This is our planet’s bleak future: a second Civil War splinters America into five factions, leaving the new capital based in Omaha. World War III breaks out in 2015, starting with Russia and the U.S. trading nukes and ending with three billion dead. Then, to top it all off, a computer bug delivers where Y2K sputtered, destroying our world as we know it. That is, unless an audacious time traveler successfully traverses the space-time continuum to change the course of future history.
In late 2000, that person signed onto the Internet.
A poster going by the screennames “TimeTravel_0” and “John Titor” on a variety of message boards, beginning with the forum at the Time Travel Institute, claimed he was a soldier sent from 2036, the year the computer virus wiped the world. His mission was to head back to 1975 in order to snatch-and-grab an IBM 5100 computer, which had the necessary equipment to fight the future virus. (His detour to the year 2000 was simply to get a little R&R while visiting his three-year-old self, ignoring every fabric-of-time paradox rule from time-travel stories.) Over the next four months, Titor responded to every question other posters had, describing future events in poetically-phrased ways, always submitted with a general disclaimer that alternate realities do exist, so his reality may not be our own. In between dire urgings to learn first aid and stop eating beef—Mad Cow was a serious threat in his reality—Titor provided a number of technical specs regarding how time travel worked, with overly complex algorithms and grainy, hard-to-make-out photos of his actual machine. (Which, yes, of course, was an automobile: a 1987 Chevy Suburban.) He even showed off his cool futuristic military insignia.
On March 24, 2001, Titor offered his final piece of advice (“Bring a gas can with you when the car dies on the side of the road”), signed off forever, and returned home. He was never heard from again.
Today, everything posted online gets a healthy dose of skepticism. Let’s call it the Post-Snopes Era. We’ve been conditioned to suspect everything.
IN 2003, TITOR FAN Oliver Williams—some may want to put “fan” in quotation marks, simply because of the numerous unsubstantiated theories that Williams himself is/was Titor—launched JohnTitor.com, which tracks Titor’s predictions and offers a compendium of all of his 151 posts. In 2004, members of George Mason University threw together a multimedia rock opera based on Titor. A summary of the tale at io9.com garnered over 103,000 hits in 2011. And, according to IMDB, a feature-length film about Titor is in the pipeline. What seemingly should have been dismissed as a four-month hoax, the work of some nerd killing time at his boring temp job, somehow turned into a phenomenon.
Since the beginning of the mysterious posts, Art Bell’s popular late-night radio program “Coast to Coast AM,” a nationally-syndicated show that covers pretty much everything that’d fit comfortably into an episode of The X-Files, has been the go-to place for all things Titor. George Noory, who replaced Bell in 2003, has continued carrying the torch, devoting entire episodes to the ongoing mystery, fielding inane questions from callers and somehow answering with a straight face. (Examples: “Is there any way that Titor could be a godsend, sent as an angel, to warn us?” and “Do you think there’s any possibility he was a space alien? I’ll hang up and listen.”) In 2006, a lawyer named Lawrence Haber, who claimed to represent Kay Titor, a woman alleging to be John’s mother, contacted Noory. An interview followed between Noory and Kay—with Haber acting as a phone go-between—and it ended up answering, well, pretty much nothing at all.
After that episode, the show intermittently tracked Titor’s proposed timeline, looking at current events like tea leaves, possible harbingers of a nuclear armageddon. But as the false predictions piled up—while many of Titor’s descriptions are vague enough to be considered “not yet disproved,” he did also claim there would be no Olympic Games after 2004—the search for Titor shifted from “Is this real?” to “Who deceived us?”
IN 2003, THE JOHN Titor Foundation, a for-profit Limited Liability Corporation, self-published John Titor: A Time Traveler’s Tale, which is essentially a bound copy of the message board posts. (Used copies of this are currently going for $130 a pop on Amazon.) The Italian investigative TV show Voyager took up the case in 2008, hiring a private eye to locate the folks behind the LLC, and a search led back to the aforementioned Lawrence Haber, who was listed as the company’s CEO. An investigation by amateur sleuth John Hughston, who also goes by the name “Razimus,” uncovered a mysterious P.O. Box in Celebration, Florida, belonging to the LLC. A group of friends with some downtime between gigs at their production company checked out the P.O. Box themselves but found nothing worthwhile. At some point, JohnTitorFoundation.com was created, offering some kind of nonsensical secret code to digital passersby. And just a week ago, Hughston released another video—this one 40 minutes long—in which he names Haber’s brother, Morey, as his prime suspect by using a side-by-side analysis of phrase-usage, which, to be kind, is not exactly a slam dunk.
(Weirder side note: In 2004, a computer engineer named Marlin Pohlman filed a patent for a time travel machine that “back-engineered” concepts in the Titor posts. This started another round of speculation that Pohlman, himself, was the original Titor poster. Last March, he was arrested for drugging and sexually assaulting four women.)
