Tonight’s Ancient Aliens is entitled “The Von Däniken Legacy,” and it promises to assess the impact of Erich von Däniken and Chariots of the Gods on the book’s forty-fifth anniversary and just a few days before its author’s seventy-eighth birthday. I suspect I’ll be going into von Däniken’s checkered past in more detail tomorrow when I review the episode, since it’s unlikely that Ancient Aliens would do anything to acknowledge von Däniken’s criminal record, his diagnosis as a compulsive liar, or his plagiarism of Chariots of the Gods from Robert Charroux and Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier.
This retrospective on the life and work of Erich von Däniken comes only a day after the death of Roger Ebert, and I can think of few contrasts between individuals that are more marked. Roger Ebert was intelligent and curious, a populist in the best sense of the word—one who could appeal to a broad audience but with the deep knowledge of a scholar and a respect for the expertise of those who work hard in other fields. By contrast Erich von Däniken remains a populist in the worst sense of the word, cultivating a message of anger and hate directed at an imaginary conspiracy of elites plotting to put down the common man. He appeals to a broad audience, but he has no deep knowledge of even his own subject, and resents anyone who works harder than him, or knows more. Ebert often said that his guiding principles were generosity and empathy; von Däniken and his associates, especially Giorgio Tsoukalos, operate in a world of petty feuds, hubris, and charlatanism.
Those of you who know me exclusively or primarily from reading this blog may not be aware that, in addition to a writer about alternative history, I am also a critic of the horror genre. I wrote what is now one the of the standards histories of horror, Knowing Fear, as well as a critically-acclaimed anthology of early horror criticism, A Hideous Bit of Morbidity. My horror criticism has appeared in several publications, including the massive anthology 21st Century Gothic.
Roger Ebert influenced my criticism, even if it doesn’t seem immediately apparent, and it was due entirely to chance. When I was growing up not that long ago, there was still a morning and evening newspaper—imagine that!—and the morning paper ran Roger Ebert’s syndicated movie reviews, while the evening paper did not. My parents subscribed the morning paper, and thus I read Ebert’s reviews. In time, the paper began cutting back on feature space and slowly cut down and then eliminated Ebert’s reviews, and I transitioned to reading them online.
What I learned from Ebert is to find value in popular media as well as in elite media; or, in plainer terms, to see that movies like The Horror of Party Beach have as much to tell us about culture as The Exorcist. In Knowing Fear I tried to do my best to tell the story of horror in all its many aspects, but especially how the majority of the audience would have experienced it, from the blue books (cheap chapbooks) of the Gothic era down to Syfy’s Saturday night monster flicks. I’d like to think that some of that has carried over to my work in alternative history, in that I always try to think about how the non-experts who consume alternative history understand and interpret what they see and hear, not just how academic elites would read it.
In this, I’ve challenged alternative history practitioners in specific practices they use to avoid academic scrutiny while deceiving popular audiences. The most common technique—and Erich von Däniken’s favorite—is to phrase all claims in the form of questions: Did ancient aliens have sex with Jewish women in Palestine? Could the Nazca lines have been used as runways? Asking questions means that academics can’t hold them accountable since they never actually claimed anything at all—“I’m just asking questions!”—but the audiences who buy these books and watch Ancient Aliens don’t hear the implied doubt, and they take the question for fact, especially when combined with jeremiads about how academic elites are hiding the truth and working to prevent the ordinary citizen from learning forbidden facts.
The other thing I learned from Roger Ebert is that the aesthetic quality of a work is separate from its moral value. Ebert most famously made this case in exploring how Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will could simultaneously be a great movie and a morally repugnant exultation of Nazism. This is one reason that I have no trouble saying that Fingerprints of the Gods is a well-written, fun book even though its evidence is flawed and its ideology troubling. Conversely, it’s also why I got in trouble for explaining that while I felt Adrienne Mayor’s Fossil Legends of the First Americans had important things to say, I found the book a disorganized, unreadable mess. Most people simply decide a book is good if they agree with it and bad if they don’t. A leading skeptical magazine wouldn’t publish my review of Fossil Legends because of this issue.
I think, however, that it’s important to understand how the language of media and the power of aesthetics contribute to how audiences respond to and choose to accept or reject a message.