If you are like me (and have a masochistic interest in watching pseudo-scientific documentaries) then you probably watched Animal Planet’s Mermaids: The Body Found over the weekend. And if you were like me, you probably knew that it was fake. You could tell just from the commercials, before the documentary aired, that there was something completely bunk about it (like the fact that it claims mermaids are real, for instance–usually sends up red flags for me). They even made a rather subtle disclaimer:
However, if you weren’t like me, you probably thought the documentary made a very compelling case and were convinced by its conclusions. Well, sorry to say, you were fooled (FOX News seems to think the doc was genuine). As reported by MSNBC:
If you were unnerved over the holiday weekend by Animal Planet’s special “Mermaids: The Body Found,” take a deep breath. It’s OK to go back in the water again, and you can quit eyeing your copy of “The Little Mermaid” suspiciously.
The two-hour program is fiction, but it’s presented in documentary style, with actors playing scientists who claim to have found the body of a mermaid on a Washington state beach.
While I was watching the documentary, the producers did some very interesting things. They used CGI to produce long segments of content (specifically about the ‘Aquatic Ape theory‘), they used real science (complete with DNA analysis, cellular analysis, the link between dolphins and humans, certain interesting evolutionary attributes of humans, and gave it credibility by using agencies like NOAA), drew upon real coverups (like the Navy’s coverup of sonar equipment testing which led to several beachings like the one in North Carolina), counted on the value of internet information (i.e., viral videos and the trust many people have in internet underground media), and also attempted to link mermaids culturally using archaeology and art history. They even used an image of a cave painting (completely CGI’d, of course) where humans and mermaids were either fighting or working together or something, but it is based on real cave paintings.
Behind the guise of credibility, the falsity–that mermaids are real–was neatly presented in a manner through which many of us have become accustomed: sound bites and edited clips. While I watched the production, I was on the net reading responses. Some were skeptical right away, as they rightly should have been. Many of the claims were debunked during the airing (like the fact that IMDB listed actors who played the roles of the scientists) and the website linked to the film, which has a fake DOJ/Homeland Security Seize order (determined to be fake just by looking at the name of the file under the page info). A quick Google search yielded no reference to a mass beaching in Washington or in South Africa during the years mentioned in the film. No intricately carved spearheads made of stingray tails and spines were found.
And while some were skeptical, many–too many–were persuaded (read the comments, some commenters believe that the government paid people to talk down the show!). They were persuaded even when the documentary presented itself as a fiction (at the end of the doc). Twitter is still blowing up with comments about how ‘mind blowing’ the doc was; it is downright upsetting that so many have bought into this fiction without even verifying their information. The most Wikipedia said about it during the airing was that it was a ‘mockumentary’, with no real discussion about the film until some time later the next day. Comments on blogs and on hype videos were full of people just accepting the conclusions of the film. And it reminded me of an episode of Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files (because I love this show, even if they play up/hype the fakes a little for production value) where they faked a video of a lizard man and posted it on Youtube, and people claimed they had seen this very faked lizard man, and that clearly the thing was real (even though the team fabricated the whole thing).
This is why shows like Ghost Hunters are popular. When you produce a show well, and focus on your audience by feeding them semi-factual information and information which seems like it should be possible, they will more than likely accept your conclusions. Films about the historical Cain and Abel, the Shroud of Turin, Jesus nails, Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, Mary Magdalene, Atlantis, and others use this very same formula to produce believable stories which, unfortunately, are based mostly (or wholly) on fiction. Ancient Aliens is another presentation just like this. They prey on their audiences ignorance.
In the end, I enjoyed Mermaids: The Body Found, because I knew what I was going to be watching–I knew it was fiction and just made for entertainment. I thought a lot of the (faked) evidences were cleverly conceived and tied together. It was entertaining, the acting was decent (sometimes it was excellent) and if Mermaids did exist (don’t worry, they don’t) you would expect this sort of evidence to exist–you would need exactly this sort of extraordinary evidence in order to prove it. So I thought that was very interesting. The paranoid operative who remained anonymous was a good touch–really hammered home the fun factor for me. But I worry about those who are not as skeptical as I am; those who would watch it and accept it at face value instead of doing any additional research. That this happens with a documentary about mermaids–mermaids–is worrisome. Because when it comes to figures like Moses, or Adam and Eve, or even Jesus, I know people will be less likely to challenge what they see and more readily acclimated to accept what they see at face value.
So hopefully, maybe, this docufiction will be a lesson to everyone. We’ll just have to wait and see.
UPDATE (5/31/12): Right now the twitter feed is blowing up at #mermaids; right now the show is re-airing and people still think, three days later, that it is a real documentary. I’m talking hundreds of people on twitter really bought into this, without doing the slightest bit of research. Hopefully someone is reading this and will pass this article along.