dish is mattak, strips of whale blubber, as well as kiviak, flesh from auks buried in sealskin for several months and then served once it begins to decompose. Dessert is a little more familiar: Christmas porridge garnished with butter, cinnamon, and sugar.

11. Italy // Befana, the Christmas Witch

Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
corradobarattaphotos, iStock via Getty Images

Like Austria’s Krampus, Italy’s Christmas witch, Befana, is scary-looking—she has the warts and the sharp nose of the typical witch depiction—and yet every January 5 she leaves gifts and sweets for the good children. Of course, she also leaves coal for the naughty ones. According to legend, she swoops up the particularly bad children and brings them home to her child-eating husband. According to Vice, Italy honors Befana with festivals each year, complete with market stalls, raffles, games, and prizes. Children also write letters to Befana just as they do to Santa Claus.

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