Gulyas, Aaron John. The Paranormal and the Paranoid: Conspiratorial Science Fiction Television.
The Paranormal and the Paranoid provides an analysis of science fiction television that brought together paranormal and conspiracy theories and topics prominent in popular culture in the nineties. Gulyas's exploration involves a broad definition of both science fiction and the paranormal, the former encompassing not only what might be recognized as science fiction, but also horror and fantasy, and the latter including phenomena such as telekinesis and cryptozoology, with a special emphasis on UFOs, extraterrestrials, and alien abduction. This volume analyzes the interplay between the paranormal and conspiracy theories in a science fiction context, considering how the themes and topics of television and film from the 1950s through the 1980s influenced 1990s science fiction television, with The X-Files featuring prominently as an exemplar of the book's thesis. Gulyas explores his thesis through six chapters, framed by an introduction and epilogue.
The first chapter, "Conspiracy Theory and the Paranormal in the Late Twentieth Century," "explores the basic structure and themes of the paranormal and parapolitical conspiracy theories that dominated popular discussion during the 1980s and 1990s" (1). This includes an exploration of three particular aspects, including the paranormal and UFOs, various topics often connected to conspiracy theories, as well as the role of conspiracy theory communities and the ways in which they circulated their views. The UFO phenomenon began in 1947 with Kenneth Arnold's sightings of skipping discs near Mt. Rainier, but it wasn't until later that it assumed conspiratorial elements. The growing mythology surrounding an alleged saucer crash in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and the recovery of alien bodies by the U.S. military, numerous claims of alien abduction, and allegations about hidden military bases like Area 51 and secret groups such as Majestic 12, all contributed to conspiracy approaches to UFOs. This grew over the decades prior to the nineties, as conspiracy communities shared their convictions in a variety of ways, including Usenet system discussion forums, and later the internet. Gulyas considers Omni magazine an important source for the UFO conspiratorial community with its ability to bridge the scientific and the paranormal.
Chapter two discusses "Paranoid and Paranormal Precursors from the 1960s to the 1990s," setting up the cultural and subcultural context out of which programs like The X-Files grew. This includes science fiction and horror films and television, as well as documentary-style television treatments of the paranormal. Gulyas discusses 1950s to 1960s examples such as The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and The Outer Limits (1963-1965), as well as The Invaders (1967-1968), as important early television influences, as well as films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and They Live (1988). He also discusses important influences from the 1970s, including television programming such as Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974), which had a strong influence on Chris Carter; Project U.F.O. (1978-1979); and various documentaries and nonfiction approaches to paranormal topics such as the In Search of ... series (1976-1982), and In Search of Ancient Astronauts (1973). The UFO Incident (1975) television movie about the alleged alien abduction of Betty and Barney Hill was also significant during this decade. One noticeable omission from this discussion is The Stranger Within, a 1974 television drama with Barbara Eden playing a housewife impregnated by an alien in a story and teleplay by Richard Matheson. In regard to the significance of documentary and nonfiction approaches to UFOs and the paranormal in the 1970s, Gulyas notes that these were a part of "a surge in the publishing of nonfictional accounts of supernatural occurrences" (45).
The third chapter, "The X-Files: The Intersection of Real and Manufactured Mythology," explores the television series that became "a resolute symbol of the 1990s" (49). First airing on September 10, 1993, and coming from creator Chris Carter, The X-Files combined various elements, including the lingering distrust of government following Watergate in the 1970s, and increasing awareness of the UFO phenomenon, especially claims of alien abduction connected to government cover up. Gulyas reminds the reader that this was not the first television program to explore the paranormal, conspiracies, or distrust of the government, but argues that the key to its success is that The X-Files brought together various elements while focusing on a specific kind of conspiracy theory--that of the U.S. government turning on its own citizens. For those on the political right, The X-Files tapped into fears of those seeking to "undermine liberty and freedom" (51). The other end of the political spectrum had its own fears, and for "the left-of-center perspective, the rise of sovereign citizen and militia organizations threatened to unleash political violence" (51). The series was able to draw upon pop culture elements of conspiracy and the paranormal at just the right cultural moment and use these to create its own mythology. Its appealing formula alternated between science fiction and horror "monster of the week" episodes, and explorations of UFOs, alien abduction and conspiracy, with the depiction of extraterrestrial "cosmic Watergate" (55) becoming the central focus of the program over nine seasons. The X-Files was not the only television program to explore the paranormal and conspiracy in the 1990s, and chapter Four, "'History as We Know It Is a Lie': Dark Skies, Roswell, and Paranoid History in 1990s Television," looks at another. Dark Skies aired for one season from 1996-1997, drawing upon alien visitation as the point of departure in the depiction of "fantastic historiography" (78). In Dark Skies, accepted history was subverted through the re-interpretive lens of alien encounters. In his analysis, Gulyas points out how different Dark Skies and The X-Files were in the treatment of history, conspiracy theories, and the paranormal. For Dark Skies, events of the 1960s were lifted from the pages of history and reimagined wholesale as a part of the series' overarching narrative. By contrast, The X-Files picked up on historical elements connected to "the conspiracy and paranormal culture by providing a commentary on that culture and exposing the absurdity of the overly intricate webs of conspiracy favored by many at the time" (91).
