Compared to years past, this was a rebuilding year for the fringe. Most of the major figures on the fringe sat the year out, preparing for bigger things in 2019 and beyond, and those that were active either failed to produce their promised results, delivered results that failed to meet expectations, or spent their time teasing revelations yet to come in 2019, or whenever they need a cash infusion. There was no major fringe history bestseller this year, and the wannabes in the category came from small presses and consequently received little or no media attention outside dedicated fringe sites. The new fringe pseudo-documentaries that made it to air either muddled through their middling runs or failed outright. The reason for the decline in the fringe was easy enough to see: The fringe had gone mainstream in 2017, and the continued presence of conspiracy theorists and fringe thinkers in the upper ranks of the Republican Party and the Trump Administration lessened the demand for pseudo-history. These sorts of claims tend to be more popular as counterprogramming.
The painful absurdity of 2017 meant that most people in the fringe world took a few days to work up to a full running start. The month began with the Southern Poverty Law Center taking notice of the rightwing undercurrents of much of fringe history and warning the public about the way that popular claims found on the History Channel and elsewhere have been adopted by white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, and anti-Semites. That same week, Douglas County, Minnesota dedicated the $1 million Kensington Rune Stone Park Visitors Center, which featured a small museum devoted to the infamous hoax tablet and its tale of Norse visitors to medieval Minnesota. It included information provided by former History Channel personality Scott Wolter, who attended the dedication. The small Visitors Center also has a community room that can be rented out and is most used by locals for its public bathroom. Turkish state television featured a Syracuse University-trained chemist who claimed that Noah’s Ark ran on nuclear power and that Noah and his progeny communicated by cellphone. “I speak for science,” Yavuz Örnek declared in making the claim. Another televisual attempt at “science” received harsher attacks for being more serious: In Canada, the CBC came under fire from hundreds of scientists after running a largely uncritical documentary on the Solutrean Hypothesis giving positive coverage to the idea that the first humans in the Americas were European. The documentary aired unchanged in the U.S. in April on the Smithsonian Channel. Micah Hanks launched a website to explore ancient history, but it fizzled out into a link page for his podcast. Hal Puthoff of To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science told Coast to Coast that he had personally been in charge of testing metals suspected of being part of crashed flying saucers even though he has no scientific background in metals. At the end of the month, Gaia TV asked me to fly to an undisclosed location for a one-hour interview, but I declined when they refused to provide any information about the event. That wasn’t creepy at all!
When Expedition Unknown host Josh Gates confessed to being a closet ancient astronaut theorist in 2017, it was a bit of a shock, but it made it less surprising that at the beginning of February he took his show in search of the fictitious golden alien library Erich von Däniken falsely claimed to have visited in Ecuador. He didn’t find it but contracted rotavirus instead. At the same time, Nephilim theorist L. A. Marzulli held a “global symposium” in Los Angeles to present DNA evidence related to the elongated skull of Paracas. He revealed nothing conclusive in a presentation marred by technical difficulties. He later claimed that unnamed donors gave him $150,000 to test the skulls’ DNA and attacked me as a “disinformation agent” and a “paid shill” for mainstream science. An academic journal falsely alleged that Plutarch recorded an ancient voyage to Canada, and the History Channel ran a multipart series about the Knights Templar focusing on familiar conspiracy theories. Erich von Däniken put out his first derivative and repetitive English-language book of the year, and alternative Egyptologist John Anthony West died after pursuing alternative medicine for his cancer.
As March began, L. A. Marzulli and his team of experts continued to make claims that the Paracas skulls contained Dba indicative of an Old World origin and suggestive of being a “sub-species” of human, i.e. Nephilim. Their claims faced criticism from scientists, who suspected contamination, and eventually Marzulli moved on to UFO mysteries. Gaia TV broadcasted a documentary featuring Russian claims that a mutilated and remodeled human corpse in Peru was the body of a space alien. The journal Genome Research published a controversial article on the “Atacama Humanoid” by a geneticist heavily involved in UFO studies. The article claimed that the tiny body was human but suffering from an unknown genetic illness. The article received harsh criticism for overstating the genetic uniqueness and for failing to adequately address the fact that the fetal skeleton had likely been illegally stolen from a Chilean grave. Another major scandal unfolded when it was discovered that prehistorian James Mellaart had forged a large number of Luwian inscriptions going back to 1976, including an inscription related to the Trojan hero Muksus. Former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, who worked to establish the Pentagon’s recent program for investigating UFOs, confessed to New York magazine that he had “zero” interest in math and science and that science fiction “bores” him. Nevertheless, after meeting Robert Bigelow, the billionaire UFO nut, he pursued an active interest in UFOs and related conspiracy theories without developing an interest in science.
