This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Biographical details on Martin Cannon are sparse, but some details of his life can be inferred from his online writing. Whilst the field of conspiracy theory is often skewed to the political right, there’s no monopoly on the field and Cannon had little use for right-wing scaremongering about harmless occult eccentrics, and was eager to call out racist, homophobic, and other abuses by those in power such as COINTELPRO. His primary concern seems to have been authoritarian abuses by government forces, particularly in relation to scandals such as MKULTRA, and he was quick to point out links between fringe groups and political extremists, or the bigoted motivations of less-than-ethical psychiatric researchers of yesteryear.
What seems to have most characterised his work, however, was his willingness to go against the grain even within the contrarian world of conspiracy speculation. This is most evident in his most substantial publication – the monograph The Controllers, widely available online, which like Project Beta manages to hit a Very Specific Level of Scepticism.
Cannon’s theory is as follows: alien abduction is not a thing, but at least a portion of alien abductees have actually experienced something real. Specifically, they’ve been subjected to dubious mind control experiments by the government, with their recollections of alien abduction (either directly recalled or recovered via hypnosis) being implanted memories intended to cover up the awful truth.
It’s a delightful theory; whilst usually Occam’s Razor would tend to advocate against accepting “X is actually Y disguised as X” when you could just say “X is X”, the claims of alien abductees are so bizarre and over the top that it’s incredibly hard to take them at face value, particularly when they get into more contactee-type territory and talk about how their friendly space buddies from another galaxy are watching out for us. Perhaps Cannon’s most compelling line of logic is that we know that government mind control research is a thing, whereas we have serious reasons to doubt that extraterrestrials are visiting us (or could even viably visit us ever), so it seems more likely that abductees are misremembering a phenomenon we know to be real than experiencing something we’re fairly sure isn’t real.
However, this is where Cannon’s logical process fails him. He structures The Controllers in a very particular way. First, he kicks off by discussing the known history of mind control research, including making a number of interesting points even if he sometimes seems to overestimate the effectiveness or plausibility of some of the technologies he describes. (He notes, for instance, how pioneers in the field seemed to have this intense interest in suppressing homosexuality.) Then, having established to his satisfaction that mind control technology and experiments exist, he tries to argue that some abductee experiences match the symptoms of that technology.
The weak points in this argument are as follows: firstly, it doesn’t allow for the possibility that similar experiences may arrive from entirely different sources, and secondly and perhaps more critically, Cannon is unable to turn up anything in the way of physical evidence of the CIA bundling abductees into black vans and driving them off to do experiments on them. (Or however it is they’re supposed to have done all this – Cannon is really vague on what the logistics of an MKULTRA fake alien abduction actually entail.) All he has are the witness testimony of abductees – which he’s already arguing shouldn’t be trusted – and, very occasionally, mystery implants retrieved from their bodies (though he doesn’t find any evidence that those have been identified as human-produced electronics).
You would think that if people were being snatched off the streets by mind control experimenters, there’d be some evidence of that. Not every such kidnapping can go smoothly, and sooner or later someone would witness an abduction in process, or the victim being dropped off by their abductors. On top of that, there’s numerous neurological phenomena and mental health issues which offer more compelling explanations. Temporal lobe epilepsy can account for a lot of abduction experiences – and just because someone reports that their mind is being controlled by an air loom doesn’t mean that air looms actually exist.
It’s worth considering the air loom here, because it also illustrates a point which Cannon misses. The “influencing machine” delusion which the air loom is a famous historical example of is famous for warping itself to fit the prejudices of the time. Before the air loom, such forces were ascribed to witchcraft or fairies or angels; afterwards, the mechanism of influencing machines changed depending on what the hot technology of the time was, and the identity of the conspirators changed with the culture too.
We see a similar phenomenon with alien abduction scenarios, Satanic ritual abuse allegations, and other such widespread stories which tend to arise from the activities of hypnotherapists specialising in “recovering” lost memories (which all too easily turns into the production of new memories via confabulation, as the patient picks up on what the therapist wants to hear and eagerly says it). Counter-culture icon Robert Anton Wilson said an awful lot of nonsense in his time, but one thing he very sensibly pointed out (and annoyingly I can’t track down the source where he said this) was that it was very convenient that all the Satanic ritual abuse survivors happened to find recovered memory therapists who believed in and promoted the idea of Satanic ritual abuse, and that all the alien abductees happened to go to therapists who believed in alien abduction.
