Over the weekend, Jenelle Evans, the 28-year-old influencer best known for starring in MTV’s Teen Mom 2—until she was fired when her husband shot and killed their pet dog—tweeted a message to her 1.3 million followers: “If you’re bored go watch Out of The Shadows on YouTube. <3 You’re welcome.”
Evans was referring to Out of Shadows, a 77-minute “documentary” that appeared in April on YouTube, seemingly out of the blue, from a former stuntman named Mike Smith. The film alleges, among other things, that Hollywood is run by Satanic pedophilia rings that distribute propaganda through films like Zoolander, the music videos of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, and a discreet set of symbols, including the words “television” (tell-a-vision), “channel” (psychic communication), and “Hollywood” (named, they say, for the holly plant—which is poisonous and was once used in Druid rituals).
The movie came out to minimal fanfare, little publicity, and no credits or disclosures about its funding. But since then, the film has spread through the platforms of right-wing influencers like Evans, reaching an audience magnitudes larger than popular conspiracy videos like Plandemic. As of Aug. 5, Out of Shadows has over 20 million views on YouTube alone. It has been translated into a dozen different languages. An attorney for Smith estimated that, between its website and other platforms, the film had been watched “roughly 100 million times.”
Out of Shadows never directly mentions QAnon—the formerly fringe, far-right conspiracy theory whose proponents believe Donald Trump, who has appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, is waging an underground war on Democratic and Hollywood pedophiles—but it traffics in nearly identical material. “It does this really hard job of avoiding QAnon,” said Mike Rains, a QAnon researcher who produces the conspiracy-debunking podcast Poker Politics. One of just five sources who appear in the movie is Liz Crokin, a former tabloid writer-turned-QAnon adherent (“Liz really dialed it back a lot in that movie,” Rains said. “She’s this hardcore QAnon promoter.”) And recently, when another Out of Shadows subject called the conspiracy a “PsyOp” on Twitter, prompting a miniature war among believers, Smith released a statement against his own source.
Until Out of Shadows dropped in April, Mike Smith was a relatively unknown personality. For decades, he had been anonymous by trade—standing in for better-known figures in films like Mortal Kombat, Independence Day, Anaconda, Charlie’s Angels, and, aptly, Conspiracy Theory. The paranoid corners of the internet didn’t know him that well either. “I don’t know anyone who follows this stuff who knew Mike Smith at all before he was one of the talking heads of the video,” Rains said. “Mike Smith, by pretty much everything I’ve seen, is a Johnny Come Lately who had enough connections to set this thing up.”
Smith declined to comment for this article, but the film sketches a loose summary of his backstory. After a vague opening sequence (“Why do you believe what you believe? At some point in your life you trusted the information that somebody was giving you”), Smith introduces himself as a stuntman who never wanted to be a stuntman. “I wanted to go make movies,” Smith tells the camera. “Being a stuntman was the easiest way for me to get into the business.”
Over the years, he worked his way up to fight coordinator, then stunt coordinator. He joined the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild of America, and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Things were going well until 2014, when, while working on a television show in Portland, Oregon, Smith suffered a catastrophic injury: falling over a railing onto a pipe, bursting his L2 vertebra, and temporarily paralyzing himself from the waist down. In physical therapy, he began seeing a pelvic floor specialist—a deeply religious woman of indeterminate denomination who remains anonymous in the movie. After the therapist reveals her spiritual eccentricities to Smith—praying over him in sessions, talking about demons, accusing filmmakers of Satanic child abuse—he converts, taking a sharp right turn into another belief system, without articulating what, exactly, it is.
“I’ve seen things at parties, I’ve seen artwork, I’ve seen statues, I’ve seen things in some people’s houses that just seem to be mimicking occult stuff I’m reading about,” Smith says, without indicating what he saw or what insights into the inner machinations of Hollywood his stuntman career could have possibly given him. “I’m just going to say this: I didn’t find God because I went to church. I found God because I realized that the Luciferian and the other side, the occult world, was real, and that I had been fooled for all these years.”
Despite its popularity, Out of Shadows is hard to find. Though YouTube allows the video to remain on its website, it does not come up on the platform’s search engine. “This video doesn’t violate our policies,” a YouTube spokesperson said. “For borderline content, such as conspiracy theories (e.g. Pizzagate), we reduce recommendations and make sure that authoritative voices are raised in search results when viewers come to YouTube.” (After The Daily Beast’s request for comment, however, Smith shared a photo on Twitter of an email from YouTube announcing they had placed an age restriction on the movie.)
The film’s argument is not easy to track. But it begins with the ownership structure of the entertainment industry: “There’s a very small group of people that influence all the companies that we watch,” Smith says. “They used to call them the Big Six, but Disney just bought Fox, Disney controls Marvel, and Disney owns Lucas Studios.” (Ed note: Its name is Lucasfilm, not Lucas Studios.) Rather than make a point about corporate consolidation or antitrust law, Smith uses this as a segue into digressions on the Sony hack and psychological warfare.
Smith’s primary source here is a man named Kevin Shipp, whom he introduces as “a CIA whistleblower” who “worked in counterintelligence” and “served in many capacities in his tenure at the CIA.” Shipp says he did work at the CIA until 2011, when he left after suing the agency over mold contamination in his home at a Texas Army weapons depot. In the time since, per the pseudoscience website Natural News, he has dedicated himself to “sounding alarms about geoengineering programs, vaccines and the autism link, the 9/11 false-flag terror event and how our food supply is poisoned with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).” He now runs a Patreon, where subscribers can sign up for “CIA operational and training” courses for $25 a month.
