Nevertheless, I don’t like seeing dead animals, and I’m tired of dead cows being roped in to phony supernatural narratives so we can gawk at their decaying corpses. As we have covered many times before, the cattle mutilation “phenomenon” was a creation of twentieth century myth-making, but the poor cow who started off The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch, the History Channel’s glacially paced effort to clone The Curse of Oak Island, at least has the consolation that, being dead, it doesn’t have to suffer through any more of this show’s inane efforts to sensationalize disappointingly small mysteries.
The myth of Skinwalker Ranch was created in the mid-1990s when Las Vegas journalist George Knapp, famous for his credulous reports about aliens in Area 51, began crafting it from stories told by the then-owners of the ranch. He grafted those stories onto local UFO/paranormal folklore from the 1974 book The Utah UFO Display to create a longer history for the ranch’s supernatural events. (In 1978, the “Uintah lights,” as they were then known, and their associated humming sounds were attributed to St. Elmo’s fire surrounding nighttime swarms of budworms “flying into high electric fields caused by thunderheads and high density particulate matter in the air.”) Nothing recorded in the 1990s, however, was particularly unusual by the standards of supernatural folklore until Robert Bigelow began to pour money into “investigating” and Knapp amplified the mystery with a book sensationalizing the ranch as the world’s preeminent paranormal hotspot. My home region of upstate New York, for example, could match the ranch in ghosts, psychics, angels, aliens, and so on. People tell stories. A lot. Money and publicity turn stories into legends.
I discussed Skinwalker Ranch in 2018 when I reviewed the documentary The Hunt for the Skinwalker, and nothing in the opening hour of the new series has changed my opinion of the ranch or the groupthink that has infested those who scare themselves silly imagining supernatural encounters there.
The show opens with our cast of “investigators” standing around the body of dead cow in August 2019 screaming with delight because their radiation and EMF detectors spiked in the presence of the cow. Immediately they decide they need to run away because “something could be happening right now.” Thus ends the in media res teaser.
We cut back to May 2019 to introduce our investigators, starting with Travis Taylor, who identifies himself as a scientist with decades of scientific and engineering experience. The show omits the fact that he is also a talking head from Ancient Aliens who has spouted inane drivel about aliens’ secret lunar colonies and other nonsense, or that is a former Curse of Oak Island guest looney who imagined the island to be a representation of the constellation Taurus. Taylor will say anything for cash, and here he is set up as the voice of reason and science. We’re off to a bad start.
The other team members include “principal investigator” Eric Bard, scientist Jim Segala, ranch superintendent Thomas Winterton, ranch manager Jim Morse, security guard Brent “Dragon” Arnold, and ranch owner Brandon Fugal. The choice to dress all of the characters in black and white for their first boardroom meeting only served to highlight that the entire team is made up of middle-aged white men. Fugal speaks about the ranch serving as a place that will help him to understand the nature of the universe and dimensions of existence beyond the physical plane, and I can’t help but think that there is something symbolic about a group of middle aged white guys in a high-rise conference room thinking that they have exclusive access to the secrets of creation.
The show sets up the “mystery” of the ranch by having Fugal relate the myth of the skin-walker, which the show implies is centered on the ranch. The Navajo skin-walker was a witch that could take the shape of animals, and as you might imagine, the skin-walker story is common to Navajo culture across the Navajo lands, not just around Utah’s Skinwalker Ranch. Fugal relates a 1911 newspaper story that residents near the ranch heard strange sounds, and a 1979 newspaper article about a UFO sighting in the area. Honestly, that is remarkably unimpressive for a “200 year” history of the supernatural. There is a haunted Native American mound in West Virginia that supposedly screamed whenever someone pierced it with a stake or shovel, and that story stayed current from the 1700s down to the late 1800s. That’s a damned sight better than this “history” of supernatural events. Fugal also discusses “medical” issues at the ranch, which he describes as mostly “nausea” and at least one case of partial paralysis, though no evidence is given to support the inexplicable nature of the paralysis. He finishes with, of course, more cattle mutilations, which he alleges cannot be explained by natural means. Naturally, we get even more pictures of dead and mutilated animals.
