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The movie that doesn’t exist and the Redditors who think it does

Over the years, hundreds of people online have shared memories of a cheesy Nineties movie called “Shazaam”. There is no evidence that such a film was ever made. What does this tell us about the quirks of collective memory?

In the early Nineties, roughly around 1994, a now 52-year-old man named Don ordered two copies of a brand new video for the rental store his uncle owned and he helped to run.

“I had to handle the two copies we owned dozens of times over the years,” says Don (who wishes to give his first name only). “And I had to watch it multiple times to look for reported damages to the tape, rewind it and check it in, rent it out, and put the boxes out on display for rental.”

In these ways, the film Don is speaking of is exactly like the hundreds of others in his uncle’s shop. In one crucial way, however, it is not. The movie that Don is referring to doesn’t actually exist.

*

“It feels like a part of my childhood has now been stolen from me. How does a movie simply vanish from our history?”

This isn’t Don speaking, but another man – who he has never met – named Carl*. Carl, whose name has been changed because he wishes to remain anonymous, recalls watching a movie called Shazaam with his sister in the early Nineties, and has fond memories of discussing it with her over the last 20 years. In their recollections, the movie starred the American stand-up comedian Sinbad – real name David Adkins – as an incompetent genie who granted wishes to two young children.



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“I’ve taken to Craigslist and have posted a bounty of $1,000 for anyone that can turn up a copy of this movie, whether it was ‘accidentally’ kept from Blockbuster or if someone made their own bootleg VHS copy. I want to be able to make it known that the movie is indeed real,” says Carl.

Meredith Upton, a 25-year-old videographer from Nashville, Tennessee, also remembers the same film. “Whenever I would see Sinbad anywhere in the media I would recall him playing a genie,” she says. “I remember the name of the film as Shazaam. I remember two children accidentally summoning a genie… and they try and wish for their dad to fall in love again after their mother’s passing, and Sinbad can’t [grant the wish].”

Don goes even further. Although he is not certain that the movie was called Shazaam, he has detailed scene-by-scene recollections of the film, which include the children wishing for a new wife for their father, the little girl wishing for her broken doll to be fixed, and the movie finale taking place at a pool party. Don says he remembers the film so vividly because customers would bring the video back to his rental store claiming it didn’t work, and he watched it multiple times to try and find the “problem with the tape”.

Meredith, Don, and Carl are three of hundreds of Redditors who have used the popular social news site to discuss their memories of Shazaam. Together they have scoured the internet to find evidence that the movie existed but each has repeatedly come up empty-handed. Sinbad himself has even taken to Twitter to deny that he ever played such a role.

*

How did this Reddit community grow? It all began in 2009. An anonymous individual took to the question-and-answer website Yahoo! Answers to pose its users a simple question. “Do you remember that sinbad movie?” they wrote. “Wasnt there a movie in the early 90s where sinbad the entertainer / comedian played a genie? … help its driving me nuts!”

At the time, nobody remembered the film, and it took another two years for somebody else to ask about it again online. Reddit user MJGSimple wrote on the site: “It’s a conspiracy! I swear this movie exists, anyone have a copy or know where I can find proof!” Replies to the post were sceptical, claiming MJGSimple simply had a false memory.

It wasn’t until last year that things took a dramatic turn.

On 11 August 2015, the popular gonzo news site VICE published a story about a conspiracy theory surrounding the children’s storybook characters the Berenstain Bears. The theory went like this: many people remember that the bears’ name was spelt “Berenstein” – with an “e” – but pictures and old copies proved it was always spelt with an “a”. The fact that so many people had the same false memory was seen as concrete proof of the supernatural.

“Berenstein” truthers believe in something called the “Mandela Effect”: a theory that a large group of people with the same false memory used to live in a parallel universe (the name comes from those who fervently believe that Nelson Mandela died while in prison). VICE’s article about the theory was shared widely, leading thousands of people to r/MandelaEffect, a subreddit for those with false memories to share their experiences.

It was there, just a few hours after the article was posted, that discussions of Shazaam – or the “Sinbad Genie movie” – took off.

“I was dumbfounded to see that there was no evidence of the movie ever being made,” says Carl. “I quickly searched the internet, scouring every way I know how to search, crafting Boolean strings into Google, doing insite: searches, and nothing. Not a damn thing.”

On the subreddit, discussions about the film went into great detail. Unlike other false memories on r/MandelaEffect, the issue wasn’t a simple misspelling or logo-change, but an entire film's disappearance. Many Redditors revealed they had distinct memories of the cover art of the movie. “It said ‘Sinbad’ in big letters that dwarfed the other print,” says Don, who goes by EpicJourneyMan on Reddit, and also remembers how Sinbad posed on the cover – facing left, with his arms crossed and an eyebrow raised. Jessica*, a 27-year-old office worker from Canada, also remembers the cover. “[It had] a purple background, featuring Sinbad dressed as a genie, back to back with a boy who looks about 11 or 12 years old. Sinbad has an annoyed expression on his face,” she says.

At this point I should mention something I have neglected to mention so far. In 1996, the basketball player Shaquille O'Neal played a genie who helped a young boy find his estranged father in a commercially unsuccessful film. The cover art of the film features Shaq with his arms folded, laughing, in front of a purple background. His name, “Shaq”, dominates the top half of the cover. The movie’s name is Kazaam.


*

Imagine if you woke up this morning and Disney’s 1998 animation A Bug’s Life did not exist. After endlessly scouring the internet, you’d come up with nothing, despite your own distinct memories of a bunch of ants going on wild hijinks through the undergrowth. You’d turn to your best friend, your brother, your mum, and say, “Hey, remember A Bug’s Life? It was about ants”, and your friend/brother/mum would turn to you and says: “No, darling. You’re thinking about Antz.”

