A Structure Without a Center: Is “Monster TV” a Heart of Darkness?
by James Keller
[page 65] It may seem credulous to contend that television mysteries are driven by the unknown and that, in spite of the pretense to scientific process, the failure to make the mysterious familiar is requisite to the maintenance of the genre; however, if one considers the example of the mystery novel or the cinematic mystery/thriller, one can see that this narrative principle is not consistent across art forms. The mystery need only be concealed from the next set of readers/viewers, not from those who have already processed the media. But “Monster TV”—a genre composed of those programs that explore the unexplained, such as Monster Quest, UFO Hunters, The Unexplained, History’s Mysteries, UFO Files, Monsters of the Sea, Ancient Monster Hunters, Ghost Detectives, Ancient Mysteries, Finding Bigfoot etc.—depends upon an absent presence, a series of traces that suggest only that the monstrosity has fled before the lights, cameras, beakers, and petri dishes.
The real presence of the “monster” would revoke its monstrosity since the same cannot endure the glare of examination or scientific reason and process, not necessarily because science would discredit the object of study, exposing it as a hoax (although it may), but because being appropriated by scientific discourse, the monstrous object becomes familiarized, anatomized, and classified, on temporary display in the cabinet of curiosities and permanently recorded the annals of teratology. The discovery and study of Sasquatch/Bigfoot (so often the subject of ‘Monster TV’), for example, would reverse the process of monster making (or teratogeny), codifying the critter and placing it within a compendium of the fully documented. While its presence would certainly revise the textbooks on evolution and ruffle the feathers of intransigent creationists, it would ultimately constitute little more than an addition to the family of primates; even if it proved to be a hominid, it would lie squarely within the realm of the natural not the paranormal. Only the absence of the beast makes it supernatural. Similarly, if the existence of UFO’s and their alien occupants were demonstrated beyond doubt, the discovery would be a reasonable expansion of the hypothesis that has already led scientists to explore the rock strata and the ice caps of Mars and the sub-glacial oceans of Jupiter’s Europa. While the impact would be profound to say the least, the discovery would not be supernatural or even beyond expectations, save insofar as we did not look for their unsolicited knock at our backdoor. [page 66]
When one examines the multiple definitions of the word “monster,” one initially finds no surprises, the attributes largely consistent with common usages; these, according to the OED, include the “extraordinary or unnatural”; a deviation from the norm within a given species of plant or animal; “an imaginary animal” that constitutes a composite of traits from more than one species, including half animal/half human; “a person of horrible and inhuman cruelty and wickedness”; and a creature of prodigious size. Each of these can be linked to the descriptions of Sasquatch, which constructs a creature “extraordinary” if not “unnatural,” a supposed deviation from the human—a composite as much man as ape and a “manimal” of prodigious size, sometimes described as more than ten feet tall. The only attribute that does not seem to fit the common depiction is “inhuman cruelty”; in monster anecdotes, Bigfoot is rarely described as violent and threatening; he seldom hurts anyone, but more like the mountain gorilla, the creature engages in threatening displays and faux charges that seem to have a territorial motivation. Although there are some accounts that would contradict this generalization, in most portraits, Sasquatch is gentle and shy, fleeing from the intrusion of humanity into its shrinking habitat.
