Last week, New Statesman published a feature about a community of Reddit users who are fans of a movie from the 1990s starring the comedian Sinbad. The movie is called Shazaam, and Sinbad plays a bumbling genie who adventures with two small kids.
The piece, however, is not about millennials’ unending enthusiasm for ’90s nostalgia. It’s much, much weirder: It turns out that the movie Shazaam never existed, and yet many of the people New Statesmen writer Amelia Tait spoke to could not be convinced otherwise.
Even Sinbad himself denies the movie exists.
Have you noticed no one my age has seen this so called Sinbad Genie movie, only you people who were kids in the 90's. The young mind !— Sinbad (@sinbadbad) September 7, 2016
The New Statesmen piece explores a fascinating question: How could so many people share the same false memory of the same fake movie?
First off: It’s not that these people are confusing Shazaam for Kazaam, the very real movie starring Shaquille O’Neal as a genie. They think the two movies were released around the same time (like the asteroid apocalypse movies Armageddon and Deep Impact, which both premiered in 1998). Tait explains:
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.
One possibility is the Mandela effect, or the idea that a group of people who share a false memory all originated in a parallel universe in which the memory wasn’t false. (The “effect” is named after Nelson Mandela because it finds its roots among people who swear they remember him dying while in prison. This is a real thing people discuss. The Shazaam trutherism Tait reports on started on the Mandela effect subreddit.)
Mass universe-hopping is unlikely. The truth is much simpler: Human memory is really, really malleable.
Elizabeth Loftus, psychology’s leading researcher on false memory, has shown this time and time again. In her research, just the mere suggestion by an interviewer that cars "collided" instead of "hit" will lead people to recall a car accident as more severe than it was. More famously, she showed that people can be made to recall childhood memories that never happened. All it took was showing study participants fake letters from relatives that claimed they had been lost in a mall as a child.
“The most worrying thing is that you don’t need to be suffering from psychological issues to have false memories created in your head,” neuroscientist Dean Burnett writes in his book Idiot Brain, which outlines all the ways our brains fail us. “It can happen to virtually everyone.”
Tait has another intriguing suggestion: The false memory of the movie Shazaam is fueled by discussion about it on the web. That all the Shazaam truthers are riffing off one another, giving each other subtle suggestions — like in Loftus’s studies — to form a false narrative that exists in all their minds. It’s called the “the social contagion of memory,” as one of Tait’s sources explains.
In a world rife with misinformation, “fake news,” and the ability to avoid conversing with people who disagree with you on the internet, it’s easy to imagine more Shazaam-like memories infecting people’s minds.