This post has been updated with additional information.
On Friday night, Ancient Aliens asserted that due to a head wound suffered in the Civil War the journalist, critic, and author Ambrose Bierce (1842-c. 1913-1914) experienced psychic connections to “otherworldly beings” and used his fiction to promote a supernatural worldview devoted to exploring the reality of interdimensional travel. Worse, they also claimed that Bierce disappeared from Mexico due to his involvement with crystal skulls that allowed him to pass into another dimension. Such claims, if made while Bierce were still alive, would have been close to libelous for a man who was dead set against the supernatural and once tried to evangelize atheism among his coworkers. Worse, Ancient Aliens seems to have concocted the claims by recycling parts of an Indiana Jones movie.
Ambrose Bierce is one of my favorite writers (though he is not without fault—he was often misogynist), and it’s rather insulting to see Bierce roped in to the crazy-quilt of Theosophy-influenced nonsense that Bierce would have decried. Bierce was something like Mark Twain’s evil twin, a darker inversion of Twain but nevertheless mirroring him in many respects. Both doubted the verities of faith (Twain wrote long essays on his doubts about Christianity and a full-length exposé of Christian Science) and both wrote (at times) speculative fiction that mixed in humor. Twain fought for the Confederacy and went on to become progressive, while Bierce fought for the Union and turned reactionary. Near the end of his life, Twain dressed all in white, and Bierce all in black. Bierce was more serious and darker, more bitter and jaded. As a self-professed prose stylist, he also hated Twain’s preferred style of using “dialect” as literature. Bierce compared it to passing off a garnet as a ruby, or brass for gold.
The claim that speculative fiction writers have a special connection to the occult comes from Helena Blavatsky, who needed to justify her followers’ idiotic belief that vril, a made-up energy source from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel The Coming Race, was somehow a real thing. Blavatsky hit upon the notion that writers of scientific romances (as speculative fiction was then called) were receiving messages from the spirit world, but subconsciously, and without recognizing their origin. “Our best modern novelists, who are neither Theosophists nor Spiritualists, begin to have, nevertheless, very psychological and suggestively Occult dreams,” Blavatsky claimed in The Secret Doctrine (1888). “[T]he clever novelist seems to repeat the history of all the now degraded and down-fallen races of humanity.”
From this comes the claim that writers like Bierce were therefore in psychic contact with the Ascended Masters, spiritual Moon-beings, Venusians, or whatever else Theosophy imagined danced across the spirit realm.
But Bierce himself made quite clear his thoughts on Theosophy. It is nonsense. In The Cynic’s Word-Book (1906), later published as The Devil’s Dictionary (1911), Bierce explained his views on Theosophy:
THEOSOPHY, n. An ancient faith having all the certitude of religion and all the mystery of science. The modern Theosophist holds, with the Buddhists, that we live an incalculable number of times on this earth, in as many several bodies, because one life is not long enough for our complete spiritual development; that is, a single lifetime does not suffice for us to become as wise and good as we choose to wish to become. To be absolutely wise and good—that is perfection; and the Theosophist is so keen-sighted as to have observed that everything desirous of improvement eventually attains perfection. Less competent observers are disposed to except cats, which seem neither wiser nor better than they were last year. The greatest and fattest of recent Theosophists was the late Madame Blavatsky, who had no cat.
Now, personally, I’d argue that cats don’t need to be wiser or better, as they’ve already reached their peak cattiness, but then I have two cats. Nevertheless, this passage ought to make quite obvious that Bierce considered Theosophy to be a fraud and its claims horseshit. However, if that weren’t enough, Bierce also wrote a satirical fable called “The Ashes of Madame Blavatsky” which bitterly satirizes Theosophy and its pretentions in just a few sentences.
