The public should have treated the events at Travis Scott’s Astroworld music festival—which left 10 dead and hundreds injured—as what they were: the tragic results of a disastrous lack of crowd-control and general mishandling of the situation (The New York Times, 2021). However, many people took to social media to condemn the concert as a display of demonic ritual. While intriguing in their sensationalism, these theories, circulated on social media platforms like Twitter and TikTok, downplayed the actual causes of the mass casualty event. These conspiracies overshadowed any talk of prevention strategies to avoid such a catastrophe in the future.
The discourse surrounding Astroworld centers around inflammatory language suggesting a sinister evil. Twitter user @jaminjoaniee describes the event, saying, “bro that shit was a concert in hell…illuminati blood sacrifice type shit,” where another claims that “Astroworld was a BLOOD SACRIFICE. [Scott] took 8 innocent lives to pledge his allegiance to the occult elite” (Twitter, @PhillipLikesTV, 2021). Others drew attention to the visuals of the festival, describing the fiery stage Scott performed on as a “portal to hell” (Forbes, 2021). Footage from the concert that appeared on social media showed the crowd lifting unconscious bodies above the swarm while Scott’s performance drowned out attendees’ screams for help (The Atlantic, 2021). This devastating mishap soon transformed into a satanic act in the eyes of a sector of the public, an interpretation which Twitter and TikTok users particularly fueled. The virality of these mass-circulated images and the accompanying commentary demonstrates the emotional power that such conspiracies continue to hold over our minds.
Pop culture’s dark fascination with conspiracies involving blood rituals and sacrifice speaks to a long and sordid history of fear. Historian Norman Cohn calls this phenomenon the “nocturnal ritual fantasy,” describing the sensationalist rhetoric Romans wielded against early Christians and Christians wielded against Jews and “witches,” just to name a few examples. Used as a political tool to demonize certain groups, this poltergeist of elite, ritualistic violence still plagues the public psyche, running contrary to accepted modern notions of science, rational thinking and industrial progress. This narrative always contains the same core themes: the sacrifice of innocents, perverse rituals and the depravity of elite circles in our era (The New Republic, 2020).
Astroworld is only the latest manifestation of this mass compulsion to find organized evil in what is really just bleakly uncomplicated tragedy. We are addicted to this metaphor and to the extreme emotional responses it invokes––so much so that for some, these conspiracies become reality. QAnon is another pertinent expression of the modern-day nocturnal ritual fantasy, basing its rhetoric in extreme racism, elite-driven child sex-trafficking rings and blood sacrifice. These conspiracies consistently rely on targeting particular communities; in the case of Astroworld, rhetoric demonizing rap––and Black culture, by generalized association––emerged in the convoluted discourse (Vulture, 2021). These inflammatory theories might provide an escape from the dismal reality of common American problems; however, this escape offers no real solutions and only turns into social alienation outside of online chat rooms and social media echo chambers (The New Republic, 2020). These conspiracies conceal the true root of the issue, which may be more disturbing in its simplicity.
It’s important to look at these conspiracies through the lens of group pain. The viral conspiracies surrounding Astroworld speak to more than just the tragedy of the specific event. They speak to a broader feeling of grief––especially as most people return to a warped sense of normalcy in a period of loosening COVID-19 restrictions, the image of a fun, crowded gathering causing so much distress is especially upsetting.
This human tendency to lean on the threat of a ubiquitous yet hidden evil in times of chaos creates a haunted culture––it’s impossible to deal with the actual issues underlying the mass mania if reality can’t be trusted. Even worse, political leaders take advantage of these narratives for their own gain, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R), who expressed support for QAnon (The New York Times, 2020), or Donald Trump, who functioned as the savior figure in QAnon lore (NPR, 2021). Although these conspiracies mainly develop and fester on social media, their presence in established political institutions make them take on a reality of their own.
While the Astroworld incident isn’t necessarily politicized to the same extent, the conspiracies surrounding it display the same harmful denial of reality. Blaming the deadly chaos on a supernatural evil instead of on the failures of the festival’s organizers and security team won’t prevent those mistakes from happening again (CNN, 2021).
It’s easy to immediately condemn people who fall into these seductive narratives as unintelligent or gullible, but taking into account the many factors that spread these conspiracies is important in understanding why people fall prey to their morbid allure. The Astroworld discourse is a prime example of how easily communal pain can spawn ideas of demonic activity––maybe recognizing this pattern will make conspiracies easier to counteract while fostering more empathetic communication.
It’s clear that these apocalyptic theories are more exciting than the real issues behind them. But if we want to prevent anything like this mass tragedy from happening again, we have to keep the real problems in the forefront of our collective discourse.