In the spring of 3BC, the once mighty Western Han dynasty was on the brink of collapse. The people, frightened by recent earthquakes and solar eclipses, faced imminent famine after a severe drought destroyed most of their crops. In the capital Changan, (present-day Xian), a succession of weak emperors and decades of brutal power contests between noble families was hastening the eventual demise of the Han imperial house, which would come 12 years later. In the midst of this ominous uncertainty, a religious movement suddenly emerged in the east and, fuelled by word of mouth, gained thousands of followers within weeks. In the first three months of that year, people in the Guandong region (present-day Henan, Hebei, Shandong and parts of Inner Mongolia) abruptly left their homes and headed towards the capital on foot. In their hands they held sticks, which they passed to one another as they urgently trekked westwards. Participants in this strange procession had been told they were carrying and passing on the sacred tokens of an ancient goddess, Queen Mother of the West, and by doing so they would become immortal. Like most rumours that result in mass hysteria, its provenance was untraceable, but its circulation by a nervous population, desperate to make sense of precarious times, gave the rumour a life of its own. Thousands of people, with unkempt hair and unshod feet, made their way to Changan. Many travelled at night to avoid detection as they slipped through government gantry points and over city walls. By that summer, thousands of people had converged on the capital, where they organised street fairs and worshipped the Queen Mother of the West with song and dance. Some climbed onto rooftops at night with torches to pray to the goddess with drums and loud supplications. This went on until the autumn arrived and the movement ended as abruptly as it had begun. Its sudden and unexplained genesis, subsequent spread and mass mobilisation, and its abrupt and unresolved conclusion shocked and confused the government and the rest of the country. In attempting to explain the incident, some blamed the homosexual relationship between the reigning Emperor Ai and his courtier Dong Xian for triggering the unrest. Others pointed to a mystic link between the Queen Mother of the West and the emperor’s grandmother, Grand Empress Dowager Fu, who was widely criticised for interfering in the affairs of state and promoting her male relations to positions of power. These political explanations of what happened in those few months are spurious and not at all convincing. This social phenomenon could perhaps be better seen as a manifestation of human behaviour under duress. In times of chaos and anxiety, people seek explanations that make sense to them, however bizarre. The more they invest in these explanations, through unwavering belief and enthusiastic dissemination, the more control they feel they have over their circumstances. Many people believed, 2,023 years ago, that a stick they carried and passed on to others in their westward journey guaranteed them immortality. Many more believe, in 2020, that a satanic cabal of paedophiles are secretly controlling the world, and their saviour is an obese, orange-coloured fool. Be it the Queen Mother of the West or QAnon, it is a crutch on which the scared and confused lean to reassure themselves and make the unstable and unpredictable world they live in seem less frightening.