To cleanse the palate as we ease towards a slow-news holiday weekend, let me add my highest recommendation to the many others online for this New Statesman piece about a bizarre case of the “Mandela Effect.” The Mandela Effect is a phenomenon in which people share a memory, sometimes vivid, of something that … never actually happened. It got its name from the mistaken belief held by many that Nelson Mandela actually died in prison in South Africa, which makes his subsequent presidency, racial reconciliation efforts, and global elder statesman status sort of difficult to explain. The key is that they remember, or think they remember, seeing and hearing the news about his death in prison. It’s not that they’re wrong about a fact of history, like thinking the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1775. They have a bona fide memory, or so they say, of news footage of Mandela’s funeral, etc.
There are various examples of the Mandela Effect out there but many (most?) are easily explained, often having to do with misremembering how words are spelled. Some people insist that the Berenstain Bears were actually called the “Berenstein” Bears at one point, with an “e” at the end, yet evidence of the changed spelling has somehow disappeared from the space-time continuum. Same goes for movie lines that everyone thinks they remember, like “Luke, I am your father” or “Play it again, Sam,” that are close to the actual dialogue from the films but were never actually said. Meh. Simple mistakes, amplified by hearing the mistaken lines repeated in other cultural contexts.
But there are some cases of the Mandela Effect that are more complicated, which is where the New Statesman piece comes in. Apparently there are a great many people out there who distinctly remember watching a schmaltzy mid-90s comedy called “Shazaam” starring Sinbad as a genie. Note well: Most of these people are fully aware of the film “Kazaam,” which is a real flick starring Shaquille O’Neal, also produced in the 90s and also with a genie as the lead character. They insist they’re thinking of a different movie. Some, in fact, claim that “Kazaam” was actually a knock-off of the superior “Shazaam,” with the former released to try to capitalize on the latter’s success. And it’s not just the title or the lead actor they remember. They remember scenes.
Meredith Upton, a 25-year-old videographer from Nashville, Tennessee, also remembers the same film. “Whenever I would see Sinbad anywhere in the media I would recall him playing a genie,” she says. “I remember the name of the film as Shazaam. I remember two children accidentally summoning a genie… and they try and wish for their dad to fall in love again after their mother’s passing, and Sinbad can’t [grant the wish].”
Don goes even further. Although he is not certain that the movie was called Shazaam, he has detailed scene-by-scene recollections of the film, which include the children wishing for a new wife for their father, the little girl wishing for her broken doll to be fixed, and the movie finale taking place at a pool party. Don says he remembers the film so vividly because customers would bring the video back to his rental store claiming it didn’t work, and he watched it multiple times to try and find the “problem with the tape”…
Many Redditors revealed they had distinct memories of the cover art of the movie. “It said ‘Sinbad’ in big letters that dwarfed the other print,” says Don, who goes by EpicJourneyMan on Reddit, and also remembers how Sinbad posed on the cover – facing left, with his arms crossed and an eyebrow raised. Jessica*, a 27-year-old office worker from Canada, also remembers the cover. “[It had] a purple background, featuring Sinbad dressed as a genie, back to back with a boy who looks about 11 or 12 years old. Sinbad has an annoyed expression on his face,” she says.
Redditors have been exchanging stories about their memories of “Shazaam” for awhile now. And here’s where it gets really weird: Even people who don’t read Reddit and haven’t encountered the “Shazaam” subculture online seem to have memories of Sinbad playing a genie. Note the timestamp on this tweet:
@careuhhh I must hve played a genie. Everyone says I did. Smile
— Sinbad (@sinbadbad) September 20, 2009
National Review contributor Dan Foster read the New Statesman piece this week and decided to ask friends who hadn’t read it whether they remember “Shazaam.” Errrr:
Have now asked multiple people who haven't read the Statesman article about Shazaam. I am terrified. Shut down the large hadron collider.
— Daniel Foster (@DanFosterType) December 22, 2016
The closest anyone’s gotten to explaining the false memory is the fact that Sinbad did once appear on American TV dressed as a genie, as host one day in 1994 when TNT aired a bunch of old “Sinbad the Sailor” films back to back. But that doesn’t explain the other memories of a movie poster, a feature-length film plot, and so on. How did so many people conjure “Shazaam” into existence? If they’re simply misremembering details about “Kazaam,” why are so many convinced that Sinbad, rather than some other light-comedic actor of the day, was the genie in “Shazaam”? Did a throwaway one-day gig on TNT 22 years ago in which this guy wore a turban really make such an indelible impression on people? If this is all just a jumbled-up memory of “Kazaam,” why doesn’t the same thing happen all the time with other movies?
The best I can do theory-wise to explain it is that the plot of “Shazaam” sounds like such formulaically familiar Hollywood treacle that the script really does write itself in people’s minds. Sinbad as a genie, getting up to hijinks with a couple of lovable moppets who want nothing more than the magic of a happy family? Of course they made that movie. They had to have made it. It’s so easy to imagine that you’ve imagined it right into your memory bank. As for why Sinbad appears in the title role for so many, maybe it’s a vestigial memory of seeing him on that TNT thing plus the fact that people tend to associate his name, “Sinbad,” with old familiar Arabic legends — like genies. Still, that wouldn’t explain how or why the false memory was generated, only why you might choose him if you were prompted to falsely remember a movie like this that was never actually made. That is to say, if I asked you to name a comedian in the 90s who starred in a movie about a genie, you might well say Sinbad because of the “Sinbad”/Arabic correction. But if I didn’t ask you — if you just somehow remembered him in that role with no prompting — well, that’s weird. Why they hell would you remember that?
The stoner theory, of course, and the one that’s doubtless going to inspire some pretty sweet alternate-reality sci-fi flicks in Hollywood as this concept gains traction online, is that there was a movie called “Shazaam” starring Sinbad but all evidence of it has been lost because at some point in the not-distant past we crossed over from that reality into this one. Don’t ask me when it happened, how, or why. We just did, like the kids crossing into “the upside down” in “Stranger Things,” and now all that remains is a memory. Maybe someone in the future who hated “Shazaam” traveled back in time and assassinated the screenwriter before he wrote it, “Terminator”-style, setting in motion a horrible new timeline in which the film no longer exists, the Cubs win the World Series, and Trump is a viable presidential candidate. I’ll tell you what, though: If I were Sinbad, I’d be sorely tempted to mindfark America by going off and secretly making this movie, setting it in the 80s, and then slipping VHS copies of it into bargain bins in stores around the country knowing that Redditors will eventually find it and ignite an Internet freakout of historic proportions. It’d be the greatest prank of all time. Maybe he’ll do it, we’ll freak out, and then we’ll shift into yet another alternate reality in which we only think we remember the great “Shazaam” prank. I need a drink.