Animal Planet’s Mermaid Special and History Documentaries

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:

Although they were not very clear on which parts were fiction and which were based on ‘real science’. See below for details.

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.

via TV & Entertainment News – Reviews, Rumors, Gossip – The Clicker | TODAY.com Blogs – Were you fooled by Animal Planet’s mermaid special?.

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.

The CGI’d Mermaid cave art (left) is structured on cave art from places like the Lascaux Caves (middle) and San art in the Karoo, South Africa (right).

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.

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27 Responses

  1. it is so difficult now-a-days to separate the wheat from the chaff’

  2. Tom

    In the sixth sentence from the top, I think you probably meant to write “sends up red flags”.

  3. Yes, good catch. Not sure how I missed that typo in my proof since that is a rather obvious one.

  4. I’m reminded of the reactions to “Alternative Three.” Anglia TV was surprised people took it seriously. “We felt viewers would be fairly sophisticated about it,” said a network spokesman.

  5. I agree with most of you stated. But personally if people can believe in “God” something or someone we have never seen, we can believe or at least allow the possibility to question “what if they are real…” The same can be said about those who believe in Aliens, Ghosts, etc. It was definitely directed well. But I am left wondering and questioning “what if…” as I do with God, amongst other things I have never seen. Great post.

  6. I missed the show but would have loved to see it for myself even if it was fictitious.

  7. A well written and entertaining post, Tom. I didn’t watch it, but your analysis and commentary have piqued my interest. Honestly, I’m not surprised lots of people believed it, even when it was presented as fiction. Credulity is widespread and a big, big problem. I like your suggestion that fakumentaries might be a way of challenging people to be a little more skeptical, and less willing to believe in and regurgitate bad information. Intriguing.

  8. Probably wont catch the show, but I did see some clips, neat stuff. I like their mermaids more than their dragons. The aquatic ape theory was interesting when i first saw it though their are other reasons that are more inline with tradtional primate ecologies to expalin hairlessness and what not. However it does seem that a lot of the early activities of homosapians seem to be found around sea side sites like Blombos(?) and theirs the idea that people fisrt left Africa across the horn of Africa and were beach combers. Regarding Fox News, their article for it was under the sub-heading “Pop Tarts” which is where they throw the entertainment page stuff and not the science news. Ithink theuy were playing along with the “documentary” conceit.

  9. [...] Posts Searching for Muses: Mermaid Skeleton Found? Animal Planet's Mermaid Special and History DocumentariesIf You Buy Into Images Like This…Therefore Aliens…Some Needed Perspective: Our Pale Blue [...]

  10. I watched it yesterday, it was brilliant. :) if it encourages people to become more interested in what goes on in our oceans then thats all good <3

  11. Well I feel like an idiot for getting taken for a ride and believing the documentary was factually accurate (I watched it last night on Discovery). It did bother me that the program placed so much emphasis on the speculative evolution so I just decided to ignore these segments as much as possible. We just can’t make assumptions about animal behavior based on a few bones, tissue samples and who they are related to from an evolutionary standpoint.

    I did catch a lot of the lines at the bottom of the screen saying, “dramatic re-enactment,” but I don’t think I caught the disclosure at the beginning, which is rather ambiguous.

    At least I can spare myself from wasting another minute of my life looking for online articles and discussion forums to sort out fact from fiction.

  12. Skeptics have been so disconnected from right brain, it’s impossible to fathom the possibility of alternative realities ~ that we exist in a world of paranormal truths that can’t be explained by scientific observation. TV is one huge psyop to make people believe in a false reality that doesn’t exist. The truth about black ops projects: what’s been labeled science fiction is reality, the reality we’re told to believe in is actually the science fiction. It’s a cosmic mind bender to wrap your mind around, but it’s a truth.
    Mermaids have been discussed in legend, folklore and on cave walls for thousands of years. Just because a very biased scientific community refuses open their mind towards their existence doesn’t mean squat! Just take a look at how many scientists refuse to believe that space weather poses any threat to life ~ they can’t examine the data with an open, unbiased mind.
    Face it, Mermaids exist along with other unidentified life forms in the depths of the oceans. The reason we don’t know about these life forms is because they live in fear of humans ~if they came out of hiding, they would be killed or confiscated for research.

    Last year reports from unidentified crew members who took part in a US Navy mass killing of Mer-people, said people witnessed bodies being carried from water to the ship. This alleged underwater community destroyed by the Navy was somewhere off the coast of France, Spain or Northern Africa…

    Regardless of what the mocu-mentary said, it was written and produced to keep the public ignorant of the facts ~ that’s why it was aired on TV. When the controllers want the public to believe a particular theme {meme} the first step is air the lie on TV. So the fact that this show was televised speaks to some kind of truth behind eye witness accounts beginning to surface from military mass extermination of a peaceful species, attempting to co-exist on this planet. Humans are a very dark race of beings….at least a good portion of them.

