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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now we get on the trail of the Illuminati, just in time for the opening of a movie centered on this secret society. �Angels and Demons� will be in theaters tomorrow, carrying on the battle between the Illuminati and the Vatican that began with �The Da Vinci Code� - both, of course, based on Dan Brown's best-selling thrillers.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates leads the chase.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: In the opening of �Angels and Demons,� Rome awaits the College of Cardinals' election of a new pope.

(Soundbite of movie, �Angels and Demons�)

(Soundbite of bells chiming)

Unidentified Man: Thousands are gathered in St. Peter's Square. The new pope has yet to be selected.

GRIGSBY BATES: But before he is, strange and bloody things begin to happen. The bodies of Vatican clerics are left with grisly hints that can only belong to one group.

(Soundbite of movie, �Angels and Demons�)

Mr. TOM HANKS (Actor): (as Robert Langdon) That's Illuminati.

GRIGSBY BATES: Who?

(Soundbite of movie, �Angels and Demons�)

Mr. HANKS: (as Robert Langdon) The Illuminati were a secret society dedicated to scientific truth. The Catholic Church ordered a brutal massacre to silence them forever. They've come for their revenge.

GRIGSBY BATES: Uh, no. Historian Ian McNeely, at the University of Oregon, says Tom Hanks' character, Robert Langdon, is somewhat off the mark.

Professor IAN MCNEELY (University of Oregon): The Illuminati were real. They were an organization founded in 1776 by a Bavarian university professor named Adam Weishaupt.

BATES: But, McNeely says, the Illuminati's war against religion was waged with words, not weapons.

Prof. MCNEELY: Their aim was to reform society peaceably and not at all to engage in acts of violence.

BATES: The violence is left to their fictional counterparts, which are legion. In the movie �Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,� aristocratic adventurer Lara finds a letter left to her years earlier by her now-deceased father, asking her to foil a heinous plot.

(Soundbite of movie, �Lara Croft: Tomb Raider�)

Mr. JON VOIGHT (Actor): (as Sir Richard Croft) You must hurry. You have very little time. And as the planets move into alignment, the world will be in great danger, for the secret society known as the Illuminati, devious, dangerous men...

BATES: And women, too, all bent on world domination. In popular culture, the Illuminati are often portrayed as evil, or at least mysterious. They appear in several video games, including �Resident Evil 4.�

(Soundbite of video game �Deus Ex�)

Unidentified Man: Who are we? Who are we really? We are the invisible hand. We are the Illuminati. We come before and after. We are forever, and eventually, eventually we will lead them into the day.

BATES: The secret society even shows up in parody. In one episode of the Fox sitcom �American Dad,� a shadowy group of elites go to great lengths to protect the secret of the origins of peanut butter. Teenager Steve Smith discovers this after an Indiana Jones-like chase through a rapidly crumbling cave to secure a jar with the truth inside. Steve is shocked to find that his dad, Stan, is involved in the peanut butter conspiracy.

(Soundbite of movie, �American Dad�)

Mr. SETH MCFARLANE (Actor): (As Stan Smith): I'm sorry, son.

Mr. SCOTT GRIMES (Actor): (As Steve Smith): When were you going to tell me you were part of the Illuminati?

BATES: It's a nice play on words, joining the Illuminati with thousands of nutty conspiracy theories. So why are we so interested in secret societies? George Johnson began writing about conspiracy theories more than 20 years ago. Since he wrote �Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Society,� Johnson says interest in the Illuminati has only grown.

Mr. GEORGE JOHNSON (Author, �Architects of Fear�): You used to have to really seek this out but now, you know, you just put Illuminati in the Google box and it's just astonishing what pops up. The idea that it's all just a few puppeteers makes it all seem simple.

BATES: And, Johnson says, belief in the Illuminati's powers is amazingly flexible. Apparently, the Illuminati are to paranoid conspiracy theorists what tofu is to cooks. What you taste depends on how you sauce it.

Mr. JOHNSON: It's just kind of this legend that flows through history and gets, you know, contorted according to people's own needs.

BATES: Oregon historian Ian McNeely says the Illuminati are often presumed to manipulate the world economy through high-ranking members of the global financial community.

Prof. MCNEELY: One of the staples, for example, of conspiracy theory is the idea that the Illuminati control the Federal Reserve.

BATES: Despite the current U.S. economic meltdown, McNeely hasn't heard so much of that this time around.

Prof. MCNEELY: You know, maybe we're growing up.

BATES: Or maybe that means that if the Illuminati were running the Fed, the economy would be in better shape.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: For a sneak peek at clips from the movie, visit our Web site at npr.org.

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