For years now, I have ended each trip around the sun with a summary of the preceding twelve months in fringe history, space aliens, and the weird. Most years, these summaries run into the thousands of words because so much happened. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic and the American presidential election severely curtailed the number of extreme claims made about ancient history, as conspiracy theorists turned their attention toward disease and politics. Last year, I said I was ready for a long, difficult year to end, and now those look like the good old days. This year I published a new book and wrote two more, and I look forward to what I hope will be big things next year when publishers get a look at my newest manuscript. In the meantime, we can look back in sadness and anger.
The year started on a hopeful note when news broke that the Travel Channel did not renew America Unearthed for another season. Show host Scott Wolter started selling souvenir collector coins depicting his strange ideas about Templars and announced that there was a “spiritual” aspect to his ideas. Sister network the Science Channel suffered humiliation as its own America Unearthed clone, Unexplained + Unexplored failed to attracted even 300,000 viewers for its final episodes. The series did not return for a second season. Ancient Aliens returned for a fifteenth season, and the History Channel declared alien-themed programs “iconic” for the network. The Archaeological Institute of America held a conference featuring cable TV host Josh Gates as its featured speaker and sponsored by Discovery Communications, the company behind the Travel Channel and Science Channel fake archaeology shows. After Gates complained that I had unfairly criticized him for his sensational, sometimes pseudoscientific shows, he immediately launched a new show, hunting ghosts, monsters, and space aliens. The staff at Skinwalker Ranch couldn’t come up with any good ghost stories to promote their upcoming TV series. Ancient Origins was disappointed to discover anew the well-known truth that the caves of alien gold Erich von Däniken once described aren’t filled with alien gold. Robert Schoch falsely claimed to be able to translate alleged writing at Göbekli Tepe, which—big shock!—miraculously confirmed his strange ideas. Israeli researchers mistook basic special reasoning for an Ice Age conspiracy of secret symbolism at Göbekli Tepe. A onetime History Channel personality accused me of “civil conspiracy,” prompting several rounds between our lawyers. American Cosmic author Diana Pasulka disavowed a series of tweets from her account making wild accusations about secret government lunar cults and other inflammatory comments, some of which she later confirmed were actually taken from her own email. Tom DeLonge of To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science speculated that angels are aliens from Atlantis. An outfit called “Keystone University,” which is not an accredited university, claimed to prove Atlantis was Ireland by selling $1,100 seminar tickets to believers. In the first of many TV reviews that ended up influencing my newest book in unexpected ways, I covered a French science fiction series about time travel.
In February, my new book The Mound Builder Myth was published by the University of Oklahoma Press. An Australian geologist dubiously claimed that the Gunditjmara people of southern Australia preserved the world’s oldest oral history, dating back 37,000 years. Archaeologist Eliseo Gil faced jail time after prosecutors in Spain accused him of altering ancient artifacts to “rewrite history” and connect the Basques to Egypt. New Zealand giant hunters spent four years hunting Bible giants, only to find a moa bone. TTSA’s Hal Puthoff gave a speech claiming to know very little about flying saucers, a subject he had studied since the 1970s. Ken Ham got mad that a documentary about his Ark Encounter focuses too much on the silly parts of his creationist ideas. A believer in flat-earth ideas died while filming a stupid stunt for a Science Channel show chronicling his efforts to ride a homemade rocket into the sky to prove the Earth is flat. Scott Wolter claimed all of America’s Founding Fathers were Knights Templar.
Sarah Scoles published They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers, a thoughtful exploration of UFO culture. Her mirror image, Diana Pasulka, claimed Ancient Aliens was a “medium of the divine” connecting viewers to God. Less divine was comedian Rob Riggle’s Rob Riggle: Global Investigator series on the Discovery Channel. Combining pseudoscience and smarminess, Riggle repackaged bad ideas in a show that teetered between satire and seriousness without understanding either. A miserable failure, it ended its run in a late-night, low-rated timeslot and was not renewed. Brandon Fugal revealed himself as the new owner of Skinwalker Ranch to help promote a new TV series about its supposed paranormal mysteries. The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch debuted at the end of the month, but uncovered no supernatural secrets. A team of geologists claimed a comet destroyed a Syrian village during the alleged Younger Dryas impact event. Scott Wolter claimed a second Kensington Runestone exists, and Jack Sarfatti alleged UFOs are time machines powered by metamaterials. TTSA filed documents with the SEC detailing their interest in investigating imagined alien metamaterials. The UN rejected the Raelians’ efforts to create a protocol for diplomatic relations with aliens. The pandemic shut down most TV and even book and magazine production for much of the year, so alien and ancient history claims dried up partway through the month. My most popular blog post of March was a review of a Spanish soap opera about male strippers. Weirdly enough, I actually drew some inspiration from its effort to imbue outsiders with dignity in writing my new book.
