Conspiracy theories have long been regarded as the stuff of paranoia, the rantings of crackpots in their aluminum foil hats. But there are forces at work just beneath the surface, sinister organizations, ravenous killers, and governments that cover it all up. If you’re not careful, the world can devour you without a trace.
10 Vatican City Disappearances
We tend to think of Vatican City, with its ornate basilicas and sacred traditions, as the kind of place where evil could never exist. But in 1983, something sinister roamed the Holy See. Emanuela Orlandi was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school, the daughter of a Vatican bank employee. On June 22, 1983, Emanuela told her sister she had been approached by an Avon representative with an offer to sell cosmetics. She never made it home from school that day.
Teenagers are a flighty sort, and many run away from home every day. Often they’re merely couch surfing with friends, or off on a romantic jaunt with a girlfriend or boyfriend. They tend to reappear some time later, perhaps a little skinnier and more world-weary, but in good health. But a series of bizarre phone calls to the Orlandi home in the wake of Emanuela’s disappearance set off alarm bells. There were calls from multiple people including those with Italian, American, and Middle Eastern accents, each seeming to indicate the girl had been kidnapped by Muslim extremists as a pawn in an attempt to secure the release of Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish assassin who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981.
Other theories have been advanced, including extortion attempts against the Vatican Bank. Last year, Father Gabriele Amorth, who served as the Vatican’s chief exorcist during the reign of John Paul II, alleged that Emanuela had been taken by the Vatican police to be used as a sex slave for parties. Amorth has proven a controversial figure over the years, advancing crackpot ideas including the notion that the Harry Potter books are evil. But his theory on this case perhaps holds the most water. Another girl, 15-year-old Mirella Gregori, also vanished from Vatican City, just 40 days before Emanuela. Thirty years later, no trace of the teenagers has ever been found.
9 Villisca Axe Murders
On June 9, 1912, Josiah and Sarah Moore, their four young children—Herman (11), Katherine (1), Boyd (7), and Paul (5)—and two houseguests—Lena (12) and Ina (8) Stillinger—attended a children’s program at their Presbyterian church. They returned to their Villisca, Iowa, home that evening. When they did not emerge the following morning, neighbors entered the house and found all eight people in bed, bludgeoned and slashed with an axe.
A massive investigation followed, with multiple suspects caught in the crosshairs, including hobos, business rivals, and serial killers. Josiah’s brother-in-law, Sam Moyer, with whom he had a brusque relationship, was considered, but he produced an alibi. Reverend George Kelly, who had officiated the church services the Moores had attended was tried twice, with the first trial ending in a hung jury and the second resulting in a verdict of not guilty.
The most likely explanation was that the Moores were targeted by an itinerant serial killer. A rash of savage axe murders continued to grip the United States, occurring in Kansas, Colorado, and Iowa, culminating most notably in Louisiana, where the “Axeman of New Orleans” terrorized the populace from May 1918 to October 1919.
8 The Red Book
Carl Jung was an influential psychiatrist considered to be the founder of analytical psychology. Jung collaborated with Sigmund Freud for years and was noted for his work with schizophrenic patients. In 1913, Jung’s professional relationship with Freud dissolved and he began to develop serious mental health issues of his own, admitting to both auditory and visual hallucinations in what he described as a “confrontation with the unconscious.”
During this period, Jung scribed a book he titled Liber Novus, Latin for “New Book,” but which has since been deemed “The Red Book.” Scrawled with hand-drawn devils, conversations with deities, depictions of incest, and travels through the underworld, it has been alternately called a work of “infinite wisdom” and the ramblings of a psychotic. He worked on the book for 16 years, locking it away until his death in 1961.
When describing the book, he cryptically revealed: “The years . . . when I pursued the inner images, were the most important times of my life. Everything else is to be derived from this. It began at that time, and the later details hardly matter anymore. My entire life consisted in elaborating what had burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me. That was the stuff and material for more than only one life. Everything later was merely the outer classification, scientific elaboration, and the integration into life. But the numinous beginning, which contained everything, was then.”