When one examines the Latin origins of the word “monster,” one finds the term’s application to Sasquatch sightings and to Monster TV to be more problematic. The Latin term “Monstrum” suggests something “marvelous…a divine portent or warning” and the root word “monere” also means “to warn.” Some Sasquatch legends, including those that are of Native American origin, are accompanied by a supplemental belief that a sighting of the hairy biped can be a warning or harbinger of misfortune or even death (Coleman 60). The terms “marvelous” and “divine” suggest, however, that the portent is of a benign if not beneficent nature. Either way, the word origins place the monster narrative squarely within the apocalyptic or prophetic tradition, one that assumes an aspect of dire prediction within a context of exposition. In the case of Bigfoot apocrypha, the warnings common to the prophetic are inarticulate—replaced by grunts and growls and unearthly screams—and the sign remains unrevealed; besides an occasional momentary sighting, the brute leaves only the traces of his heavy footprints in the mud, slush, dirt, and snow. The curiosity seekers are left only with vague outline of a trail that leads nowhere, a trail which if it could be followed would reach the nexus of our present, past, and future and would expose an enduring misrecognition of humanity’s place in the natural world. But the footprints never lead to revelation, appearing briefly in isolated locations, being cast in plaster, and washing away. While perhaps not revelatory, the trace prints are, nevertheless, apocalyptic insofar as they promise a still expected unveiling, but one that by definition can never be made. [page 67]
In “Heart of Darkness Revisited,” J. Hillis Miller discusses the operation of the “parabolic” and “apocalyptic” genres within Conrad’s novel that mixes cultural imperialism and desperate irrepressible greed with false philanthropic and missionary zeal. As is his method, Miller demonstrates that both genres are self-defeating, frustrating the very process that they allege to set in motion. Engaging the scriptural parable of the “Sower” (Matthew 13: 1-23), the critic exposes the paradoxical futility in its account of parable making. The sower’s seeds, like the prophet's words, fall alternatively on fertile or barren ground and do or do not germinate, depending upon this haphazard placement. Since the parable itself is also one of the very seeds it conceptualizes, it becomes a narrative of its own ineffectuality and of the ineffectuality of prophetic words. The parable suggests that those who already heed the word do not need the word, and those who do not already hearken to the call for salvation cannot understand the parable and, therefore, cannot be saved. The conclusion of the process of evangelizing is foreclosed at its outset. Those who were not already receptive to the prophet’s words will not prove fertile ground for the sower’s seeds and thus will not even understand the parable that predicts their ruin, and those who are already sensitive to the message have no need for the instruction. The parable becomes informative rather than inspirational or didactic.
In addressing the apocalyptic genre, Miller adopts his process of tracing the etymology of a pertinent term to discover a definitional archaism that disrupts the reader’s efforts to attain closure in the text. The term here, “apocalypse,” is identified, predictably, as a “revelation,” “illumination,” or “ecstasy,” yet Miller adds that the term “apocalyptic,” based upon a Greek root, also means “to uncover” or “unveil”; thus apocalypse cannot countenance or encompass the culmination of its own expectations; it must always be approaching and never arriving. “Apocalypse” is the lead up to a revelation that is never realized or articulated (Miller 215). As with the parabolic, the process is frustrated at its origin. The Revelation of St. John is only apocalyptic so long as it is yet to be revealed; once it is realized, it passes from metaphysics into the known, the observable, the quantifiable. The apocalyptic genre can never signify actual events but only serve as a placeholder for the unthinkable, unspeakable, or immaterial.
The pursuit of revelation in Heart of Darkness is similarly disrupted. Miller perceives his own efforts with the text as unveiling “a decisive lack of unveiling in Heart of Darkness” (220). The paradox of Conrad’s tale is the interdependence of the light/dark dialectic; the darkness can only signify so long as it remains unrevealed, unexposed to the light. Nevertheless, the tale must constitute “darkness visible.” For Marlowe, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, [page 68] enveloping the tale which brought it out…” (Conrad 20). The pursuit of insight is the meaning of insight; the process for the production of meaning is the meaning. The effort to spread the “light” of civilization and scrutiny within the “darkness” of the African wilderness is undercut by the intolerance of light for dark and dark for light. Bringing light dispels the very darkness it seeks to observe. There is the added complication that the ‘light bringers’ are producing their own darkness from which to differentiate their illusory glow. Similarly, Marlowe partially dispels the darkness that he has come to observe: he [re]imposes order, structure, and meaning on the madness and chaos of Kurtz’s world if only by his transitory presence. He must then know in advance of his arrival the moral darkness that flees at his approach. Indeed, Marlowe’s presence has a recuperative impact upon the dissolution of Kurtz’s moral structures. As with the foreclosure of the parabolic genre, here one must comprehend the darkness in advance as the darkness is not a presence but an absence and cannot be revealed by the engines of light. The darkness that he is to observe lies not at the bottom of the Congo but is a stowaway in the hearts of humanity—European and African. Nevertheless, Marlowe’s presence has a reformative impact upon Kurtz’s anarchic and unrestrained appetites; his company brings a partial restoration of morality and judgment with the madman’s pronouncement on the machinery of darkness—"The horror." The Russian doll structure of the narrative also contributes to displacement in the tale; each of the successive speakers—scripter to narrator to Marlowe to Kurtz—promises a revelation, a kernel of meaning, but instead postpones the center interminably. The Heart of Darkness is Derrida’s “structure without a center” (278), and this same esoteric and formless pattern or unfettered play is operative within television narrative, even in those programs that ostensibly strive to resolve ambiguities via rational processes and scientific investigations.