The ongoing pandemic struck a major blow to fringe history and ufology. As social life and professional life ground to a halt, publishers and broadcasters ran out of content. Episodes of Rob Riggle, Ancient Aliens, and Skinwalker Ranch trickled out until everything produced before the pandemic aired. Somehow, Forbidden History had enough episodes to run into summer. In Los Angeles, Ancient Aliens producer Kevin Burns berated his employees for wanting to follow California’s lockdown orders, claiming not to be afraid of death. He declared Ancient Aliens an “essential” business to get around Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shutdown orders. The New York Times discovered Russia was trying to undermine America’s faith in science. David Wilcock, a former Ancient Aliens star who had previously accepted a berth on Russian television to spin anti-American conspiracies, announced that Democrats should worship Baphomet because “he’s a trans. He has boobs.”
The pandemic lockdown sent TV producers looking for ways to make content cheaply and remotely. A producer contacted me about adapting my work for a cable series only to vanish as soon as he discovered I’m not pro-alien. UFO journalist Leslie Kean discussed her interest in parallel dimensions. Anally probed paranormal abductee Whitley Strieber claimed to visit a parallel dimension and said he wants desperately to return. Unfortunately, he has not gone back. Egypt’s former Grand Mufti took to television to claim medieval pyramid myths were real. Scott Wolter claimed Neolithic Freemasons from Göbekli Tepe built ancient American mounds. British History Channel viewers ridiculed a UK promo featuring almost entirely straight white men. I reviewed Ryan Murphy’s series Hollywood, which reframed sexual abuse in postwar Hollywood as fun and empowering. In retrospect, my disgust at its awful message probably influenced my new book’s tone, approach, and theme more than anything else, though, apparently, I drew on some of my philosophical anger at The Hollow, too. My website turned 10 years old and hit its 3,000th blog post.
In June, TTSA took credit for Congress requiring the Pentagon to issue a UFO report. The Swedish pseudohistory series American Runestone, featuring guest expert Scott Wolter, was accused of racism. In the wake of nationwide anti-racism protests, the History Channel announced its support for racial equality, apparently without watching its own shows. A deep analysis of History viewing numbers proved what everyone suspected, that the network’s viewers are disproportionately older white rural men. Old white guy Mike Nelson of RiffTrax and MST3K got cornered into an apology after Twitter erupted in fury over his association with an anti-LGBTQAI+ comedian. I supposed I borrowed some lessons in characterization from the failure of 13 Reasons Why, particularly the Justin Foley character (Brandon Flynn), in depicting James Dean in my new book, and, to my surprise, before I had even conceived the book’s premise, I had already worked out a lot of my thematic ideas in reviewing Love, Victor and The Politician. And my theme was apparently anger.
In July, a controversial Nature article claimed evidence that Polynesians and South Americans interacted around 1200 CE. Billionaire Elon Musk trolled Twitter by announcing aliens built the pyramids. Bruce Fenton claimed Aboriginal Australians worship alien artificial intelligence probes. Corey Goode alleged Donald Trump knows UFOs are secretly American time machines, while a doctor attaching herself to Trump’s COVID conspiracies had some bizarre ideas about Reptilians and demonic sperm. Sen. Marco Rubio tried to distract from questions about Republican coronavirus response efforts with hot air about UFOs. Ralph Blumenthal and Leslie Kean published an article in the New York Times featuring TTSA personnel and claiming former Sen. Harry Reid told them the U.S. had recovered crashed flying saucers The Times quickly retracted the claim. Blumenthal and Kean then mistook slides TTSA’s Hal Puthoff presented at a courtesy briefing for Pentagon officials for official slides the government prepared for other officials. MUFON’s executive director was arrested on child solicitation charges. On a whim, I watched Rebel without a Cause for the first time because it happened to be on TCM and the pandemic had left most TV in reruns. Before the movie was over, I knew that my thoughts were going to turn into an article, and by the time I finished the article, I realized that I had written the précis for a book. Somehow everything I wrote about in those TV reviews came together into something grander, and when I covered the anniversary of an old show I watched as a teen, I realized I had been working on this book for twenty years. Six months later, I had a finished manuscript.
Pres. Donald Trump announced he would be “totally guided” on the flying saucer issue by “UFO expert” and Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs. Tom DeLonge of TTSA claimed ancient texts told him that supernatural powers manipulate reality. The New Republic tried to understand TTSA. The Atlantic tried to understand how mommy bloggers became obsessed with Qanon’s Satanic-Reptilian conspiracies. Rolling Stone tried to understand how UFO culture took over every level of American life, from trailer parks to the White House. The Pentagon announced the formation of an Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force to hunt flying saucers. Taking credit, TTSA’s Luis Elizondo claimed to be part of an “unstoppable” army of ufologists. A Washington state legislator refused to apologize for promoting a conspiracy theory that Reptilian-human hybrids were kidnapping children for demon sex orgies. Reptilian conspiracy theorist David Icke helped lead a march in London to oppose COVID mask mandates. As COVID-19 began to spread uncontrolled, things got dark fast.
