I grew up in what used to be known as the “Burned-Over District,” a place where the flames of the true faith—whatever that was—burned so brightly that they scorched all they touched. In nineteenth-century upstate New York, evangelicals spoke of their conversations with the Holy Spirit to rapturous audiences. Joseph Smith preached about visitation from the angel Moroni, and the Spiritualists vouchsafed that they were in direct contact with ghosts from another plane of existence. What all had in common was an unyielding faith in things unseen, and also an unwavering demand that no evidence be admitted against their beliefs, for faith was, as Jesus said, a blessing for those who believed without proof: “Blessed are those that have not seen yet have believed” (John 20:29). The cynic might argue that this type of faith exists precisely to hide the fact that there are no facts to support it. Even Jesus had to show his wounds to Doubting Thomas.
The documentary tells an abbreviated and impressionistic tale of the Skinwalker Ranch, a desolate set of rundown old homesteads in northeastern Utah that gained fame first as a sort of western Amityville Horror and later, until 2016, as the site of billionaire UFO enthusiast Robert Bigelow’s search for flying saucers and parallel universes. The ranch takes its name from a shapeshifting creature in Ute mythology. The ranch is now owned by Adamantium Real Estate, LLC, a company registered in Delaware and represented by an anonymous corporate trust service. The name Skinwalker Ranch was trademarked by the new owners for “entertainment services,” which the trademark application says includes turning the ranch into a paranormal tourist attraction.
Grand claims have been made for the supernatural power of the Skinwalker Ranch, but as The Hunt for the Skinwalker inadvertently reveals, they are nothing but hot air, built on a series of anecdotes by people who scared themselves running around in the dark. To that end, Hunt for the Skinwalker is an important documentary because it reveals the paucity of evidence to come out of the two decades Robert Bigelow’s men spent probing its fictitious secrets, and the depths of belief that his men—many of whom worked or work for the Department of Defense, intelligence agencies, or Tom Delonge’s To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science—still maintain despite admitting to having found precisely no scientific evidence of the paranormal phenomena they sought.
Filmmaker Jeremy Corbell, 41, who is both an artist and a UFO enthusiast, opens the documentary with a mission statement. He has no intention of being fair or balanced, nor of looking beyond the ranks of true believers and the men in their employ. Instead, he promises to “weaponize curiosity” in the service of the paranormal. The truth, however, has a way of seeping through, and in this case, the reality under the supernatural story kept poking through despite the layers of mood music, special effects, and shadows Corbell layers on to create an atmosphere of the uncanny. Corbell is a wannabee Rod Serling. He effects a Serling-like narration, even though his natural speaking voice, to judge by his on-camera appearances, is anything but. He empurples the prose to give ponderous wait to his questions and clichés, and he sprinkles into the narrative phrases taken directly from Serling’s Twilight Zone. He speaks, for example, of the ranch as existing “between shadow and substance,” a phrase ripped right from the title sequence to the Zone. This is, of course, intentional. He wants us to see the ranch as a place where worlds meet, where the laws of nature relax, and where the supernatural exists.
Nor is the Twilight Zone the only science fiction, fantasy, or horror reference. The documentary lingers lovingly over files marked “confidential” and effects a bit of an X-Files vibe. Corbell’s progress to the Skinwalker Ranch and his night spent there could easily be swapped out for identical adventures from Josh Gates’s old Destination Truth show, while the documentary’s structure, featuring Corbell retracing the investigations of Las Vegas local TV reporter George Knapp two decades earlier, with most of the film made up of Knapp’s abandoned early 2000s documentary intercut with new scenes of Corbell, is not a world removed from the Blair Witch Project. Indeed, Corbell even describes the abandoned homesteads of Skinwalker Ranch as something out of a horror movie and compares them to a staged film set designed to frighten. He lards the story, too, with horror-movie clichés, including ancient Native American legends that hide an evil truth, taciturn locals who won’t speak to “outsiders,” etc.
But it’s just rhetoric and art—references and allusions doing the job of facts, pathos and ethos pretending to be logos.
The film opens with a meditation on the universe and the nature of reality—there being more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, etc.—before relating the now-familiar story of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program at the Pentagon, which was tied to Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies, the UFO-hunting subdivision of Bigelow Aerospace, and to the consultants that both shared with To the Stars, including Hal Puthoff, Eric Davies, etc. The key interviewee and the audience’s viewpoint character is Knapp, though Corbell never makes entirely clear Knapp’s relationship to Bigelow. Knapp was and is a Las Vegas-based reporter for the local CBS TV station, but for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s he also worked with Robert Bigelow’s National Institute of Discovery Science, a private company set up to investigate the paranormal at Skinwalker Ranch, producing a book about the Skinwalker Ranch with NIDS’s Colm Kelleher, who is a major presence in the documentary through archival footage shot for a documentary Knapp produced in the 2000s.
