Have you ever looked out at the craziness of the masses and wondered: What possesses people?
How did wearing a face mask during a contagious pandemic become a political issue? Why are there anti-vaxxers? Why do some people insist on a flat Earth? Why do others insist on a hollow Earth? Why are these delusions so contagious?
Come here, kid. You want to hear a real science fiction story? Your Uncle Petey has one. Some say the story itself is true. That is neither here nor there, but I do know that even the circumstances behind the story are enough to scare the cupcakes out of you!
The year is 1932, the peak of the Great Depression.
The place, a Ford auto factory somewhere in the Rust Belt region of the United States. A factory worker named Richard Sharpe Shaver has an undefined accident and soon after begins to report strange phenomenon. By his account, a welding gun somehow allows him to hear the thoughts of his co-workers. He then claims to have received a telepathic record of a torture session conducted by evil beings who live deep within caverns under the Earth.
Richard Sharpe Shaver quit his job at that factory not long after this event and became a drifter for awhile. His subsequent misadventures are unknown until 1943, in the thick of WWII, when he wrote a letter to a then-obscure sci-fi pulp magazine called Amazing Stories.
Shaver’s letter claimed that he had discovered a hidden language, called “Mantong,” which was a system of sounds with hidden meanings embedded in them and supposedly the origin of all human language. Shaver claimed that Mantong could be mapped over any other language to reveal hidden meanings. That letter arrived at the desk of Ray Palmer, editor at the magazine, who applied a few examples of Mantong in Shaver’s letter and thought the theory sounded pretty airtight.
Palmer wrote back to Shaver asking for more detail about this language, and in response Shaver sent back a longer letter narrating his experience in uncovering the secret, underground society of inhuman monsters who lived in caves under the Earth’s surface. These monsters, called “Deros,” made periodic treks to the surface to abduct humans and take them back to their lair to conduct torturous experiments. Editor Palmer liked this story enough that he edited it into a fictional account and published it in the magazine.
Already, it seems unlikely that a person clearly suffering from some form of mental distress could pawn off this rant to any magazine at the time without being dismissed as a kook. But we’re just getting started. What happened next defies all explanation…
I Remember Lemuria
Thus was launched the Shaver Mystery franchise, beginning with the first story, I Remember Lemuria. This story sold out the magazine, and became so hugely popular that a series of stories produced by Shaver continued to run in Amazing Stories until it almost crowded out every other kind of content. Shaver continued building this universe of the subterranean Dero, a race of proto-humans whom had gone underground because they found direct exposure to sunlight too harsh. Later most of them would build spaceships and flee to other stars, leaving their most derelict members behind.
The universe of the Dero grew to include rare noble “Teros,” good-aligned reformed Deros who tried to help humans escape. There were also increasingly fanciful elements of underground hangars, spaceships, robots, bands of human mercenaries leading a resistance, and whatnot – all the elements of a good sci-fi adventure series. The series sold the magazine; Amazing Stories subscriptions rose from 135K to 185K over the course of the series, running from 1945 to 1948. Thanks to Shaver’s stories, be they fact or fiction, Amazing Stories was now outselling every other sci-fi publication.
Shaver Mystery Clubs
And there could be no doubt that the extra subscribers came from fans of Shaver’s stories, because they wrote in to say so.
First dozens, and then hundreds of letters poured in from readers who, one after another, confided that they, too, had encountered telepathic violence from the underground Deros. A few even claimed to be some of the surviving humans the Deros had kidnapped. Several readers, in their letters, winked slyly at Amazing Stories for telling “the truth” and disguising it as “fiction.” What a clever ruse, they would write admiringly, to throw the Deros off!
Furthermore, Shaver and his fan base shared enthusiasm over the Montang language, extending to Shaver’s new discovery of Teros and Deros hieroglyphs which were written in the very rocks of the Earth. Clubs of Shaver fans began to form, dubbed Shaver Mystery Clubs. One woman claimed to have gone down a secret elevator in a subbasement of a building in Paris, France, and found a Deros enclave which kidnapped her, raping and torturing her for a month until a heroic Tero rescued her.
The magazine staff, then eventually most of the science fiction community, became first fascinated and then horrified by this phenomenon. As fans become more and more insistent that the Shaver stories were true, the science fiction community around Amazing Stories began to pressure editor Palmer to discontinue the series and denounce it as a hoax.
By 1948, Palmer caved to the outraged masses’ demands and stopped publishing the stories – while he also quit working for Amazing Stories and started his own shoebox publishing title The Hidden World, where he continued to run Shaver’s ramblings. Palmer, the definition of a “number-one fan,” stayed loyal to his muse Shaver until the bitter end. The Shaver cult followed them.
So… What Was Going On?
