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Pedophile Hauntology

Dylan Burgoon

We are haunted by the spectre of the pedophile. A supposed cabal of secret child molesters, variously of subterranean, celebrity, hologram and clone nature have through the QAnon movement become a meaningful figure in contemporary politics, with banners bearing “Save the Children” being paraded around the streets of major American cities—appearing numerously at the January 6th Capitol Riot. In early November 2016, as part of an incident now referred to broadly as “Pizzagate,” Edgar Maddison Welch charged into a pizza parlor—“Comet”—with an assault rifle, prepared and eager to end lives in the pursuit of this exact task. Personally, as a child who frequented Comet for the occasional punk show they hosted, I did not feel especially saved.

Protestor at a 'Save Our Children' rally in Tennessee, August 2020 - image by Troy Stolt via Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Conversely, actual international pedophile Jeffery Epstein committed suicide in prison before he could be called to testify, in what has been called either a confluence of unlucky circumstances on the scale of divine intervention, or not precisely suicide. A 2016 deposition by Epstein’s girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell (accused, later, of being one of the primary procurers of victims for Epstein as well as taking part in the assaults), in a civil lawsuit by his alleged victim Virginia Giuffre, had names that are likely Bill Clinton, Alan Dershowitz, and Prince Andrew (inartfully) redacted from it. Dershowitz has frequently taken to the media to protest his innocence, with the perplexing defense that he never visited Epstein’s infamous private island—where many of the crimes were allegedly conducted—without the company of his wife and daughter; despite the growing scrutiny, he has nevertheless stood resolute in his calls to lower the legal age of consent. 2019 reporting from The New York Times demonstrated that child pornography is a near epidemic in some spaces on the internet, and regulatory and prosecutory governmental bodies are being provided not nearly the requisite resources to handle it.

It is attractive, with this documented history, to cry out that there are fictional pedophiles gaining rapid focus in the media while real pedophiles go unprosecuted. The present difficulty of the political figure of the pedophile, however, is that it collapses into one object these contradictory discourses to the point they are rendered meaningfully inseparable (the Clintons, for example, occupying an outsized role in both QAnon narratives and reportage on Epstein). We are caught instead in an irascible superposition of pedophiles that are and aren’t, hypervisible and invisible, absent presences and present absences. What is clear is that this is a spectre not easily exorcised, and we must become more adept at understanding what our politics look like inside the haunted house.


This is not the first time, however, that the figure of the pedophile has become a sticking point of American political argumentation writ large. In recovering this history, it is useful to turn to new media theorist Wendy Chun’s genealogy of cultural anxiety surrounding the online pedophile in the days of the growing internet, in her 2006 book Control and Freedom. While the internet could have just as easily been billed as providing greater avenues for prosecuting pedophiles due to its “constitutive tracking ability,” Chun offers, and read as a means of bringing light to what would have otherwise been conducted in the shadows, the prevailing cultural discourse surrounding the growth of the internet was that it in fact “induced” pedophilia.

In many ways invoking Michel Foucault’s analysis of discourse as presupposing identity, Chun argues that the broad cultural anxiety surrounding the “online pedophile” was not purely a response to a phenomenon of actually existing pedophiles using the internet, but rather that this political fervor in fact named and produced the “online pedophile” as a category, which in turn was used as a justification for expansion of state control over the internet. Chun takes this argument further, even, in that she understands the political discourse as not only organizing a set of imagined behaviors into a constitutive identity called the “online pedophile,” as Foucault might lead us, but also that the media regarded the internet as literally producing perverse sexual tendencies. The pedophile became, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a useful rhetorical tool—hypervisible and morally unrecoverable—through which lawmakers could traffic their assertion that the internet was a space that promoted and facilitated “deviance.”

To be clear—as Chun is frequently careful to—this is not to say that no pedophiles exist, or that pedophilia is a morally excusable behavior from which we should defend governmental overreach, but rather that the discursive production of the “online pedophile” was meaningfully dislocated from the actual incidence of people on the internet conducting those activities that we call pedophilia. The online pedophile’s political hypervisibility invoked Protestant cultural anxiety surrounding children’s psychology (and implicitly, in its 90s construction, homosexuality), and ascended it to such a rhetorical fever pitch that it became conceptually unbound from the goings on of pedophiles themselves.