Time magazine reported that Reptilian Satanic demon-pedophile Qanon conspiracy theories had a measurable influence on potential 2020 Trump voters. Promoting his History Channel TV show, Tom DeLonge claimed TTSA briefed Trump officials on UFOs, and he said the Pentagon is hiding the truth about otherworldly beings to keep civilization from collapsing. Scott Wolter attacked his former employer, the History Channel, saying he didn’t trust them anymore. Really? If you can’t trust people who purport to believe demon-pedophile Reptiles from space buried the Ark of the Covenant on Oak Island, then who can you trust? History Channel “consulting producer” Erich von Däniken published a new book that recycled old claims with gratuitous transphobic commentary. The producer who returned von Däniken to fame with Ancient Aliens, Kevin Burns, died. His shows, including Ancient Aliens and Curse of Oak Island, continued on, zombie-like, feeding back into Qanon conspiracy theories.
Miley Cyrus claimed she once saw a UFO while high. Graham Hancock and Brian Muraresku appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast to claim ancient Greek religion and Christianity are the result of tripping balls on ’shrooms. Muraresku used the appearance to solicit cable and streaming services to give him a pseudohistory TV show. German police tied an attack on ancient artifacts in Berlin museums to a conspiracy theory involving the Greek gods being Satan and his demons. Donald Trump celebrated the “Judeo-Christian values” of white Vikings who “discovered” the New World. He followed up the proclamation with another lauding the “splendor” of Christopher Columbus and blasting “radical” liberals for promoting a “bleak” view of history. He identified historical figures like Columbus who were responsible for untold Native deaths as “intrepid heroes.” Ancient Aliens star Nick Pope predicted Trump would triumph in the 2020 election by unleashing space aliens as “the ultimate October surprise.” Demi Lovato promoted an app to contact aliens run by Steven Greer, the UFO huckster who exploited the remains of a stillborn child by marketing the body as a space alien. In promoting his new TV show, Ozzy Osbourne mistook the 1994 movie Stargate for reality and claimed Egyptian pyramids imitated triangular spaceships. The owners of the house used in the first season of American Horror Story started selling ghost tours of the previously not-haunted house. A literary agent agreed to represent my new book.
Ancient Aliens returned for a sixteenth season. The new episodes, assembled after the pandemic began, were noticeably poorer in quality, containing a greater percentage of previously aired footage from past episodes and outtakes from previous episodes. Curse of Oak Island returned as well, to diminished ratings. Scott Wolter alleged that an agent of the federal government contacted him to aid in the UFO disclosure movement once Trump has left office because he is “credible” and espouses “traditional American values.” Wolter added that the aliens advocate a return to liberal midcentury ecological and defense policies. Keisha and Alice Cooper wondered if interdimensional space demons started COVID-19.
A flap over a Pentagon report supposedly documenting evidence of military sightings of UFOs emerging from the ocean descended into ridicule when the Navy’s UFO photo was identified as a children’s Batman Mylar party balloon. Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, whose show is the highest rated in cable news history, covered the report seriously anyway, claiming UFOs double as ET submarines. An elderly former Israeli space official claimed U.S. officials work alongside space aliens at a Martian base. The mainstream media reported the allegations seriously until discovering he borrowed them from cable TV, not government agencies. Mars conspiracy theorist Richard Hoagland joined Scott Wolter in claiming an art installation in Utah was the work of the CIA. They claimed the agency tried to pass off the shiny steel monolith as an alien wonder as part of a plot to use “memes” to manipulate humanity. In a separate interview, Scott Wolter claimed space aliens look like humans, Grey aliens are their clone servants, and aliens are time travelers. Lue Elizondo, Chris Mellon and Steve Justice abruptly quit TTSA, claiming it was too focused on entertainment. Hal Puthoff remained with TTSA while the internet speculated that he worked with a Grey alien in the 1980s. Journalists discovered Puthoff had recently met with Senate staffers to brief them on interdimensional space ghosts. The Pentagon’s UAP Task Force was revealed to have only two staffers and no budget. A former Curse of Oak Island treasure hunter reinvented himself as a pro-Trump voter fraud conspiracy theorist in a presentation to the Georgia Senate. ABC News reported that the man who bombed a Nashville neighborhood on Christmas, killing himself in the process, acted on paranoid conspiracy theories including fears about the mind-control power of 5G technology and his beliefs about space aliens. When the Pentagon and Congress pretend there is a space alien threat, what did they expect to happen?
As the year came to a close, I finished the manuscript for my new book on Christmas Eve, and I sent it to my agent on December 26. It will go out to publishers after the New Year.
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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