If the alien abduction scenario was a false implanted memory, then there should be a spate of “recovered memory” specialists who, despite preferring to believe in Satanic Ritual Abuse, ought to be turning up alien abduction cases instead. This doesn’t happen. Once again, Cannon seems to badly want to believe that something concrete and objectively real does happen to alien abductees, but is too reliant on the testimony they produce (whether under manifestly flawed therapeutic techniques or volunteered by themselves) in constructing his argument, and fails to appreciate just how unreliable recovered memory therapy is and just how capable the mind is of creating false memories.
To give credit to Cannon, he was clearly fully aware that, even though it is undeniable that mind control projects like MKULTRA existed, it’s tremendously difficult to find the few credible cases out there compared to the tidal wave of allegations raised by people who are victim to the well-established “influencing machine” delusion. “Wavies”, as he rather mean-spiritedly calls them, are persistent folk, and he notes that there’s hardly a politician of national standing out there who hasn’t received letters complaining of nefarious mind control plots directed at them.
In fact, in later years Cannon would state he regretted publishing The Controllers. Within the monograph himself he says he’d restrict its circulation to researchers and psychiatric professionals if he could, but since he couldn’t he encouraged anyone who believed they’d had abduction or mind control experiences to treat the material with as much objectivity and scepticism as they could muster. It is clear that Cannon was fully aware that by promulgating his theory, he might contribute to spreading a concept which would then feed into subsequent abductees’ “recovered memories” – potentially causing them far greater distress than an ecstatic contact with benevolent space visitors. (Although Cannon mistrusts UFO cults and is quick to point out links between them and far-right organisations, he does note how many abductees claim that, despite the details of their experience being downright bizarre, there was also something weirdly comforting about them, and Cannon seems to have been in two minds about trying to undermine that serenity.)
Cannon may well have had reason to worry. Although some UFO abduction accounts from prior to the release online of The Controllers included references to military personnel – and indeed Cannon made much of them in the monograph – it’s fair to say that the idea of the military faking alien abductions became increasingly widespread over the course of the 1990s. It reached the point where there was even a slang term – MILABs, for MILitary ABductions – in UFO circles to describe the phenomenon.
It’s entirely possible that it would have happened without Cannon – UFO conspiracy theories and the idea of the government having a more sinister role to play in the whole thing than merely debunking UFOlogists’ claims were rife in the 1990s after a groundswell of new theories being issued in the 1980s. We can point to the Majestic-12 conspiracy theory or the ideas of Paul Bennewitz as potential sources for the conflation of military experiments and alien abduction in the public imagination. There’s a certain flavour of conspiracy theorist – David Icke is one, as was the late Bill Cooper – who love mashing different theories together to see just how grandiose a scheme they can come up with.
Nonetheless, a high proportion of those propagating MILAB theories – including Helmut Lammer, who coined the term – cite The Controllers in their work. Its influence is therefore undeniable – and therein lies Cannon’s regrets. He has stepped away from the world of UFOlogy, conspiracy theories, and other Fortean subjects now, but before that he expressed regrets about publishing his theory both in conversation and in online chats.
This has been characterised by inattentive readers as him disowning the theory altogether, but I don’t think he quite goes that far – what he actually says is that the field has become unacceptably cluttered with people making absurd claims, a great proportion of whom seem to have been influenced by his work and a certain proportion of whom seem to have distressing mental health issues. He notes that the few credible people investigating mind control issues have been drowned out by those who are just making up nonsense, or who are encouraging vulnerable people to make extraordinary claims in support of their pet theories, and he says that he feels a certain amount of guilt that he may have contributed about to that. Nonetheless, the legend, now enunciated, cannot be brushed away so easily; Martin Cannon is gone, but the spectre of the controllers troubles people to this day.