It’s the 1980’s and a little boy is browsing his parents’ library. Nikola Tesla is a “Man out of Time.” The Illuminati are managing the stagecraft of history. Antiquated diagrams posit a hollow Earth, concealing its own internal sun and refugee Nazi army–and who built the pyramids, now?
Next door, where the grandparents live, Bob Larson is exorcising demons from those unwary teenagers who have haplessly dabbled in D&D and heavy metal. A well-organized conspiracy is hiding the truth of Satanic ritual sacrifice, while the Antichrist is waiting in the wings to implant 666 chips into the palms of all but the most faithful Christians. Ouija boards are serious business and, with a sharp eye and a handy camera, you just might be the one to prove the existence of UFOs. To borrow a phrase; nothing is true, and everything is permitted.
Conspicuously absent are: Absurd rants against the scientific method, comparing the peer-review process to the persecution of Galileo. Are: Skeptical activists, at every corner, reminding us all of just how empty and devoid of meaning the universe probably is. Is: a crushing awareness of the publishing deals and narcissism that drive it all.
It might be age, or it might be a changing culture, but what was once a source of wonder for me has all too often become a source of contention; the believers vs. the skeptics, engaged in high-stakes ideological warfare for supremacy over the blogosphere and cable television networks. The phenomena that once engaged my imagination have been reduced to talking points on the value of critical thinking–or on the dangers of scientific orthodoxy–depending upon the commentator’s perspective.
The old-time Forteana that I remember, when I’ve done chasing the kids from my lawn, when I’ve hitched by pants up to my chest and retired to my darkened basement littered with bulky, undigitized books, was was playful, speculative, and curious. Mothman, the Jersey Devil and Mad Gasser of Mattoon were legends to be appreciated, not taken too seriously. Pyramid power, alien abduction, and the Anunnaki of Nibiru were curious ideas that widened your imagination, rather than mounting evidence for a favored worldview. Of course, one might well believe in these or any of the other paranormal phenomena that presented themselves, but the current propensity for proving to others, for grinding axes and winning arguments, was not the overriding concern.
Or, at least, that’s how I remember it. Now, get off my porch.