The Experience Project describes itself as the “premiere passions-based network,” a website where individuals share blog posts about their life experiences in order to connect with others who share those experiences. One of the topics at the Experience Project is “I Watch Ancient Aliens,” and it is as sad as you could imagine such a category would be.
But amidst the standard internet blather, a familiar refrain keeps manifesting, one that I’ve pointed to several times in the words of the Ancient Aliens cast members themselves: a spiritual longing that the aliens serve to fill. Here we have evidence from actual audience members (self-selected though they may be) that this religious impetus is not confined just to television alien speculators looking to fill air time.
On September 6, one writer lamented that there is a global conspiracy by world leaders to suppress the galactic harmony alien contact would produce:
I can’t do a lot about those decisions but I can try and reach out and I trust my friends here on Earth feel the same. We are a united planet that has not been told the truth. I have heard the stories of contact between ET and our leaders. I have heard that our leaders kept this from us and that the aliens obliged our leader’s choices. I’ve heard that our leaders are frightened and refused to let go of nuclear technology and in turn have been ignored by the galaxy as a whole. I want to tell you that these are not our choices. We wish to know you, we wish to meet you and we wish to greet you.
But this is more properly ufology than ancient astronautics. Let’s look at a post from just today that encapsulates everything I’ve stressed about Ancient Aliens for years now:
I remember when the show first aired I'd stop on it for a minute while channel surfing. I'd dismiss the theories and try to find a more logical explanation for the things they were talking about. TRY being the key word. Then I picked up Von Daniken's book 'Chariot of the Gods.' Then I started paying more attention. Then I watched every episode of season one, two, & three back to back on Netflix. It makes so much sense! It's become an obsession. This f*cking sh*t is the closest thing to religion that a guy like me could ever ask for. it's given me new perspective on everything I encounter in my daily life.
The “closest thing to religion” he could ask for. Doesn’t that say it all? The writer, unable to explain the shows “mysteries” (many of which are fake), mistakes his own ignorance for humanity’s and turns from science to faith to fill the gaps in his own knowledge. His last sentence is chilling, and I sincerely hope he is exaggerating. It sounds, though, that what he is grasping for is a sense of the Burkean sublime, something traditionally approached through religion and later through architecture and art, including Gothic horror. I found the Burkean sublime in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos (which was Lovecraft’s intention), where the unknown and unknowable serves to create terror and awe, and I have on previous occasions noted that this experience of the sublime is the closest I have come to the “thrill” some claim to experience due to religion. The audience for Ancient Aliens seems to be looking for this thrill of the sublime in a very literal way, trying to turn the transcendent into the material.
Worse, the audience seems to find a sense of community with ancient astronaut speculators—a community that it formed in opposition to the elites they feel are suppressing creativity and free expression. Consider this comment by a writer who is still upset that in high school, the writer’s science teacher gave a low grade to a paper that cited von Däniken as evidence of alien contact, taking the teacher’s lesson about credibility of sources as part of a conspiracy to suppress free thought and calling his teacher “close-minded.” The writer claims to have “fastidiously researched the subject, reading Von Däniken and other authors with similar views”—blissfully unaware that they are all copying one another, and contemptuous of actual scholarship in the field.
The most refreshing aspect of Ancient Aliens is that the show doesn't feel it's necessary to quote my 10th grade science teacher -- or anyone else who's going to dryly spout "swamp gas," "the planet venus," or "you're all either crazy or just making it up." Instead, the show presents its evidence, and then lets the viewer decide. Each episode features people I consider "old friends" -- George Noory, David Hatcher Childress, Philip Coppens, Robert Bauval, Erich Von Däniken himself, and others I have come to "know" over years of researching this subject. And the title font is reminiscent of the one used in "Battlestar Galactica!"
It’s what I’ve tried to say for years: Ancient Aliens is insidious because it conflates ideas with personality and through sheer repetition creates acceptance. These are the techniques of propaganda, and Ancient Aliens quite obviously is well-schooled in employing such methods. Just look at the second block quote above, where the writer came to accept the ancient astronaut theory because of five years of weekly exposure to the same repeated message. It reminds me of World War II when the Office of War Information required broadcasters to embed messages about recycling and income taxes into daily radio programs on a fixed schedule to balance repetition against listener exhaustion. They found once a week was just about the right amount of time to repeat a message.
Obviously, people who choose to write about their love of Ancient Aliens online are a small subset of the overall audience for the show, and the overall population in general, so we can’t extrapolate broader understanding of the show’s audience from this sample. But these are real people who watch this show religiously (in both senses), and it is important evidence for how at least some viewers use and employ what Ancient Aliens teaches to create and re-create their identities and their feelings about their position in society.
Anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, paranoia, ignorance, fear, faith… these are the forces that swirl around the ancient astronaut theory. They are symptomatic of our age and keep popping up again and again, whether with ancient astronauts, pre-Columbian white visitors, creationism, Freemason conspiracies, or any number of similar claims.
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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