After his death, the Jung family locked the Red Book away for nearly 50 years. Only a handful of people had ever seen it until it was published in October of 2009. The original has since been shown in Manhattan’s Rubin Museum of Art. What devils drove Carl Jung’s hand, what he was truly attempting to express in “The Red Book,” and precisely why his family attempted to keep the work hidden for so many decades remains quite mysterious.
7 The Smiley Face Murder Theory
Young, college-aged men plied with booze are probably among the most reckless human beings on the planet. But retired NYPD detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte believe that there may be more than just teenage irresponsibility behind a string of “drownings” that have occurred throughout America. The detectives point to the existence of bizarre “smiley face” graffiti found near the bodies in many cases. The graffiti might indicate the work of a serial killer. It has been found so often, the men assert, that it would probably be impossible for one person to have pulled off the murders alone. The bodies have been found in Minnesota, Iowa, New York, and eight other states. Nine of the victims had been attending the University of LaCrosse in Wisconsin, a rather frightening coincidence, to say the least.
Duarte and Gannon claim that the bodies are found in water both to mimic drowning and because water often destroys evidence like fingerprints and fiber samples. According to Gannon, “I believe these young men are being abducted by individuals in the bars, taken out, at some point held for a period of time before they’re entered into the water.” He contends that the smiley faces are a taunt to authorities, saying, “They’re telling you here that they’re into evil, they’re very happy as most serial killers are. They’re content with their work and what they’re doing and the fact that they’re thwarting the police.”
Most law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, are unconvinced that there is any grand conspiracy in the works, with some claiming Duarte and Gannon might have some unwholesome motives in advancing the theory in the first place.
6 Atuk Curse
A small handful of productions have garnered a reputation for being cursed. Well-known examples include the Poltergeist franchise and Rosemary’s Baby, where people attached to both films succumbed to untimely deaths. A lesser-known example is a movie that has never escaped development hell, a screenplay adapted from the 1963 novel The Incomparable Atuk. Atuk is a fish-out-of-water comedy which features an Inuit moving to the big city.
The screenplay has been kicked around Hollywood for over 30 years. Numerous stars have been attached to the project, and each has been executed by fate. In the early 1980s, John Belushi was slated to play Atuk, but he died of a drug overdose in 1982 at the age of 33. Next, stand-up comic Sam Kinison was offered the role, but he was killed by a head-on collision with a drunk driver at the age of 38. Lovable lug John Candy was also considered, until he succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 43. Lunatic SNL star Chris Farley was next in line, until he too died of a drug overdose at just 33 years old, a grim mirror of the passing of his idol Belushi.
Atuk’s influence was so sinister that it appeared to have struck people who merely read the script, including Saturday Night Live writer Michael O’Donoghue, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 54, and actor Phil Hartman, who was killed at age 49 by his wife Brynn in a drug-fueled murder suicide. Does Atuk exert some kind of evil, deadly force? This is likely a mystery we will never know the answer to, as the movie is no closer to being made now than it was three decades ago.
5 The Bunny Man
Of all the cryptids, werebeasts, and assorted boogeymen profiled on Listverse, perhaps none are as preposterous as the so-called “Bunny Man” of Fairfax County, Virginia. Unlike encounters with other such phantoms, which seem fleeting at best, people claim to have actually exchanged words with the Bunny Man.
The first, and seemingly most credible story, was reported by Air Force cadet Bob Bennett who was sitting in his car with his fiance in Burke, Virginia. Suddenly, a figure in white appeared, warning them about trespassing before shattering Bennett’s window with a hatchet. Bob reported the incident to the police, claiming the man was wearing a bunny suit. The hatchet was lying on the floor of the car. Bennett also related the incident to his superiors at the Air Force. It seems odd that the cadet would risk ridicule and destroy his own car.
Word of the Bunny Man spread, and soon dozens claimed to have seen him. The legend morphed, until the character was seen as a ghost, or an escaped mental patient, or some variation thereof. The most popular place for Bunny Man sightings is Colchester Overpass in Virginia, an intersection of trains and traffic. Police are well aware of people loitering in this area, and should you plan your own hunt for this mystery man, you may be subject to a rather hefty ticket.