“Monster TV” and particularly Bigfoot programming constitutes an anti-ecstatic experience, a failure of insight or foresight, an earthbound revelation that provides no divine knowledge, but a fanciful glimpse into our brute origins; it is the triumph of the flesh and a sign of the limitations of reason. I choose to examine Monster Quest’s Sasquatch programming merely as an exemplum of television’s natural supernaturalism, an illustration of the inevitable foreclosure of revelation within the genre. The selection of Sasquatch from the myriad of monster subjects is merely a convenience, not an argument for or against the existence of the beast. Bigfoot is the most suggestive of the common and enduring mysteries of “Monster TV” (UFOs and lake monsters rounding out the big three phenomenon), perhaps because the legendary monster is [page 69] so nearly human that he evokes the Freudian “Uncanny,” the strangely familiar, the double, or the return of the repressed.
Monster Quest, as well as several other recent additions to television’s mystery programming, attempts to bring scientific objectivity, inquiry, and technology into the study of what has always been regarded as crackpot subject matter. It juxtaposes cutting edge technology, embodying the acme of humanity’s accomplishments since the Enlightenment, with the brutish and subhuman foreclosure of reason and progress represented in the “manimal”—or the Sasquatch. These programs ride on the popularity of other forensic shows both narrative fiction and reality TV—CSI (Miami and New York), Cold Case, Cold Case Files, Forensic Files, Criminal ID and a host of others, but mostly it derives from The X-Files, which unites the skeptical scientist (or at least the objective scientist) with the true believer, forcing the former to accept radical explanations for mysterious phenomenon. This approach is calculated to bring scrutiny to the long neglected phenomenon under the false pretense that the search may bring an end to the controversy, either by demonstrating once and for all that the mysterious creature exists or by putting to rest the controversy in proving that the creature does not exist. However, this project seems disingenuous since those who already believe will not abandon a legend whose history may date back several millennia in the Amerindian oral tradition, and those requiring empirical evidence will not be satisfied by the findings of a television show, which must always be suspect as a medium driven by ratings, profit, and spectacle. The rational scientific world will not be contented until it has a Sasquatch corpse or a living specimen to be scrutinized, anatomized, and classified, and if this eventuality should ever come to pass, the public will not be hearing about it on “Monster TV” but in the nightly news. Indeed, such a discovery would create an intellectual upheaval, forcing humanity to reexamine and recalculate its place within the animal kingdom. It would be more difficult to maintain skepticism about the basic science of evolutionary biology. The trick of “Monster TV” must then be to provide sufficient titillation to encourage audiences to expect or at least hope for a conclusion that can never come, at least not in that medium. The audience must suspend disbelief, both in the sense that there is any such creature as Bigfoot and in the sense that any definitive conclusion regarding the reality of the beast will be unfolded in the allotted time slot.
I will use one particular episode of Monster Quest to illustrate the limitations of the monster mystery genre. On November 7, 2007, The History Channel aired the episode “Sasquatch Attacks” in which a team of scientists, including Dr. Jeff Meldrum, author of Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science, as well as other more conventional studies of human bipedalism, and Dr. Kurt Nelson, a microbiologist from University of Minnesota, [page 70] travelled to a remote island in Northern Ontario (a space only accessible by hydroplane, the nearest town two hundred miles away) to investigate the repeated break in and vandalizing of the only human structure on the island, a hunting and fishing cabin owned by a Mr. Chuck Mosbeck. The cabin had been repeatedly broken into and wrecked by an unknown intruder, whom the owner initially assumed was one or more teenagers since the devastation was so thorough. However, the location is so remote and inaccessible that the presence of people other than those whom the owner brought in on his own plane remained highly improbable. The second consideration was a bear, but the repeated damage to the cabin was perpetrated in the dead of winter when bears would usually be hibernating, and the damage to the property is so comprehensive that it seems methodical: all of the shelves were torn down, the bathroom sink pulled out of the wall, the refrigerator overturned, the furniture tossed around etc. Dr. Lynn Rogers, wildlife biologist, examining the insurance video of the scene, remarked that the refrigerator created the strongest evidence the intruder was not a bear because the structure was not looted for its insulation, which emits a smell that to a bear is indicative of an ant colony and is thus highly appetizing.
