In case I haven’t made this little fact about me clear, I love a good story. I specially love it when a good story gets to people. A great tale can be as captivating as the truth – sometimes, more than the truth. When an idea bores its way into the center of a brain and takes hold, it is impossible to determine how it will come out the other way. We are each our own filters, sifting through the dirt for those impossibly-hard-to-find nuggets of gold.
And yet, at times, things can go way beyond the creators’ mindset and take a life of their own. Star Wars led some people to start a Jedi Church. No, really, click here to learn about the Jedi faith! The summer after Jaws was released saw a sharp decline in beachgoers. Perhaps the most famous example is Orson Welles’ 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, which caused a panic across the Eastern seaboard. Give a listen to the full broadcast here. (BTW, an entire decade later saw an even bigger panic and riot when a Spanish-version of the broadcast in Quito, Ecuador was performed by a local station).
What prompted me to start thinking of all that was a recent fake documentary called “Mermaids: The Body Found” that was playing on Animal Planet. In it, two actors pretend to be marine biologists who are “speaking on camera for the first time” about their experiences investigating the remains of an animal they uncovered during a mass beach whaling in 2004. The hook is that they combine real-life events like mass whale beachings of the last decade, rumored US Navy testing of SONAR-based weapons and the mysterious “bloop” signal of 1997, which was picked up by NOAA deep water microphones (Listen to the Bloop here), to create a fantastic tale of scientists trying to uncover the mystery of the animal they found while fighting a shadow government that does not want its new weapons systems stopped by a discovery of a new humanoid species.
The documentary gets a lot of things right. it spins this “Unsolved Mysteries” tone to create a massive mystery tale. They even borrow the old UM trick of hiring other actors to play the roles of the first actors in the “Dramatic Re-Enactment” scenes). The biologists race around the world trying to uncover what it is that is washing up with the beached whales, then as government agents make their presence felt, they find they must find a way to uncover what they come to accept are mermaids before the secret is taken from their hands. The “scientists” spin a tale borne out of the debunked “aquatic ape hypothesis” as well as the aforementioned “bloop” signal, long-told myths and legends and various “found footage” clips to make you believe the mermaids are real. And those sections work well – far better than the CGI scenes showing mermaid evolution.
It apparently did its job too well since a division of the actual NOAA had to create a website to debunk the fake documentary. (Read it here). Yes, you read that right. An official statement by the US government had to be put out to make it clear to people that there is no such thing as mermaids. This isn’t the first time they have had to do this either. Following the success of 2012 (the movie) and the non-stop scare-mongering by former education networks like the History Channel and Discovery Channel with their shows like “Nostradamus 2012” and “2012 Apocalypse”, NASA had to put out a whole FAQ section on how the “predicted Maya Apocalypse of 2012” isn’t really going to happen. (Read that whole page here).
So I guess the question is, “What is it that drives us to believe overt works of fiction and make them into facts?” Is there something within our psyche that seeks out the most outlandish and extreme of tales? Or do we look for them for some sort of personal validation? Look at all the UFO shows on TV and all the disaster movies (or movies that in some way or shape touch upon “The End of the World!!”). Look at the rise in the zombie movie genre in the last 10-12 years. The “edutainment” networks run shows touching on disasters, threats, monsters and even the people who are adamant that the end is nigh on a year-round basis now (all the “Doomsday Preppers” shows). We want to believe in something out-of-the-ordinary – just as the Greeks believed in the Olympians.
Before you go and think that this is all harmless or just the purview of major TV/movie projects, I should point out that just last year we had hundreds of persons ready to believe a radio evangelist’s claim that the world was going to end in May. When it didn’t happen, there were many who found themselves out of work and out of savings. Similarly, there’s many New Age devotees who have abandoned their entire lives to flock to a remote French mountain town, where they think they will be able to escape Doomsday when it happens on that most infamous of dates, December 21st, 2012.
If only they realized that John Cusack was doing a role for a movie.