But Bierce did not confine his criticism only to a faith whose adherents believed Venusians dictated to science fiction writers. Bierce was firmly against virtually every form of supernaturalism. Born into a religious family and raised in a series of deeply pious communities where fire and brimstone preaching was the norm, Ambrose and his brother Albert became staunchly agnostic, and even atheist, in reaction. According to biographers, in his “Prattle” newspaper column, Bierce made it a point to praise Jesus for his moralizing but steadfastly omitted even casual reference to his divinity. At the beginning of his career, in his early 20s, he produced a tract on atheism he composed while an employee of the U.S. Mint, handing out copies to his coworkers in hopes of enlightening them. Much later, he wrote an essay praising and defending Robert C. Ingersoll, the “Great Agnostic,” and offered a terrific line of rebuttal to criticism that Ingersoll’s attacks on the Bible were made from the King James Version without understanding the original Hebrew and Greek texts. Bierce asked cynically if critics were admitting that the English translation were flawed and unfaithful. “They are not permitted,” he wrote, “to hold that it is good enough for belief and acceptance, but not good enough to justify an inexpert dissent.”
Bierce was similarly no fan of spiritualism or ghosts, mocking specters in his Devil’s Dictionary for being able to manifest clothing along with their spirit bodies, as though textiles went on to an afterlife alongside flesh and had their own ghosts. Instead, Bierce expressed excitement over the theory of evolution, asking in the Opinionator “What could be more important and striking than the matter of Darwin’s books, or Spencer’s?” He once aphoristically advised those who “are horrified by what they believe to be Darwin’s theory of the Descent of Man from the Ape” to take comfort that to the ape we shall soon return. Bierce was in fact something of a proto-Lovecraft in that he filled his stories with pessimism and wrote repeatedly that there was no purpose to life. All was chance. (Lovecraft, writing in Supernatural Horror in Literature, said Bierce approached greatness, but faulted him for under-writing his stories and depriving them of Gothic atmosphere.)
I think we’ve sufficiently established that Bierce was not an advocate of the supernatural, but when we also see that Bierce’s materialist views were in place before the Civil War and only became more cynical after it, this undercuts the argument that a special alien radio tuner ended up in his brain when he was shot in the head on the day before his twenty-second birthday in 1864. All that remains is to point out that Bierce’s fiction wasn’t meant to be taken as fact. Bierce did, in fact, write three stories about “mysterious disappearances” for his 1893 collection Can Such Things Be?, first published in the San Francisco Examiner in the 1880s, in which Bierce mocks a German researcher named Maximilian Hern for ascribing the vanishings to non-Euclidean geometry, anticipating H. P. Lovecraft again. (Hern really did write a book claiming vanishings were due to accidental interdimensional excursions, at least according to the New York Times article from 1884 that Bierce quotes and uses as his source.) Because one story was presented in the (fictional) form of testimony, complete with redactions, and Hern really did write a book on the subject, later writers like Frank Edwards have claimed that the stories were true at some level, though they were intended as fiction. Bierce did collect tales of real life vanishings. He almost certainly didn’t believe they were supernatural, and some believe that Bierce purposely staged his 1913 disappearance to resemble these vanishings, committing suicide where his body would not be found so as to create a dramatic end to his life.
His supernatural stories were never meant to be taken literally; ghost stories were a Victorian staple, and Bierce used the supernatural to explore the terror and fear he felt in the Civil War from a different direction than his more realistic war stories. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a Civil War story but not quite a supernatural tale. It tells of the fantasy of escape experienced by a man being hanged. As such it is psychological rather than supernatural. It is Bierce’s best-known story, an honor it received largely because of its frequent reprinting in anthologies (it is his most reprinted tale) and its adaptation for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (an original adaptation) and also The Twilight Zone (a failed experiment in repurposing a French short film), the only story the two anthology series ever duplicated. Far from providing evidence of the existence of alternate worlds, “Occurrence” seems to draw from Charles Dickens’s “A Visit to Newgate,” which also tells of a condemned man’s hallucination of freedom. The literary conceit of confusing dreams for reality is so widespread that it is cliché: “It was all a dream…”
Finally, there is the minor matter of Bierce’s involvement with the alleged Mexican crystal skulls and their aid in transporting him to another dimension. This part of the story is really far too complex in the number of leaps of logic used to assemble it to do adequate justice. I hope to briefly indicate some of the troubles in a story Ancient Aliens gave only a few ill-chosen sentences.