How can we describe things that both are and aren’t if not as ghosts? To quote Natasha Lennard’s remarkable essay “Ghost Stories,” the haunting presence of the pedophile in politics is one of those phenomena “where ‘to be or not to be’ fails to exhaust the logical space.” As Chun’s history can remind us, the amplification of a particular phenomenon in our cultural conscious does not necessarily point towards a fundamental external reality. Conversely, the essential reality or irreality of a phenomenon does not directly produce the ease with which we are able to speak of it, nor its political consequence. The pedophile’s presence and absence in contemporary politics do not easily resolve into a unified truth—knowing precisely who the pedophiles are and what we should do about it—at least inasmuch as it’s near impossible to get anyone to agree on these basic precepts. To again quote Lennard:
I want to insist upon the ghost’s presence, not as a metaphor, but as a substantive reminder to believe and disbelieve differently — to believe and disbelieve simultaneously, with a commitment that goes beyond a jump in the night.
As Jacques Derrida impels in his seminal hauntological text, Spectres of Marx—if we accept as truth that history is propelled forward through conflict and contradiction, we would do well to discuss the contradiction without presuming it as already solved. If nothing else, we can do better than remaining merely spooked.


QAnon is a conspiracy theory that unites all others, and with movement nanocelebrities such as “QAnon Shaman” Jake Angeli photographed thousands of times at the January 6th Capitol Riot with his “Q SENT ME!” sign, it has made significant strides towards the cultural forefront. In what might be called an ideological inversion, the 1990s’ “online pedophile” faded as a primary cultural boogeyman through the last couple decades, just as the technical capacity for the covert distribution and circulation of online child pornography was built out and reinforced (cryptocurrency, Tor networks, widely available encrypted chat hosts). In its stead has risen in recent years the new haunting of the “deep-state pedophile” running our government and culture secretively, all the while stealing children from their homes in the night. Emerging on anonymous reactionary internet message boards such as 4chan and 8kun, as well as private Facebook groups, QAnon can be loosely defined as those followers of the mysterious “Q” (the name “Q” a gesture to Q clearance, the Department of Energy’s way of denoting access to Top Secret material), an unnamed supposed insider to the United States government, intent on exposing and taking down these pedophiles en masse. It’s difficult to articulate the guiding ideology of QAnon followers, in that its theoretical collage is as internally contradictory as it is broad reaching (or, delusional, otherwise), but their mission could be approximately stated as following “Q,” aided by Donald Trump, to find, try and execute deep-state pedophiles. Their claims are much less straightforward. Their pedophiles operate in tunnels underground, shepherding children covertly; they imbibe in distilled children’s adrenalin (“adrenochrome”) in order to stay young. According to some, they might even time travel.

“QAnon Shaman” Jake Angeli, November 2020 - image by Dario Lopez-Mills via Politico.

QAnon, if only for that it is largely an apocalyptic cult which under no circumstances will be convinced of its epistemic inaccuracy, seems very comfortable with being and not. Impatient with the day of reckoning—upon which documents would be unsealed, names named, and Hillary Clinton arrested—being perpetually deferred, QAnon has instead decided that the pedophiles are already dead. Donald Trump, in their formulation, has already rounded up, tried, and summarily executed all the pedophiles, but in an effort to preserve the psychic and cultural integrity of the general populace, has replaced them with clones (or holograms, depending who you ask). Indeed, even Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 Presidential Election seems to not have dispelled their certainty, and the rhetorical strategy has shifted to one of subterfuge, wherein the emergent tactic has become the disavowal the mere existence of “QAnon,” taking the movement underground. A dispatch from “Q” last year reads “There is Q. There are Anons. There is no QAnon.”—absent and present.

In many ways, this comfort with an ambiguous ontology is useful in understanding the durability and spread of QAnon. While their gestures towards rapture, purgatory, sinners and saints conjure images of new religious cults’ suicidal dissonance in the moments that their prophecy fails, QAnon’s ability to sit with contradiction and reincorporate contrary evidence demonstrates a level of unshakability. As before, there is no disappointing day-after when the rapture does not manifest. QAnon’s pedophile is already spectral, and pointing out its essential nonbeing only confirms its immaterial evasiveness.

