Real Memory or Alternate Reality?

Image from The Mandela Effect movie with Jenga pieces coming out of a face
Image from "The Mandela Effect" movie, Gravitas Ventures

UC Davis researcher explores the phenomenon behind recent movie 'The Mandela Effect'

photo of Aaron French
Aaron French

Aaron French, a doctoral student in religious studies, recently wrote a piece for The Conversation about "The Mandela Effect," the collective misremembering of common events or details, and a recent movie that gave the phenomenon widespread attention. We asked him about how the effect is tied to his studies, research and writing.

While I had been following the social phenomenon known as the “Mandela Effect” for several years during my research, I had stopped with the publication of my article “The Mandela Effect and New Memory” in Correspondences, an online journal devoted to the academic study of esotericism. As far as I know, I am the only person so far to have written a full-length academic article on the subject.

The 2019 release film based on and also titled “The Mandela Effect” is the culmination of a phenomenon of memory-doubting that began in very small online communities and over time spread across the internet. The film was brought to my attention by an editor of The Conversation, who commissioned me to write about it.

Occult and fringe belief systems

My main area of focus in religious studies is the history of esotericism. This category was created by scholars to account for elements within a culture that have either been dismissed, discredited, or suppressed for a variety of social reasons. It has primarily been concerned with magic, astrology, alchemy, kabbalah, and secret societies, areas often referred to as “the occult.” The items grouped under “esotericism” have to do with other ways of seeing and experiencing reality in opposition to a frequently more “authorized” worldview. Such elements remain in society but become fringe or part of an underground scene or sub-culture. In these realms, one can also find a proliferation of conspiracy theories.

As I was researching the history of esotericism (and contemporary esotericism), I came across conspiracy theories connected to my objects of study, and that’s where I discovered the Mandela Effect. What I found so interesting about this phenomenon is that it could never fully be proved or disproven, and the people experiencing it had begun to see themselves as living in a different reality. This alternative way of seeing and experiencing reality reminded me of esotericism.

Science fiction’s impact on views

In addition to my academic studies, I have worked as a speculative fiction writer and editor, and the types of stories I write and am most interested in involve elements of the occult, mystical experience, and time travel. This does relate to the Mandela Effect in several ways.

  • Many of the examples of the effect come from popular culture and entertainment.
  • The theories developed to explain it come straight out of science fiction stories.
  • The term was apparently coined at a speculative and fan fiction convention themed around alternative histories.

Twice I have taught the Religion and Science Fiction course at UC Davis for the religious studies department, and each time I focused on the idea of fiction and reality merging, and where the boundary line is between the two. I think the Mandela Effect is a fascinating example of worlds converging.