2019’s ‘The Mandela Effect’ is a stylish, shallow exploration of a rather silly conspiracy theory

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Mark Hornehttp://www.merseysideskeptics.org.uk/
Mark Horne is a board member of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. He currently works as Development Manager at a university and has been a fundraiser, copywriter, researcher and campaigner.

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Indie science fiction film The Mandela Effect didn’t get much attention on its 2019 release, nor the critical praise or word of mouth that superficially similar films like the superior The Endless (2017) have enjoyed. 

Although there are good things in this flawed film, it’s lack of popularity is something of a relief, as we don’t need any more people believing in outlandish conspiracy theories based on commonly-held false memories

The so-called Mandela Effect, for the blissfully uninitiated, was coined by “paranormal researcher” Fiona Broome, in specific reference to an apparently widely-held misconception that Nelson Mandela had died while incarcerated in apartheid-era South Africa. Mandela, as most of us will recall, actually died in 2013, after serving a term as the president of South Africa in the 1990s. 

If you are unaffected by this particular misremembering, there’s a very good chance you are party to one of the many others, as this movie reminds us. Have a think for a moment about the following questions: 

  • What is the famous line uttered by Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, regarding Luke’s parentage? 
  • How do you spell the name of the classic Warner Bros. cartoon series featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck? 
  • How does the Monopoly man accessorise? 

There will be a test later! 

The rational explanation for the original Mandela Effect – Nelson Mandela’s supposed death in custody – is actually fairly straightforward. Similar false memories could, given a large enough set of participants (for example, 7 billion people) affect thousands or even millions of us, especially when we are all given the same set of cultural cues and shared media interlocutors, and prone to the same flaws in our cognitive systems. While Nelson Mandela did not die in prison, another noted anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko, died in 1977. People who believed Mandela to have died in prison are confusing two of the most prominent anti-apartheid activists, and I’d further hazard a guess that very few people born after the mid-1970s makes that particular mistake. 

Are we sure about false memories, though? Absolutely! False memories are demonstrable, common, and can often involve the conflation of two concepts. Some false memories arise spontaneously from the internal working of the brain, while others are induced by suggestion. With particular relevance to the Mandela Effect, memory has been noted in an article by Cara Laney and Elizabeth F Loftus as being: 

susceptible to errors as a result of exposure to post-event information such as leading questions and reports of others

In one study conducted by Professor Loftus and John C Palmer, language was shown to influence memory: 

Two experiments are reported in which subjects viewed films of automobile accidents and then answered questions about events occurring in the films. The question, “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” elicited higher estimates of speed than questions which used the verbs collided, bumped, contacted, or hit in place of smashed. On a retest one week later, those subjects who received the verb smashed were more likely to say “yes” to the question, “Did you see any broken glass?”, even though broken glass was not present in the film. These results are consistent with the view that the questions asked subsequent to an event can cause a reconstruction in one’s memory of that event.

This is obviously terrifying for the functioning of our court system, given the widespread belief in the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Psychology professor Stephen L Chew highlights one particularly alarming statistic from the Innocence Project in the USA:

358 people who had been convicted and sentenced to death since 1989 have been exonerated through DNA evidence. Of these, 71% had been convicted through eyewitness misidentification

And if you were just a moment ago wondering whether there’s something else at play when Europeans and Americans conflate two black South African men, you might be onto something, as Chew also points out that: 

Of those false identifications, 41% involved cross-racial misidentifications

The fallibility of memory also casts doubts on at least some recovered memories, as noted by Suzanne Lego in the Archives of Psychiatric Nursing

False memory occurs when a vulnerable patient with a history of overcompliant or highly suggestible behavior is unwittingly coached by a respected authority figure to create, as if in memory, an experience that never actually occurred.

The results of this can obviously be extremely traumatic for the subject, who then “remembers” appalling events that never actually happened to them. Indeed, false recovered memories may have been responsible for such events as the Satanic Panic of the 1980s: 

There were over 12,000 accusations nationwide of widespread cultic sexual abuses involving satanic ritual, but investigating police were not able to substantiate any allegations of organized cult abuse.

Maybe you think you’re too smart for such a false memory? Let’s come back to those questions from earlier. 

  • Vader says: “No, I am your father” to Luke; endless stand-ups, comedy skits and playground retellings have morphed this into the one-liner we think we remember today: “Luke, I am your father.”
  • The cartoon was always spelled Looney Tunes, not Looney Toons. 
  • The Monopoly Man, aka Rich Uncle Pennybags, has a top hat and a cane, but he doesn’t have a monocle. If you remembered a monocle, you’re potentially mixing him up with the similarly-styled Mr Peanut

If asked, I would have said that I thought the Monopoly Man had a monocle, and I’d have wavered on the spelling of the cartoon.

So there is an obvious, well-documented explanation for The Mandela Effect, but an exploration of shared cognitive errors would probably not make for a particularly entertaining film. (In fairness, one of the supporting characters does posit this as an obvious explanation for the protagonist’s experiences, only for it to be batted away in favour of a far more visually striking and intriguing possibility).

A shot from the trailer of the film. A girlf with a distorted face

To summarise the film’s premise: the Mandela Effect follows grieving game programmer Brendan (Charlie Hofheimer) and his wife Claire (compellingly portrayed by Aleksa Palladino), as they mourn the sudden death of their young daughter, Sam. Brendan struggles understandably with the loss, and as he goes through Sam’s room, he starts to notice that some of the things he used to enjoy doing with her are not as he remembers them, from the spelling of the Berenstain Bears to the (missing) tail of Curious George. Has Brendan simply misremembered? Perhaps parallel universes are intersecting somehow? Or is everything just a simulation and these apparent changes are glitches in the code? 

Throughout the film a variety of well-known scientists and public figures are quoted (often rather out of context) in runtime-padding montages used to help justify the eventual explanation, with the always-excellent Clarke Peters popping up briefly as quantum computing genius Dr Fuchs to drive the plot along. Sadly his arrival also marks the end of the realistic portrayal of technology for something rather less plausible. 

It all wraps up rather too neatly in just 70 minutes (with ten minutes of credits), and there is a strong sense that just as Brendan feels about Curious George’s tail, something important is missing from the movie. So despite excellent performances conveying grief, frustration and confusion, and decent photography and editing creating a real sense of terror and tension when required, I can only recommend this to the most die-hard indie sci-fi completist.

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