To follow “Q,” importantly, is an only interpretive venture. Though hyper-committed holy crusaders—a la Edgar Maddison Welch bringing his gun to Comet Pizza—are inevitable, the charge of the follower is generally only to wait, watch and spread the word while “Q” and Trump do their magic. It seems trite to analyze politics through the metaphor of the scary movie, but it feels nevertheless accurate to quip that QAnon offers the same epistemic comfort as the blockbuster horror. The ghost, inevitably, will be extirpated by the embattled protagonist, and your task is only to revel in the spectacle—with due occasional gasps.


Those who spend enough (or too much) time on Twitter will recall late 2019, when timelines for months were populated by the phrase “Epstein didn’t kill himself,” and puns and memes thereupon. On August 10th, 2019, while Epstein awaited federal trial on sex trafficking charges and news of the big names on the flight logs of his plane (the “Lolita Express”) circulated in the media, the two security cameras in his cell malfunctioned, and the two guards on duty simultaneously fell asleep on the job. Epstein’s death that night has been officially deemed a suicide, and despite Twitter users’ mass attempts to gain more information as to the suspect details and thus argue that Epstein was murdered, the case has been largely put to bed in the media, and Ghislane Maxwell’s ongoing case has received comparatively sparse attention.

While the right has QAnon, the left now has “TrueAnon,” a parodically named podcast run by Communist internet personality Brace Belden and writer Liz Franczak, aiming, among other projects, to make public the actions of Jeffrey Esptein and his associates, and thus expose the actual pedophiles covertly entangled with the American state. Hence, “True.” In a tone equal parts invective, humorous, and solemn, Belden and Franczak reconstruct details forgotten or eschewed in conventional media coverage, crawling through depositions, interviewing victims, and tracing the many entanglements between Epstein and countless other public figures—with their own fair share of conspiracy theorizing. In a meaningful way, TrueAnon’s project is much like that of the Twitter frenzy: attempting to recover what is lost to us, and draw out small pieces of epistemic certainty from a perplexing and circuitous narrative. Otherwise put, they make the ghost un-ghostly. Through investigative reporting and detailed reconstruction of these crimes, TrueAnon demonstrates à la Scooby Doo that beneath the sheet is often only evil men, and complicated, nefarious financial interests.

This is important work, to be sure, but I feel as if the more interesting valence of TrueAnon’s project is of course its ability to grapple effectively with uncertainty. “I’m sure we will never know for certain if…” is a common refrain in the podcast; Belden and Franczak’s register is frequently more exploratory than interrogative. Their project is as much attempting to hold together a story which is to us shattered and irreconcilable, as it is the definitive pinning down of who did what when. If Jeffrey Epstein was truly as connected as TrueAnon suggests, what happened to him in that cell, as well as what went on among him and Bill Clinton, Alan Dershowitz, Prince Andrew, et al., will never be publicly available. Perhaps he haunts us.


Derrida argues, in Spectres of Marx, that our fundamental task upon learning that our present is haunted, is to “speak to the spectre (parler au spectre).” Quoting from Colin Davis’ essay “Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms,” thinking through Derrida:
Conversing with spectres is not undertaken in the expectation that they will reveal some secret, shameful or otherwise. Rather, it may open us up to the experience of secrecy as such: an essential unknowing which underlies and may undermine what we think we know.
Thinking through our present contradictions, of pedophiles that are and aren’t, we may not easily resolve our ontological categories, or be let in on some “secret” as to what might be the root of this sort of perversity, or the prevalence or identity of its perpetrators. What we can learn, as TrueAnon might remind us as a vivid example, is that there are parts of this world that are intentionally kept from our apprehension—names redacted, information withheld, and pasts deliberately erased. In a haunted world, our orientation might be described not as paranoia, but as a sober knowledge that what we are ideologically provided is at times qualitatively different from what is (or isn’t).

I’m not good at watching ghost films. For days after watching, I will run nervously up to my bedroom after switching off the downstairs light, or get shivers when I feel I might be watched through a window. Even if the ghost, as in The Shining, ends trapped back in its maze or painting, thusly subdued, I am left with the distinct impression that the world is nonetheless amenable to the presence of a ghost in the first place. Even if this or that spectre is exorcised—Ghislaine Maxwell tried, QAnon quelled—we might do well to remember, with due apprehension, that there are things that appear to us in suspended contradiction and they often feel an awful lot like malevolent spirits.