The structure, which the owner rents to fishermen a few times a year, during the summer months, has been the site of repeated enigmatic encounters with an unidentified creature responsible for incidences of wood knocking and rock throwing, for screeching in the night, and for house shaking—all behaviors associated with Sasquatch encounters (Coleman 48). In addition, the visiting scientists consult a fisherman’s diary, in which the writer claims to have found huge footprints at the mouth of the nearby Broken Mouth River. With the forgoing enigmatic events in mind, the visiting scientific team and film crew set about trying to draw the attention and/or rage of the occulted beast. Nelson spends the night alone in a tent near the Broken Mouth River portage surrounded by a variety of specialized devices intended to attract the animal; the team searches the cabin vicinity for footprints and engages in activities that might prove interesting to the curious and seemingly territorial animal.
By far the most intriguing preoccupation of the scientists is the analysis of the “screw board,” a device the owner used previously to deter any further intrusions into his cabin by whatever creature had been ravaging the place, with the presumption that the perpetrator was in all probability bear. The screw board is a piece of plywood with a grid of screws protruding from it. The device is placed at the threshold of the cabin to dissuade bears from entering, and it can only work if the creature sustains injury because it does not recognize the apparatus as a potential hazard. Examination of the board reveals possible blood and tissue samples, which Meldrum and Nelson carefully collect, but the [page 71] expectations for DNA testing of the sample are not high because the board has been exposed to the elements for two years.
While the men never see a Sasquatch or even find any tracks, they do have an experience on the final night of their stay which is not unlike those that have been reported by previous residents of the camp. As they stand around the campfire, someone hurls a stone at them, and since all of the crew is present and accounted for, the event is enigmatic and alarming. One of the cameramen responds by throwing a stone back into the adjacent forest and is swiftly rewarded for his effort with a return shot of a large rock onto the roof of the shelter. The various crew members do a sweep of the area with night vision equipment (a process which is not filmed or at least is not part of the final edit of the production) but find nothing, and, after a time, retire to their structure to sleep. The event is so unnerving to the group that Nelson admits he has never been so frightened and he is cowering in the cabin in fear (a statement that returns to plague the group, via internet chat rooms). However, in the middle of the night, the intruder is not idle, but hurls a cord of wood at the building, creating a startling racket that wakes and further unnerves the men (this too unrecorded). Morning brings the discovery of the cord of firewood that awoke them as well as the rock thrown on the roof. However, it also brings the plane that is to return them as scheduled to the mainland.
As is invariably the case with Monster TV, the findings of the expedition are intriguing but inconclusive. Most of the evidence is inconsequential: a survey of the surrounding area for the legendary beast’s potential food supply, an analysis of an insurance video speculating on what may have created the damage in the cabin, and examinations of the historical record of Bigfoot sightings both on Snelgrove and in North America. The team on Snelgrove found no footprint evidence and attained no video or film evidence of the monster, but they did find materials potentially more revealing—blood, hair, and tissue samples from the screw board—which were hurried back to the lab to be analyzed by objective experts—including Dr. Todd Disotell, Professor of Anthropology at New York University, who conducted the DNA sequencing, and Dr. Lynn Rogers, Wildlife Biologist, who performed the hair morphology analysis. The hair sample was determined to be that of no known North American mammal, including human and bear, and the shape included a tapering effect at the end, suggesting that it had never been cut. Initial efforts with the DNA sequencing failed because there was a contaminant in the sample; however, Nelson managed to isolate the impurity (galvanizing from the metal screws) and removed it, rendering a usable DNA sequence. The new test was determined to be very close to human and chimpanzee, but included one nucleotide polymorphism or deviation that was unlike human but was shared with chimpanzee. The [page 72] scientist determined that there was only a one in five thousand chance that the DNA was human, a finding which is, of course, quite exciting but one which requires further sequencing to become conclusive. In other words, one nucleotide deviation does not determine the existence of the sub-human or supra-primate dwelling on the Snelgrove region. Disotell concludes that it could take a year to complete the analysis of the sequence and make a final determination of species.
