Yesterday I presented some comments from online writers who came to embrace the ancient astronaut theory thanks to continued exposure to Ancient Aliens on cable television. Today, I’d like to look at the opposite situation, where some commentators have discussed how Ancient Aliens has left them feeling duped and brainwashed.
On Bubble News, a website where participants post short “articles” in exchange for a share of the ad revenue they generate, a writer yesterday described feeling utterly dejected after watching a single hour of Ancient Aliens, S05E11 “The Viking Gods,” on Sunday night:
After an hour of the show I felt completely brainwashed. Just like someone poured steaming, hot water onto my brain. Why? Well, you cannot make assumptions like the one that Thor’s hammer was a kinetic weapon. It just makes no sense. And that was just one of their assumptions which made me go all like: “What?!?!”. I felt stupid after watching it and let me tell you that I will not watch it again.
The brilliant thing, of course, is that niche programming means that H2 doesn’t care if some of the audience immediately rejects programs like Ancient Aliens. Have you ever seen the old psychic scam where a fake psychic sends out “predictions” about the outcome of sports matches? The psychic sends half his followers a “prediction” that team X will win and half that team Y will. The following week the psychic repeats the process, but sending predictions only to those who received a “correct” forecast the week before. By repeating this a few times, the psychic loses 75% or more of the initial audience, but those who remain are utterly convinced this psychic is accurate and will shell out big time cash for more predictions. H2 is like that. Most viewers will reject their shows as stupid and fake, but those that remain become ever more convinced that they are privy to an astonishing secret revelation. The process also selects for viewers who are credulous enough to buy whatever advertisers are selling during the commercial breaks.
That’s just one of the points James Neimeister makes in an insightful dissection of Ancient Aliens published yesterday at Thought Catalog. The entire piece is excellent, and I recommend that everyone read it in full. Neimeister appears to be somewhere around a decade younger than me, but he had many of the same experiences watching cable TV in his youth. He remembers fondly watching Discovery’s alien-themed programs, where for me the first shows in the genre that I remember were less alien than general issue ancient mystery. I watched reruns of In Search of…, which History and A&E showed to build an audience for Ancient Mysteries, with both shows hosted, 15 years apart, by Leonard Nimoy. I also loved Terra X, a dubbed German import from ZDF, that covered all manner of “mysteries.” It is the first place I learned of the Knights Templar. (The show still airs, but only in German, on ZDF, where it has a broader scientific focus than the “mystery” episodes sent to America in the 1990s.)
After watching an Ancient Aliens marathon, Neimeister found himself disturbed and appalled and sought to understand why. Neimeister applies film theory to Ancient Aliens to get at the heart of how the show, to borrow a phrase, manufactures consent by using the techniques of propaganda:
The most striking characteristic of Ancient Aliens, and other television programs today, is how it relies entirely on editing techniques to paste random sequences together into a narrative. Visually it is utterly unremarkable. The whole show is basically a montage of wacky looking alien “scholars” giving fanciful interpretations of archaeological evidence set to images of pyramids, Mayan ruins, and clouds moving really fast over a soundtrack composed on synthesizers and Andean pan-flutes. This creates the illusion that something really deep is being said… […] The formalistic, dissociative narrative arc of each episode emerges out of this tendency, as the show can only move forward when the editors have completely run out of material and are absolutely forced to move onto something else by way of montage. A temporary trance is then induced in the viewer by juxtaposing some images of pyramids in Egypt to ones in Mexico, inserting a slew of arbitrary questions, and a commercial break. By the time the show returns, an entirely new topic has become the center of focus and nobody even remembers what was being discussed mere moments before.
Neimeister further notes something I have frequently mentioned in my reviews of the show: that its segments rarely come together as a whole, and often they make no sense when taken together, even within a single hour on a single topic: “If a definitive conclusion were to be reached at the end of an episode, something truly unfathomable might happen; viewers might (somehow) find themselves satisfied with the answers the show presents, and they might stop watching.”
Neimeister further agrees with me that Ancient Aliens presents a disturbing philosophical reflection on the role of science and progress. He notes that ancient astronaut theorists have a teleological view of progress whereby ancient people must perforce have been stupid since progress is linear, leading from darkness to an inevitable singularity where human and alien merge. I pause here to note that Neimeister does not take this to the next, most logical conclusion: that the imaginary aliens are in every practical sense gods.
This is because he sees the aliens in a different way, seizing upon the identification of the aliens with the “Greys” in several episodes of the show.
The premise for Ancient Aliens and every other show about aliens is an extremely dark one, for if the aliens are our future, then that future is a grave and terrible one. Aliens are tall, grey, lanky beings with no heart or soul. The aliens are so scientifically advanced that the very laws of physics bend before them, but despite their possession of such godlike powers they are numb, dispassionate, and ghastly to behold. With nothing left to behold in wonder, they are bereft of all emotion. Their technology seduces the militaries of the world’s powerful nations, but it cannot be controlled. They show up unannounced, without so much as even a knock at the door, and suck people silently into the sky. The alien fantasy represents the endpoint of our society’s twisted, uncompromising view of Western rationality.
I’m not entirely sure I can accept this, least of all the idea that our society currently accepts rationality in any uncompromising way. Certainly this is the case for the Greys as given in modern UFO conspiracy literature, but the ancient astronauts, were are told over and again, are not all Greys but rather myriad species, most humanlike, who made humanity in their image. (The Greys are often said to be the “enemy” of the Anunnaki.) They are possessed of human emotions, including anger and jealousy, as when they “bombed” Sodom and Gomorrah or caused the great Flood. These aliens lived among humans and mated with them, and they could be reasoned with. Zecharia Sitchin’s aliens were inhuman monsters who were, by our standards evil; Erich von Däniken’s aliens were not evil as much as they were self-interested and horny. Giorgio Tsoukalos’s aliens deliver inspiration directly into our brains. And the aliens envisioned by David Childress are transcendent beings who will ferry our souls to the Orion Nebula to live in bliss and joy forever. Let’s not forget that the UFO preachers of the 1950s and 1960s claimed that God drove a flying saucer and that we should worship ETs.
I agree, though, that the ancient astronaut theory is an attempt to marry science, which was traditionally the arbiter of truth in Western culture, to the irrational appeal of religion, myth, and faith. I agree, too, with Neimeister’s idea that Ancient Aliens reflects fears about the direction elites are steering our society—but I don’t think that ancient astronaut theorists are hoping for an emotionless future of robotic alien scientists; if anything, these monstrous Greys have been foisted upon ancient astronautics in an attempt to marry von Däniken’s human-like pyramid-builders to the inhuman UFO abduction myth under the general heading of “aliens.” Jacques Vallée helped in this process, but it was, frankly, Ancient Aliens’ need for more material that drove UFOs and alien-abductions into the ancient astronaut theory wholesale.
The tension between the aliens-as-Other and aliens-as-Us sits uneasily in ancient astronautics, and I’m not sure there is a coherent position in the movement. It seems to vary by author and by that author’s feelings about science, faith, and the future. But isn’t that the same as with God and the gods, whom we are both to love and to fear? It’s the Burkean sublime again, where awe and terror, the beautiful and the horrible, are all paths toward transcendence.
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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