The story derives from the widespread belief that Bierce disappeared in late 1913 or early 1914 while serving with a unit of Pancho Villa’s army during the time when the revolutionary general was provisional governor of Chihuahua. As skeptic Joe Nickell demonstrated in his book Ambrose Bierce Is Missing, there is no independent evidence from Bierce, from Mexican sources, or from any contemporary observer that Bierce ever actually traveled to Mexico, despite his professed desire to do so. Nickell believes that Bierce put out the story to set up a “disappearance” while he committed suicide near the Grand Canyon, where no one would think to look for him. This would, for him, be a dramatic and suitably mysterious end.
Nevertheless, most Bierce scholars believe he was in Mexico in 1913, and this led the occultist Sibley S. Morrill to propose in Ambrose Bierce, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges and the Crystal Skull (1973) that Bierce had met Frederick A. Mitchell-Hedges that year through the offices of Pancho Villa, who had captured Mitchell-Hedges and forced him to work as a spy—at least in the romanticized (and almost certainly fabricated) story Mitchell-Hedges told. Strangely, Mitchell-Hedges declined to mention Bierce in any of his correspondence or journals, nor did Pancho Villa or his men. Villa’s records also decline to mention Mitchell-Hedges, whose alleged exploits fighting in the Mexican Revolution cannot be documented. Morrill claimed that Bierce was working for U.S. intelligence and spying of Villa!
Morrill believed that Mitchell-Hedges was lying about when and where he found the famous crystal skull later promoted as an occult object with supernatural power. Morrill argued that Mitchell-Hedges had acquired the skull before 1913 and therefore had it with him in Mexico when he and Ambrose Bierce fought together for Pancho Villa. The story he later gave out about finding the skull in 1927 was therefore false. (Mitchell-Hedges actually purchased the European-made nineteenth century novelty skull at a Sotheby’s auction in 1943.) Ancient Aliens, however, elides Morrill’s partial skepticism and incorrectly assumes that Mitchell-Hedges took Bierce with him into the jungles of Central America (now 14 years later!) where the two visited the “cave” of the crystal skulls—another impossibility because Mitchell-Hedges asserted that he found the skull in a temple!—where “otherworldly beings” were waiting to transport Bierce to another dimension.
If that sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Swap out Mitchell-Hedges for Harrison Ford and you have the climax to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), where ancient interdimensional beings in a forgotten temple open a portal to another world with the help of a crystal skull and suck a Soviet villainess into their home dimension.
In short, the talking heads of Ancient Aliens, including David Wilcock, retold the most recent Indiana Jones movie plot and substituted Ambrose Bierce into the story based on poorly-documented, half-remembered fringe literature that doesn’t support any of their claims even when taken at face value. How can they do that? Easy; Marian Storm wrote a short story (fictional!) called “Discovery” (Forum, Nov. 1926; see part 1 and part 2) in which she imagined Native Mexicans mistaking Bierce for an “immortal priest” (yes, the racist great white god trope) and Bierce spending the rest of his life in a cave filled with golden treasure. Someone “researching” Bierce for the show, probably by reading Nickell’s book, where Storm’s story is summarized, conflated the story with Indiana Jones.
This is why Ambrose Bierce had one supernaturally gifted insight when he somehow predicted Ancient Aliens more than a century before its premiere:
Reason is fallible and virtue vincible; the winds vary and the needle forsakes the pole, but stupidity never errs and never intermits. Since it has been found that the axis of the earth wabbles, stupidity is indispensable as a standard of constancy.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.