There’s hardly a more perfect place to discuss the merits of a flat Earth than a fake British pub, situated on a fake street in the world’s shittiest tourist attraction.
Myself and four of the most well-known flat earthers in the world are in the Sherlock Holmes pub in West Edmonton Mall’s Bourbon Street, waiting for a man named Rick Hummer to rejoin us. Everyone is excited for his return as I will be meeting his alter-ego, Rolan Reedy, a “redneck rocket scientist.”
Reedy, the group explains to me, is the flat earthers’ secret weapon of sorts—their ticket into the mainstream. He is to be the star of a film that mixes real-life stunts with narrative—think Johnny Knoxville's latest works but with fewer dick jokes and more Neil deGrasse Tyson confrontations. When Hummer shows up a few moments later, he’s in flannel with a wig and headband on. He’s crossing his eyes and wearing fake buck teeth made especially for him.
“They turn you while I was gone?” he asks me, with (what I think is) a faux-Kentucky accent, referring to the group trying to convince me the world isn’t round. He changes topic quickly though and sets off to get footage. He marches intentionally into a door with his camcorder on the end of a selfie stick, filming every action.
The plan is to have Hummer, as Reddy, sing a flat Earth-inspired rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl” to the pub—something he accomplishes before the night’s end. To pull this off, they apparently make friends with the waitress and talk her into letting them film there.
“We were talking to her earlier, and she got flat-smacked,” Jake Grant, a man helping Hummer on the film tells us.
“You flat-smacked her?” asks Mark Sargent, the man widely viewed as the catalyst for the modern flat earth movement. “Nice!”
I have to ask what in god's name “flat-smacked” means.
Flat-smacked, Grant explains to me, is when you drop some flat Earth arguments (aka “flat bombs”) on a normie, and if their face changes from the typical face of scorn and ridicule to curiosity and puzzlement, you’ve flat-smacked them.
“Nothing feels better than a flat-smack,” he says with a laugh.
If I told you there were stars in the flat Earth scene, would you believe me?
It’s something I only learn when I first arrive at the Fantasyland Hotel (an apt location if there ever was one) for the two-day International Flat Earth Convention in Edmonton, Alberta. I know there is a set list of speakers who are attending the conference, and some of them have modest-to-large followings on online platforms—mainly YouTube—but I don’t realize at first that they have die-hard, true-blue, flat Earth superfans.
“I’ve seen a lot of people I know from YouTube here.”
My first hint of this comes when I’m getting my media accreditation with a man named Corey who has ridden his motorcycle from Victoria, British Columbia, to this conference. We’re waiting in line together, and once he gets a ticket he becomes visibly giddy.
“I’m a little starstruck,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of people I know from YouTube here.”
He quickly jets off into the hall to get some facetime with his faves—something you don't expect from a grizzled man in dusty biker gear. I follow my new friend into the hall and notice it’s full—far fuller than one would expect for a flat Earth convention in central Alberta. There are about 200 people sitting at round tables. Most of them are white and middle-aged, but there are a few exceptions. Above us are massive chandeliers. The one above my table won’t stop flickering.
There’s a buzz in the air. Alongside getting to see flat Earth celebrities, people seem just pleased as punch that they get to talk flat Earth without sneers or rolled eyes. Conversations are happening all over. Behind me there is a small group of men chatting about how their wives don’t really like their beliefs. Over in the corner a couple is shit-talking NASA, and in the back a woman with a gaggle of children is working up the courage to speak to her favourite star. All in all, they just seemed happy to be among fellow travellers.
"I came out from Calgary,” a man named James tells me. “I've been looking into this for about a year. It's kind of a lonely road. You're reading blogs, you're watching videos. There's nobody to talk to. Most flat earthers are closet flat earthers because there is a lot of ridicule and condescension."
This is a sentiment that’s reiterated to me time and time again.
"It's really cathartic for a lot of people,” Sargent explains to me later in the day. “I've done a whole bunch of meetups in a whole bunch of cities around the States. It kinda feels like a really happy AA meeting. At AA it's usually sad, you get there and you're like [sad inflection] ‘Hey, my name is Mark' but in this case, it's like [happy inflection] 'Hey, my name is Mark, I'm a flat earther!'”
