Last night the National Archives sent me the material they had on file about Erich von Däniken, all documents that had been declassified in the 1990s but had languished on microfilm since then and have never before been published. It’s a bit strange that they delivered the document late on a Friday evening, the traditional time government dumps documents to bury them from the news cycle, but the important thing is that I have them now.
I’ve transcribed the documents and have posted the transcripts here along with scans of the original documents, appearing on my website for the first time anywhere.
This is a fascinating historical artifact that I encourage you to read.
Yesterday I wrote about the way the media and the UFO movement fed off each other, as well as how the media influenced the alien abduction movement. Today, a gunman killed a dozen people and wounded dozens of others at an Aurora, Colorado showing of the latest Batman movie. It is not known as of this writing whether the gunman specifically targeted the Batman film, and reports vary on whether he was dressed as the movie’s villain, Bane. However, many commentators noted the thematic parallels between the domestic terror plot of The Dark Knight Rises and the shooting.
If that’s true, it would offer a very dark entry in the long list of ways speculative fiction and reality have intersected and interacted. Lovecraft’s ancient astronauts begat von Daniken and the Raelians; Star Trek and Star Wars gave us Heaven’s Gate; The Outer Limits gave us alien abductions and the Greys. This wasn’t the intent of the creators of entertainment, of course.
Rod Serling, the creator of the Twilight Zone, used his fertile imagination to create all manner of bizarre scenarios that could have been used to create mass terror. Unfortunately, one of those scenarios actually became the inspiration for real terror.
In 1966 Serling scripted The Doomsday Flight, an NBC TV-movie about a terrorist planting a bomb aboard an airplane and threatening to blow it up if a ransom wasn’t paid. (He based the script on a little-known real-life incident.) Following the movie’s phenomenal December 13 television ratings copycats began threatening airplanes with claims of on board explosives. (Actually, the first copycat threat happened during the movie’s broadcast.) Five years later, the movie re-aired, and the same thing happened again. Eventually terror groups, including the PLO, began using the same tactics for political ends. Serling was emotionally devastated by the crime wave he had accidentally touched off. “I wish to Christ that I had written a stagecoach drama starring John Wayne instead,” he said. The movie’s impact haunted him until his death in 1975, with Serling vowing never again to write anything that the disturbed could use as a template for crime.
To this day, the Doomsday Flight incident remains a textbook case of the media’s influence on disturbed minds and appears in many criminal justice publications and training materials.
UFOs and the Media: Codependent
This week the British government released more than 6,000 pages of UFO documents, most of which were, according to media reports, quite dull. I obviously haven’t had time to read all 6,000 pages, but I did notice an interesting set of reports that highlight the way the media fostered the UFO movement.
I previously wrote about the way The Outer Limits influenced Barney Hill’s account of his so-called alien abduction, and I’ve discussed the way Rod Serling’s In Search of Ancient Astronauts and History/H2’s Ancient Aliens influenced popular acceptance of the ancient astronaut theory. In 1996, British Member of Parliament John Fraser made official inquiries “seeking information on behalf of a constituent whose enquiry was prompted by last month’s [April 1996] BBC2 ‘Tales of the Paranormal’ program about ‘UFOs’.”
Again, in October 1996, the Ministry of Defense produced a report on UFOs that explicitly noted that the media were driving public interest in the phenomenon: “Media and public interest in ‘UFO’ issues increased significantly at the turn of the year when [REDACTED]. There has [sic] also been a number of TV programs over the last year on the phenomenon in general.”
But, in a case of co-dependency, the Ministry began, according to an October 1996 memo, to direct members of the public interested in UFOs to UFO-themed magazines and other media, thus increasing interest in these media and their legitimacy.
Such documents demonstrate the important role the media play in creating, fostering, and driving stories about extraterrestrials. This underscores the vital need for responsible media dedicated to truth rather than ratings.
According to some badly translated articles in official Chinese news outlets, in conjunction with the Science Museum of London, the Chinese are staging an exhibition of ancient astronaut “evidence” in Beijing next week, including more than 100 ancient carvings that the exhibit will claim depict extraterrestrial beings that came to earth in prehistory. The ancient astronaut display is part of a broader extraterrestrial-themed exhibit that mixes science fiction aliens and supposed science “fact” about aliens. The captions on the bilingual descriptive cards next to the prehistoric carvings identify them as “ancient aliens.”
Last week the blog of the libertarian sci-fi film Silver Circle (it has something to do with a dystopia caused by government control of coinage) presented a fun discussion of Zecharia Sitchin’s version of ancient astronauts and their obsession with gold.
