The scene takes place on January 8, 2024 in Brooklyn, in the “770” synagogue (so nicknamed because of its address, 770 Eastern Parkway), one of the most influential in the United States. Clashes broke out between some of the faithful and the police. The unusual image went around the world: Orthodox Jews locked in a false partition behind mattresses were taken out manu militari.

Told by many media outlets including the Jewish Chronicle and the New York Times, the story is however nothing extraordinary. Faithful people who considered the synagogue too small wanted to enlarge it by drilling a tunnel to an adjoining annex. Work carried out without the approval of the rabbinical authorities, for whom these walls are sacred. Furious, the religious leaders then tried to have the wall sealed. This famous January 8, the rebels took refuge inside to block the work, before being forcibly dislodged under the eye of the targets. The next day, the synagogue’s rabbi, Yehuda Krinsky, denounced “the vandalism of young agitators” and thanked the New York police.

Conspiracy “Bingo”

The matter could have ended there. But the images of the fights quickly made the rounds on conspiracy networks. On one of the old worn mattresses used by students to sleep, a stain appears. Could it be blood? Child’s blood? Pedophile acts, perhaps? “The Jews, the tunnels and the children, these are three elements which greatly excite the imagination of the complosphere. Put together, it’s a kind of bingo,” notes Tristan Mendès France, co-host of the “Complorama” podcast, on Franceinfo.

The rumor machine is racing. Internet users report that the tunnel of around ten meters would open “directly opposite” the Children’s Museum (which is actually 600 meters away). Manipulative video montages mix images of the synagogue and child trafficking in Latin America. Texan host Alex Jones, pope of Western conspiracy, draws a parallel with the Jeffrey Epstein affair, the billionaire accused of sexually assaulting dozens of teenage girls. In a few days, a disagreement over the layout of a place of worship transformed into a protean pedophile myth.

If these stories multiply so much, it is because they seem familiar to their authors. Since the Trump era, the complosphere has seen pedophile tunnels everywhere – and, for the first time, finally believes it has proof. Already, in April 2020, in full confinement, a rumor reported that tens of thousands of children were being held captive in the basements of New York. Then followed variants linked to other urban undergrounds, such as in Melbourne or Sydney. In 2022, a conspiracy theory claimed that by bombing Ukraine, Putin would have freed 35,000 children trapped underground.

Masonic lodges on the lunar crust

In itself, the fascination with basements is not new. It appears in conspiracy literature from the end of the 18th century, when Abbot Augustin Barruel, who was looking for someone responsible for the French Revolution, castigated the “enlightened Jacobin-masons [who] left their underground lodges”.

In his very religious framework, he then associates the hated conspirators to the depths. “The conspiracy is the other side of the normal world, and the other side of the normal world is underground,” explains Véronique Campion-Vincent, anthropologist specializing in urban legends. The underground corridors also have a literary function: they convey an imagination that is at once lugubrious, shady and bestial, and are already the index of a moral judgment. “It’s the phantasmagorical logic of rats hiding in the basement,” says Tristan Mendès France.

From the beginning of the 20th century, underground installations were used to justify the existence of extraterrestrials. On the Moon, they would live hidden in a maze beneath its surface. Modern ufologists suspect underground bunkers on Mars, from where the Martians observe us. “It’s a good way to explain that they are there without us seeing them,” smiles Véronique Campion-Vincent. The corridors of the abyss thus have an essential function in the conspiracy argument: because the tunnel is by nature hidden from everyone’s view, it is impossible to deny.

The paedosatanist turn

In the 1960s, an urban legend studied by Edgar Morin, the Orléans rumor, laid the seeds of human trafficking: young women would be kidnapped using traps hidden under fitting rooms, before being delivered to a trafficking network.

In conspiracy, the basement must be made of corridors, not a simple cellar. “In the tunnel, there is an operational dimension,” notes Mr. Mendès France, a sign of activity, of a network, of organized mischief.

But it was from the 1980s onwards that the imagination of the underground became openly tinged with pedo-sanism. In a context of moral panic, parents become convinced that McMartin preschool in Los Angeles hosts ritual ceremonies where children are sexually exploited. The affair captivated Americans, and the accusations were taken very seriously. “There were police officers looking for these tunnels, it was very material,” underlines Véronique Campion-Vincent. No underground will ever be found. Fueled by a few sordid news items often linked to sects, the image will remain.

A central concept in QAnon

With QAnon, a conspiracy mythology formed around Trumpism, pedophile tunnels are becoming central. From 2016, “Pizzagate”, its founding rumor, imagined a pedophile network linked to the Democratic elite in the (non-existent) basement of a Washington pizzeria. Then, in April 2018, “Q”, the account supposed to distribute secret information to conspiracy theorists on the Internet, mentioned “tunnels under the Epstein Island temple”.

Since then, the QAnon rumor machine has seen pedophile tunnels everywhere, from New York to Ukraine, under volcanoes and under synagogues. “There is a synthesis of the imagination of secret conspiracy and moral panic around child crime,” summarizes Tristan Mendès France.

The imagination of tunnels has become so structuring that the QAnon movement has coined the fantastical concept of mole children, or “mole children”, to designate the victims kept underground to satisfy a pedosatanist elite. No less delusional, the “DUMBs”, underground military bases, elite units under Trump’s orders, are responsible for delivering them. Their military operations would be responsible for the earthquakes. This is the miracle of tunnels: like any good myth, they explain absolutely everything.