4 The Original Spanish Kitchen
The Original Spanish Kitchen was a Mexican restaurant in the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. A popular spot that attracted celebrities like Bob Hope and John Barrymore, it shuttered its doors suddenly in 1961, a “Closed for Vacation” sign hung outside. To passersby peering through the windows, it appeared as though the restaurant had halted in time. Place settings sat out, pots stood on stoves, sugar containers were placed on the counter. For years, nothing changed, and rumors began to swirl that something terrible had happened . . . that the owners had ties to organized crime and had been brutally murdered, that ghosts roamed among the tables.
Tour buses stopped beside the darkened restaurant, and its legend grew, until an investigation revealed the depressing truth. In 1961, the owner of the restaurant, Johnny Caretto, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His wife Pearl closed the restaurant to take care of him, and stricken with grief after his passing, never opened it back up. Pearl remained a virtual recluse, living in an apartment over the restaurant for decades, heartbroken at the loss of her husband. She has since died, and the property was sold off. It is currently a spa, but legends of hauntings continue to this day.
3 The Changeling
Walter Collins Sr. was a bad man. In 1928, he was serving a sentence in California’s Folsom Prison for a series of armed robberies. When his son, nine-year-old Walter Jr. vanished that year, authorities believed one of his father’s enemies had taken the boy as revenge. A massive investigation found no sign of the boy until five months later, when a boy found in Illinois claimed to be Walter. He was returned to Christine, who insisted the child did not belong to her. She persisted in her claims until she was locked up in the psychiatric ward of the Los Angeles County Hospital. Finally, the boy admitted that he wasn’t Walter. He’d only claimed to be so that he could get a free trip out to California to meet his favorite movie star, Tom Mix. Christine Collins was released, but she never saw her son again.
Walter Collins Jr.’s ultimate fate is unknown, although it has been suggested that he was probably a victim of the sadistic serial killer Gordon Northcott, known to be active in that area at the time. The events of the disappearance were dramatized in the 2008 film Changeling, which starred Angelina Jolie.
2 Thailand Poisonings
Thailand, with its ancient temples, raucous nightlife, and crystalline beaches, attracts hordes of visitors. According to the Global Destination Cities Index, Bangkok draws more tourists than any other city in the world. But visiting Thailand may very well be hazardous to your health. In the last five years, a rash of tourists have been found dead in their hotel rooms, including couples. Explanations vary; some, like Canadian sisters Noemi and Audrey Belanger, seem to be victims of a vicious cocktail called 4×100, which contains cola, cough syrup, and deet mosquito repellent. Seven tourists from around the world died in the Downtown Inn in Chiang Mai in 2011, apparently from the effects of an insecticide called pyrophus, which is used to curb bedbugs. Still others allegedly died from food poisoning, perhaps from dining on fugu, the Japanese puffer fish whose liver contains lethal doses of tetrodotoxin. Thai authorities have claimed that these unfortunate deaths are mere coincidence, but the families of some victims seem convinced there is something far more sinister and mysterious at hand.
1 Mister X
Mister X was a modern-day “man in the iron mask,” a man kept in such complete seclusion in Israel’s Ayalon Prison that even the guards did not know his name. When the media got wind of this mystery man in 2010, rumors exploded as to his identity, with some believing that X was Ali-Reza Asgari, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general kidnapped by the Mossad.
In 2013, Mister X was finally revealed as Ben Zygier, a dual Australian-Israeli citizen who had been a member of the Mossad. Zygier allegedly had espionage ties throughout the Middle East, including involvement with Hezbollah, as well as links to operations in Iran and Syria. Zygier was arrested in February of 2010, and 10 months later, hanged himself with a bedsheet in his allegedly “suicide proof” cell.
The nature of the charges against Zygier remain a mystery, but it is believed by many that he intended to sell state secrets to enemies of Israel. If so, the information must have been extremely sensitive to merit the bizarre circumstances of his incarceration. Even his suicide has been called into question. Zygier’s cell was under constant video surveillance, and reports indicate that his body was bruised. A muscle relaxant called succinylcholine was also found in his bloodstream.
Mike Devlin is an aspiring novelist.