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 | 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.

Book Review – Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology, by James G Crossley

Just received word that James Crossley’s new book will be shipping soon!  This is quite exciting.  I have been looking forward to this book since I heard about it months ago.

I will be writing up a book review here, so check back or subscribe to my feed so you can be sure to keep up with it.

Here is the ToC:

Chapter 1: Introduction: Jesus Quests and Contexts

PART I: From Mont Pelerin to Eternity? Contextualising an Age of Neoliberalism
Chapter 2: Neoliberalism and Postmodernity
Chapter 3: Biblioblogging: Connected Scholarship
Chapter 4: ‘Not Made by Great Men’? The Quest for the Individual Christ
Chapter 5: ‘Never Trust a Hippy’: Finding a Liberal Jesus Where You Might Not

PART II: Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism
Chapter 6: A ‘fundamentally unreliable adoration’: ‘Jewishness’ and the Multicultural Jesus
Chapter 7: The Jesus Who Wasn’t There? Conservative Christianity, Atheism and
Other Religious Influences

PART III: Contradictions
Chapter 8: ‘Forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing!’ Other
Problems, Extremes and the Social World of Jesus
Chapter 9: Red Tory Christ

Chapter 10: Conclusion

You can also pick up a copy on Amazon, if you so wish: Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology (BibleWorld) (9781908049704): James G Crossley: Books.

Update 6/26/12:

My review copy of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism arrived yesterday and I had some extra time that I could skim through it and make some initial impressions.  What struck me first was the weight of the book; for the subject matter, at over 250 pages, it covers quite a bit.  James Crossley and I had talked about the publication and he mentioned that I would be in the volume so, the narcissist that I am, I eagerly looked myself up in the book (this being the second volume that I know of to discuss my forthcoming collection of essays, in which James Crossley has a chapter, it was rather exciting).  I was pleased to see that Crossley references both my blog and ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’ on several occasions, all in good order. Interestingly, Crossley cites me within the context of the Jesus Project, and he spends a great deal of time on the Project as a whole, in a manner which is both responsible and apt–and he would know since, like myself, he was a part of it.  I’ll cover more on this issue when I get to reviewing that chapter at some point in the next month or so.

One minor correction (which is not Crossley’s fault) which should be highlighted is that he lists me as a mythicist.  At the time of the Jesus Project in 2008-2009 I did consider myself a mythicist, and by the time Crossley had submitted his manuscript to Equinox for publication, I had not clearly denounced that affiliation.  Crossley is aware of the change but, alas, it is too late to rectify the volume!

I browsed through the rest of the volume with interest and found the range of topics compelling.  Crossley’s book, while he admits is not comprehensive, is perhaps the most solid examination thus far of the subject of the political-social-religious reception of the figure of Jesus across the spectrum.  From atheists and secularists, to fundamentalists, to republicans and liberals, to diverse social groups, concerning confessional theology and presuppositional apologetics, Crossley does an exceptional job of laying out the subject.  And he isn’t doing it to make friends.  From the brief exposition into the volume, no one comes away from the volume feeling clean and unscathed.  And that is a good thing.  It keeps the world of New Testamentlers honest.

UPDATE 6/29/12: Chapter 1

Because the book is divided into sections, with Chapter 1 sort of standing alone, I’m going to review the first chapter and then move on to reviewing the sections instead of each subsequent chapter.  My skim of the book was positive and, so far, James Crossley’s book does not disappoint.  Chapter 1 is primarily an introduction to what he wants to do with the rest of it.  At times introductions can be boring and appear almost as if they were an afterthought to the reader, but not so with Crossley’s book.  Crossley delivers his purpose with lucidity and humor, making it a joy to read.  He spends the appropriate time necessary laying out definitions for his terms and, while normally that may be dull, the way he organizes it–with bits of funny tongue-in-cheek thoughts in parentheses–kept my attention.

To the meat of it, Crossley discusses doing away with the function of named quests (i.e., first quest, second quest, third quest, etc…); and I find those thoughts echo my own, since I don’t believe that is a practical way of describing the cultural phenomena of politicizing or socializing the figure of Jesus.  And I certainly appreciated Crossley’s discussion of ‘the well’; that is to say, scholarship on the figure of Jesus which has predominantly been about the scholar staring into the well, seeing his own reflection, and calling that reflection ‘Jesus’.   But Crossley does argue that he feels that this cannot always be the case; of course he is correct.  My concern though is that I am not so sure that we might not clearly be able to recognize those instances when the Jesus presented to us is a reflection of something other than ourselves (i.e., Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs seems to suggest that we are forever wrapped up in the self concept and the figure of Jesus provides, for many at least–though not all–some of those basic needs).

I am looking forward to getting into the sections now; it is hard to put the book down!  More anon.

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