UNITED STATES NEWS

Days of Darkness: How one woman escaped the conspiracy theory trap that has ensnared millions

Jan 31, 2024, 7:27 AM | Updated: 12:34 pm

"Ramona" stands for a portrait Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, in Cordova, Tenn. The COVID-19 pandemic, and...

"Ramona" stands for a portrait Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, in Cordova, Tenn. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the conspiracy theories it spawned, would change Ramona's life forever, sending her down a dark path of paranoia and isolation. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/George Walker IV)

WASHINGTON (AP) — At first his stories seemed harmless. Tales about secret organizations plotting to take over the world, about the good guys working to save it, and about the proof that, if you knew where to look, was hiding in plain sight.

To Ramona, her boyfriend Don’s tales of conspiracy theories sounded like a movie. A lot of it didn’t make much sense, but Ramona would nod along anyway. Don enjoyed telling his stories and showing off what he’d read online. He always knew the answer.

The pair met while still in high school. They worked at the same fast-food place in Ramona’s hometown in western Tennessee. They started dating a few years later. Don was a big guy, good with engines, somebody who could fix anything. Ramona had always wanted to be a teacher and was enrolled at a nearby college. Sometimes she struggled with anxiety, but with Don she felt safe.

The couple moved in together as COVID-19 swept the globe. To Don, the pandemic and the global response to it were filled with clues pointing to some kind of conspiracy, orchestrated by America’s leaders and the media. Maybe the virus was accidentally leaked from a lab; maybe it was a bioweapon. Don also suspected the lockdowns had a nefarious purpose, and he believed the vaccines were unsafe, perhaps designed to kill.

Don’s wild stories had seemed innocent and even silly before, but in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic they suddenly seemed plausible. At a scary time, when questions about the virus outnumbered answers, the conspiracy theories filled in some of the blanks.

“I have a lot of fear about what I can’t control,” Ramona, now 23, said of her vulnerable mindset as COVID-19 spread. Ramona agreed to tell her story to The Associated Press after she detailed her experiences on a forum for recovering conspiracy theorists. The AP is not fully identifying Ramona or her ex-boyfriend to protect her privacy and safety. “The stuff he was telling me, it made me feel like at least we understood. He had an explanation for what was going on. I didn’t realize what I was getting into.”

This alternate reality nourished by these conspiracy theories would transform Ramona’s life, sending her down a dark path of paranoia and loneliness that upended her life and spun her dreams of the future into turmoil. Convinced that a “New World Order” was already underway, she fell into a trap that has ensnared millions of Americans and even, at times, hijacked the nation’s politics.

Isolated from friends and family, distrustful of the explanations offered by officials and the media, Ramona and Don began to prepare. The military might try to put Americans like them in concentration camps run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. They had to be ready to flee.

The couple began stockpiling food and supplies. Don started a “go-bag” containing survival gear. He used their modest savings to buy a rifle, a handgun and ammunition.

One cold day in January 2021, Don read about a power outage in Vatican City on one of his conspiracy theory websites. The couple discussed what it might mean: Perhaps the Pope had been secretly arrested for his role in the conspiracy to control the world. Or maybe the bad guys had knocked out the power so they could smuggle child sex victims in or out of the Vatican.

Either way, the outage meant something big was happening. There are no coincidences. Just clues to be deciphered.

A few hours later, Ramona was in the bedroom when the lights in their Tennessee home flickered and then went out. Don started yelling. Ramona says he sounded almost exhilarated.

“He comes running into the bedroom,” Ramona recalled. “He says, ‘Honey, we gotta go. This is it!’”

They loaded their guns and the dog into the car and drove into the darkness.

DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

The AP spoke with more than a dozen people whose lives were disrupted by conspiracy theories — either because they believed them or because a close loved one did.

Many spoke of the social isolation that comes from spending more and more time on conspiracy theory websites and message boards.

They talked about money lost to investment scams or products that claimed to reverse aging or cure COVID-19. They talked about a mounting sense of paranoia and distrust as they began to lose faith in their community and their fellow Americans.

Former believers said conspiracy theories offered them meaning when they felt empty, even if those promises proved to be hollow themselves.

“I was suicidal before I got into conspiracy theories,” said Antonio Perez, 45, a Hawaii man who became obsessed with Sept. 11 conspiracy theories and QAnon until he decided they were interfering with his life two years ago. Back then, when he first found other online conspiracy theorists, he was ecstatic. “It’s like: My God, I’ve finally found my people!”

“I think I got a sense of self-importance” from conspiracy theories, Perez said. He believed that he alone “was figuring everything out. It all ties into wanting to be a hero.”

Belief in conspiracy theories is a common, and usually harmless, part of people’s instinctive need to identify threats and explain the unknown. They can be an entertaining diversion for many, though for some, obsessive interest in these claims can lead to social isolation, paranoia and distrust.