The intriguing results of the hard science leave the viewership wanting closure in the enigmatic matter. A forum hosted on Cryptomundo.com, a website billed as “a place to enjoy the adventures, treks, theories, and wisdom of some of the most respected leaders in the field of Cryptozoology,” debated the relative merits of the program, speculating on whether its findings (particularly the DNA sequencing) constitute conclusive proof of Sasquatch’s existence. Responding to the expressions of irritation that the conclusions of the program were not immediately released to the media and the scientific community in order to demonstrate the irrefutable evidence of the ostensibly mythic monster, Loren Coleman, author of several Bigfoot studies himself, defended Meldrum’s process, indicating the he is “not surprised that the History Channel … did not leak the fact that Sasquatch DNA may have been collected”; he reminded the readers that Meldrum had a non-disclosure clause in his contract and that he faithfully chose to honor his commitment; Meldrum was more interested in the research and in finding the results of the sample than in getting media attention. Coleman urged the Cryptomundo participants to be patient while the work is completed cautiously and thoroughly. Even following the release of the evidence, there has been very little media interest in the program; Coleman indicates that the New York Post was the only tabloid media to respond to the Monster Quest episode, and there the journalist fails to recognize any significance in the findings. Moreover, Monster Quest producer Mike Stiller refused to make any extravagant claims, the show…analyzes the evidence…. But ultimately it is up to the viewer” (qtd. in Coleman’s blog).
Viewer responses to the show revealed an irritation over what was perceived to be a failure of will on the part of the researchers to pursue the creature into the forest on the night of the rock and wood throwing incident. Reacting to Nelson’s statement that he has “never been so frightened” and that he is “cowering in the cabin,” the bloggers urge more fortitude, suggesting that the scientists have allowed superstition and fear to interfere with their objective inquiry. In the same forum, Silvereagle is critical of the behavior of the researchers when the Sasquatch started throwing rocks because he believes that the creature was trying to communicate with them and that they misinterpreted the gesture retreating into the cabin rather than responding in kind (Nov. 11, 2007 11:39am); Scarfe accuses the program of placing ratings, viewership, and revenue before scientific inquiry (Nov. 11, 2007, [page 73] 11:54am); and Dragula, comparing the program to Ghost Hunters, complains that Meldrum, Nelson, and the crew did not show adequate resolution in the face of fear and enigma; he accuses the scientist of ‘cowering in fear’ and adds that they clearly never expected to find anything because they were only on location for three days, and as scheduled, they left the day after the rock throwing in spite of the intriguing and potentially useful revelations it posed (Nov. 11, 2007, 12:35am). Other viewpoints were posted expressing support and understanding of the researchers’ supposed fearful and paralytic response. Mystery_man adds that he thinks the fear experienced by the team lends realism to the endeavor; it would be foolhardy to rush into the forest in the night to locate a potentially hostile beast (Nov. 11, 2007, 2:41pm).
Coming to the fellow researcher’s defense, Loren Coleman posted a brief note from Jeff Meldrum who maintains that the DNA sample was insufficiently inclusive (based on a mere “300 nucleotide sequence”) to warrant publication in any credible scientific journal and on any subject, “let alone one as controversial as this.” He adds that he was not certain the biological material was sufficient to attain more sequencing since it had been exposed to the weather for two years. This latter comment is evidently a response to Nelson’s on camera assertion that mapping more of the DNA material could take a year, a statement which led the viewership to conclude that more conclusive results would follow. Meldrum is also defensive about the team’s behavior on the night of the so-called Sasquatch attack. He argues that the group had only gone into the cabin long enough to collect materials—such as “thermal and night vision” goggles—for their search after which they patrolled the area until 2:30 in the morning. Finally, the team’s failure to return to the Snelgrove Lake cabin subsequently has been hindered by forces outside of the scientist’s control; there had been plans to return the next summer, but at the time they were not “realized.” Demonstrating his scientific rigor, Meldrum concludes that the events at and samples from the lake cabin “in no wise ‘proved’ the existence of Sasquatch (Nov. 14, 2007).