What follows is a hazy montage of historical events, provided without important context. They point to the “Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals” as evidence of top-down censorship, for example, without mentioning that it was a conservative campaign to root out communists from the film industry. They bring up “Project Mockingbird,” the wiretapping scandal enacted under JFK, without noting that it targeted journalists in the very media they’re trying to condemn. They insinuate that MKUltra, the illegal ’60s-era CIA mind-control program, continues into the present day, without any evidence other than the 2001 comedy Zoolander.
“In a movie like Zoolander,” a second stuntman named Brad Martin says at one point, “when they’re showing you that they’re controlling Derek Zoolander’s mind through mind control, you realize that they’re trying to desensitize you, and make you think that what you’re watching is fiction, because it’s in a comedy.” (Ed note: They don't mention that Donald Trump has a cameo in Zoolander.)
The best illustration of the movie’s lax rapport with context is its repeated use of a clip featuring journalists speaking in unison—never mentioning that the video, produced by former Daily Beast editor Timothy Burke, depicts employees of Sinclair Broadcast Group, the monolithic local television operator accused of orchestrating a right-wing propaganda campaign in service of President Trump.
A federal lawsuit, filed in the Central District of California 10 days after the movie debuted and dismissed nine days later, sheds some light on the movie’s origins. Smith sued a well-known conspiracy theorist named Tiffany Fitzhenry, who, as Rains put it, “promotes QAnon from a Hollywood point of view.” The complaint alleges Fitzhenry had been Smith’s first partner on the film. Her husband, Don Fitzhenry, formed an LLC called “Living the Dream Documentary” to produce and distribute it. (Business records in Georgia, where the Fitzhenrys live, show the LLC was formed in May 2019 by their attorney, J. Samuel Beck, and remains active; Beck did not return a request for comment.)
But Smith and Fitzhenry split ways, the complaint alleges, over “creative differences.” Namely, Fitzhenry wanted to include allegations that “had factual gaps and lacked support in certain areas.” These included an interview with child actor Ricky Garcia’s mother over alleged abuse, and similar claims involving the house of Guardians of the Galaxy star Chris Pratt. Apparently, these did not meet the standards of a movie that also claims Katy Perry sidelined her gospel career and incorporated Satanic imagery in her music in exchange for commercial success. Per the complaint:
During the research and editing process (which took place both in California and in Nashville), members of the production team requested materials from Tiffany Fitzhenry. In response, Ms. Fitzhenry usually provided “research” that consisted of blogs, not first hand source material. Ms. Fitzhenry dismissed the concerns of the production team, pejoratively referred to them as ‘millennials’ and suggesting that they placed too much emphasis on fact-checking; as a result, the editing and production team had to make extra efforts to fact check and back up anything provided by Tiffany Fitzhenry. This revelation created grave concerns among the production team, the cast, and Mr. Smith pause [sic] because allegations that lacked fact-checking and could not be backed up created a substantial risk that the project could be infected with distortions of the truth or unsupported facts.
Indeed. The suit also claims that, while Fitzhenry wanted to monetize the movie, Smith wanted to distribute it for free. The stuntman allegedly spent “$130,000 from his personal funds” to finance the camera crew, editing, travel, and production costs. The lawsuit claims that viewers were initially given the option to donate through their website, but that Smith closed the donation portal after 50 percent of production costs were recouped. (If this was true at one point, it is no longer the case; the website has a subscription and donation portal on its homepage.)
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Fitzhenry wrote: “It’s common to set up LLCs for perspective [sic] projects, however Living The Dream was never produced and the LLC is being dissolved. I had no involvement in the release of Out of Shadows.”
After nine days, Smith dismissed the case.
Out of Shadows’ only sources outside Shipp and the anonymous pelvic-floor therapist are Smith’s fellow stuntman Brad Martin and the QAnon truther Liz Crokin. Martin monologues about the CIA’s interference in Hollywood through cryptic maxims (“I know what’s going on right now actually has purpose and has a meaning, and there are consequences,” he says, “Once the story gets told on what’s happening in the world right now, and all of the powers that be battling each other, it will be the greatest story ever told.”) Crokin appears in a section titled “Pizzagate: Fact or Fiction?” arguing that Jeffrey Epstein and the NXIVM scandal prove that Pizzagate—the debunked and unsubstantiated theory that John Podesta and Hillary Clinton were operating a child-trafficking ring out of a D.C. pizza shop—was real all along.
The most confounding aspect of the movie is its proximity to reasonable lines of inquiry. The CIA does have an office in Hollywood: the Entertainment Industry Liaison. But Out of Shadows doesn’t look into the pro-military portrayals of action movies, or why John Krasinski loves the CIA, or how the story of Argo became public. There are also some examples of abuse, sexual harassment, and pedophilia in Hollywood. But the movie doesn’t mention Harvey Weinstein, the Coreys (Feldman and Haim), or why Amy J. Berg’s Hollywood-pedophilia exposé, An Open Secret, still has no official distributor. Instead, the “documentary” blends real historical events with imagined ones, leaning on the authenticity of the former to justify the wild extrapolations of the latter.
In any case, inaccuracies haven’t hindered Smith. On Sunday night, he appeared on the Faith Unveiled Network’s YouTube show with Paul Oebel, an evangelical MAGA preacher who claims he can cure disease with prayer, to discuss “Satan’s Frequencies, Message of Hope, Wealth and More.” The conversation has been viewed 40,000 times so far.