The current documentary began filming shortly before the New York Times revealed that the Pentagon and Robert Bigelow had been working together to track unidentified aerial phenomena at the behest of former Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and it captures an uncomfortable moment. A few days before the Times story hit, Knapp was teasing that a revelation was about to come out that would change how we view the UFO phenomenon. It seems clear that he knew about the Times story, or something similar, but chose not to tell his viewers or his readers, though he was happy to tease. That makes me uncomfortable. Journalists shouldn’t be hoarders of information, nor should they use access to powerful people to present themselves as insiders who hold secrets for the wealthy that they will not share with the public. If you aren’t allowed to report something, I was taught in journalism school, don’t ask to hear it so you don’t have to lie about it to your audience. It’s a breach of trust.
But that is apparently not a concern for Knapp, who, in the interviews featured here, comes across as someone who revels in the perceived power he holds as a keeper of Bigelow’s secrets. Knapp says that Bigelow gave him secret information decades ago, but he wasn’t allowed to report it for years. He admits, basically, to being a liar either of commission or omission for much of his UFO reporting career. In fact, he tells Corbell that he still can’t share all the information and he won’t say why. Given that Bigelow is a key figure that Knapp covers for his TV station, where he regularly fails to disclose any of this, there are some serious ethical concerns that arise from a reporter having a close relationship with his subject and intentionally withholding information about said subject from the audience.
Knapp also tells Corbell that he has never had a paranormal experience at the ranch but has interviewed people who did and therefore believes that something supernatural is going on at the ranch. This is illogical, particularly when there is no scientific evidence to confirm that the people he interviewed are correctly interpreting the events they claim to have experienced. To use an analogy I’ve made in the past, this is a bit like going to a magic show, interviewing the audience, and concluding that David Copperfield has supernatural powers. What people see isn’t always what is there.
Across new interviews and archival footage, we learn what Knapp and Kelleher think is happening at Skinwalker Ranch, and it quickly becomes clear why Corbell—who calls the ranch the “Area 51 of the paranormal”—needs dramatic lighting and moody music to make the bizarre claims seem serious. According to the two men:
As a result of that last assumption, when Knapp first visited, he and other men danced in a circle, chanting and shouting and then used heavy machinery to dig holes in the hope of contacting the “entity.” They did not reach it.
It was at this point that it became obvious to me that the people working at Skinwalker Ranch when Bigelow owned the place were scaring themselves in the dark, imagining things that went bump in the night and pretending that weird noises and unusual lights and strange smells were all evidence of the paranormal. But only later as the documentary moved on did it become clear that my intuition wasn’t just right but it was the secret behind the myth of Skinwalker Ranch. The first confirmation came from interviews with those taciturn locals who supposedly were hostile to outsiders. Some of the people supposedly experiencing strange things were quite familiar with fringe terminology—J. Allen Hynek’s idea of “high strangeness” comes up unprovoked in conversation, but in its bastardized form as a sort of analogue to high adventure—showing that much of what is going on is New Age paranormal paranoia feeding on itself. People who believe in the paranormal interpret what they encounter as the paranormal, and those who aren’t sure nevertheless turn to preexisting New Age narratives, though they have no scientific foundation. But this is the New Age as filtered through modern ufology with all its anti-government suspicions. One rancher actually asks if the supernatural is “real, or is it government made-up?” These are not neutral observers but people who interpret their experiences through narratives they had already encountered.
I’m not going to tell you that I know exactly what every weird claim made for the area around Skinwalker Ranch actually represents. There are many stories told of the odd behavior of cattle, and the ranchers deny that local teens or any other human might have been involved in herding them into odd places. It sounds to me like they underestimate the ingenuity of bored teens, but however you slice it, there isn’t any particular reason to link the various claims for ghosts, flying saucers, goofy cow antics, etc. into a one multifaceted alternative reality. They are data points with no obvious, proven, or scientific connection, and probably a number of explanations.
That’s not how NDIS saw it. Corbell tells us that they related such events to the Ute people’s mythology to justify their belief in a centuries’ long “history” of area residents being scared of wolves, strange lights, etc. All of the stories share one thing in common—they offer no facts, no physical evidence, and no way to confirm any of the accounts, ancient or modern.
NIDS, therefore, accepted the idea that many strange stories (not unlike those you can find almost literally anywhere) must have some sort of connection, and they assembled a team to attempt to scientifically investigate what they—without evidence—assumed was a singular phenomenon. In an interview, Knapp lavishes praise on Bigelow’s “bright Ph.D.-level” team, calling them “amazing” and the “greatest minds” in history and intimating that some big names refuse to let their work for Bigelow be known. The known associates of Bigelow—Jacques Vallée, Hal Puthoff, etc.—have a long track record of making supernatural claims that evidence fails to support, so this does not inspire confidence. Knapp also lavishes praise on Bigelow, but he says, again, that he “can’t tell you” what Bigelow found at the ranch that had “shaken” him but he knows something must have happened. This isn’t even hearsay. It’s an assumption wrapped in suggestive spookiness, where implication substitutes for evidence.