In April, ABC News endorsed the ancient astronaut theory (again), and a British man claimed to have found the real King Arthur (again), but neither story had more than a few hours’ staying power. The Ohio State University Center for the Study of Religion held a symposium on UFOs and religion that featured credulous claims about the supernatural and the cosmic, but mostly nobody noticed because of the crush of Donald Trump news. MUFON’s research director resigned over the organization’s failure to adequately address its ongoing racism scandal. Newsweek picked up on the story and discovered the racist infiltration of modern ufology. Once again, few paid any attention to that story either. Frank Joseph, the former Neo-Nazi leader turned fringe author, gave a radio interview about ancient white colonies in America. Scott Wolter took to the radio and claimed that new evidence in support of his theories would come out at an unknown date in the future. We wouldn’t see it until November, and then we laughed. Tom DeLonge and Megan Fox both announced new fringe-y TV shows, but only one would air before year’s end, to nearly no viewers. The month ended with the start of the thirteenth season of Ancient Aliens, and the show passed the original run of In Search Of… in the total number of episodes produced, becoming the longest-running fringe mysteries series. Of all April’s fringe history events, it was the only one to attract significant attention and a large audience.
Former Blondie band member and occult researcher Gary Lachman tried to tie Donald Trump to an occult conspiracy bent on chaos and suggested that Trump possesses actual magical powers. Graham Hancock announced that he now believes that the universe is a conscious entity and that reincarnation actually occurs. Hancock’s frenemy Andrew Collins tried to link Gobekli Tepe to the Denisovans in new book that generated very little buzz but did get him featured more prominently on Ancient Aliens. Fellow Ancient Aliens pundit David Wilcock announced that he declined to appear on the show’s season premiere featuring an interview with Democratic operative John Podesta because of their political differences. Ancient astronaut theorists gathered for the annual Contact in the Desert conference, but the only news to come out of it was Giorgio Tsoukalos’s reported claim that space aliens were responsible for “crap” going on around the world. In the ironic depths of ridiculousness, Erich von Däniken claimed in a newspaper interview that newspapers won’t cover the ancient astronaut theory. Robert Schoch visited the Joe Rogan podcast to complain that he doesn’t get enough attention from important people. The prolific fringe writer Brad Steiger, author of a number of very poor quality but nevertheless widely read and influential books about ancient mysteries, UFOs, and the paranormal, died after repeating many of the same false claims for half a century, even though he knew better. Newsweek reported that Robert Bigelow investigated whether UFOs caused poltergeists and psychic phenomena.
June was an unusually slow month in fringe world, with most of the leading lights of the fringe busy making money on tour or shooting documentaries to release for the holiday season. Italy’s leading ancient astronaut theorist gave a speech casting doubt on the Holocaust. David Carroll claimed to find King Arthur (again) and sent out a press release (again) offering £50,000 to anyone who could prove him wrong, under conditions that made it impossible. Frank Joseph published yet another book exploring ancient mysteries as part of a subtle argument for white nationalism. Hal Puthoff of To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science gave a speech to a remote viewing conference in Las Vegas that accidentally provided the information needed to unravel the almost certainly fake “mystery” of the so-called “metamaterials” To the Stars and Robert Bigelow investigated. The material seemed likely to be industrial waste. This led the credulous New York Times reporter who covered the Pentagon UFO program last year to angrily allege that it was “potentially libelous” for me to draw unwelcome conclusions about Puthoff’s claims. Eric Davis, who worked for Robert Bigelow and with To the Stars, confirmed that their teams both believe UFOs to be space ghosts who like to play practical jokes on humans. Donald Trump announced the creation of Space Force to combat threats from space, and ancient astronaut theorists gathered for the first of two Alien Con Ancient Aliens fan conventions, to largely uncritical press coverage. Ancient Aliens celebrated nine years on the air by releasing a tenth anniversary DVD set a year early.
