I know I don’t write about it as much as I should, but in addition to alternative history I am also (and started out as) an expert in the horror genre. I’ve literally written the book on the subject (as well as its crossover with ancient astronauts), so I like to think I know a thing or two about horror. As it turns out, the Chiller channel, from NBC Universal, parent of Syfy, says I’m wrong.
Chiller’s sister station Syfy began sending me emails asking me to watch Chiller’s special presentation Real Fear 2: The Truth behind More Horror Movies earlier this week. The show aired Friday night and featured four half-hour segments, each devoted to a different horror movie. Now, I admit I don’t watch much Chiller. This is because my cable company does not offer it in high definition, and I don’t enjoy the choice between squinting to see the picture in a tiny box in the middle of the screen or stretching the picture into an absurd aspect ratio. (Like the late Roger Ebert, I hate watching things in the wrong aspect ratio.) But since they asked nicely, I made an exception for Real Fear, which is apparently the sequel to an earlier program unseen by me.
I incorrectly assumed from the promotional materials that the program would look at horror movies and talk about their various monsters and serial killers—Dracula, mummies, the Ed Gein story, for example, staples of the genre. I enjoy horror history and thought this would be good fun. Boy, was I wrong: That would have required research and a budget. This was a classic paranormal bait-and-switch. It’s a sub-Ghost Hunters, sub-Fact or Faked program too credulous and too stupid to air even on Syfy. If you like night vision camera work, this show has completely gratuitous night vision just for you!
The first clue that something was wrong was the introduction of ufologist Richard Dolan as the lead investigator. You will, of course, remember him from the “Contact in the Desert” UFO symposium last month where he claimed that the U.S. government “house of cards will fall with citizen disclosure” of UFO contact. Dolan is a frequent guest on Ancient Aliens where he claims that the government is suppressing the truth, as he does in his many books and in the publishing imprint he founded to publish his books and those of like-minded writers.
Now what does a ufologist have to do with ghosts, Freddy Kruger, and witchcraft? Aren’t you glad you asked? Dolan previously worked with Chiller parent Syfy when it was the Sci-Fi channel for its 2006 program Sci-Fi Investigates, where he investigated the paranormal, primarily UFOs. This experience has allowed him to cross-pollinate into the world of the paranormal, and now to leak into my turf, the horror genre. It’s infuriating that once someone has entered the paranormal media circuit, that person will continue to receive new job offers for life, regardless of how wrong he is. It’s the paranormal version of tenure: get one TV show to employ you, and have a TV career for life.
The first segment was standard as far as paranormal mystery-mongering goes. Dolan and his team travel to Connecticut to “investigate” (by which I mean “credulously repeat whatever Ed ad Lorraine Warren claimed) about the Haunting in Connecticut. They wander around the house with night vision goggles, refuse to pass even the simplest test of evidence, and declare the ghosts real. One woman states that this haunting is second only to the Amityville Horror in importance. No one mentions that the Amityville horror has been repeatedly debunked. More to the point: In fact, the man who wrote the book The Haunting in Connecticut was based on later confessed that the story he wrote bore no relationship to reality and that the allegedly haunted family couldn’t keep their stories straight. When he raised his concerns with the Warrens, who “investigated” the haunting, they told him to “make it up and make it scary.” When he felt he couldn’t ethically publish the story except as fiction, the editor reclassified the book as nonfiction over his objection in order to make more money from a “true” story. What a crock. NBC Universal should be ashamed for failing to engage in even this most basic level of journalism in “reporting” the “truth” about the haunting. Also: Richard Dolan abdicates any claim to being an “investigator” by going along with this fraud.
The second segment reveals the program’s real aim, which has nothing to do with Hollywood movies or the horror genre and everything to do with promoting the fringe history/paranormal gravy train. The second movie to be “investigated” is the 1993 film Fire in the Sky, a dramatization of the Travis Walton UFO “abduction,” a story that I have previously reviewed when Ancient Aliens offered almost the same material. The crew then undertake an irrelevant night vision stakeout of the woods to hunt for UFOs. They see a light in the sky and scare themselves silly. Suffice it to say that skeptics and their excellent points about why this story are false make no appearance in this program. But Travis Walton made still more money from this, and Richard Dolan collected his paycheck, and Chiller/NBC Universal made still more cash from the show. Everybody but the truth wins.