It’s difficult to say. Even today, Shaver Mystery Club chapters continue to thrive, as historians re-examine the phenomenon. Shaver had not only started a fiction universe based on funny noises he heard in his head, but had inadvertently founded a cult, dubbed “Shaverology.”
Contained within this story is an intangible common hook to a well-documented instance of contagious craziness, clinically dubbed “the influencing machine.”
It seems that within the subjective symptoms of those suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, a specific kind of hallucination recurs from one individual to another, whereby a machine is used to insert torturous and bizarre thoughts into the victim’s mind. The machine is always operated by a gang of unsavory villains who persecute the victim for their own twisted ends. The gang is inevitably an organized party of a group, such as the CIA, the Mafia, or the Freemasons. Recall Shaver’s version of the machine was a malfunctioning welding gun.
This is a very well-documented phenomenon by now. It is included, for example, in the psychological record of James Tilly Matthews, considered to be the first recorded case of paranoid schizophrenia. Matthews’ version of the influencing machine was called an “Air Loom,” and it was operated from a distance by a group of spies named “the Middleman,” “the Glove Woman,” “Sir Archy,” and “Bill” AKA “the King.” The machine’s torments included reading minds, inserting unwanted thoughts, and doing inconceivable things to the body such as blocking blood flow with magnetism.
More Patterns Emerge
Paranoid schizophrenics report an almost identical pattern of delusions, as if multiple minds had the exact same nightmare. There is always a shadowy group with psychic weapons, who are blamed for nearly all of society’s ills – both the tormentors of Mr. Matthews and the Deros of Shavers’ stories were supposed to be bent on taking over the world and destroying humanity, using their thought-bending powers to cause assassinations, wars, and huge tragic disasters.
Yet another version of an influencing machine set-up appears in the later works of legendary sci-fi author Philip K. Dick. Starting around the time of the novel VALIS, Dick asserted that an alien consciousness was communicating telepathically with him, through a “Vast Active Living Intelligence System.”
The fact that P.K. Dick wrote so many revered works of classic sci-fi including the novels that became the basis for the blockbuster films Blade Runner and Total Recall, indicates that maybe he had a tinge of schizophrenia enhancing his imagination the whole time, and certainly that his lucid awareness of sci-fi genre tropes allowed him to recognize the fabric of this delusion, and yet cruelly, was not enough to prevent his succumbing to it.
If you’re beginning to suspect that at least as far as the “hollow Earth” conspiracy goes, we finally know how one popular delusion got started: Ding you are correct!
In fact, we have ready evidence of more collective shared delusions taking form right now. The Internet-infamous Mandela Effect, which manifests itself in huge collective false memories of Nelson Mandela dying in jail (he didn’t), mistitling of the children’s book series The Berenstain Bears (it wasn’t) and the existence of a ’90s comedy movie called “Shazam” where the comedian Sinbad played a genie (nope). Here’s a deep dive into it starting from the Shazam angle. The thing is, even when confronted with hard evidence that a memory is false, people will double down and insist, nope, time travelers must have changed it!
Richard Sharpe Shaver and Ray Palmer
After Palmer had quit his editor job in solidarity with Shaver, he went on to take up interest in Deros-encoded hieroglyphs on rocks, which, in Shaver terms, form a “rock book.” Collecting these rock books, he formed a lending library for true believers.
As for schizophrenics and their influencing machines? Well, they’re still out there. As are the Shaver true believers. Doubtless we’re all familiar with some of the more modern-day interpretations of the same base ideas, spread more easily through the Internet now than ever before. Some even go so far as to mobilize together in groups to insist that they’re the sane ones, and the rest of us live in delusion.
The Shaver story and the prevalence of influencing machines suggests only two possibilities: Either the human mind can be affected by a disease whose symptoms are so precise that identical delusions occur in multiple patients, or else there really are lizard-people and whatnot assaulting us with psychic weapons and we treat our few “woke” individuals like the crazy people.
Both of those possibilities are eerie. By one account, Shaver during his wandering years was arrested for vagrancy, but the hallucination of a beautiful woman that he had been experiencing also appeared to a jail guard who was persuaded to release Shaver. Are shared delusions that powerful? Somewhere between psychedelic drug effects, hypnosis, and very good storytelling could lie a kind of magic power to conjure hallucinations in another person’s mind. Yet make them so indelible that they stay there.
Us creative people worry about this sort of thing. It’s a power that’s fun to play with for about five minutes until, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it gets out of control. Maybe it was never under our control to begin with.
It’s things like this that can make the rest of us begin to doubt our grip on reality.
Shaver wasn’t the only one with a cult…
Let’s not forget two other sci-fi authors who had an unusual effect on their fans in the mid-20th-century. One was Robert A. Heinlein, who came this close to founding a cult in his book Stranger in a Strange Land.
And the other science fiction author who influenced a wide audience to adopt his unique vision of reality? You might have heard of him. He was L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology.