I finished reading W. Scott Poole’s Monsters in America, and after completing the book, I’m not sure my initial impressions (posted here) have changed that much. I still find the book strangely unbalanced and overly enamored of the Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn school of history. It did not surprise me to read that Poole’s views on monsters were shaped by David J. Skal’s Monster Show, a book I criticize in Knowing Fear for its reductive reading of horror monsters as symbols of sexual anxiety. (Skal, for example, thinks Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera character is a “ruined penis” and that 1960s Aurora monster kits symbolize male masturbation.)
First, the good news: Poole’s later chapters are more interesting, more rigorous, and more coherent than the earlier ones. His chapter on the psychosexual undertones of 1970s and ’80s slasher movies is admirable and does a beautiful job explicating a case where the psychosexual reading is almost self-evidently correct (though not without its complications, as I discuss in Knowing Fear). His chapter on vampires and zombies is also quite good, though incomplete in reducing these creatures primarily to their political uses in the culture wars.
Over the past few days, there have been some interesting tweets from Ancient Aliens star Giorgio Tsoukalos about the ancient astronaut theory. Twitter users asked Tsoukalos about what they perceived to be a conspiracy to suppress knowledge of extraterrestrials, a perfectly logical conclusion from Ancient Aliens' frequent refrain that mainstream archaeologists and the American government are purposefully ignoring the ancient astronaut theory. Tsoukalos, though, took exception:
But this is not the tune that ancient astronaut theorists traditionally have played. Take Erich von Daniken, who in Chariots of the Gods makes explicit his belief that an all-powerful scientific establishment is working to marginalize or suppress his theory:
Sirius Mystery author Robert Temple took it a step further, asserting that the American government targeted him for his claims that flying space frogs from Sirius bequeathed humans their civilization because he had revealed too much. In 1998, Temple explained the program of persecution:
What is the intelligent reader to conclude? Yes, it is true that these authors do not explicitly state that scientists and the government are trying to suppress knowledge of ancient astronauts, but what else are we to conclude from references to the Catholic Index of banned books or claims that government agencies targeted ancient astronaut authors? In fact, a decade ago I compiled an entire essay of alternative authors' claims of a conspiracy against them.
Tsoukalos is right that it is up to individuals to educate themselves, especially in an era when the institutions once trusted to do that job are failing us, especially cable television networks like H2. People do "choose to remain ignorant." Giorgio Tsoukalos is the leading example.
I am about two-thirds of the way through W. Scott Poole’s recent study of Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting (Baylor University Press, 2011), and at first glance it seems like the kind of book I should love. The topic is monsters, and the book aims to explore American history through the lens of the terrifying creatures Americans have imagined in both fiction and the unknown spaces of the real world. But somehow the book just isn’t doing it for me.
(Full disclosure: Poole discusses me and my Cult of Alien Gods in the book in connection with ancient astronauts. He has only good things to say about me. I do not know Poole and have never spoken with him.)
The problem I have with Monsters in America is that the author has adopted a fashionable academic leftism that has utterly distorted his view of the subject. Monsters covers nearly identical ground to my own Knowing Fear, focusing on the relationship of science and pseudoscience to the development of horror fiction, but Poole’s version is a funhouse mirror image of my book. Monsters in America reads like what would happen if Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn got together to write a rebuttal to my Knowing Fear. The problem with my book is that I don’t find America evil enough, apparently.
Poole views American history as the story of wealthy, white, heterosexual male privilege and the devastating effects of this racial-sexual-socioeconomic domination on those who are not wealthy, white, heterosexual, or male. Therefore, he reads monsters of all stripes as existing to “assuage” “guilt” of America’s elite about the suffering they have caused minorities and women. In so doing, Poole turns over large chunks of his book to leftist claims that American history is an unmitigated story of violence, oppression, and barbarism. (Violence is apparently acceptable within racial groups, but not between them since not a word is spoken about conflicts between Native groups, or even much about conflicts between white groups.) From a professional historian, it is especially surprising that Poole can find nothing good to say about America. Any history of monsters must recognize that monsters don’t exist solely to embody white guilt.
I am especially disappointed that his single-minded attempt to rope all monsters—folkloric and fictional—into an attack on what is today called “the 1%” accomplishes the task by cherry-picking monsters to fit his thesis. This is made easier by his refusal to define what he means by “monster,” allowing him to press any convenient creature to service—and to ignore those that do not fit his thesis. Monsters and creatures that exist outside the elite, white, or male context are discounted or ignored. For example, there is no discussion of El Chupacabra, a very famous monster and one that largely serves sociological purposes with Latino communities. Similarly, Native American monsters like the windigo or the thunderbird are also ignored. In fact, the index lists only Native Americans as monsters in the white imagination, nothing about them as Americans who have their own myths and monsters.
Similarly, African Americans are treated only as the racialized other whom white Americans view as sexually voracious monsters. That African Americans also should figure into the “our” in the book’s subtitle apparently escapes Poole, who has limited “our historical obsession” only to that of fellow privileged white Americans. African American folk legends of monsters include stories such as Anansi, the spider-trickster and the terrifying jigue, a sort of monster monkey. There is even an interesting tie-in to Poole’s own thesis, in that African American monster stories tend to feature small monsters who outwit or otherwise gain advantage over the powerful, reflecting the “secret wishes of an oppressed people” in the words of Myths, Legends, and Folktales of America. But you won’t see that in Monsters in America, which resolutely views monsters as instruments of patriarchal white hegemony.
Even the figure of the witch is viewed through the lens of patriarchal sexual oppression, focusing on the way colonial males used allegations of witchcraft as a form of erotic titillation—neglected the well-established research into the ways women and homosexual men used witchcraft as a form of empowerment, adopting the monstrous in order to separate themselves from an oppressive community and obtain a measure of freedom—or the way witchcraft accusations could be used as nonsexual forms of oppressing those who were antisocial. (John Putnam Demos’ Entertaining Satan discusses these aspects.)
Even monster stories predominantly told among the lower middle class and working classes—alien abductions, Bigfoot, lake monsters, the Jersey Devil, etc.—are viewed through elite lenses. What can they tell us about rich white men?
The long and short of it is that Poole’s view of American monsters is extremely limited and focused very narrowly on a specific subset of the monstrous—how middle and upper class white males related to monster stories. Perhaps this will change in the last few chapters of the book, but at this point I doubt it. However, I will reserve final judgment until I have finished the book.
In 1974, ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken sat down with the science writer Timothy Ferris for three days of interviews for Playboy magazine. This was one of the rare occasions when an ancient astronaut theorist submitted to questioning from a well-informed skeptic, something that almost never happens today. I am reviewing this extraordinary interview in segments. This is part seven.
As the interview heads toward its conclusion, Ferris asks Erich von Däniken (EVD) about yet another unsupportable claim, this time that the book of Genesis reports the creation of earth “with absolute geological accuracy.” Ferris points out that the Genesis account does not conform to modern scientific understanding, including absurdities such as the formation of oceans prior to the stars. EVD replies that Genesis is accurate in so far as it places water, land, plants, and humans in the right order of progression and that no one making up the story from whole cloth could guess that order correctly. This is also false. Genesis incorrectly places plants before fish, and birds before terrestrial animals (Genesis 1:11-12, 20-21). This is not what the fossil record shows.
Ferris next asks EVD to explain which scientists, exactly, he meant when he said scientists believe in the existence of tachyons, undiscovered particles that would travel faster than light. EVD had written that scientists say they “must” exist, but when questioned he backed off and admitted he could name no names supporting his assertion.
This week, ancient astronaut theorist (AAT) Giorgio Tsoukalos tweeted that Ancient Aliens’ ratings are as high as ever after the move to H2. This isn’t entirely true. One of the two episodes that aired last week was simulcast on H2 and the original flavor History channel. That episode scored 1.4 million viewers and ranked eleventh for the night among total viewers across all cable broadcasts, on par with last season. The subsequent H2-only episode did not rank in the top 22 according to this chart. That means that its ratings had to be lower than the 22-ranked show, which had only 52,000 viewers. Either that or Nielsen does not report H2’s ratings. Either way, Tsoukalos’s statement is either dissembling (leaving out H2) or ignorant (not knowing H2’s ratings).
The move to H2 certainly hasn’t improved the quality of Ancient Aliens. In the opening moments of S04E03: "The Greys," David Childress falsely claims that elongated skulls (produced by the well-known ritual of head binding) are in fact “half alien, half-human” hybrids. This is stupid beyond words. But more on that later!
First we start with the Roswell “UFO” crash, which has been debunked so many times that even many ufologists don’t believe it was an alien spacecraft anymore. This doesn’t stop Ancient Aliens from asserting flatly that “alien bodies” were retrieved from a UFO in 1947, all of which is a complete and utter fabrication. Then we move on to the equally debunked Betty and Barney Hill abduction, retelling the Hills’ story at face value, with none of the troubling problems with their story ever mentioned. Following this, we have more warmed over recent alien abduction stories, including the alleged hybrid children, which, if I understand the blonde abductee correctly, involves two eggs and two sperm to make one hybrid child. What any of this has to do with “ancient” aliens I have no idea. This belongs to modern ufology and conspiracy theorizing rather than the ancient astronaut theory.
In 1974, ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken sat down with the science writer Timothy Ferris for three days of interviews for Playboy magazine. This was one of the rare occasions when an ancient astronaut theorist submitted to questioning from a well-informed skeptic, something that almost never happens today. I am reviewing this extraordinary interview in segments. This is part six.
Earlier in the interview, Erich von Däniken (EVD) had expressed a distinct lack of curiosity about sites and artifacts that might have proved his case conclusively, if real. EVD displays the same lack of curiosity or interest when Ferris asks him if he stands behind his statement that the Piri Reis map is “absolutely accurate” and coincides perfectly with a view of the earth shot from outer space above Cairo. “I’m not so sure about this, really,” EVD replies, again confirming that he spent no effort checking the information he included in his books. “According to my information it does” (p. 60).
This information is Charles Hapgood’s Maps of the Ancient Sea-Kings, which EVD uses uncritically. Hapgood had claimed that the sixteenth century Turkish map showed an ice-free Antarctic coast accurately, based upon Hapgood’s “reconstructions” of hypothetical source maps. Hapgood failed to notice his reasoning was circular—the extant map only seems to reflect distortions of perfect originals because Hapgood assumed the existence of perfect originals for Piri Reis to distort.
Ferris gives EVD a copy of the Piri Reis map and shows him that it is missing chunks of South America and that it just doesn’t match a modern globe, no matter what angle one uses. EVD admits that from space one cannot view the Americas from a view centered on Cairo. So how can it be “absolutely accurate”? The mind boggles.
In 1974, ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken sat down with the science writer Timothy Ferris for three days of interviews for Playboy magazine. This was one of the rare occasions when an ancient astronaut theorist submitted to questioning from a well-informed skeptic, something that almost never happens today. I am reviewing this extraordinary interview in segments. This is part five.
I have to admit that the section of the interview following Erich von Däniken’s admission that he lies about his evidence is consequently anticlimactic. It is less fun to pick apart EVD’s evidence after he confessed that any given piece of it might well be the result of a “theatrical effect,” or, quite simply, a lie. So, I may pass over some of the material with less than detailed interest.
After EVD admitted that he had lied about many of the details of the cave where the aliens stashed their archives, Ferris next challenged him about the Dropa stones, a series of large discs covered in hieroglyphs supposedly telling of the crash of a flying saucer and its occupants’ subsequent activities in China. Ferris notes that Chinese experts have no record of these stones’ existence, and the archaeologist and translator who worked on them also do not exist. Their very names appear to be a Western pastiche of Chinese.
EVD admits that he included the material in his book without investigating it. His source was a “friend in Moscow.” But EVD deflects criticism by saying that journalist Peter Krassa found new evidence that the story is true. EVD neglected to mention that Krassa was a fellow ancient astronaut theorist. Later, Krassa would write EVD's biography (Disciple of the Gods, 1976) and still later would claim that the Vatican was hiding a time machine.
In 1974, ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken sat down with the science writer Timothy Ferris for three days of interviews for Playboy magazine. This was one of the rare occasions when an ancient astronaut theorist submitted to questioning from a well-informed skeptic, something that almost never happens today. I am reviewing this extraordinary interview in segments. This is part four.
Since Erich von Däniken (EVD) spends so much of his time claiming that the various sacred texts of every religion (except, of course, Islam) are really the records of alien visitation, the obvious question is whether the ancient astronaut theory constitutes a sort of substitute religion. EVD replies that the theory is not a religion because it prescribes no moral actions and proscribes no sins. EVD asks Ferris is he has ever read the Bible, implying that the difference is clear.
Ferris turns the question around and asks EVD if he is not merely a Biblical literalist in a new form, substituting aliens for God. EVD disagrees, arguing that his work is about uncovering ancient science, not religion. He argues that scientists, by dint of specialization, miss the bigger picture. Every anthropologist, he claims, wishes “to prove that man comes from the ape, to find which is the first man, what ape comes after another ape, and so forth.” The result, he claims, is “tunnel vision” that prevents scientists from seeing “the truth”—i.e., aliens.
“Are you sure you understand how scientists work?” an incredulous Ferris asks. EVD admits that his description of science as a cabal of old men who are resistant to new ideas was wrong, but he immediately reverses course and claims that archaeology is the one science ruled by dull, dead dogma: “…there is no fantasy in those brains. There is no speculation.” Archaeologists, he says, care only about chronology, manufacture, and cultural succession. “Who cares about that?” EVD asks. The bigger question is who gave them their culture (aliens). In this, EVD again reveals how little he knows of archaeology, ignorant of the role that imagination and, yes, speculation play in proposing new hypotheses and envisioning how ancient cultures worked. It is a recurring theme in EVD’s work—ancient people have no imagination, scientists have no imagination, historians have no imagination. Only EVD has imagination—only he can fantasize about aliens.
In 1974, ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken sat down with the science writer Timothy Ferris for three days of interviews for Playboy magazine. This was one of the rare occasions when an ancient astronaut theorist submitted to questioning from a well-informed skeptic, something that almost never happens today. I am reviewing this extraordinary interview in segments. This is part three.
Timothy Ferris noticed that for all Erich von Däniken’s (EVD’s) claims, the Swiss author provides remarkably little hard evidence to support them. He asked EVD why the alien left nothing definitively extraterrestrial behind. The answer? According to EVD, the answer is three-fold: First, they did leave a monument, the Great Pyramid, which he claims has never been fully explored since no one has dug 500 feet below it to see if there is an underground section. Second, the aliens wouldn’t want to leave any really alien material behind since ignorant humans would just destroy it. And third, whatever they did leave behind is probably hidden away where we can’t find it, to keep it safe for the aliens upon their return.
Instead, the evidence of the aliens comes in the form of alien influence on mythology, since early humans were too dumb to understand science, though why the aliens would choose this rather convoluted way of sending their message is unclear. Why not, you know, educate humans and bring them up to the aliens’ (or at least our) technological and intellectual level? If the aliens had no qualms about masquerading as gods and teaching about the use of makeup and jewelry (1 Enoch 8:1), surely they ought to have set up a school or two to teach science. If China could advance from an agrarian society to an industrial powerhouse in only a few decades, surely the aliens could have performed a similar miracle at Palenque or Tiwanaku rather than wait hundreds or thousands of years on the off chance humans would develop an advanced culture before ignorance or random chance wiped out the species.
In 1974, ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken sat down with the science writer Timothy Ferris for three days of interviews for Playboy magazine. This was one of the rare occasions when an ancient astronaut theorist submitted to questioning from a well-informed skeptic, something that almost never happens today. I am reviewing this extraordinary interview in segments. This is part two.
Last time, I reviewed the editor’s note at the beginning of the von Däniken interview. Today I’ll start in on the actual question and answer section itself.
What is immediately striking about Ferris’ interview with Erich von Däniken is just how deep it is. Ferris, then a 30 year old professor of English and Rolling Stone contributing editor, was extraordinarily well-informed, and it is impossible to imagine an ancient astronaut theorist consenting to three days of contentious questioning today. For example, I know for a fact that one of the leading ancient astronaut theorists, whom loyal readers would immediately recognize if a confidentiality agreement did not prevent me from revealing his name, demands before interviews that journalists sign an agreement promising to depict him only in a “positive light.” In 1974, ancient astronaut theorists did not have that power or the sycophantic alternative media to allow them to bypass more critical sources.
For the past three decades or so, von Däniken has deflected criticism by arguing that he never makes direct claims about the aliens; he is merely asking questions. But in 1974, he had not yet developed this disingenuous defense. Instead, he boldly states his views:
“I say in my books not only that we have been visited from outer space in ancient times but that those visitors had sexual intercourse with our ancestors” (p.52).
Von Däniken then reveals his ignorance of genetics by suggesting that sex with aliens produces viable, mutant offspring that were “artificially” mutated to create intelligent beings. The implication, of course, is that aliens like having sex with unintelligent bimbo apes, which also raises the question of why it is only male aliens impregnating female cave people…
But the key takeaway here is that von Däniken stated without equivocation specific claims.
Following this exchange, Ferris makes a rare misstep. Instead of asking about the genetic impossibility of this fantasy, he instead suggests that von Däniken’s Catholic upbringing and poor relationship with his father led him to invent heroic, fatherly aliens. Von Däniken rightly notes that his motives for supporting the ancient astronaut theory are irrelevant to its truth.
So, Ferris, asks, what is the best evidence the theory is true? Von Däniken replies that the single best piece of evidence is the coffin lid of Lord Pacal of Palenque (608-638 CE), the Mayan ruler whose tomb depicts him descending into the underworld in a pose ancient astronaut theorists argued as recently as Friday is the single best evidence that the Maya had space rockets. Ferris smartly asks why, if this image is a rocket, is a bird sitting in the ship. “Oh, I don’t know,” von Däniken responds. “Perhaps it represents flight, you know?” (p. 52). Again, von Däniken reveals slipshod thinking: One element of the relief is to be taken symbolically, but everything else is the literal depiction of a launching space capsule? What he saw as flames and smoke coming out of the craft wasn't enough of an indication of flight?
Ferris asks von Däniken when he became convinced the ancient astronaut theory was true, and surprisingly von Däniken admits that he was not convinced when he wrote Chariots of the Gods? or even Gods from Outer Space. Only in 1970, he said, did he decide it was all true, and only then because of “mythology and ancient religion,” which he could not help but interpret as encoding impossible information—information, of course, that his own 1970-era knowledge allowed him to read into ambiguous and vague texts.
Next time: Von Däniken explains why the aliens left no artifacts on earth, and Ferris skillfully reveals the shallowness of von Däniken’s “knowledge” of the ancient texts he claims as evidence.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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