Before we begin today, I want to point out that the discussion we’ve been having about Welsh Indians and pre-Columbian European colonizers isn’t just academic; the battle to control the cultural narrative has real consequences. On Facebook, John W. Hoopes linked to a discussion by David Barton, a Christian activist best known for his claims that the Founders meant for America to be a Christian nation. Barton explained in the discussion that Native Americans deserved to be killed off between 1650 and 1900 because they were warring against “all the white guys and went after the white guys,” necessitating genocide unless and until they accepted white rule and Euro-American civilization. In his view, “bringing the Indians to their knees” is part and parcel of expanding Christian civilization, which he explicitly identifies as “white” and “American.”
In a roundabout way, this desire to universalize the specific cultural values of conservative, religious, rural Americans brings us to today’s subject.
Mysteries and Monsters in America is the Destination America channel’s new program about the unexplained mysteries of the less-traveled parts of the United States. The “in America” bit tacked on to the title seems redundant given the name of the channel; it’s not as though Destination America would be looking for monsters in the Congo. It’s actually to distinguish it from its predecessor and template, Mysteries and Monsters in Alaska, which aired on Destination America’s parent, the Discovery Channel. The show offers an interesting sociological perspective on monsters—though nothing solid about the monsters themselves.
(Full disclosure: Last year I was briefly considered to host a program about ancient astronauts and lost civilizations for Destination America, but this program was not put into production.)
Mysteries and Monsters is ridiculously overproduced. The vamping narrator growls over heavily digitally processed photography, in which no filter or color correction is too strong. The show relies on reenactments to cover the complete lack of physical evidence, and no scientists or even paranormal investigators are employed. Instead, the show presents eyewitness accounts of various mysterious encounters with monsters and aliens in the witnesses’ own words.
The first episode, about Appalachia, lets eyewitnesses tell three stories, about encounters with extraterrestrials in 1955, the Moth Man in the 1960s, and something I’d never heard of—a 2004 encounter with Sheepsquatch, a Bigfoot-like creature said to be, in the show’s words “a crossover between mutton and man. A sheep ... that’s gone savage.” (Printed descriptions instead describe it as a white bear-like creature with horns.) I give the producers credit for at least mentioning that such a story has clear antecedents in Scots-Irish myths brought from the British Isles about horned and hoofed demons. I’m a bit surprised that the show left out the most memorable aspect of the Suttons’ alien encounter in Hopkinsville, Kentucky—that a little green man leaned over the edge of the porch roof and grabbed Billy Ray Taylor, a family friend, by the hair!
Needless to say, the show provides not a lick of evidence in favor of any of the stories, and skeptics have investigated most of these tales before. Mothman, for example, has been identified as an owl by Joe Nickell. (The show uses an owl to double for Mothman in one reenactment, and the witness describes its wings as those of a bird.) But that isn’t really the point.
The elite urban reviewers at The New York Times and the Hollywood Reporter took potshots at the show’s depiction of gun-crazy backwoods life, but I think that this is entirely the point.
Monsters and Mysteries lingers lovingly on the small details of rural life—pumping water from a well, spending the afternoon hunting in the woods, late evening family gatherings. The witnesses who tell their stories frequently assert their country identity, speaking of “good ol’ country boys” and the values of rural life. In this sphere, they are the experts, and their wisdom and narratives become a source of empowerment. All of the speakers unintentionally emphasize their expertise in the aspects of culture that outsiders can’t be expected to understand—tracking animals, shooting at creatures, knowing the lay of the land.
The first segment, about Sheepsquatch, is much less about the monster and much more about the brotherly bond the two friends who witnessed the creature share, a bond that the show implies is part of the deep, human connection fostered by rural life. It is extremely interesting that the witness feels comfortable expressing this kind of platonic same-sex love only in terms of defining himself against an inhuman other. The second segment, about aliens, is really a paean to the power of family, in which the witness (a child in 1955) recalls with warmth and humor the loving embrace of her extended family, and the implicit longing for the old days, when strong, silent men protected their women and children, with firearms if need be. The third segment describes the pastimes of bored, poor and rural teenagers, who would hang out at abandoned military bunkers in Port Pleasant, West Virginia to drink alcohol and encounter the Mothman—with nostalgic nods to the glories of small town life and a decided emphasis on the poverty of the region. One woman is explicitly described as “dirt poor.”
“I was an innocent teenager until I saw those red eyes,” one woman says. “I just haven’t been the same since then.”
These rural individuals’ encounters with the supernatural are, strangely enough, not a source of fear but rather of pride. Like the rural peoples of centuries past who reveled in their encounters with fairies, fauns, and leprechauns, these meetings with monsters—though initially terrifying—become a marker that sets them apart and gives them the distinction of supernatural favor. As each tells his or her story, the evident joy they take in relating their tales—and proclaiming their special connection to the supernatural—shines through. In fact, the Suttons originally labeled the creatures they encountered “goblins”—a supernatural being—not aliens because, functionally speaking, there is no real difference.
In each case, an unusual amount of time is given over to just listening to the witnesses tell their stories, in the full glory of traditional storytelling style, complete with digressions and reminiscences, and imitations of characters’ voices—the type of storytelling the media rarely presents nowadays, at least outside Prairie Home Companion. I grinned when one woman explained in true folktale fashion that the Mothman came from military bunkers built on an “old Indian burial ground”—a trope that dates back centuries in West Virginia. In Upshur County a legend current from the 1790s to the 1890s had it that Native American burial mounds were possessed of ghostly guardians, and should a stick be inserted into a mound, unearthly screams would call out from the mound each night until it was removed. Similar stories of the ghosts who guard mounds were prevalent throughout Appalachia. Mothman inherits the backwoods mythology of the ghostly guardians of abandoned places.
To be honest, I’d rather listen to the witnesses talk about their families, their friendships, and their cultures than how they chased a mutant sheep-man or an owl through the woods. But that’s not how the media work today. Destination America, in particular, has made a niche out of low-rent, mostly-rural paranormal programming.
In a media landscape and an American culture that systematically privileges the perspective of the wealthy over the poor and the urban over the rural, is it any wonder that those who have been excluded from the mainstream retreat to a subculture that values their views and experiences? I think it’s important to stress again that Mysteries and Monsters excludes all elites from the story, focusing only on the everyday folk who were touched by the supernatural. The hunt for Bigfoot, chasing UFOs, and similar monster-mongering seems silly to many who are wealthy and urban, but such hunts draw on (if futilely) the knowledge, expertise, and skills of the less wealthy and the rural and serve as a forum for celebrating and empowering a lifestyle that the changing face of America has removed from the cultural mainstream.
On the other hand, this is still a crappy paranormal show that uncritically proclaims the existence of monsters and aliens, so whatever sociological insights it provides are more than outweighed by the real damage done by advocating the paranormal.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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