I just finished watching the episode of Boris Karloff’s Thriller TV series called “The Weird Tailor” (1961) scripted by Robert Bloch from his own short story. By today’s standards the episode is a bit slow and drags in the middle; it could work better with a half hour cut out of it. But it is interesting for being one of the rare instances of Lovecraftian elements used in early TV.
I read an excellent review of my Cult of Alien Gods by Bill Adcock over at TheBloodSprayer.com, and I noticed an interesting way that critical views of my book have changed since its release in 2005. Back then, during the height of the fraudulent housing bubble, many of the critics reviewing it seized upon my citation of Jacques Barzun and his theory (from 2000) that Western civilization was in decline as a major fault in my book, largely for being insufficiently supportive of American exceptionalism and economic power, and the idea of progress.
Today, by contrast, with high unemployment, a sour economy, fractured politics, and a disintegrating European monetary union, more recent critics have all but stopped mentioning anything about my references to the decline of Western Civilization. In fact, today that idea is completely mainstream. Niall Ferguson has made his entire media career talking about it. In just seven years, we've gone from imagining a world of perpetual American (or Western) dominance to one of speculating on how to manage inevitable decline.
Interestingly, the ancient astronaut theory also seems to dovetail with these same forces. Although versions of the theory (hypothesis, really) had been proposed at the height of the postwar Western triumphalism, it only became really popular after 1968, when the European empires had collapsed, Vietnam had curdled, and the postwar economy was sagging into the morass of the 1970s. The theory remained popular until the economic and political revival of the Thatcher and Reagan eras.
During the 1980s and 1990s, when the West was riding high, the ancient astronaut theory was in eclipse, a silly footnote from the era of pyramid power, pet rocks, and EST. Atlantis and lost civilizations--proxies for (white) Western triumphalism--were the order of the day. Even the UFO craze of the era largely reflected a spiritual yearning for perfecting society through peace and love.
When I wrote Cult, I didn't think the ancient astronaut theory would ever come back into vogue. But in 2009, after the economic collapse, the ancient astronaut theory returned like so much else from the 1970s, another case of a subconscious yearning for a higher (non-human) power to rescue us from a civilization we failed to manage well. The same political and economic forces that made ancient astronauts popular in the 1970s did it again in the 2010s.
We can, I suppose, look forward to the ancient astronaut theory fading back into the woodwork when society and the economy improve. Whenever that will be.
I continue to be blocked from viewing the tweets of Ancient Aliens star Giorgio Tsoukalos, but that doesn't mean that I don't know what he's been writing. This week Tsoukalos has been discussing epistemology with his followers in what is sure to be a master class in that branch of philosophy. His outrageous statements, however, do shed important light on his conception of the ancient astronaut theory.
Ancient Astronauts and Racism
Earlier in the week PZ Myers posted a highly entertaining account of a “debate” he participated in with ancient astronaut theorist Scotty Roberts, an advocate of the belief that that Nephilim, or fallen angels from the Book of Enoch, are in fact extraterrestrial beings. This belief rests, ultimately, on the assumption (without proof) that the gods and demons of ancient myth and legend are aliens, which, in turn, is little more than an attempt to project Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim about advanced technology and magic into the deep past.
This is how conspiracy theories start.
Over the past month or two, I've been posting declassified U.S. government documents about ancient astronauts, Noah's Ark, Atlantis, and other alternative archaeology topics. (You can view the collection here.) But there is one document I haven't been able to get: the State Department's Erich von Daniken memo. Written in the 1970s, the document--whatever it is--has been declassified since the 1990s, but is preserved only on microfilm in the National Archives.
I requested a copy of the document back in early June, but the National Archives never responded to my document request. I followed up by phone only to be shunted from office to office, with each telling me that it wasn't in charge of State Department microfilm. Voice mail was never returned; letters and emails went unanswered. Eventually, I ended up at a dead end on the phone tree, at an office in College Park, Maryland, where a recorded message advised callers to just hang up because they never answer the phone and won't accept voice mail.
If I were a conspiracy theorist, I'd think that the government was trying to hide the truth about the von Daniken memo, and I'd run to the internet to say how the government was trying to thwart my investigation.
However, I never attribute to conspiracy what is better explained by bureaucratic inertia.
After a few more attempts, I finally have a written confirmation from the National Archives that they will process my document request within 10 business days (which is required by law in any case).
So, with luck, we'll all soon know what the National Security adviser was doing talking about Erich von Daniken in the 1970s.
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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