"It kinda feels like a really happy AA meeting."
The mingling slowly dies as people take their seats. The screens in front of the building have a timer that is counting down the minutes until the conference officially opens. It gives the whole scene a bit of an ominous undertone, but it works to build up the crowd into a buzz. For the last ten seconds, you can hear some counting down under their breath. When the counter hits zero, the room goes dark, and a flashy video begins playing.
“The day is finally here, history will be made,” an Australian-accented announcer tells us. “Taking it to the next level, live in Edmonton, Alberta.”
Even though flat bombs are dropping throughout the conference, I’m having a hard time figuring out what—other than Earth is flat—these people believe. The theories of why it is the way it is seem to change with every theorist, speaker, and attendee. Some ideas are accepted by many in the community (the globe is under a dome with the North Pole at the centre and Antarctica's ice surrounding the edges)—some by just a few (God put the planets and stars on the top of the dome as decorations for mankind).
They use similar types of arguments and conduct “experiments” in order to justify and rationalize their beliefs but come to different conclusions. Everyone is lying to us, they tell me, but there isn’t a solid answer of who is everyone—I hear the Illuminati, David Icke–style reptilians, and just good ol’ transnational corporations—and why they’re lying fluctuates as well: money, power, attempting to further us from God. The group preaches that their audience do their own research and come to their own conclusions, which might be the reason for their mishmash of ideas.
One thing I do learn is just how closely tied to religion the movement appears to be.
Some, like Robbie Davidson, the organizer of the conference, came to flat Earth through religion, and for others vice versa. There are a few who say they don’t believe in a creator (including one speaker), but they’re rare. It feels like for many, this, like the literal interpretation of the Bible, is a way to feel closer to their God. I begin asking many people at the conference if they are religious as a way to gauge how prevalent Christianity or just religious belief is in the community.
“Well, I wasn’t before,” is by far the response I hear the most.
Davidson and a few other speakers base their videos on how the Bible proves there's a flat Earth. They fuse scientific jargon into their talks, but for the most part, we might as well be hearing the sermon on the flat mount. At one point, one of the speakers tells us about how the voice of god talks to him sometimes. While science is scoffed at, the Bible is held as truth.
The speakers themselves provide a few highlights that break the natural monotony of a conference. At one point a radio station brings in a little person in a globe suit to argue with the flat earthers. And another, the smoke from the wildfires blazing in the west sets off the fire alarm in the Fantasyland Hotel, and an entire panel’s worth of speakers power through constant ringing and omnipresent voice telling us that we have to stay on the premises.
My personal favourite comes from a group called the Globebusters who tell us they are going to “absolutely blow [our] minds.” On the screen comes the image of the blue marble (a “complete fabrication”) and the hosts rotate it and half and mirror it. “Look what comes out now,” one of the hosts says ominously, and the crowd quite literally gasps. What is in front of us is a devil, I guess?
“Just take a look at that for a minute. What we’re seeing here a masonic apron here, an all-seeing eye, we’re seeing an anunnaki type of reptilian creature here with some sort of halo or crown,” he says to the crowd's horror.
“This is straight up Luciferian, guys, and they put it right in front of our face, you just need to know where to look for it. This is what we’re up against.”
"This is straight up Luciferian, guys."
Now, this isn’t par for the course of the conference by any means, but it would be a lie to say things like this don’t come up every few hours. Whether it be someone talking about angels, another person saying if you understand the truth you might be murdered and so on. At one point in my conversation with Mark Sargent, where he is discussing the scientific accuracy of flat Earth theorists, I ask him about this.
"Look... the flat Earth is the ultimate open-minded test; it is both a blessing and a curse for us because once you get into it you're open-minded to everything, which means you don't even condemn any conspiracies,” says Sargent. “I can't really condemn anything because I start my day with flat Earth."
This community-versus-the world sentiment is a constant theme throughout the conference—those in the hall know a secret truth that the rest of the world is just too stupid or blind to see. This “them” category includes the media, and while the handful of us who are attending the conference are ultimately welcome, that feeling changes slightly on the second day.
