My first exposure to what I’ll simply call “the grotesque” happened at WalMart. Who could imagine a more pedestrian setting for an event that would simultaneously scandalize my delicate sensibilities and fascinate my overactive imagination? I sure couldn’t, but I’ve found that the American mainstream is wondrously littered with weirdness (if only we possess the eyes to see). The current case is a perfect example, but I’ll go ahead and let the steam out of the balloon, since it’s not going to immediately strike you as truly “grotesque.” Three words: Weekly World News.
Or, more accurately, let’s reduce it to two: bat boy.
See? Audible groan. But that’s exactly my point, if you’ll permit me to get around to it. This absurdly grotesque little magazine doesn’t seem all that strange to us anymore!
Why? Cause it was everywhere. Once upon a time, before it quietly died in 2007, this strange little magazine that claimed to publish stories (and this is from the inside flap of this huge, erm, “anthology” of WWN articles that has somehow found its way into my possession) “ too scandalous, too risqué, or too dangerous for so-called reputable news sources” was the first thing you saw when entering the checkout lane of the world’s third (following 7-11 and SPAR. Weird, right? I thought WM would be the biggest too) largest supermarket chain. And it seemed like more times than not, “bat boy” was on the cover.
We’ve all seen pictures of the 2-foot, 19-pound half-bat, half-human boy who was captured and held in some facility in West Virginia (and, of course, escaped, only later to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth for saving a British Army patrol in Iraq). We were also thoroughly familiarized with the post-mortem escapades of Elvis Presley (who faked his death to deal with the pressures of a drug addiction), and (who else?) bigfoot. It’s hard to imagine how widespread the cultural currency of these fantastic stories would be without the WWN. It’s only thanks to this publication, after all, that some of us ever stopped to wonder about things like UFOs in the Whitehouse at all.
What I could say here is “how weird is it that this technologically-advanced, thoroughly scientific society displayed such blatant pseudo-paranormal trash front and center?” But that’s not what I’m here to point out. In fact, I think that the WWN was an entirely reasonable manifestation of the intellectual climate. In a strange twist of fate, we’re more likely (as a society, if not as stiflingly rational individuals) to accept the existence of publications like WWN than real, scientifically-oriented paranormal scholarship.
This may seem like a stretch. I assure you it’s not. But before I explain, let’s give credit where credit is due. As a writer of fiction, I can’t hate on WWN too much. Anything that injects a healthy dose of weirdness into the mainstream is certainly worth something, and as far as creativity goes, the magazine deserves recognition for its lack of boundaries and its apparent celebration of fringe phenomenon.
Nevertheless, note that I had to say “apparent,” since “celebration” in this context tastes uncomfortably like exploitation. “Exploitation” may seem like a strange word to some readers, since we’re dealing with bigfoot narratives and Bill Clinton’s fascination with a “three-breasted” secretary. After all, UFO abductions, vampires, and other imaginary monsters should be fair game, since they’re nonsense to begin with.
In a sense, the fact that this feels like a rational, measured response to my claim of “exploitation” is exactly the point. In truth, paranormal experiences have been around for as long as humanity itself. It’s fairly shocking to me that even paranormal events undeniably foundational to western culture (Christ’s resurrection, anyone?) aren’t taken seriously, even among the millions of people who would swear, if asked, that they literally believe in them. Even the few who do take Jesus’ Magical Miracle Tour at face value would generally hesitate before calling the numerous UFO sightings, poltergeist phenomena, NDEs, and similar experiences reported by people around the world “real” in any significantly objective sense. I’ve experienced a handful of these events first hand myself, and with other people present (who did, in fact, witness the same incredible things I did); they are real (read “really experienced,” to lift a term from Jeffrey Kripal’s studies), they do happen, and it’s really kind of a willful blindness to pretend otherwise. But don’t take my word for it; I encourage the interested reader to turn to scholars working in the fringe of cutting-edge scientific and religious studies alike. Two books come to mind as fairly thorough overviews here, albeit from radically different intellectual directions: Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions, and Steve Volk’s Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable and Couldn’t. Both are more than worth the read.
My point here isn’t to convince you that the paranormal is real. You either believe or you don’t, even though a studied exploration and an open mind can do wonders to even your firmest-held worldview (ex-hardcore Dawkins devotee here). What I do want to argue is that in a largely materialistic, overly-rational, and down-to-earth intellectual climate, the Weekly World News makes perfect sense.
This may seem paradoxical, but the WWN does some serious legwork in the endless task of propping up our mechanical, anti-spiritual view of the world. Propaganda, after all, isn’t really science’s strong point, since it’s obviously predicated on logos, which (presumably) keeps the insidious forces of ethos at bay. We all know, however, that a doctrine that sways the masses must appeal to “lower,” “old brain” reflexes: disgust, outrage, hilarity, and other emotions must conspire against undesirable elements beneath the calm surface of a “worldview” (insofar as the “worldview” in question is technically short of a Weltanschauung).
The problem with WWN is that it’s less interested in paranormal events than it is stereotypes of fringe phenomena. It’s okay for bat boy to stare at you while you’re waiting in line at the checkout counter because it makes you think to yourself “Jesus, what the hell is wrong with people?” instead of “Wow, the universe is such a vast, impenetrable mystery despite our best attempts to explain everything!”
Yes, the WWN is a particularly subtle bit of (possibly unwitting) propaganda. Ultimately, it lumps paranormal phenomena together with bizarre celebrity conspiracy theories and blatantly outrageous narratives calculated to shock its audience. Despite the editor’s thin claim to publish the “truth,” the WWN does nothing to truly further interest in real paranormal events; it serves, rather, to justify our automatic dismissal of paranormal events as “crazy.”
Again, I don’t want to be too harsh here. The WWN is sort of entertaining and an important piece of cultural history, but that shouldn’t give our blind assumptions a free pass. I imagine that many of the sad souls awaiting the register at WalMart checkout lines do the same thing I used to do. They probably mistake the WWN for paranormal studies. Imagine thinking that the quality of scholarship surrounding abduction phenomena begins and ends with the tabloids? How could any rational person take such a pseudo-academic field seriously? As it turns out, the academy doesn’t take these things seriously. Despite the efforts of many impassioned scholars of religion, psychology, physics, and various other disciplines, the paranormal remains professionally ignored today.
Maybe this is due to our unexamined reflex to confuse the paranormal with the tabloids. Maybe it’s worth being conscious of how our perceptions of the paranormal are formed. The WWN isn’t the only publication in history seeking to trivialize the paranormal, after all. If you haven’t experienced the paranormal first-hand, your perception is entirely predicated on the voices of others. It’s high time we pay attention to what those voices are saying. And it’s not just the vocal UFO and religious nuts who deserve our skepticism. Sometimes, those who shout too loudly in the other direction do as well, even if their shouting seems like a joke.
-Justin A. Burnett