Sometimes our minds play tricks on us. We fixate on mistakes. We justify indulging cravings we can’t control. We think we hear the baby crying, but it’s just the breeze.

At The Believer, Barrett Swanson examines how he got lost in a maze of conspiratorial thinking after his high school friend Luke drowned in the Mississippi River. An accidental death seemed too unlikely a scenario to believe, but questioning that explanation opened grieving locals up to the possibility that predatory forces lurked around their town. Swanson was still mourning his friend while earning a PhD, and his academic training and solitary hours soon had him clinging to unnerving explanations and theories culled online. He had to examine his own mind to move through the paranoia and properly grieve.

When you’re supposed to be working on your dissertation—its own arduous search for meaning—your days are a wilderness: unscheduled, improvised, free. You can spend whole afternoons trawling Instagram or binge-watching prestige television. In my case, entire days were lost to conjectures about Luke’s death. For hours on end I would watch clips of Larry King Live, Anderson Cooper 360, and Geraldo Rivera, all of which featured interviews with Detectives Gannon and Duarte, who often mentioned Luke by name. On After Hours AM, a true-crime podcast whose aesthetic could be described as Dude, Where’s My Car? meets Unsolved Mysteries, a retired FBI agent named John DeSouza maintained that the Smiley Face Killers were a cult of psychopaths who drowned alpha males as sacrificial offerings to the ancient dark gods Moloch and Baal. This is how my days passed: afternoons spent in the echo chamber of television and the thickets of comment-board conspiracy, evenings dedicated to The Archaeology of Knowledge and Simulacra and Simulation. Flipping through my course texts at night, I often highlighted any passage that seemed even tangentially related to my headspace. “In a life we are surrounded by death,” Wittgenstein writes. “So too in the health of our intellect we are surrounded by madness.”

Curiously, the amateur sleuths I encountered on the internet often deployed the same literary frameworks that guided my seminar on critical theory. Several Footprints at the River’s Edge commenters riffed on nautical folklore, suggesting that perhaps, like the sirens who tempted Odysseus, covens of attractive females were luring victims to the rivers. One East Coast gumshoe, posting under the screen name Undead Molly, offered a Marxist interpretation: a mob of blue-collar workers, resentful of rich college students, was carrying out the drownings as an act of class warfare. One company in particular had come under Undead Molly’s suspicions: a manufacturing outfit called Trane Heating & Cooling, whose headquarters were based in La Crosse, where six of the bodies, including Luke’s, had been found. “Trane technicians travel in vans,” Molly wrote, “and have access to substances which could stun a healthy young man into unconsciousness.”

Read the story