The Dark Ages were rife with plague, fanaticism, and accusations that Jews secretly fed off the blood of children. In 2020, we too are beset with plague, rampant medical misinformation, and a persistent rumor that “global elites” torture children to harvest the chemical adrenochrome from their blood, which they then inject in order to stay healthy and young.
A favorite topic of interconnected QAnon and Pizzagate conspiracy communities, so-called “adrenochrome harvesting” long predates these groups. It has, however, resurrected during the Covid-19 pandemic. Google Trends shows significant spikes in searches for adrenochrome in March and June of 2020. It’s prevalent on TikTok, Youtube, Reddit, and Instagram. On Friday, July 31, conspiracy theorists plan to hold the first “Child Lives Matter” protest in Hollywood to “expose” child trafficking, advertising the event with references to #adrenochrome.
Brian Friedberg is the senior researcher for the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Blending academic research and open-source intelligence techniques, Friedberg is an investigative ethnographer, focusing on the impacts that alternative media, anonymous communities, and unpopular cultures have on political communication and organization.
The adrenochrome harvesting conspiracy theory is a potent example of “hidden virality” and the ways in which unpopular culture animate social media platforms outside of the mainstream view. Named by researchers Britt Parris and Joan Donovan, hidden virality describes dominant content in specific pockets of the internet that are largely unseen by journalists and mass audiences, making them difficult for social media companies to identify and act upon. The impact of hidden virality can’t be stopped by retroactively banning a few thousand Twitter accounts; it is an iterative, memetic phenomenon that outpaces terms of service. Even with early intervention by Reddit and recent movements by Twitter, Facebook and TikTok to crack down on QAnon, adrenochrome harvesting remains a mainstream conversation for some online communities.
Toxic social attitudes spread virally alongside hoaxes and disinformation. Adrenochrome harvesting isn’t outwardly blamed on Jews, but on “satanic” and “globalist” elites—dog whistle terms for the far right. The modern adrenochrome obsession is a permutation of blood libel, an anti-Semitic myth that pervaded Europe throughout the middle ages, and a mutated strain of medical misinformation.
The Lineage of a New Blood Libel
The most effective conspiracy theories are built around kernels of truth. Adrenochrome is a compound that occurs in the body, but about which little scientific research has been done beyond a few studies in the mid-20th century on whether it could play a role in schizophrenia. The question transfixed the writers Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson, who were obsessed with mind-altering substances. To them, adrenochrome became a psychotropic, akin to mescaline. In his famous Doors of Perception, written just after the first adrenochrome studies, Huxley described adrenochrome as a clue that was “being systematically followed.” “The sleuths—biochemists, psychiatrists, psychologists—are on the trail,” he wrote. Biologists didn’t find much of interest.
Nearly 20 years later, Thompson cast adrenochrome as a psychedelic that must be violently extracted from human glands in his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The scene was immortalized in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film; a YouTube clip of Johnny Depp’s character taking adrenochrome, which to date has more than 1.7 million views, has drawn thousands of comments referencing the conspiracy.
Thompson is explicitly invoked in what seems to be the earliest recorded posts about adrenochrome harvesting on 4Chan’s /x/ and /pol/ boards, in 2013 and 2014 respectively. In an anti-Semitic 4chan /pol/ thread an anonymous poster linked a restricted, unsearchable video named “Jew Ritual BLOOD LIBEL Sacrifice is #ADRENOCHROME Harvesting.” Within these same online communities, Pizzagate formalized and grew in 2015–2016 before spreading to more mainstream social media.
In 2016 this same video was shared in a Pizzagate thread about the artist Marina Abromovich and her “spirit cooking” ceremonies. The next several months saw increasingly outlandish claims online, particularly that the Pixar film Monsters Inc. was a cryptic reference to adrenochrome harvesting. As some Pizzagate adherents entered the burgeoning QAnon community in 2017, they brought the adrenochrome conspiracy with them.
These factions expanded their audiences in 2018, citing new “investigations” and circulating the rumor that a (hoax) website sold adrenochrome in exchange for cryptocurrency. Conspiracy filmmaker Jay Myers released a video, “Adrenochrome The Elite’s Secret Super Drug!” While the original video was taken down, it remains live on his backup channel and has been uploaded elsewhere online.