“Templars doesn’t sound cool. Illuminati is way tighter,” DJ Babu said in explaining why hip-hop artists have latched on to conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, a group that happens to rhyme with more words than Bilderberg or Templar. I learned this from an article in the Daily Beast about hip-hop’s use of paranoid conspiracy theories, excerpted from a book on conspiracy theories by Rob Brotherton.
Meanwhile, when The X-Files returned last night after a fourteen year hiatus, the program showed that it had picked up a few things from the History Channel in the intervening years. While the show has always had a deep background in the ancient astronaut theory (Scully having once found a buried ancient alien spaceship), this iteration of the show placed the ancient astronaut idea front and center and folded a summary of Ancient Aliens into Mulder’s voiceover account of the show’s simplified version of its own mythology. We even saw Aert de Gelder’s Baptism of Christ, a painting of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove radiating light onto Christ, which Ancient Aliens has used multiple times as evidence of a spacecraft in art.
It’s interesting that the X-Files seems to be retooling its conspiracy theories a bit for the modern, post-9/11 world. Now the aliens were just trying to help us keep the peace, but evil oligarchs corrupted the semi-divine power of the aliens and used it for nefarious ends, faking the UFO phenomenon and alien abductions in order to maintain power and control over the world. This is less the classic ufology narrative and more along the lines of Ancient Aliens’ paranoia, and especially the Nephilim-inflected conspiracies. It’s no coincidence, of course, that the new X-Files created an Alex Jones-style internet talk show host to spout conspiracy theories that are conveniently shared among Nephilim theorists, ancient astronaut believers, some ufologists, and anti-government right-wing extremists. The government, always evil, is still the enemy, but the sky beings project our hopes and dreams for savior into the heavens. Oh, and the episode borrows its title, “My Struggle,” from Hitler, so we have the white supremacists and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, too.
As much as I loved the X-Files as a kid, this had the sort of queasy feeling of trying too hard to actually render plausible the network of ancient astronaut and right wing anti-everything conspiracies that has such terrible consequences in the real world. Maybe it’s just that times have changed since the 1993-2002 run and these bad ideas are too well known and widely believed, but this felt less like making art out of what a few nutty people were already talking about and more like ratifying the deepest fears of the paranoid with a hearty “I believe this, too!” When FEMA death camps showed up in Fight the Future, they were a fringe idea, obscure and impossible, but when they pop up here they are already part of everyday discourse on the internet and in the right wing bubble (thanks, in no small measure to the X-Files popularizing the idea, as Michael Barkun writes in A Culture of Conspiracy). Jim Marrs, a regular Ancient Aliens pundit, is perhaps the closest real world advocate of this version of the X-Files, embracing everything from FEMA camps to ancient astronauts. He’s published by a major publisher (HarperCollins, owned, it should be said, by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns the Fox network, broadcaster of the X-Files). That the same drivel comes out of the X-Files and Ancient Aliens, in fiction and (purported) non-fiction on major networks is perhaps what makes these conspiracies so much less “fun” in this X-Files go-round.
I have a feeling that the large audience funneled into the X-Files from the preceding football game will help to spark some additional interest in ancient astronauts and UFO conspiracies today. I wish I had some data to back that up, but according to my site statistics, a plurality of visitors to my website came looking for two things: (a) to read my article on “Aliens and Anal Probes” and (b) to find out if Search for the Lost Giants had been canceled, to judge by page views and incoming search terms. Maybe the X-Files has boosted interest in anal probing. I don’t know, but it’s kind of weird that the anal probing article has three times as many readers as any other page on my site right now, and it’s been read by around 50 times as many people as any of my books since 2014. It’s just what I’ve always wanted to be famous for writing.
But if the X-Files represents one confluence of conspiracy theories, fact, and fiction, I would be remiss for not bringing up one more. This week the Minnesota Film & TV Board asked its Facebook followers the following question in response to a New Yorker article about the ethics of Netflix’s Making a Murderer documentary series: “The ethics and nature of both filmmaking and journalism are demanding our attention. What is a documentarian’s responsibility? Should a filmmaker be held to the same ethical standards as a journalist? When does entertainment become exploitative?” This is loaded with irony for many reasons. Let’s detail a couple.
First, the Minnesota Film & TV Board are hypocrites. To feign even a moment’s curiosity that a program beloved of rich liberals is less than truthful is a huge laugh since this same TV and Film Board approved taxpayers funds for America Unearthed and True Monsters, two Committee Films productions with (at best) loose relationships with the truth, designed to exploit audiences by purposely feeding them incomplete, misleading, or fabricated material. That the Minnesota Board would even think to start a discussion about the topic without considering its own role in promoting irresponsibility for poorer, older, and less educated audiences is hypocritical.
In terms of the New Yorker, it is upsetting that questions of fairness, accuracy, and honesty come into play only when a program has the potential to deceive upper class audiences. “The documentary consistently leads its viewers to the conclusion that Avery was framed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, and it contains striking elisions that bolster that theory,” writes Kathryn Schulz in damning the 10-hour documentary series for its bad journalism and bias. Could you imagine the New Yorker debating the ethics of cable television documentaries aimed at a down-market audience of demographically less desirable viewers? Making a Murderer earns opprobrium by having become a cause célèbre among the famous and the wealth—and the magazine’s upper-class readership—while making unproven claims. For these audiences to be deceived with incomplete or biased information on their preferred streaming service is unthinkable; for the rest of America, well, let them watch cable.
For what it’s worth, the New Yorker spoke of the X-Files the same way: It praised the new series for reviving nostalgia for the old, and then dismissed it as incredibly less engaging than anything in current sci-fi with appeal to the upper-classes, particularly “the best science fiction,” which according to writer Joshua Rothman is supposedly that which focuses on social and economic issues through the lens of “quasi-aristocratic heroes.” Of course, the X-Files wasn’t science fiction but horror. However, horror is just so déclassé that we must pretend otherwise or abandon it altogether.
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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