A Brief Cultural History of the Tin Foil Hat
'Better Call Saul' is the latest show to feature a character who shields himself from electricity, but the tin foil hat has a long cultural history.
Better Call Saul's Chuck McGill, played by Michael McKean. Image: Lewis Jacobs/AMC
A middle-aged man sits in darkness, surrounded by paper and books. Once the successful founding partner of a law firm, his life is now desolate and lonely. In front of him on the desk is a typewriter: his one concession to modernity is over a century out of date.
One of the more unusual subplots in Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul concerns the lawyer's brother Chuck McGill, who has withdrawn from public life due to a mysterious sensitivity to electricity in the air.
The condition, known as electromagnetic sensitivity, has been subject to much off-screen debate, with critics viewing it alternately as a genuine intolerance to technology, or as an elaborate neo-Luddite hoax.
Whole towns of "electrosensitives" have sprung up in America free from phone signals and wifi, with products such as electromagnetic frequency blocking curtains and microwave absorber sheets are sold—ironically—online. Homespun websites offer tips for "electromagnetic victims" in increasingly bombastic language, listing "V2K" ("voice to skull") mind control and even alien abduction among the risks presented by letting electromagnetic waves permeate the brain.
To renounce technology is to renounce all of society. Even in far-flung rural Albuquerque.
Rather than upping sticks to a town in West Virginia, in Better Call Saul we see Chuck wrapped in a metal foil sheet, hiding out in a darkened room. Though he might be genuinely suffering from an allergy to modern life, psychosomatic or otherwise, Chuck's appearance directly calls to mind the tin foil hat classically associated with paranoid conspiracy theorists.
Most often made from aluminium foil rather than actual tin, the tin foil hat trope surfaces in The X Files, Futurama, M. Night Shyamalan's alien sci-fi flick Signs, and of course that episode of The Simpsons, "Brother's Little Helper," in which Bart's prescription for Ritalin substitute Focusin goes awry and leads him to believe he's being mind-controlled by major league baseball.
But the hat goes back further in cultural history: It can be traced back in a very weird and prescient short story written in 1927 by Julian Huxley, brother of the better-known author Aldous and half-brother to Nobel laureate Andrew.
In addition to writing, Huxley was an evolutionary biologist and, unfortunately, a eugenicist, and The Tissue-Culture King draws heavily on his day job. The plot concerns a scientist called Hascombe lost in a jungle. Captured by the local tribe, Hascombe wins their favour through his "magical" ability to grow tissue samples from their king, Bugala.
What ensues is as dystopian and gleefully ghoulish as any of the more famous Huxley's work. Kept under house arrest, Hascombe becomes a Daedalus figure forced to lend his talents to a corrupt regime. But proximity to power goes to his head, and Hascombe turns his "perverted intellectual ambitions" to mass mind control.
Eventually the scientist hypnotizes the king and escapes wearing a "cap of metal foil" which is "relatively impervious to the telepathic effect." But he is overpowered the moment he removes it. The narrator laments:
I begged and implored him to use his reason, to stick to his decision, and to come on. How I regretted that, in our desire to discard all useless weight, we had left behind our metal telepathy-proof head coverings!
The plot ends on a question that would do any conspiracy theorist proud, asking the reader whether they're one of "those who labor because they like power, or because they want to find the truth about how things work."
This gloomy conclusion makes the short story relevant to latter-day conspiracy theorists. Huxley creates an atmosphere of paranoia, highlighting the Faustian pact made by the tissue culture-obsessed tribesmen. To modernize is to compromise one's private life. It brings to mind our own love of data-invading, convenience-raising technology, and the near-spiritual fervour it inspires in us.
The Tissue-Culture King goes so far as to equate a love of innovation with hypnotic suggestibility. Knowledge is concentrated in the hands of the few, turning King Bugala into a primitive tech corporation forever invading his subjects' privacy. To refuse this new innovation and run off in a tin foil hat is to refuse society itself, and by turning around Hascombe demonstrates that acceptance is inevitable.
Back to our Netflix show, and through developing electrosensitivity Saul's brother Chuck becomes a shut-in and a hermit. As with the mania for innovation described in The Tissue Culture King, or the fact that everyone you know now owns a smartphone, technology holds such cultural dominance that you can become countercultural simply through inaction. To renounce technology is to renounce all of society, such is its importance. Even in far-flung rural Albuquerque.
Chuck McGill is an odd fish fighting a losing battle, and through this he ends up vulnerable (in his case—*spoiler alert*—to being committed to a psychiatric ward).
It's easy to sympathize with Chuck, especially in recent episodes where we see him being tasered by the police. But before you trade your iPhone for a silver-coated nylon "Brain Coat," consider the results of a study conducted by MIT in 2005.
Testing, we can only assume semi-seriously, three different models of the tin foil hat ("the Classical, the Fez and the Centurion"), researchers found that encasing your head in foil actually amplifies electromagnetic frequencies, rather than shielding them. Radiation is partially reflected by the ungrounded foil, focusing waves more directly on the wearer's brain.
The study concludes on a tongue-in-cheek note: "It requires no stretch of the imagination to conclude that the current helmet craze is likely to have been propagated by the Government, possibly with the involvement of the FCC. We hope this report will encourage the paranoid community to develop improved helmet designs to avoid falling prey to these shortcomings." Either that, or Major League Baseball.