The third segment examines A Nightmare on Elm Street by relating the original inspiration for the film, an outbreak of the so-called “Asian Death,” in which eighteen Laotian refugees suffered from night terrors in 1981 and died. Now you might think this would lead to an interesting segment in which the show investigated, say, the Laotian immigrants’ case, or even the well-known anthropological phenomenon where the belief in evil powers leads to physical sickness or even death through fear and suggestion. Ha! You would be wrong because that would involve showing non-white people on the screen for several minutes. (Everyone on this show is white, including all of the investigators and all of the people interviewed.) Instead, they hire a psychic and travel to an old insane asylum in Spring City, Pennsylvania to look for ghosts. More night vision transpires. This has nothing to do with Freddy Kruger and nothing to do with Wes Craven’s stated inspiration for the original Nightmare. But it does help to sell psychic services and NBC Universal’s other paranormal-themed programs on sister Syfy. Of the segment’s 30 minute run time, 3 minutes were devoted to Nightmare and 27 to bolstering the claim that psychics and even regular people can travel to “another reality” when they are sleeping or in trance states. I’d be interested to learn how Dolan, who here advocates the existence of this parallel reality, squares that with his belief in the physical reality of alien spacecraft UFOs. How does he know they aren’t imaginary projections from the spirit dimension?
The final segment had the potential to hew somewhat closer to the stated purpose of the show, if only because Syfy already has in its archives a pseudo-documentary made back in 1999 to promote The Blair Witch Project. Sadly, though, they don’t even give this one a minute’s lip service before simply throwing the Blair Witch out the window. Instead, the crew takes a more formalist approach, abandoning any mention of content to instead trace the cinematic inspiration: “We know,” Dolan says, “that it was at least related to a previous movie, The Last Broadcast, which dealt with the Jersey Devil.” After this, formalism is formally abandoned and we’re off to traipse through the woods for the Jersey Devil, with no other connection to the Blair Witch. (The Blair Witch Project actually takes part of its inspiration from a 1974 Cthulhu Mythos tale called “Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner, which is an excellent short story.) Weirdly, for the first time the crew seems to recognize that there is a chance the paranormal phenomenon isn’t real—suggesting that Ben Franklin invented the Jersey Devil, then called the Leeds Devil. (The real story is more complex than that, related to colonial era political disputes, but it’s a start.) But this is quickly tossed aside. They invite Paul Phillips of Puddle of Mudd (for star power) to tramp through the woods and look for the Devil using (yes) night vision cameras again. Guess what—they didn’t find it.
This show simply painted the horror genre onto a bad episode of Destination Truth and insidiously told viewers that aliens, ghosts, and monsters are both real and out to get them. I speak here ex cathedra as an expert on the horror genre and its relationship to science and knowledge, something none of the fools on this program can claim. This program made me angry because it was a bait-and-switch. It promised to be an investigation into the inspirations for famous horror movies, but it was just another piece of pro-paranormal propaganda masquerading as something better. It teaches nothing about horror but serves to pave the way for the credulous to open their wallets to every manner of psychic scammer, ufologist, ghost-buster who comes calling.
I guess we have not come very far from the days when media critics worried that the horror genre would lead the gullible into a belief in ghosts and vampires. Matthew Lewis had to defend his Castle Spectre (1797) against such charges:
Against my Spectre many objections have been urged: one of them I think rather curious. She ought not to appear, because the belief in Ghosts no longer exists! In my opinion, that is the very reason why she may be produced without danger; for there is now no fear of increasing the influence of superstition, or strengthening the prejudices of the weak-minded.
The only difference is that today everyone believes in the paranormal thanks not to horror but to supposedly non-fiction media, and the media celebrate horror for how efficiently it can be harnessed to generate new streams of revenue from paranormal believers.
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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