Bigelow’s men set up all sorts of equipment over the ranch to test for anomalies of electromagnetic radiation, sound, light, and much more. They found, basically, nothing. Knapp and Kelleher both say as much, admitting that there was no scientific evidence that confirmed the existence of the paranormal. There was some ambiguous “evidence” on display, but it was laughably poor. Their evidence was easily debunked camera artifacts—orbs, lines of light—and some odd-shaped pillar-like clouds that they implied were the ghosts of the World Trade Center towers, or else the symbiote’s message about 9/11. They concluded that an orange light in the sky—never captured on camera, of course—was a portal to another world because somebody said he had seen a shape or figure in the light.
Such stories fed into their preconception that the stories and anecdotes they heard represented a reality beyond reality, but unable to churn up any scientific data to support their claims, they abandoned the scientific method and science altogether.
According to members of the team, NIDS concluded that the supernatural purposely avoided their cameras, and they explicitly say in the documentary that the longer they investigated and the more they observed, the less evidence they found. Instead of correctly concluding that better investigation methods revealed that the “phenomena” are artifacts of perception that disappear when exposed to scientifically rigorous observation, they instead concluded that there was indeed a supernatural creature and that it was a “precognitive symbiotic” entity that psychically anticipated their every move.
We see only two more pieces of evidence on screen. One piece is made up of a couple of blurry photographs of what seem to be airplanes that we hear match no civilian flight plans. Military planes? The question isn’t asked. The other is cattle mutilation. I find the whole subject distasteful, and the segment featuring many closeups of rotted animal corpses was unpleasant to watch. Kelleher tells us that the dead animals had to have been killed by a supernatural entity because there was no visible blood in or around the corpse. The red color of the muscles belies this point, but the researchers’ expectation that the field should be red with blood surprises me. With all the animals that cats have killed in my yard over the years—squirrels, mice, birds—there has never been a pool of blood, not even with the roadkill in the street. I wouldn’t expect farm animals to be different, and it seems that the investigators aren’t entirely familiar with natural decomposition and decay.
As we near the end, Corbell brings in a man he claims is the new owner of Skinwalker Ranch, presumably the anonymous proprietor of Adamantium Real Estate. But the man is never identified, and his face is not seen on camera. “I have a vast empire of business interests that I cannot allow to be compromised,” says the new owner. He keeps his identity hidden and disguises his voice, but he and Corbell make sure his gold Rolex Datejust is easily visible on camera to let you know that, yes, he is rich. He’s the guy that let Corbell onto Skinwalker Ranch, and as we saw from the trademark application, he seems to be looking to cash in on the ranch’s notoriety.
The film ends with a half dozen older white men sitting around a fire nodding their heads, admitting to having no evidence and no personal experiences, but nevertheless believing without seeing, like those Jesus blessed for their blind faith. And their search for monsters is, in the end, faith masquerading as science. In the film’s final few minutes, archival footage shows one of the NIDS investigators admitting that the “phenomenon” cannot be examined or explored by science and instead can only be understood through anecdotes, stories, and belief. Robert Bigelow shows up as an almost Howard Hughes-like eccentric, muttering that the phenomenon was “playing” with him and giving him a “taste” of the supernatural, but wouldn’t let itself be studied, for the events his team experienced never repeated. Every time, he said, they prepared to observe a particular phenomenon and set up scientific tests for it, it stopped happening and instead they started to see something new occur. Gee, I wonder why.
In a postscript clearly added afterward to tie in with current events, Knapp says that Bigelow’s BAASS was not directly involved with the Pentagon’s AATIP, though it did do work for them. Instead, it was contract through a larger government program whose existence he claims to know about but refuses to disclose. This is disingenuous, to say the least, and it seems clear that Knapp isn’t really looking for truth. He is an information hoarder who seems to revel in his role as guardian of “secret” information.
Finally, Corbell returns to sum up what he learned—or rather, did not learn. He attempts to preclude criticism—apparently of the myth of Skinwalker Ranch rather than his film—by saying that people “like” to “ridicule or deny” the alleged events at Skinwalker Ranch, and he asserts that the events that everyone involved admits have never been scientifically documented nevertheless occurred.
Hunt for the Skinwalker, as a film, is an enjoyable and entertaining two hours, so long as you are amused by old men tilting at windmills. However, as a documentary, it was surprising in its lack of rigor and evidence. Instead, it is a portrait of madness and a commercial for the forthcoming paranormal resort apparently planned for the site. The people involved are the last of the romantics, looking for a world beyond reality, where the fantastic touches the mundane. Just as the Spiritualists and the Evangelicals turned to things unseen as a promise of eternal life, so, too, do the men who haunted Skinwalker Ranch seem to think that by scaring themselves in the dark they will transcend the limits of nature and escape to a world unencumbered by flesh and physics.
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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