  13. Thanks for saying a lot and proving nothing–well, almost nothing. If there were any doubts about whether or not there were crazy people out there, you’ve gone ahead and stomped those doubts away. So, thanks crazy person!

  14. ya i watch it today its fantastic……..

  15. well you would say this do you work for one of these corrupt governments that keep things from the public! true or not really enjoyed this!

  16. I was “lucky” enough to catch this rerun on Discovery channel this evening when flipping through channels. Didn’t catch the disclaimer so took to Twitter to tweet about the obvious holes and inconsistencies with theories, facts and evidence that was presented. Then someone linked me to your post (which I have enjoyed, very much).

    If you look at the #mermaids on twitter for today and possibly tomorrow, you will be freaked out by how many people actually thinking that mermaids are real because the show presents compelling evidence.

  17. i add your post to this youtube video, a lot of people fall for this crap, is just really funny how peeep r so naive XD thnx for the article, i just made fun of my sister a lot haha thnx again

  18. [...] Animal Planet's Mermaid Special and History Documentaries [...]

  19. There are some crazy people out there, I’m a man of science and fact, but sometimes you can’t even believe your own perceptual organs. I do how ever have an open mind and I always take a look around and read up on topics before making up my mind, I watched this documentary and from the start I could see that these “Scientists” were actors. But the question stands are mermaids real? Well I don’t know maybe they are and maybe they aren’t; maybe at one time in our past they did exist. But I highly doubt this as there has been no real proof ever presented. To be fair there’s more evidence to support the existence of big-foot than there ever has been of mermaids. People need to remember that humans have imaginations and ever since we created culture we’ve told stories and myths, tales of beasts. It’s in our nature to imagine things beyond what we know; because it’s just fun to do so.

  20. The real problem is that too many people are just not interested in science or learning how things work. I can’t tell you how many times that I, a 55 year old, have to remind the 20 and 30 somethings to “go google it yourself and find out”!

    Also why can’t people demonstrate even some basic critical thinking. Webbing between our fingers and toes? I don’t see any webbing between mine like the show suggests we have, do you see any on yours? Lost our hair to be more streamlined? Hmm. we have hair on our heads and that’s the first place to offer resistance when swimming. Eating shellfish made us smart? Well the sea otter ought to be a fellow more brilliant than Einstein, then. So much nonsense!

    I also found the show entertaining. LIke a moth drawn to the flame, I could not resist watching it even though I have studied science all my life not to mention the fact that I’ve spent hundreds of hours in the ocean scuba diving.

    I was REALLY SURPRISED to see this kind of thing on Animal Planet. Isn’t this the domain of SciFi channel?

  21. I believe the purpose of the show was to draw awareness to the Navy’s destructive weaponry and its effect on the sea life. Certainly another aspect was ‘meta'; it was making fun of documentaries that contain silly content (like ancient aliens).

  22. I watched the show this evening and was initially convinced that it was factual. But, after the show ended, I thought that the presentation was odd. So here I am, almost dissapointed, but somewhat releived that I was conned. Its funny though, the weak evolutionary hypothesis presented, mirrors many more seriously presented assumptions on more fact based programs. The enviroment does not cause favorable genetic changes. Evolution occurs as a result of a small population that is isolated from a larger group. The result is “in-breeding” of that population, resulting in a greater incidence of non-dominant gene expressions. These can be considered to be “mutations”. As long as that gene combination is not fatal, the individual will reproduce.

    Some comments refer to “Faith” with disdain. Whether one believes in “God”, the “Big Bang Theory” or “nothingness”, the key factor here is “belief”. There is no demonstable evidence supporting any “belief”.
    Otherwise it would be science, and its not.
    John J Caprice

  23. Well, thanks for convincing me with squat. A “quick Google search”? Amateur. :P

    Nobody knows how to do their homework anymore.

  24. are ya’ll qoinq to get one so we can see it on the zoo or whatever yall what to put the mermaids so we can see that yall are saying the true

  25. and so discovery airs it again and I was all – what? when I saw the footage of the strange scull in the teaser, but now when I read they faked that one it feels quite disappointing. The world is anyway filled with so much wonder – and if they want to get support for a theory of mermaids this sort of fictionary will only backlash. :-/

    Today I got this link about a real sighting of a mammal in the pacific

    http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/media/npress-communique/2013/pac04-eng.htm

    they haven’t seen for sixty years! Now this is truly amazing. And what about making some more real documentaries what is now happening in the Mexican Gulf and the real state of our oceans filling up with oil and plastic bags? We need more of that – more wake-up calls so people realize that the future of oil is our DeatH, not our future!!

  26. In a book I read years ago on an unrelated topic, the historian/author said something to the effect – there’s history and it was and history that is “wished for”. I never forgot that statement and I think it applies here. I don’t believe mermaids exist/ever existed however “I wish” they did exist. How cool would that be? Nice to dream about fantastical scenarios.

  27. Nice sentiment. =)

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