Fugal then shows video footage of lights recorded at the ranch, including light illuminating part of a mesa, a spotlight shining up into the sky from atop the mesa, and a ball of light flying behind the mesa. Each is presented as a mystery, but you would think that rather than recording a spotlight shining up from the mesa for a few hours and wondering what caused it, someone might have driven up there and taken a look. I don’t see anything in the videos that couldn’t be fabricated easily if one were interested enough to do so. The failure to actually go and look when such things are happening robs us of the actual evidence needed to support the speculative ideas.
The team gives Taylor some ominous horror-movie dialogue about the ranch “pushing back” against those who want to probe its secrets, and I am utterly amazed that this pushback recognizes the irregular borders of the ranch and stops right at the property line. The neighbors don’t seem to have half as many ghost problems, or to suffer nausea, heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach, diarrhea, or else they would do well to buy some extra Pepto Bismol and set up some bed and breakfasts to cater to the paranormal crowd. Seems like it would be pretty good, and easy, money.
After the first segment ends, the setup phase of the pilot ends, and the show slows way down to ape the somnolent rhythms of Curse of Oak Island. Taylor arrives on the ranch. “Dragon” tells us the guards carry rifles because “we don’t know what we’re dealing with,” as though guns could kill poltergeists. Obviously, they are to warn off trespassers. We tour Fugal’s science center for monitoring and tracking activity on the ranch. Then come more cattle mutilation stories. Morse alleges that when the Utes and the Navajos came into conflict in the mid-1800s, the Utes cursed Skinwalker Ranch, and that started the supernatural phenomena. Imagine that: Magic words can call poltergeists down from other dimensions! OK, I’ll try: O friend and companion of night, thou who rejoicest in the baying of dogs and spilt blood, who wanderest in the midst of shades among the tombs, who longest for blood and bringest terror to mortals, Gorgo, Mormo, thousand-faced moon, curse this show and all who make it. Sadly, if that works, they might actually have a poltergeist to film next year, leading to more success, which would create the ultimate curse paradox, since the curse would un-curse itself!
As the pace slows down for the second half of the show, Taylor is baffled by an anomalous reading of microwave radiation, and the men meet in a war room very closely resembling the one from Oak Island. Taylor speculates that nuclear fallout from midcentury testing may have something to do with the readings. The men claim to be afraid to dig holes for fear of unleashing evil powers in the Earth. Winterton alleges that after digging a hole on the ranch he contracted a “medically impossible” swollen lump on the back of his head which caused him serious ongoing issues, largely because he had left the swelling untreated for several days until it had grown to the size of goose egg. Earlier intervention would likely have created a different outcome, but Winterton said he refused treatment until his wife forced him to go to the emergency room. Tellingly, the show does not have Winterton’s doctor testify to the impossibility of his swelling, nor do they share the actual diagnosis or medical records.
Fugal says he is “not comfortable” with digging a hole in the ranch because there are “risks” he hasn’t shared with Taylor. The evidence is kept, Fugal says, under lock and key in a secret case, and Taylor actually sounds reasonable when he becomes upset that Fugal is hiding evidence from him. The show ends with a teaser for the next episode, when the contents of the secret case of evidence will be revealed. A trailer for the rest of the season promises appearances by Ancient Aliens regulars like Linda Moulton Howe and even more cattle mutilations and dead animals.
Perhaps in our current climate, throwing back thirty years to investigate the popular paranormal “mysteries” of the 1980s and 1990, like cattle mutilation, is TV comfort food. Maybe the sluggish pace of Prometheus Entertainment’s Oak Island clone helps to lull viewers into a cocoon of warm familiarity. Quite possibly, those watching a network whose average viewer is a white man around 60 years old like seeing (very) slightly younger white men pretending to take decisive action and pretending to master supernatural power. But what I see is a slow-paced effort to reproduce Curse of Oak Island by creating another impenetrable “mystery” that can be spun into a male-bonding pseudo-soap opera as tiny crumbs of information play out over endless episodes.
Regardless of whatever secrets actually lie beneath Skinwalker Ranch, the Secret of Skinwalker Ranch isn’t about to blow the lid off of anything, lest it ruin their business model.
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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