This is how those who believe in the “Sinbad genie movie” feel when people say they are simply getting confused about Shaq’s Kazaam. Twin films – remarkably similar movies that are released at the same time – are relatively common, and include Turner & Hooch and K-9 in 1989, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Robin Hood in 1991, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line in 1998, and Finding Nemo and Shark Tale in 2003-4.


“I remember thinking Shaq’s Kazaam was a rip-off or a revamp of a failed first run, like how the 1991 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer bombed but the late Nineties TV reboot was a sensation,” says Meredith, who is one of many who claim to remember both Shazaam and Kazaam. Don remembers ordering two copies of the former and only one of the latter for the store, while Carl says: “I am one of several people who specifically never saw Kazaam because it looked ridiculous to rip off Shazaam just a few years after it had been released.” When Carl first realised there was no evidence of the Sinbad movie existing, he texted his sister to ask if she remembered the film.

“Her response [was] ‘Of course.’ I told her, ‘Try and look it up, it doesn’t exist’. She tried and texted back with only: ‘What was it called?’ – there was never a question of if it existed, only not remembering the title.”

*

I remember, as a child, that every time my mother bought me a fresh pair of Clarks shoes for the new school year, the shop would offer me a free gift to go with them. It was the late Nineties or early Noughties, and I distinctly remember receiving a lilac pencil case to accompany my new leather numbers. It had different compartments for pencils, rubbers, and sharpeners, and I spent the last week of the holidays drawing a comic book with it by my side on our caravan kitchen table.

There is no evidence that such a promotional offer ever existed. When I ask around, no one remembers it, but when I also ask about another memory I have – of Marks & Spencers’ chicken nuggets shaped like Bugs Bunny – no one remembers those either, despite the fact a Guardian article proves they were real.

I can’t find evidence of the Clarks offer on the internet, though my sister remembers it and a poll that I conducted online shows that at least 500 other people do, too. Does this mean my memory is real? We have become very used to the idea that you can find anything on the internet, yet what do we accept as “proof”? Do we need pictures, videos, and articles, or is the fact that hundreds of others share our memory enough?

Dr Henry Roediger, a professor at the Washington University Memory Lab, doesn’t think so. “Lots of people remember detailed, but utterly false, memories. In fact, we all have them,” he says. “I have published on what we named ‘the social contagion of memory’ and what others call ‘memory conformity’ – that may be at work here.” Roediger explains that frequently one person’s report of a memory influences another’s, and that false memories can spread in this way. “One person’s memory infects another,” he says.

It is clear that this contagion would only be exacerbated online, where an individual can be influenced by multiple people from all around the world in an instant. The existence of the Shazaam Reddit community, therefore, arguably helps a false memory to spread. 

“We often forget whether we actually saw something or whether someone told us about a detail later and we filled in our memories,” he goes on. “People infer events and then remember the inferences as if they actually happened. If someone hears ‘The karate champion hit the cinder block’ they will often later remember that he ‘broke the cinder block.’ But maybe not: maybe he broke his hand. So the inference is remembered as ‘the way it happened.’”

Like accusations that they are misremembering Kazaam however, Shazaam truthers balk at the idea they simply have false memories that have been influenced by one another.

“I try not to read other’s full descriptions of the film because I don’t want to subconsciously influence my own recollection,” says Meredith, while Jessica says that before she started reading about the film she jotted down her own memories, to avoid being influenced by others’. “After doing so, I read what other people remembered about the poster and a few people remembered the exact same poster that I did.”

It is also worth noting that many people seemingly remember the movie independently of the subreddit – with someone different tweeting about it nearly every single day.

So what do these Redditors think has actually happened?

Some truly believe in the Mandela Effect, that there has been some glitch in the world, there are parallel universes, or a timeline has been altered and as such little things have got lost. Some are very active in the r/MandelaEffect community, and have many other false memories, suggesting an element of bandwagon-hopping or a penchant for conspiracy theories.

Others, however, have less fantastical theories. Meredith leans towards the explanation being “some previously undocumented psychological phenomenon”, while Don believes the movie was intentionally “disappeared” because it embarrassed Sinbad and Phil Hartman, who he believes was a writer and producer on the film. Jessica also thinks the film was recalled and destroyed.

Carl’s explanation, however, is the most detailed. Although he considers the movie may have been recalled if DC Comics sued the film’s production company (because of their similarly-named TV show Shazam!), he believes more in either a timeline shift or a computer simulation.

“University of Oxford’s philosopher Nick Bostrom suggested that members of an advanced civilization with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors,” he says, also arguing that quantum computers are now able to run such simulations. “In a day where we can now run these simulations, is this a far-fetched theory?” he argues, noting that the famous scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson put the odds we are living in a computer simulation at 50-50 earlier this year.

“Does it make more sense to argue with the scientific minds of our time exposed to the greatest understanding of the capabilities of modern technology, or to argue with the masses of people who simply write off these effects we are noticing as faulty memories?” Carl asks.

*

As of today, there is no concrete evidence that Shazaam ever existed. A few months ago, Redditors thought they had a breakthrough when they discovered an image of Sinbad in a genie costume on eBay. Sinbad himself, however, tweeted to say that he was dressed that way because he was hosting a Sinbad the Sailor movie marathon.

Some said the image demonstrated where the false memory had originated, others continue to hunt for evidence of a movie they are certain exists.

*Names have been changed.

If you want to read more in-depth and quality journalism, subscribe to the New Statesman here.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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