On the Narratively website, California college student and journalist Reed Ryley Grable provided a poignant and thought account of his father’s gradual slide into Q-Anon conspiracy madness. Grable describes his father’s growing paranoia and social isolation, and he talks eloquently about how his father’s strident conspiracy theory advocacy has alienated him from his family and his friends. While I am not particularly interested in Q-Anon conspiracies, I was neither shocked nor surprised to read Grable’s account of how Ancient Aliens served as a gateway drug leading his father from a nebulous interest in the mysterious and the bizarre to a raving world of online conspiracies.
We’ve seen this story play out over and over again. Every couple of years a writer produces a sad story with the same beats. In this one, Grable explains that his father was lonely all his life, that he was a huge fan of science fiction, and that he had been exposed to UFO mysteries and vague conspiracy theorizing when he was a teenager. Later, when his marriage failed, he lost custody of his kids and retreated into himself, spending more time with his sci-fi and UFO interests, until Ancient Aliens started to take over his life, gradually:
This fascination with aliens increased after the debut of the History network’s show Ancient Aliens. My parents divorced when I was 9, and whenever I’d visit my father’s house, he’d have hours of the show recorded. I’d watch episodes with him sometimes, and we’d talk about the possibility that aliens built the Egyptian pyramids, or whether there were giants buried in the Serpent Mound of Adams County, Ohio, or if Hindu texts contained references to an intergalactic battle held in Earth’s sky. At this point though, it was a casual interest for him. He still also watched NASCAR and the local news, and worked on his car or in the yard.
Grable describes his father’s interest as “casual,” but I can’t imagine having a stockpile of Ancient Aliens episodes on hand is quite casual, or that saying that he occasionally watched other things on TV is as exculpatory as Grable thinks. I watch Ancient Aliens professionally. I don’t have a stockpile of episodes, and I’m relieved if I only have to watch it one hour per week.
Now, to be fair, Grable’s timeline is a little confusing. He says his parents divorced when he was 9 and that he moved back in with his father ten years later, in 2016. Since Ancient Aliens did not debut as a regular series until 2010, and Grable says his father did not become a full-on conspiracy theorist until 2016, when he bought a new TV and upgraded his internet service so he could watch and consume more related content, I’m not sure that it follows that his 2006 divorce was the proximate cause of his 2016 conversion. It is also obvious that he could not have been a Q-Anon conspiracy theorist before Q-Anon debuted in October 2017. Therefore, he had to have already been into Ancient Aliens conspiracy theories before Q-Anon. Grabel reports that his father’s conspiracy obsession escalated in 2018, the first year of Q-Anon, resulting in hours-long monologues about all manner of conspiracies.
That said, the sequence of events makes plain that Ancient Aliens paved the way for Grable’s father to become interested in researching the show’s mysteries and conspiracies, which led, inevitably, to right-wing conspiracy theories. There is little surprise in this. Many current and former Ancient Aliens stars like David Wilcock, Richard Dolan, etc. offer pro-Trump commentary or, in Wilcock’s case, explicit Q-Anon conspiracies. Searching for ancient astronaut content on popular sites like YouTube easily leads viewers into extreme conspiracy theories, as YouTube admitted last year when they changed their algorithm after its promotion of extremist content came to light in the media.
Obviously, Ancient Aliens didn’t turn Grable’s father into a Q-Anon obsessive. But it served as the handmaiden, designed to lure in the vulnerable and to exploit sadness and discontent. Intentionally or not, by operating in the conspiracy world and highlighting “theories” also associated with extremist beliefs and personalities who operate in the darker corners of the conspiracy world, they can hardly be held blameless when they attract people who are vulnerable and usher them to the edge of the abyss.
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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