An unimpressive reboot of In Search of…, retitled In Search Of, starring Zachary Quinto debuted on the History Channel to middling ratings and little media buzz. Ancient Aliens star David Wilcock quit his job at Gaia TV, ostensibly over what he called the network’s “Luciferian” beliefs. Shortly after, he disappeared from Ancient Aliens and began blogging regularly about his belief in pro-Trump conspiracy theories imagining prominent liberals as pedophiles and space aliens. The New York Times ran a glowing Sunday feature on Alien Con and Ancient Aliens, painting ancient astronaut theorists as lovable rogues and quoting executive producer Ken Burns as admitting the show is really about “looking for God.” To the Stars launched “Project Adam” to (possibly) investigate alien metals, but by year’s end all they had to show for it was a couple of YouTube videos and promises that they might release evidence in 2019. In Peru, a congressman introduced legislation to require the government to investigate the “alien” mummies (which multiplied in number) seen on Gaia TV and to them of historical-cultural interest to Peru. Erich von Däniken’s American publisher released a lazy fiftieth anniversary edition of Chariots of the Gods that reprinted the thirtieth anniversary edition with a repetitive new foreword and afterward. The book’s anniversary celebrations received virtually no mainstream notice.
In August, Hal Puthoff started walking back claims about the “alien” nature of the metals To the Stars promoted, admitting that he had not actually tested the metals claimed to have an alien origin. An Australian professor offered a ridiculous claim that global myths of giants were the result of climate change in an otherwise logical argument that oral history accurately preserves memories of Ice Age landscapes. Giorgio Tsoukalos upset Philippines journalists by refusing to play along with efforts to declare Philippine rice terraces the work of aliens. The History Channel, running out of barrel bottoms to scrape, broadcasted The Last Pope, a documentary about the Prophecy of St. Malachy, a Renaissance forgery, and speculating on the imminent end of the Catholic Church. The show featured talking heads from Forbidden History, an anti-abortion activist, and Scott Wolter, and it concluded with a blatant appeal for America to join Russia in upholding conservative values. Ancient Aliens broadcasted an episode praising Russia and the Putin regime, while Ancient Aliens pundit Richard Dolan flirted with the Q-Anon pro-Trump conspiracy in a Facebook Live video and said America should “thank” Russia if its meddling had damaged the Democratic Party. An NBC News study of 2016 Russian social media propaganda postings found that the same bot and troll accounts tweeting election propaganda also delivered content about UFOs and ancient mysteries.
National Geographic lent its name to a “special edition” covering “mysteries of history” such as Atlantis and other lies. Ex-Neo-Nazi Frank Joseph published another UFO book, with ample praise for Nazi science and an acceptance of fake stories, including one from the Weekly World News. Las Vegas TV reporter and former Bigelow confidant George Knapp claimed that a Christian cabal within the Pentagon fears that UFOs are piloted by demons. Knapp was also involved with a documentary about Skinwalker Ranch that generated a lot of media buzz but only confirmed that Bigelow’s investigators were biased and prone to fantasies. To the Stars further walked back their alien metamaterials claim, stating that the materials are only “potentially” alien and that their investigation might go “nowhere.” Newsweek wondered why To the Stars makes so much noise while showing absolutely no data. Atlantis was found again, in Mauritania, and the claim was promoted by Russian propaganda outlets, despite the complete lack of evidence for Atlantis there. In Search Of devoted its season—and possibly series—finale to finding Atlantis on Santorini, on Sardinia, and in the Sahara. Despite repeating claims of earlier documentaries nearly point for point, Zachary Quinto failed to find Atlantis.
