History is replete with stories of secret societies, and both Hollywood and publishers love it. Several recent blockbusters and bestsellers have followed the same recipe for success: a story line fashioned out of conspiracies, skullduggery, and secret codes, all bused an flimsy historical evidence. The movie National Treasure and Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code both rely on sensationalist conspiracy theories to pique the interest of the public. You can see just how fascinated the public is with secret societies by checking one of the many websites devoted to them, most of which claim that such societies harbor conspirators with more than questionable goals. The Freemasons seem to be the most frequent target, with the paranoiacs and wild theorists seeing a Masonic conspiracy behind every conflict, election, or major international event, The first Masonic lodge started in early eighteenth-century England and became a powerful fraternity that included politicians, scientists, artists, and businessmen. Their charitable work has helped many underprivileged people, but that hasn't stopped others from claiming that they are a refuge for Satanists and the like, More than u few critics assert that Freemasonry had a major hand in the founding of the United States, and that the same hidden hand continues to pull the strings of government today. Jim Marrs, in Rule by Secrecy, claims that 53 of the 56 signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence were Freemasons. That's an exaggeration by any stretch of the imagination, although at least nine are believed to have belonged to the society. George Washington was also a member. Ralph Epperson in The Unseen Hand claims that “all the staff officers Washington trusted during the American Revolution were Mason, and all the leading generals of the Army were Masons.” While it is true that many of Washington's generals were Masons, the reason had more to do with practicality than it did with conspiracies and secrets. Says Jim Kouf, who co-wrote the screenplay for National Treasure and whose grandfather was a Freemason, “When Washington had trouble raising his army, he called upon his Masonic brothers, because he knew he could trust them.” There is no doubt that the principles behind the Freemasons did help shape the values incorporated in the Declaration of Independence and the American idea of democracy. “The Masons were founded on pretty solid principles;” says Kouf, “and a lot of those held for the Founding Fathers and probably influenced them a great deal toward democracy at the time.” Others, though, believe that democracy and such secret societies are inherently opposed to each other, since democracy is dependent on openness and equality. Those who take the most ominous perspective describe a hidden power struggle taking place between these sinister secrete societies and democracy. These theorists even claim that the very lack of attention these societies receive in the media is evidence of their ability to suppress the truth. While much of the furor is downright laughable, it does add to the mystery of secret societies and make the storytelling all the more attractive and lucrative. But let's remember that that's usually all it is ― story telling.