"Sinister Forces: The Conspiratorial Mood in 1990s Science Fiction Television" is the subject of chapter five, with an exploration of Millennium, The Lone Gunmen, and Star Trek. For the most part, Star Trek was only able to explore the paranormal and conspiracy after the death of creator Gene Roddenberry. His utopian humanism envisioned an idealized humanity, but with his passing in 1991 various series installments in the Star Trek franchise explored these topics to varying degrees. Like The X-Files, Millennium and The Lone Gunmen were the creation of Chris Carter. Millennium (1996-1999) began with the premise of an FBI criminal profiler having unique insights in the minds of serial killers, but this would give way to another trajectory and an even darker tone. Over the course of its three seasons, this program drew upon "apocalyptic language and imagery" (114) and, as it developed, it shifted from the hunt for serial killers to "the unfolding of a dark, apocalyptic vision" (115) that included technological crises, secret societies, and religious mysticism. The Lone Gunmen (2001) was a spinoff from The X-Files that lasted for only thirteen episodes. Of particular note was its pilot episode, which post-9/11 seems especially prescient as its story involves the control of an airliner and the attempt to crash it into the World Trade Center in order to start a war and boost arm sales. Gulyas concludes this chapter by noting that "[conspiracies had, by the spring of 2001, seen their cultural moment come and go" (125).
Chapter six concludes this volume's analysis with consideration of "Our Dark Future: The Intersection of Conspiracy and Technology." This includes an exploration of the darker aspects of virtual reality as depicted in Wild Palms (1993), Harsh Realm (1999-2000)--a product of Chris Carter's Ten Thirteen production company--and VR.5 (1995), as well as mind control as addressed in the programs The Pretender (1996-2000) and Nowhere Man (1995-1996). This chapter also includes a discussion of "covert science and technology" (148) as featured in The X-Files, and in so doing brings the subject matter back to the exemplar of the 1990s synthesis of science fiction television, the paranormal, and conspiracy theories.
This is a helpful volume, and one that should be appreciated by scholars. Even so, it could have been stronger with a few additions. The definition and discussion of the paranormal in the Introduction is brief, and the reader is left with the impression that such phenomena are as fringe in the twenty-first century as they were at the end of the twentieth. Gulyas could have included some mention of the large numbers of people who believe in various forms of the paranormal, as revealed in Gallup polls and the Baylor Religion Survey, as well as the scholarly exploration of the subject from a variety of academic perspectives. This would help provide a broader context for appreciating phenomena easy to dismiss. While still considered fringe in relation to mainstream science and religion, the paranormal is significant religiously and culturally, and the legacy of science fiction and conspiracy theories in genre entertainment continues to play a part in how it is understood in popular culture. Gulyas might also have slightly expanded the epilogue to include discussion of the social function and power of the paranormal and the paranoid. In Lucifer Ascending (2004), Bill Ellis's discussion of "the occult" from the perspective of folklore studies, he mentions the "social roles played by occultism" in "subverting power structures" (6), which provide people with an opportunity to "participate directly in the mythic realm" (12). This then "gave people on the margins a context to entertain the possibility of inverting social roles" (6). There is some overlap between the occult and the paranormal, but regardless, the social dynamics Ellis mentions by way of the occult may also be applied with the paranormal and conspiracy theories in popular entertainment, thus giving us additional insights into why viewers find such programming appealing.
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|Author:||Morehead, John W.|
|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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