In October, Chapman University found that belief in Atlantis rose again, to 57%. Steve P. Kershaw published a major book debunking the myth of Atlantis, which resulted in no diminution in Atlantis claims. Atlantis was found again, on the imaginary island of Frisland, thanks to wishful thinking. Publisher Mitch Horowitz published a bizarre book of his own in which he claimed that positive thinking could change reality, and rich people are rich because they have better thoughts than the poor and money is a reward for superior thought processes. His key advice was to meditated on “a certain amount of money that you want to make” and then bargain with God to receive the money. A translation error in the English version of a BBC News report originally in Marathi accidentally gave rise to claims that Ice Age Africans colonized India. The Travel Channel broadcasted a racist documentary searching for a lost race of white supermen in Peru. One cast member wept tears of joy when he thought he found evidence white people once ruled pre-Inca Peru. David Wilcock returned to the spotlight and released a streaming documentary linking UFOs to nearly every conspiracy theory. The film made a boatload of cash from viewers willing to pony up to stream it. George Knapp doubled down on his claims about Christian demonology in the Pentagon and claimed that Christian extremists shut down the Pentagon UFO tracking program for fear that the program would help Satan send demons to Earth. For criticizing his slippery ethics, he called me an ignorant basement-dweller in comments published online. Diana Muir published what she claimed to be her own translation of Victorian copies of medieval journals written by Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, detailing his affiliation with the Knights Templar and voyages to Canada a century before Columbus. Scott Wolter vetted the journals, despite Muir having disposed of them, by consulting Freemasons, and he wrote an enthusiastic foreword to her book.
Scott Wolter spent much of November defending the so-called Sinclair Journals, unconvincingly, and describing how they tell a tale that aligns perfectly with Wolter’s own claims, including some first proposed only in the middle 2000s. But he also accidentally revealed that the Freemason who reviewed the only surviving pages of the journals said that the Latin wasn’t right for its alleged period. This led to another conspiracy theory, this time about a Templar cabal in Tennessee rewriting the journals in fake medieval Latin during the Civil War. A Peruvian congressman invited ufologists to testify before Congress that the taxidermy mummy featured on Gaia TV is that of a space alien. Peruvian scientists boycotted the hearing and publicized their own findings that the body is a patchwork of human and animal bones. Erich von Däniken took to YouTube to promote an online Swiss ancient astronaut research group run by three Tsoukalos-wannabees with limited English skills because “the younger generation goes into the internet.” Von Däniken claimed that television refuses to discuss his hypothesis that the Nazca Lines were an airport, despite the fact that he is a consulting producer on Ancient Aliens and literally appeared on TV in the episode on the Nazca lines as UFO airport. Von Däniken confessed in an interview that he disagrees with many of the extreme claims made on Ancient Aliens but is happy to cash their checks anyway. “I’m not happy with all the conclusions Ancient Aliens makes,” he said. Ancient Aliens star David Childress claimed that space aliens living in the hollow moon genetically engineered Bigfoot as the missing link between humans and apes. Atlantis was found (again), in Spain (again). The Boston Globe offered a balanced report on the Westford Knight.
The year ended with a whimper when movie star Megan Fox launched her new Travel Channel series Legends of the Lost to explore fringe claims about a lost race of giants, the lost wisdom of a lost civilization at Stonehenge, and the lost sock that disappears from the dryer. Despite appearances from fringe celebrities like Graham Hancock and ex-History Channel host Jim Vieira and glowing coverage across the mainstream celebrity media, the four-episode series tanked in the ratings, averaging only half a million viewers. The much more successful Curse of Oak Island, with its more than three million weekly viewers, continued to spread Templar lies, including claims using the same documents Scott Wolter said he was using for a forthcoming book about the Templars. In the closing days of 2018, one of the men involved with the supposed “Templar” map of Oak Island shown on Curse admitted that the map was a fake. Curse offered a ridiculous claim that the Jolly Roger was the Templar pirate flag. Just in time for Christmas, the History Channel published a dull Curse of Oak Island tie-in book in which author Randall Sullivan hero-worshiped the show’s stars and admitted to making his own views more extreme in exchange for screen time on Curse, a paid vacation, and swag.
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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