Monday Madness: Ecuador Giants, Pulitzer's Sketchy Contest, Paranormal UFOs, and "Natural Selection" Movie
I can’t help but start today with a recent YouTube video that came to my attention this weekend. You’ll remember that over the past few years there have been a number of claims that the bones of “giants” have been found in Ecuador, including a hoax about giants at Cuenca and the fragments of paleomegafauna bones that ancient astronaut theorists have heralded as those of giants. The latter have spawned a clickbait YouTube video (and accompanying blog post) that use the completely fake sculpture of a giant skeleton at Erich von Däniken’s old Mystery Park (now a children’s activity center) as though it were the actual bones of a giant. That fake skeleton was commissioned to illustrate what Klaus Dona believed the megafauna bones would have looked like as a giant human.
I discussed this here a while back. It seems that the click-bait version is copied more or less from Michael Tellinger’s recent attempts to recycle Klaus Dona’s claims about the bones. Even twice recycled claims get recycled again and then written about on a variety of fringe “news” sites based on the video!
Speaking of crappy fringe sites: Hutton Pulitzer revamped his History Heretic website, and he’s trying hard to pump up his social media footprint by running a contest asking people to subscribe to and share on social media five or more of his websites and social media profile pages in order to win a miniature underwater rover. It’s awfully sketchy that the contest doesn’t have a mile-long set of official rules as required by law for most sweepstakes. Sweepstakes that allow national participation must conform to and acknowledge the relevant laws of all 50 states, such as the bonding requirement for Florida and New York. (Pulitzer will not reveal the value of the prize, so it is unclear which states’ bonding laws, if any, apply.) He also failed to control for age, since any giveaway that allows minors to enter has special legal requirements. Nor did he indicate whether the contest was or will be duly reported to the IRS as required by law for any giveaway valued above $600, or that winners are responsible for paying income tax on the prize, for which the value is required to be published. In other words, it’s another Pulitzer crap fest that’s bound to blow up in his face if anyone in authority takes notice.
Oh, and he also explicitly states that he intends to collect the names and social media handles of entrants in order to “track” them.
I’d also like to draw your attention to the latest (July 2016) edition of the journal Paranthropology, where you will find a review or Eric Ouellet’s Illuminations (2015) by Jean-Michel Abrassart, a Belgian skeptic. Ouellet is a sociologist and professor at the Royal Military College of Canada. The material in Ouellet’s book takes on a question that I raised in that same journal a few years ago, namely whether we can describe a singular “UFO phenomenon.” According to Abrassart, Ouellet is interested in the question of whether UFO sightings can be explained as a parapsychological event, and in so doing creates a false dichotomy whereby UFOs are either always misunderstood real world phenomena or are extraterrestrial spacecraft.
According to Abrassart, Ouellet denies that the extraterrestrial hypothesis is correct, but also denies that misperceptions are to blame, and therefore announces that this leaves his own hypothesis as the most logical alternative, namely that UFO sightings are the result of psychic forces acting on human brains. Abrassart wonders why Ouellet wishes to define the UFO phenomenon as parapsychological at all, but I’d argue that there is no reason to even begin with the assumption that there is a “UFO phenomenon.” People see things in the sky and report encounters with strange beings, but there is no reason to suppose these are aspects of a singular phenomenon except in perception of those who experience it.
To give an example, let us go back in time to the eighteenth century and the widespread panic over what we might call the “vampire phenomenon.” People across Europe reported a range of experiences: Loved one sickened and died, the newly dead were seen to be bloated and covered in blood, and peasants reported encounters with the roving dead. The various facets of the claim seemed to form a unified program of study—vampirism—and the great men of the Church so defined it, including the infamous Abbé Calmet. But it was all illusory. The illness was tuberculosis, the bodies naturally decomposed, and the sightings the result of excited imaginations and occasional hoaxing. It was only the myth of the vampire that created a “vampire phenomenon.”
Why should we treat the “UFO phenomenon” any differently? The myth need not be explained with appeal to singular hypotheses until we first establish that there is actually a singular phenomenon to explore and not a collection of unrelated occurrences that believers have mythologized into a semi-coherent whole.
Ouellet uses the abduction of Betty and Barney Hill as an example of the way that he views UFO events as a paranormal occurrence. He defines the whole instance as a paranormal encounter rather than a literal extraterrestrial one, but Abrassart takes a moment to cite me and my work comparing the details of the Hills’ memories recovered under hypnosis to episodes of the Outer Limits and the Twilight Zone that aired in the weeks before the hypnosis. He contrasts this to the quasi-mystical paranormal hypothesis:
At the end of the day, is saying “it’s paranormal” really explaining anything? When you show that the Grey in the Hill case was likely inspired by the TV show The Outer Limits, which has been discussed in the work done by Kottmeyer (1990) and Colavito (2014), doesn’t that feel more like something has really been explained? Ouellet should have discussed such epistemological issues in-depth in the book, but he didn’t.