The search for Titor, then, has become more convoluted than Oliver Stone taking on the 9/11 conspiracy. A new piece of information comes out, a tech-savvy kid with some time to kill sees it, decides to give the puzzle a shot, and on and on it goes, the cycle never reaching an end. The trail burns hot, the trail goes cold, but the trail never disappears. There have been countless blog posts and armchair investigations—a Google search for “John Titor solution” bounces back with 325,000 results—but nothing’s come close to finding a worthwhile solution. An itch in the back of the throat remains, unscratched.
The Titor legend persists because no one ever claimed to be behind it. Now that we won’t be fooled, we need an answer. It’s the Zeigarnik effect; when something’s not wrapped up, it preoccupies our memory.
LAST MONTH, BRIAN DUNNING, a writer and producer specializing on the subject of skepticism, devoted an entire episode of his aptly-named podcast Skeptoid to the John Titor phenomenon, less focused on who it might have been and more about that question: why does something without any merit still have legs as an urban legend?
“Now that the number of unsubstantiated claims on the Internet is somewhat larger than the factorial of the square of all the large numbers ever conceived separated by arrow notation,” said Dunning on his podcast, “it would be a lot harder to achieve John Titor’s celebrity.”
Today, everything posted online gets a healthy dose of skepticism. Let’s call it the Post-Snopes Era. We’ve been conditioned—from everyone having access to Photoshop, to Punk’d and Jackass, to found footage films, to big budget viral marketing campaigns, to emails from faux Nigerian princes offering a portion of their riches if we simply send them our bank account number—to suspect everything. Every video of a cat performing a spectacular feat is met with at least one commenter decrying “FAKE!” The Titor story, from a time when we were all so innocent, a time that was less than 15 years ago, came right before things started to change.
And the Titor legend persists, in part, because no one ever claimed to be behind it. Now that we won’t be fooled, we need an answer. It’s the Zeigarnik effect; when something’s not wrapped up, it preoccupies our memory. Our skepticism needs a party responsible, a grand designer that allows it to make sense. When we find out—think the wizard behind the curtain in Oz, or whoever Jacob was supposed to be in that final season of Lost—the mystery ends. No one has claimed Titor, so the story continues.
There are some obvious connections for conspiracy theorists—the fracturing of governments, underground bunkers—but, for everyone else, there’s this: time travel stories are freaking cool. “This is a superpower that everyone would love to have,” said Dunning. “We all want John Titor to actually be from the future.” Who among us didn’t spend idle moments of our youth wondering about flying cars and hoverboards, or what life was like back in the Old West. In fact, when I asked Hughston, the sleuth blogger, why he was initially drawn to Titor, he said that he’d been “a big fan of time travel since about 1985,” the year Back to the Future was released.
But there’s also a much easier explanation. “The John Titor story is popular,” Dunning said, “simply because that happens to be one of the stories that became popular.” If Titor wasn’t leading conspiracy-minded white dudes in their post-graduate years of boredom and confusion down a rabbit hole of mystery, something else would. It’s Urban Legend Darwinism. Among all of the hoaxes, Internet rumors, ghost stories, and Satanic voices you can hear if you play the vinyl backwards, some have to become popular. Might as well be Titor.
There is one other (distant, remote, nearly scientifically impossible) possibility, though.
“ONE OF THE KEYS to cracking the Titor question,” starts an email by someone who goes by the name Temporal Recon, “is to just allow for the possibility that time travel very well could be true.”
The great thing about time travel: the story cannot be refuted. If events don’t happen as the traveler says, that’s because the traveler changed the timeline. “Many never even get off the ground in their research due to this very limiting view,” T.R. said. “They simply don’t believe that the human race will ever conquer time. ‘Ever’ is a very long time, Rick.”
There’s a particular point-of-view that seems to evolve within every amateur Titor investigator I encountered. As the puzzle fails to be solved, when no serious candidates present themselves, the goal of locating the hoaxster morphs ever so slightly, allowing in the possibility that maybe, just maybe, time travel could be real. “Look, of course John Titor didn’t travel through time,” they’ll say, only to dramatically shift with the addendum, “but let’s say he did.”
If you squint hard enough—and forget about the last four Olympics—things will always begin to resemble what you want to see, especially when reality’s only a minor quibble.
I mean, couldn’t the political differences that continue to separate America into red states and blue states be precursors to the Second Civil War? U.S.–Russian relations have been kind of strange lately, haven’t they? The history of 2015, when Russia and the U.S. nuke each other into oblivion, is still yet to be written!
Then T.R. writes a sentence that haunts me, one that will no doubt tip me over the edge on a course to try to solve the mystery, to locate the poster, or maybe a precocious kid now armed with a learner’s permit who once met his future self. Graphs and charts will mass, blanketing my small studio apartment, where I’ll only need a bare mattress in the corner, a pizza on the way, and a computer with browser tabs parked on obscure pages of note, set to auto-refresh. Friendships and relationships and family will drift into the ether; there are only so many hours in the day. Hands will blister, fingers will ink-stain, eyes will learn to scan for men in black suits, or white coats, or some combination thereof.
He writes: “And there are others.”
And down I’ll go, into the abyss.