Such beliefs also create their own community.

Websites, streaming podcasts, online forums and Facebook groups have created virtual refuges for conspiracy theorists. They are places to speculate and swap information without worrying about the mockery of outsiders, virtual clubs where, for a few hours at least, the unseen forces behind the headlines can be seen and understood.

Similar online communities have sprouted for the family members and loved ones left behind when someone is consumed by conspiracy theories such as QAnon.

On forums on Reddit and other sites, they mourn lost relationships and bemoan the fantasy worlds that consumed their loved ones.

“I’ve really been missing my mom lately,” reads a post from a woman whose mother fell into QAnon. Another post mourns a relationship with a brother, lost to the conspiracy theory: “I miss his goofy laugh most of all.”

People choose what to believe. They build a worldview day by day, using it to understand the past and present and to make decisions for the future. But if people pick the wrong stories, they risk lying to themselves, and to each other.

“We are the stories we tell ourselves,” said John Llewellyn, a professor at Wake Forest University who studies conspiracy theories and why people believe what they believe. “We’ve landed on the moon, and now we’ve got artificial intelligence — for better or worse — but no matter how advanced we get, we still have to deal with the human brain.”

But the stories people tell themselves aren’t always the same as the truth, and the difference, as Ramona found, can be the difference between freedom and a prison.

RAMONA’S STORY

When Ramona was a little girl, her father worked as an auctioneer. One day he brought home an antique school desk that didn’t sell.

When Ramona’s friends came over, they played school, with Ramona always taking the role of teacher. When she was alone, she would line up her stuffed animals and “teach them whatever I had learned at school that day,” she recalls. She didn’t realize it at the time, but she was hooked.

Ramona was studying for her education degree and living in the dorms when the pandemic hit. Don was working at the local auto plant. When Ramona’s classes went online, he urged her to drop out. He was making good money, enough for Ramona to quit her job and leave college. Ramona didn’t want to give up on her education, so as a compromise she transferred to a smaller, local college to be closer to Don during the pandemic. Soon, she had moved in with him.

Alone and isolated because of lockdowns, Ramona read and talked more and more about conspiracy theories. Though Ramona and her boyfriend didn’t use the word themselves, their views were consistent with QAnon, the sprawling conspiracy theory that claims Donald Trump is fighting a secret, satanic cult of world leaders and celebrities intent on world domination. The QAnon thinking goes that this group, known as the “Cabal,” not only controls world events but also traffics children for sexual exploitation, and consumes human blood in order to extend their lives.

Initially inspired by an anonymous online poster who claimed, without evidence, to have insider government information, QAnon has become a nexus for several related conspiracy theories relating to COVID-19, Trump and U.S. elections.

As the pandemic wore on, Ramona’s anxiety increased. She worried about her future, about her aging father and what a bout of COVID-19 would do to his bad lungs.

She had had many friends in college, but because of the lockdowns and her relationship with Don, she spoke to them less and less. Don went to work every day, leaving Ramona with little companionship. “He’d be at work for eight to nine hours a day. I’d have nothing to do,” she said, but dig deeper and deeper down into the bizarre and frightening stories she found online.

The conspiracy theories didn’t do much to help Ramona’s anxiety, but they did offer answers. They provided an outlet for her fears and gave her the idea that if she just did enough research, perhaps she could have power over them. She joined Facebook groups dedicated to QAnon. She started visiting online chat rooms and forums dedicated to conspiracy theories.

“The world is scary enough without conspiracy theories,” she said. “But when you believe them, at least they can give you answers. If you’re scared of the unknown,” conspiracy theories offer “an answer, no matter how farfetched it is.”

TRAINING FOR ARMAGEDDON

Ramona and Don spent much of the pandemic preparing for a grim future. QAnon lore prophesied that the forces of good, led by Trump, would triumph over the forces of evil in a final battle known as the “Storm.” Ahead of the Storm, QAnon believers say, all power will be cut, perhaps worldwide, as well as most means of communication.

QAnon adherents call this time the “10 Days of Darkness.”

The couple began practicing for their escape with drills designed to test their readiness. When Don gave the word, they would scramble to get dressed and load their essentials into the car. Often the training exercises were prompted by something Don had read online.

“Sometimes I’d just be laying there on the couch and he’d say, ‘I think we need to get the stuff ready,’” she said. “Usually he’d have been scrolling on his phone before and he’d seen something that would make the lightbulb go off.”

On the night the power went off, Ramona helped load the dog, the go-bag and the guns into the car. They planned to head to Ramona’s parents’ house, but when they got to the main road, they saw blue lights flashing up ahead. Two police cruisers were parked along the shoulder.

Don eased the car close and put it in park. He told the others that he wanted to ask the police what was going on.

“Stay inside,” he told Ramona. “Don’t get out of the car. I’ll be right back.”