“As I’m seeing all the media coverage coming out from yesterday, I’m absolutely appalled,” Davidson says at the start of the second days opening speech. For the next 20 minutes, Davidson and other speakers rail against the media and, at one point, during a break in the rants, a lone call rings out.
I’m pleased to find though that, despite the designation of fake news, people are still willing to speak to me—a refrain you hear there is “bad press is better than no press.” (I end up talking to far too many people to include in this piece.) There is a man who tells me his wife left him because of his beliefs, one who became a flat earther after a divorce, and a third who was just there because of “one hell of a YouTube rabbit hole, man.” There’s a child wearing a literal tin-foil hat who was dragged their by her flat Earth parents and a man selling a flat Earth board game.
Apart from these characters, there are just people you would never really expect to be in this community—regular boring-ass people. They could easily be your weird aunt, or that friend of a friend of yours. When you head to a flat Earth conference you expect… shall we say, eccentricity.
The most jarring one I meet is a person from my hometown, which is just outside of Edmonton. We know a few people in common and went to the same high school. They ask me not to indicate who they are. They’re new to this community—not even sure if they believe it themselves—and haven’t “come out" to their friends and family. Unsurprisingly, they fell into the community through YouTube.
“I guarantee that you know flat earthers right now, but they're never going to tell you because they're afraid of being ostracized,” Sargent says to me later that evening.
Sitting here in the conference hall talking with a person who skipped the same classes I did, it’s hard not to believe him. If a flat Earth conference in Edmonton, Alberta, of all places, can pull in over 200 people at $200 bucks a pop well… I think we may be underestimating the size of the movement.
Despite the adulation from their fellow flat earthers, being an influencer in the flat Earth community isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be though, according to the group at the Sherlock Holmes. You work long hours making videos and appearing on podcasts, upwards of 12 hours a day. But more than the workload, just being the face of a movement that elicits so much ridicule can be tiring. Some around the table have paid a personal price with their beliefs, meaning personal and family relationships coming to an end.
"If you want to see someone get in touch with their inner-psycho, just mention that you’re looking into it..."
In the final panel of the conference, the speakers attempt to provide a how-to for their faithful to broach the subject with their families—and the possible fallout that may occur. They speak about it jocularly, but their dark anecdotes indicate they’ve paid for their beliefs in one way or another.
“If you want to see someone get in touch with their inner-psycho, just mention that you’re looking into it and you will see sweet old ladies go bat-crap crazy right in front of you,” said speaker Rob Skiba. “Your grandmother who was like the sweetest woman ever will go insane. People that I never imagined in a million years losing it, going crazy in front of me.”
It’s not just their friends or family they have to worry about mocking their beliefs, however. I’m told that the flat earthers aren’t a cohesive unit and some tend to attack their own as much as the non-believers.
“In any truth movement, you get to the point where you think everything's a conspiracy… everything,” said Skiba. “What happens too often is that it becomes a thing of infighting we’re pointing fingers at each other. We need to be more unified.”
Back at the bar, the group tells me that conspiracy theorists create theories about all the flat Earth elites. No one is safe—including people who don’t exist—like Rolan Reedy (Hummer’s redneck alter-ego). Some rogue flat earthers believe Hummer’s creation to be a psy-op orchestrated to make the movement look dumb. This isn’t true I’m told; the only real psy-op is “The Flat Earth Society.”
After the brief flash of darkness in the conversation, the group returns to their cheerful demeanor—they can’t afford to get too real with me—I’m an outsider, after all, and being the ambassadors of their movement means they have to be “on.” The conversation goes back to an A-list flat earther they won’t tell me the name of, their upcoming trip to Banff, Alberta, how Jimmy Kimmel's studio is formerly a Freemason lodge, and how they want to get a show on the Discovery Channel. At the end of the night, after much drink and conversation, I leave my new friends still confident in my belief that the world is round.
Sadly, despite flat bomb after flat bomb, they didn’t succeed in flat-smacking me.
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE CA.