In the Deseret News yesterday, there was an interesting article about religious themes in science fiction, and it reflects observations I made in my book Knowing Fear (2008), namely that science fiction is only putatively “about” science; instead, its underlying themes deal with consequences and causes, particularly questions of ethics, morals, and metaphysics. (I argued that the horror genre was the one that dealt with questions of epistemology, science, and knowledge.) This is one reason why religious themes occur frequently in science fiction and fantasy, and why everything from Star Wars to Superman contains imagery drawn from religious iconography. (Not that it is absent from horror, of course; what is horror without Satan and demons?)
Dr. James McGrath of Butler University explained as part of the article that the “ancient alien” theme in science fiction reflects the same concerns as religion: “Ancient alien [stories allow] the same questions — Who created us? Why are we here? — to be asked in as close a manner as possible to the way the questions have historically been asked and yet within the sci-fi genre,” McGrath told the paper. Unstated is the implication that the nonfiction versions of these same ideas, taken over largely from science fiction, pursue the same ends.
Personally, I’ve always preferred horror to science fiction, but I appreciate some of the genre’s crazier creations. When I was a kid I loved Mystery Science Theater 3000, though I came a bit late to the party since my small hometown didn’t get expanded cable offerings until, I believe, 1995. It’s hard now to imagine a time when there wasn’t instant access to everything, or that I would have to record the show on VHS tapes. Anyway, MST3K’s Kevin Murphy, who is now with the hilarious online spinoff Rifftrax (I have the autographed Mike Nelson bobble-head!), gave an interview to MinnPost last week that made an interesting observation about the declining standards of cable TV in general and the History Channel in particular:
It’s mayhem. Everything is more toxic and more dangerous, sexier and more atrocious than you could ever see in your real life. But it’s the formula of so much of it that drives me up wall. For example: A person does something. Then that person talks about what they just did. Then they talk about what they’re going to do. Then they do the thing and talk about what they just did. […] The History Channel, which was the Rock of Gibralter for the longest time. Nazis! In black and white! It was the all-Hitler channel.
Can you imagine such a time when a cable TV channel would defend the idea of truth? I should amend that, of course. It’s mostly History, H2, Destination America, and Syfy that push the fringe history agenda with their lineups of monsters, conspiracies, and aliens. (Disclosure: I was once asked to audition for a Destination America hosting gig before the network turned into the rural version of H2.)
Obviously, I can’t watch ever cable channel all day, but last evening I turned on the newly-rebranded American Heroes Channel, formerly the Military Channel, one of the Discovery networks and corporate cousin to Destination America. It was eye-opening. The channel is like H2 for people who find that network to be too fast paced, hip, and young. In between promotions for shows on Area 51, doomsday weapons, and Hitler’s occult connections, AHC ran incessant commercials for programs about conspiracy theories, because apparently American heroes all think their government is plotting against them.
I watched an episode of Myth Hunters on the “mystery” of the crystal skulls. What an odd show that is. They obviously paid some cash for two actors to portray the Mitchell-Hedges family, owners of the most famous crystal skull, in a reasonably well-chosen jungle setting, but otherwise the show had been assembled almost entirely from stock footage and pans and scans of still photographs. The show came to the correct conclusions—revealing that all of the known crystal skulls are of modern manufacture, and the “ancient legend” of the skulls is a recent fabrication. But getting there was a long, slow slog. The program could easily have doubled the amount of information presented since there was so much dead time as I waited and waited for the narrator to get to the next point. The show told me nothing I didn’t already know—indeed there was nothing “new” in the show at all, but it offered fair and accurate assessments of the various crystal skull claims. It reminded me of the kinds of videos teachers used to show in high school, and it could use a little more… I was going to say depth and faster pacing, but I think the real issue is money. It could use a little more money.
The crystal skulls episode was on just hours before I read about a recent event that involved one of the allegedly ancient crystal skulls. Ancient Aliens helped to make Carolyn Ford famous after she appeared on the program to show off her crystal skull, which she calls “Einstein,” almost certainly a modern fake but which she claims is an ancient relic that gives those who view it a spiritual awakening. She traveled with the skull to Mount Shasta last week for a “cranial re-sequencing activation” and informed her fans that they could bring their own crystal skulls to be “imprinted” Einstein’s ancient wisdom.
This isn’t anything particularly new, but it is interesting that Ford brought the skull to Mount Shasta since that area has been widely associated in fringe literature with an underground civilization ever since Frederick S. Oliver, in Dweller on Two Planets (written 1886, published 1905), took Native legends that the mountain was home to spirit of Skell, who descended from the sky, as evidence that Theosophy’s Venusians descended at Mt. Shasta and built a temple beneath the mountain. Oliver’s underground temple of wonders fed into the so-called Shaver Mystery, a science fiction novella drawing on H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Edward Bulwer-Lytton and others, whose author and publisher both asserted it contained actual truths about a lost underground race. This, in turn, fed into the burgeoning UFO movement of the 1940s—and brings us all the way back around to Ancient Aliens when the whole complex of science fiction and fringe history ended up embedded in ancient astronaut works, most especially those of Peter Kolosimo.
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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