The words most frequently used in the mainstream media to describe the QAnon movement are “baseless conspiracy theory.” At least those are the standard terms used by the Washington Post, New York Times, and other examples of fact-based reporting. From a folkloristic perspective, QAnon is indeed a conspiracy theory that may not be based in fact, but one that is not necessarily baseless. By borrowing and updating beliefs that have been shared among “the folk” for millennia, QAnon’s tenets display a base that is deeply rooted in folklore.
First, some definitions. Folklore consists of traditional materials that are shared among members of a group without continual corrective reference to a fixed source. Traditional materials include folktales and legends, ballads and jokes, quilts and baskets, and much more. Fixed sources include books and recordings, which may be sources of folklore, but not when someone keeps going back to that book to correct themselves on how the joke should be told or how the quilt should be stitched.
At the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, we regularly celebrate folklore through our Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and cultural sustainability initiatives. We honor artists, musicians, cooks, and others who belong to traditional groups that may be defined by geographic regions, ethnicities, occupations, religions, genders, or combinations thereof.
But we also know that some groups employ folklore—such as racist jokes or pejorative stereotypes—to denigrate and demonize members of other groups. Our digital magazine recently highlighted a Yiddish cartoon with anti-Semitic stereotypes and the Jim Crow Museum, which collects some of the many objects that are based on misguided and intolerant folk beliefs that are shared among certain folk groups.
QAnon emerged in October 2017 after an alleged government insider—anonymously named “Q Clearance Patriot,” referencing the Q top-secret security clearance in the U.S. Department of Energy—first posted on the site 4Chan. The core tenet of QAnon is that President Donald Trump is the prophetic savior leading the fight against satanic Democratic Party leaders, Hollywood celebrities, and “Deep State” elitists who are abducting, trafficking, and abusing children throughout the world. QAnon further believes that this elite is siphoning adrenochrome, a chemical compound, from frightened children to use for themselves as a youth-restoring cocktail.
Added to these core beliefs are an assortment of conspiracy theories that promote an anti-elitist, anti-globalist narrative. For instance John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his death in 1999 to avoid the Deep State conspiracy; prominent Democratic politicians were running a child sex ring from the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria; and Justin Bieber Instagrammed secret signals about pedophilia and child trafficking. Victory for QAnon—in terms that resemble a millennialist second coming—emerges in “The Storm,” the final reckoning when QAnon adherents expose, round up, and execute members of the Deep State elite, according to “The Plan.”
To be very clear, we as folklorists do not believe any of the QAnon claims cited above. However, we think we may understand why some people are drawn to these folklore-based beliefs.
Every group’s folklore grows out of hopes, frustrations, fears, and joys that a substantial number of the group’s membership share. The folklore provides comfort and stability as it helps to build solidarity and cohesiveness among members of the group.
Accordingly, one common refrain among former QAnon adherents is how much comfort they derive from their beliefs—especially at times when the world seems to be spinning out of control. For instance, Melissa Rein Lively, a former public relations professional, recently told the Washington Post that QAnon “basically purports to have all the answers to the questions you have. The answers are horrifying and will scare you more than reality, but at least you feel oddly comforted, like, ‘At least now I have the answer.’. . . It happens gradually, and you don’t realize you’re getting more and more deep in it.”
Of course, those who fall victim to the conspiracies may harm not only themselves, but also many of those who are close to them. While QAnon exploits social media outlets and creates online groups to spread its claims, those who are left behind similarly come together in online solidarity, such as through the subreddit /r/QAnonCasualties. Having grown to more than 45,000 members, the subreddit provides a space to share frustrations and stories of family and friends—including “QMoms” and “QHusbands”—who fell down the slippery slope of conspiracism. Some of the top posts reveal tragic tales within households of Q-believers, as well as success stories of former Q-adherents who were able to break away.
Folklorists have become adept at tracing the beliefs and customs shared by group members, even if we don’t always understand where or how these beliefs and customs emerged. One very helpful resource is the Motif-Index of Folk Literature, a magisterial six-volume compilation of myths, legends, and folktales collected by folklorists in the early twentieth century and arranged in alphanumeric order.
There we can find, for instance, motifs that reference child abduction (R10.3), child sacrifice (S260.1.1), and killing children for their blood (V361)—all of which help to explain why the legend known as the blood libel remains so persistent. Based on the false belief that Jewish people have used the blood of abducted Christian children for ritual purposes, it is a legend that keeps reemerging—around the Greco-Roman Mediterranean in the first and second centuries BCE, throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and revived in Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.
QAnon’s belief that wealthy elites are abducting, trafficking, and abusing children in order to siphon their adrenochrome is not only rooted in the blood libel, but also utilizes contemporary political unrest and societal instability to attack an established “other” that represents an increasingly diverse and multicultural nation. As folklorist Bill Ellis notes in Raising the Devil, folklore “grows out of social contexts, which it intends to alter” and its passing down is “often a fundamentally political act.”
Similar to playing upon recent crises of child abduction, QAnon ties its conspiracism with twentieth-century scares of Satanism and an unfolding battle of light versus darkness. What we now call the “Satanic Panic”—the widespread accounts of occult abuse in the United States, coupled with pop-culture hits such as The Exorcist (1973)—sparked the fear of Satanic forces well into the twenty-first century. QAnon frequently invokes this through labeling its alleged enemies as Satanic worshippers: from the third Q “drop” saying that “Many in our govt worship Satan” to a doctored October 21 image tying CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper to a human sacrifice ritual.
Here too, QAnon’s beliefs are not only rooted in folklore, but also reflective of contemporary social context. Building upon earlier folk beliefs that draw a connection between an imaginary Jewish cabal and Satanism, QAnon regards the Deep State elite as a cabal of Satan worshippers who abduct and abuse innocent children. QAnon’s light-versus-dark struggle scratches a familiar fear—and not surprisingly resonates throughout the Motif-Index.
QAnon also draws heavily from religious motifs of prophets and prophecy. The mysterious “Q,” whose identity remains unknown, has been described as a postmodern prophet who writes scripture-like posts. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find Q posts invoking the Bible or using language alluding to “The Great Awakening” that is coming.
Of course, the coming of a prophet as a motif (see M301) is reminiscent of biblical prophecy, though Q acclimates to the twenty-first century internet landscape by relying on his/her/their followers to decipher the cryptic posts, create their own conspiracies, and verify them through social media outlets. As Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum observe in their book A Lot of People Are Saying, this new conspiracism is wholly dependent on repetition; the more likes, retweets, or upvotes a new conspiracy gets, the more valid it becomes among followers. Building upon the idea of a prophet that is familiar to many of us, QAnon adapts this motif to exploit social media and to sow doubt in our democratic institutions.
Conspiracy beliefs have always thrived in times of crisis and uncertainty. Today’s unprecedented combination of global pandemic, racial injustice, economic uncertainty, and climate change provide fertile ground for dangerous folk beliefs that have persisted for millennia. Recognizing the folkloric roots of QAnon and its falsely righteous theories may allow us to better understand both its appeals and its dangers.
James Deutsch is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage who has written about cattle mutilations for Conspiracy Theories in American History and legends of baby mutilation for An Encyclopedia of Infanticide.
Levi Bochantin is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He is a recent master’s graduate in Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian Studies from the University of Glasgow, where he researched East German heritage in German museums.
Dayanita Ramesh is an illustrator. You can see more of her work at dayanitababuramesh.com or @DayanitaRamesh on Instagram.