I can’t help but agree with that point!
Finally, I’d like to talk a little about a mostly off topic subject. I get advertisements, press releases, and unofficial recommendations to read or watch an enormous amount of irrelevant and frankly useless crap. For whatever reason, I decided to watch an upcoming movie, due out next month, called Natural Selection with Anthony Michael Hall and a bunch of lesser actors from various cable TV series and minor movies. The plot summary was vague to the point of incoherence, but it was billed as a psychological suspense thriller set in a high school. A few seconds into the film, with its plodding pace, turgid camerawork, and wooden acting I realized that this was a bait and switch. I got suckered into one of those Christian movies that tries and fails to imitate a Hollywood one.
Now, to be fair, I don’t know that this is intended as a Christian movie. The director doesn’t seem to be promoting it explicitly as such but does describe it in typically Christian terms, such as good vs. evil, redemption and salvation, and the power of love. The imagery, talk of God, and explicit themes make it difficult to interpret the director’s intent any other way than as a Christian film, or at least one that aspires, like The Blind Side, to appeal to that market.
This was amply clear when the blond-haired, blue-eyed putative hero, Tyler (Mason Dye, performing the script as though mumbling it under duress), befriends dark-haired Indrid (a standout Ryan Munzert, delivering the movie’s only competent performance). When we see inside Indrid’s bedroom, the camera pauses ostentatiously on a pair of books: an omnibus Nietzsche and Darwin’s Origin of Species. The ominous import given to the books (and a giant framed portrait of Nietzsche) both signals that Indrid is the movie’s villain and that the film sees atheism and evolution as dark forces threatening the world order. (“Indrid” is a real but very rare name, and I wonder if it is a sidelong reference to Indrid Cold, one of the Men in Black of ufology fame and an extraterrestrial who tries to imitate humanity.) Indeed, the villain spouts anti-God rhetoric while his classmates advocate for God. Later in the film, the hero is spurred to action by watching a televangelist preach the Gospel under the none-too-subtle banner of “JC SAVES.”
The story is painfully reductive: Tyler has an alcoholic mother and a dead father and shoulders, Christ-like (or, given the evidence of the film, mule-like), enormous burdens as he walks the stations of the high school cross. He’s new in school but already an outcast as he enters the Jerusalem of high school. He makes a friend of Indrid after Indrid saves him from bullying. Indrid is charming and intelligent, but smart = evil in this movie, so naturally he has been indoctrinated into evolutionary theory (which his classmates and teachers reject) and is secretly plotting a shooting rampage while also working to keep his friend Tyler from going off with a beatific female classmate (Katherine McNamara) whose saintliness is her only character trait. Things come to a head when Tyler discovers Indrid’s plan.
But here’s the thing that makes the movie worth mentioning: The movie rode roughshod over its director’s intention and ended up undercutting its Christian message. Director Chad L. Schiefele cannily disguises the Christian propaganda in his press materials, but the idea that good triumphs over evil because Jesus inspires righteous action quite clearly seems to be the takeaway the director intends for the film. But if you aren’t an evangelical Christian, the film reads very differently, with the charismatic Indrid as its hero and the wooden Tyler as an unsympathetic prick. It then becomes the story of a depressed gay teen who finds himself oppressed at every level by a society suffused with conservative Christian piety and that will not let him live freely. He’s clearly in love with Tyler, and his efforts to stop their relationship from falling apart when Tyler embraces heteronormative conformity lead him to self-destruction because the conservative, conformist world around him actively rejects him. For a movie its director claims is about the “power of love,” it is remarkably uninterested in extending its redemptive grace to those who stand outside a particular community and its strict values.
Go through the movie carefully (if you are a masochist or enjoy dullness), and you’ll see that Munzert’s infinitely more competent acting ability effectively reverses the relationship of the hero and the villain, and in so doing it reduces the hero to a mostly passive afterthought, the typical damsel in distress role. The accidental subtext overtook the intended text, and Schiefele by seeming mistake (unless he is a hell of a lot subtler than I give him credit for--and no evidence suggests that to be the case) made a didactic movie that depicts “Christian” values as a hollow set of aphorisms masking an ideology of intentional ignorance, conformity, and harm.
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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