He walked to the squad car. A policeman rolled down his window. There was a quick exchange before Don turned around and walked back to the couple’s car, his face set in a grim expression that to Ramona could have been anger, could have been fear.

Don said the officers told him a semitruck had hit a transformer. Power was out for a good chunk of town.

“Does this mean we should go home?” Ramona asked.

No, Don said. He didn’t believe the officers’ explanation. With the outage in Vatican City, it was too much of a coincidence.

“That’s just what they’re telling us,” Don told Ramona and his brother. “That’s just what they want us to believe.”

They drove on and as they rounded a bend, they saw the neon glow of a strip mall up ahead. Cars were lined up at a fast-food drive-thru. People were picking up a late dinner, while she and Don were driving off to confront the end of the world.

Don turned the car around and headed home.

The next day, he dismissed the incident as just another drill and said he hadn’t actually been frightened.

Ramona had a harder time moving on from the episode. Her mind went over Don’s explanations. Why would the police lie about a power outage? What would an outage in rural Tennessee have to do with Vatican City?

“I started to think: Maybe this is all a hoax,” she said. But when she confessed these creeping doubts to Don, he shook his head. Stay strong, he said. “Keep the faith,” he’d said. “The storm is coming.”

In the days and weeks that followed, Don came up with new drills. He would wake Ramona in the middle of the night and tell her they had to pack the car and leave immediately, only to tell her it had all been a test. He’d hide in closets and jump out when Ramona walked by. If she cried out in surprise, he’d get angry and tell her she had to harden herself if she was to survive the end times.

The drills just made her more anxious, more easily startled. To this day she hates practical jokes and sometimes worries that someone is hiding behind a door to surprise her.

“What are you going to do when the military comes to put you in a FEMA camp?” he asked her after one of his drills made her break down in tears.

ESCAPE

At first, conspiracy theories helped Ramona make sense of the world. But now her anxiety was increasing. The constant drills, the steady stream of content about child sex trafficking and satanic sacrifices were too much.

Watching funny videos on TikTok had been one of Ramona’s favorite ways to relax. That diversion no longer worked. Seeing people laugh or goof off just made her sad. “I’d just think: Does this person know what’s coming?”

Sometimes Ramona couldn’t catch her breath. She worried about the future. She didn’t sleep well.

“For hours at night, I’d just be scrolling and searching and reading. The more I read, the more anxious I got,” she said.

She also began to think more and more about how none of the predictions and prophecies laid out in QAnon lore had come true. Trump wasn’t reelected in a landslide in 2020. Vaccinated people weren’t turning into zombies. There had been no public executions of “Cabal” members on the National Mall in Washington. The 10 days of darkness did not arrive. The storm hadn’t come.

About this time, one of Ramona’s friends told her she would be taking a break from social media — a “cleanse,” she called it — to see if it helped her mental health. Ramona was curious. On some level, she knew her social media habits were connected to her anxiety. On a whim, she decided to join her friend. She now believes some part of her brain saw it as a way out.

“Doomscrolling is how I used to cope with it,” she said, referring to her anxiety.

The “cleanse” stretched from days into weeks, and Ramona felt her mind unclench. She felt more present. Her thoughts less troubled, her mind wandered. She looked up old friends and thought more hopefully about the future.

But habits are hard to break. After weeks of ignoring her feed, Ramona logged back on to Facebook. She missed the sense of community she had found in QAnon forums — the people, not the beliefs — and wanted to reconnect.

But the Facebook group was gone, purged by Facebook. By this point, QAnon had been linked to a growing number of violent incidents, as well as Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. After giving the conspiracy theory a free platform for years, Facebook had pulled the plug. Ramona never got to say goodbye.

“There was nowhere to go. It was just gone,” she said. “At that point, I think I’d decided that I didn’t need it anymore.”

Don wasn’t happy when Ramona told him she was done with conspiracy theories. He also wasn’t pleased when she mentioned that she wanted to go back to school and finish her degree.

One day the arguments turned violent, Ramona said. Don had always made Ramona feel safe and protected, but after he hit her, she knew that would never be true.

It was the final clue she needed.

“I started to realize I had to get out,” she says.

She moved out and stayed on friends’ couches for a while and then a few months later reenrolled in college. She reconnected with friends and made some new ones, too. She started hanging out with an old high school friend. They started dating after a few months. They got married in 2022.

Ramona last spoke to Don about two years ago. She had just gotten vaccinated against COVID-19. When she told him, she could hear him crying softly over the phone.

“He told me: ‘Well, you’re going to die within a year,’” Ramona recalls.

That year passed, and then another. Ramona graduated and got a job teaching fifth grade. Her days and thoughts are filled with students and lesson plans, instead of late-night drills and go-bags, and storms that never came.

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Days of Darkness: How one woman escaped the conspiracy theory trap that has ensnared millions