This week two more celebrities announced their supposed encounters with space aliens, and it was about what you would expect. The less surprising was Miley Cyrus, who told Interview magazine that she was traumatized by a flying saucer that she witnessed while high on drugs:
Kevin Burns, the prolific Emmy-winning producer of such pseudohistorical and reality television programs as Curse of Oak Island and Ancient Aliens, died yesterday, according to social media posts from friends and colleagues. Burns was 65 years old.
Most people who have studied the weirder parts of the twentieth century are aware that L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology fame had a longstanding antagonistic relationship with the Feds. In my research for my new book, I discovered how Hubbard’s Dianetics intersected with a Red Scare flap that sparked federal interest in Hubbard at exactly the wrong time and set off a decades-long hostile relationship. As best I can tell, no one has previously written about the impact of the now-forgotten Reuben L. Revens scandal on the FBI’s eventual interest in Dianetics, so here is the outline of a disturbing story. I compiled it from FBI documents, Ben Bradlee’s memoir, and a year’s worth of reporting in the Washington Evening Star. I’ll caution you here that some of the details about sexual exploitation are upsetting.
I’ve been making great progress on my new book, and I’ve nearly hit 40,000 words. The bigger challenge is trying to interest anyone in it. It’s rather rude, really, that literary agents can’t be bothered with even a pro-forma rejection but instead expect me to wait out response windows for silence to speak for them. But on the plus side, I’ve had an opportunity to explore some areas of historical research I hadn’t had the opportunity to look into before. Honestly, it was a little weird.
Yesterday I ended up getting into a discussion on Twitter with Naomi Wolf over her 2019 book Outrages, which was published in Britain but pulped in the United States after a British interviewer pointed out that Wolf had based some of her argument on alleged sodomy executions that did not occur, having mistaken odd British penal terminology for a death sentence. The last British sodomy execution occurred in 1836, but Wolf had alleged that they continued deep into the nineteenth century. A revised version of the book has now been published here. After seeing a tweet Wolf made yesterday, I expressed my dismay that Wolf was still defending that position and also my sadness that she describes John Addington Symonds, a Victorian-era author whom I’ve discussed before, as a man who “refused to be silenced” in pursuit of gay rights. Wolf took issue with my tweet and we had a lengthy discussion of the matter that ended productively. That’s an improvement over my usual interactions with the likes of Scott Wolter and Giorgio Tsoukalos!
Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve found that blogging less has made me much more productive as a book writer. I’ve churned out 25,000 words of my new book on midcentury panics in the past five or six weeks, and I am remarkably pleased with the results. However, I can’t let weeks pass without offering at least a few words about the new series Lovecraft Country, currently airing on HBO. The series, based on a 2016 novel I have never read (having a kid really cuts down on reading time), transforms traditional horror tropes by filtering them through the experience of midcentury Black Americans, directly critiquing the racism inherent in classic horror stories, especially H. P. Lovecraft’s.
I must confess that I have found researching my planned new book about midcentury moral panics to be surprisingly amusing. Typically, when I research a topic, the people involved turn out to be somewhere on the spectrum between unpleasant and evil. Many are wildly racist, and most have all the color and excitement of the sepia-toned photos in which they now exist. For the most part, the people I learn about don’t really do things so much as write about them, and many of the people are known only as names (cough, Annianus and Panodorus, cough), and that makes most of the research an exercise in textual analysis.
As most of you know, I am doing some preliminary research for a book I am thinking about writing which would revolve around the various moral panics that began in the summer of 1947 and continued through the 1950s. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m not interested in writing a textbook (nor do I have the ambition for the kind of granular research it would require), so I want to tell the story in a more impressionistic format, using the lives of real people to illustrate broader themes. I settled on making the life and afterlife of James Dean the central thread providing unity to the project. That, of course, involved learning about my subject to see how feasible that plan would be.
Day 13 is a middling thriller that takes the basic story of the 1989 Tom Hanks comedy The Burbs and plays it completely straight, adding a large dash of Hitchcock’s Rear Window without any of Hitchcock’s archness. In fact, the movie plays the story so straight that it becomes stiff and wooden, right up to its bizarre climactic effort to transform a classic Twilight Zone episode into a crass, vulgar five minutes of exploitation. At the same time, it manages to fail at failing, never descending so far into sheer incompetence that it becomes interesting on its own. Instead, it’s a technical exercise in making a movie without passion or purpose, in which it seems that nobody is having any fun but everybody is pretty sure the film will make back its money once it ends up in some streaming service’s back catalog next year.
The high school drama is a staple of modern American television and movies, but the genre’s audience understands that its stories cannot be taken literally. To do so would invite troubling, dangerous thoughts. And so, the high school drama exists in two superimposed states. The surface level tells stories about teenagers barely into puberty navigating the trials and tribulations of adolescence. But the high school drama as a genre demands its audience look beyond the surface. It uses attractive actors of college age or older and asks the viewer to lust after them as they move through stories more appropriate to adults and reach levels of romantic ecstasy and agony that are on the surface absurd. Anyone who has had to look up the age of an actor on one of these shows to determine how guilty to feel about the sexualization of high schoolers recognizes that tension. Viewers understand, however, that the high school drama isn’t really an exercise in training potential pedophiles. Instead, we are supposed to look past the surface level to a mythic representation of archetypical ideals.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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