This is hardly the first time that Wolter has descended into caverns in search of occult rituals. In Pirate Treasure of the Knights Templar, he explored caverns where he imagined—falsely—that the Knights Templar conducted secret rites in honor of a pagan goddess. In the original run of America Unearthed, he investigated an apparent colonial-era spring house in Pennsylvania and imagined it to be a “ritual bath” for Templar-influenced Freemasons. Coming as it does just a week after Wolter visited Mexican caves in search of space aliens, there definitely seems to be a cave theme in his work, and one need not be a Freudian to wonder if it is connected to his unevidenced insistence that occult brotherhoods worship a goddess.
We open in the standard cinematic staged cold open with a blindfolded man deep in a cave undergoing a ritual in which he is questioned by men in robes. A goat-headed Satanic figure appears before him and presents him with a skull, and then we smash-cut to the title credits. During the episode, the Satanic cold open will prove to be a bait-and-switch fraud.
We then travel to a backyard cave in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, which Wolter immediately calls a “Chamber of Secrets,” though I’m not sure that’s quite what the Harry Potter novels had in mind. A middle-aged man names Chris Courtney shows Wolter a newspaper article describing how he found a cave in the backyard of his childhood home in 1981. Wolter references the spring house he looked at in 2013 and again falsely claims it to be a ritual bathhouse before viewing the cave, which is currently filled with water. The man tells Wolter that the cave had two dates in it, 1794 and 1896, which place Wolter into a state of great arousal and prompt him to descend part way into the cave. He sees a few letters carved into the wall, a W and an R or T, and he immediately believes that there is a great mystery in the cave, for reasons that neither he nor his guest have bothered to share with the audience. Wolter speculates wildly that the cave was used in the Whiskey Rebellion, based on no facts he cares to share with the viewer. Instead, he launches a rover into the water to probe the cave.
We go to commercial without anyone bothering to tell us why the cave should be considered mysterious, or even interesting, given that the show itself conceded that there are hundreds of caves in the area, many of which were undoubtedly used for a variety of purposes. It’s just bad storytelling and sets the show up for failure by neglecting the basics of establishing a compelling reason to keep watching.
The second segment takes us around the cave, first with the rover and then with a group of local cave divers, but nothing happens before the commercial. You could skip this segment and miss nothing. Watching middle-aged men work slowly through tech-driven “adventures” isn’t really my idea of exciting television, but the lack of information about the cave is telling, showing that America Unearthed is trying far too hard to stretch very little content into an hour. Indeed, in this segment Wolter delivers a potted history of Pennsylvania, throws out pointless speculative ideas about the cave (his two options are a “ritual” site for an occult brotherhood or “water source”!), and then openly asks if any of this has anything to do with the cave. That the producers—Here’s looking at you Maria and Andy Awes!—couldn’t turn this into an even halfway compelling narrative shows that this episode should have been scuttled for utter lack of purpose. It makes me miss the Templars.
The divers found no carvings or dates in the cave, and Wolter concludes that history has been “erased.” Wolter is disappointed that a “gold ring” in the cave was actually a tree root. Courtney shows Wolter a medallion from the Knights of the Golden Eagle, a fraternal organization founded in 1872, that Courtney had once found in the backyard near the cave. I’m not really sure what to make of this since the cave was supposed to have been in use in the 1790s, but the Knights didn’t exist until 1872, so what difference would it have made whether the Knights did or did not perform a ritual in the cave? A member of the local historical society tells Scott Wolter about an allegorical ritual the Knights undertook, involving Lucifer, a hermit, and skull, and Wolter compares it to Masonic ritual. However, when the historian tells Wolter that the cave may have been used in the Underground Railroad, Wolter—who has harped on occult brotherhoods and whiskey for half an hour—immediately claims that he had been entertaining the possibility the whole time, though he had declined to tell the audience. I imagine that the producers meant this as a surprise, but it comes across as a bit of post hoc rationalizing, and a rather boring revelation, to be honest. This is probably just my own bias, but having grown up a few blocks from the house where Harriet Tubman lived, finding out something was used in the Underground Railroad just does not carry the same weight that I imagine producers expect viewers to feel at the touch of history. The town where I grew up was founded by a slaveholder, and when you are surrounded by this history all your life, hearing about another example of the same is a bit of shrug.
In the fourth segment, Wolter explores the history of the abolitionist movement in Pennsylvania through the lens of William Still, a conductor on the Underground Railroad who worked with Harriet Tubman, and he meets with former basketball star Valerie Still, who is a descendant of William and an expert on slavery and abolition. She tells Wolter that some caves were used as hiding places for escaped slaves, and Wolter goes to an archive at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and looks at the original draft of the Constitution for no particular reason and then William Still’s journal, the latter being held for the next segment. Once again, another segment offers nothing of substance and simply fills time until the next commercial. Skipping this segment wouldn’t detract from the narrative in any significant way.
In reading Still’s journal, Wolter expresses his admiration for Still, calling him an “American hero if ever there was one” and discusses the need for racial reconciliation. In the journal the Valerie Still finds a slave with the initials W.R. and Wolter finds one with the initials W.T., and they speculated about the “long shot” possibility that one of these men carved the letters. It is impossible to prove. Wolter visits another cave in Shippensburg used in the Underground Railroad, and by this point Wolter is openly claiming to have always been certain that the cave was a stop on the Underground Railroad rather than an occult temple. It appears that he and the producers eventually realized that it would be racially insensitive to contaminate the history of the Underground Railroad with Wolter’s usual fringe-history fantasies, but it does make the viewer wonder why they felt compelled to open with Lucifer and skulls and secret rituals, as though to lure in viewers they assumed wouldn’t watch a show about Black history.
The final segment finds Wolter in the second cave as the voiceover tells us that he believes both caves to have been stops on the Underground Railroad. The segment repeats everything we just saw as Wolter tells it all again to Courtney. Wolter, true to form, decides—without evidence—that the cave might have been used for whiskey production and Knights of the Golden Eagle rituals, though this pointless speculation is mentioned in passing with no grander purpose discussed or implied, presumably because Wolter won’t mix the occult with more sensitive topics.
All told, this episode contained maybe ten or fifteen minutes of content that, boiled down to fifteen minutes or less, might have made an interesting segment on the former PBS show History Detectives, but stretched to an hour is dull, boring, repetitive, and meandering. Maybe America Unearthed should have three-story hours with twenty-minute segments and different presenters. It would make the show move faster and be more entertaining, though it would cost more, defeating the whole purpose of the enterprise.
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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