Illustration by Anna Donlan

Stereo FM radio came along during my teenage years, right around the time that I was ready to leave teeny bopper Top 40 behind. The Doors replaced Paul Revere. The Rolling Stones took over from the Monkees. The Beatles bridged the gap. Between the songs on my small radio, a disc jockey with a sleepy, stoner voice whispered to us about how many bombs had been dropped on Vietnam that day and where the protests had been held. Then, one night, there was a different rumor, something to take our minds off of Vietnam and draft numbers. It was a new rumor that the Beatles had engaged in an elaborate conspiracy to cover up the automobile death of band member Paul McCartney, all the while giving us clues to Paul’s death in their albums. It was all there for us. We just had to look at the album covers to see the clues or play the White Album backward to hear John Lennon intone, “Turn me on, dead man.”

Of course, McCartney wasn’t dead. At best, it was an odd twist of coincidences. At worst, it was some hoax perpetrated by Lennon, which he always denied. This was the first time in my life that I learned how a few disparate strands of truth can make a person believe something so fantastic that it’s almost incomprehensible. Are we all just gullible?

This question has been on my mind a lot during the ongoing child custody trial of famed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. His lawyer is arguing that there are two versions of Alex Jones. One is the family man, and the other is the “performance artist” who appears on the Internet as a maniac ranting that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an “inside job” carried out by our own government or that the Sandy Hook school shootings were staged—a “false flag” operation—to help the government take control of us. As his Austin-based Infowars site declares: “There’s a war on for your mind.” By the end of last week, Jones put out his own web video to say that he sometimes acts satirically but that his news is so real that the mainstream media just wants to destroy him. He may be performing on Infowars, he said, but he believes what he says.

In 2007, I interviewed Jones for the Houston Chronicle. He talked so fast that that the discussion felt like the proverbial drink from a fire hose. The interview was for a story on globalist conspiracy theories involving then-Governor Rick Perry. Perry had been promoting the construction of a superhighway toll road known as the Trans Texas Corridor, and he had attended the Bilderberg conference, which many conspiracy theorists believe is a gathering of one-worlders. Infowars posted a mug shot of Perry with the words “Wanted for Treason.” U.S. Representative Ron Paul appeared on Jones’s show and said the Bilderberg trip was a sign that Perry was “involved in the international conspiracy.” Author Jerome Corsi claimed Perry’s corridor really was the NAFTA Highway, designed as the starting point of forming the North American Union of Canada, the United States, and Mexico with a currency called the Amero. Corsi is now the Washington bureau chief for Infowars. “Perry is actively waging war, economically in the interests of the elites and neomercantilism,” Jones told me at the time.

We Texans seem especially fond of conspiracy theories. In the days leading up to the Civil War, there was a widespread conspiracy promoted by Dallas Herald Editor Charles Pryor that abolitionist ministers were promoting a slave rebellion and were supposedly responsible for fires that burned most of downtown Dallas and half the town square of Denton (the actual cause was oily rags that had ignited). At least three slaves were lynched in Dallas, and a Methodist minister named Anthony Bewley was wrongly accused of fomenting the uprising. The reverend fled toward Kansas, but a posse caught up to him and brought him back to Fort Worth, where a lynch mob hanged him. His body was then burned and the flesh removed from the bones. What remained of the Reverend Bewley was moved to the roof of Ephraim Daggett’s store, where children often rearranged his bones into amusing poses.

Before we get away from Fort Worth, one of the state’s great and forgotten conspiracy stories involves evangelist J. Frank Norris. When his church burned in 1912, Norris was accused of arson but won acquittal. In a third-person autobiography, Norris gleefully related how each of those who conspired against him found retribution in car wrecks and failed businesses that led to suicides. Newspaper editors saw their papers close and their names forgotten. “The District Attorney, who was the tool of the liquor interests, and who framed and forged the indictment in 1912, met with a horrible death, driving an eight cylinder Cadillac over North Main Street Viaduct, with his lady companion, and his automobile full of liquor, a head on crash with a street car and both were hurled into eternity and their blood, brains, and the broken bottles covered the pavement,” Norris wrote. When one of the allies of Fort Worth’s mayor showed up at his office in 1926, Norris shot the man dead, claiming the mayor had sent him as an assassin. A jury found Norris acted in self-defense.

Norris became nationally famous in the 1920s as a radio preacher who sermonized against “that hell-born, Bible-destroying, deity-of-Christ-denying, German rationalism known as evolution” at Baylor University. He later changed his focus to the evils of communism, and in 1949 delivered a speech in the Texas House chamber against communist-leaning professors at the University of Texas. It was a rambling speech full of the kind of fulminations that would make Alex Jones proud. Almost in mid-sentence, Norris ended the speech with a sudden, “To Hell with Joe Stalin!”

But the all-time Texas conspiracy theory surrounds the November 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. At that time, I was in fourth grade in Dallas, and had woken up that morning with my mother showing me a map in The Dallas Morning News of the route of Kennedy’s motorcade. She told me she wished they hadn’t printed it, because it was like a blueprint for assassination. Later that day, after Kennedy was dead, my school gathered the children in the auditorium to wait for our parents to pick us up. One girl became hysterical. She knew her father was supposed to see Kennedy at the Trade Mart that day and was flying to Japan immediately after. She burst into tears after convincing herself that her father had killed Kennedy. She was only the first of the Kennedy conspiracy theorists.

Within days of the assassination, a New York lawyer named Mark Lane started raising questions. He would launch a cottage industry of Kennedy conspiracy. I saw his presentation when I was in college. We watched the famed Zapruder film over and over. Certainly this could not just be the work of Lee Harvey Oswald. It would have taken an expert marksman. There was umbrella man and babushka lady. Everyone looked at the grassy knoll. Before it was over, the conspiracies had the Soviet Union behind it, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the mafia, and the CIA. A U.S. House select committee convened to consider the alleged conspiracy, concluding that there may have been more than one assassin. Then came the books debunking Mark Lane and all the Kennedy conspiracies. My clarity came one Christmas, when I went up to the Texas School Book Depository museum and looked out one of the sixth floor windows onto Elm Street and realized I could have done it with a handgun. So much for the expert marksman.

Now we are in a new age of conspiracy and paranoia that began with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. If our government could not protect us from passenger airliners being turned into bombs, maybe the government was part of the conspiracy. If there is a mass murder of children at Sandy Hook elementary school, then maybe it is easier to believe it did not happen than to wrestle with the national debate on firearms. And when the U.S. Army conducts maneuvers in case a war occurs, then it must mean that the exercise, known as Jade Helm, is part of some plot. There’s a certain thrill, real or imagined, to danger that you cannot control, sort of like standing on a hillside while watching an electrical storm approach.

Fanning the flames of fear and conspiracy, Alex Jones came out of the depths of Austin cable television to prompt Governor Greg Abbott into responding to Jade Helm by assigning the Texas State Guard to “monitor” the Army’s maneuvers. President Trump has bought into more than a few of Jones’s conspiracy theories. Jones’s style of paranoia is affecting U.S. government policy. Ask yourself this: a decade has passed since Jones and his Infowars predicted the new North American Union. Where is it? The Army came and went in 2015 without establishing martial law in Texas. What happened to Jade Helm?

I’m not going to make fun of the people buying into Alex Jones and his conspiracies—after all, I spent a portion of my life playing records backward and watching the Zapruder film over and over again. But Paul McCartney is alive and JFK is dead, and I’m willing to admit it.