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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.

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.