In spite of Meldrum’s reasonable insistence that he and his team behaved appropriately and in good faith in the Snelgrove episode of Monster Quest, the Cryptomundo bloggers nevertheless make valid points about “Monster TV.” They point out the fundamental incompatibility between the television studio’s pursuit of ratings and profits and the intellectual integrity of the scientific research being depicted. The studio has a vested interest in maintaining the enigma of the Sasquatch phenomenon as any conclusive evidence would preclude any further discussion of the matter in the television mystery format and render what [page 74] has come before as hopelessly outdated. If the existence of the creature were proven, then the discussion would shortly thereafter shift to more respectable venues such as academic conferences and journals. The creature would be documented, codified, and anatomized, no longer evoking the intriguing mystery that has so long engulfed the subject. When the creature stops being monstrous, an abject horror that cannot be countenanced because it cannot, yet may exist, it becomes mundane, an object of scrutiny and novelty at a local zoo, albeit only after a preliminary period of intense fascination. Thus the media has no interest in resolving the historical ambiguity of the North American ape. To prove that the Sasquatch does not exist would be equally devastating; however, this is still less likely to happen since it is particularly difficult to prove a negative. Just as any revelation short of a living or dead Sasquatch is unlikely to convince skeptics of the creature’s existence, no amount of evidence of its strictly mythic being would be sufficient to dissuade the Sasquatch disciple from his or her devotion to pursue the creature, perhaps because the meaning of the creature lies in the pursuit more than in the ontology of the beast.
The pursuit of the creature has taken on the characteristics of a grudge, indeed one not unlike the conflict between reason and faith or science and religion. The scientific community has long refused to look at the evidence of Sasquatch with an objective eye and has patronizingly discounted all such creature sightings as the result of misrecognition, irrationality, fear, or hoax/misrepresentation; this in spite of the numerous examples of highly credible people encountering the creature close up and offering firsthand accounts. The defensive and reactionary response of Sasquatch believers is understandable under the circumstances. Most people find it insulting to be accused by smug academics of being irrational and/or too stupid to recognize a mangy emaciated bear walking or running on two elongated legs when they see one, particularly when the irrationality of the believer is equally matched by the arrogant refusal of the scientific community to even contemplate the possibility that there may be a species of creature in North America that remains as yet undocumented. The true believers are matched in their irrationality by the true unbelievers. Consequently, all Sasquatch or monster media discourse is “heteroglot”; it cannot be articulated outside heavy handed allusions to its antithesis, which simultaneously constructs and dismantles it. The Sasquatch discourse outside of rational inquiry is regarded as crackpot and unworthy of the attention even of those who are non-committal, and scientific discourse that offers glib, reductionist, and dismissive explanations for the phenomenon are construed as smug, condescending, elitist, and even contemptuous. The paradox of the situation is that this liminal state is, for the time being at least, the only [page 75] category that can be maintained without condemnation or accusations of bias. The Sasquatch must always remain a mystery, always almost revealed in order to warrant inquiry but still just out of reach of the scientific instruments that could document its existence. This half real state is where Bigfoot is most comfortable, stimulating the mundane with imaginary exoticism and offering the skeptic an occasion for condescension. The discovery of Sasquatch is the one event that would be most inimical to Sasquatch, and not only because it would send hunters and explorers into the woods by the thousands, but because it would eliminate all of the supernatural associations that the creature evokes. Discovery would kill the monstrosity with scrutiny and documentation. How long would it be before Sasquatch replaced the chimp as subject for medical trials of potentially beneficial drugs intended to promote human health; after all, theoretically, the Bigfoot would be the most human of animals.
The middle state of the monster is a requirement of its inclusion in public discourse. Even where the television producers have the most impetus for making extravagant claims, they merely invite the audience members to decide for themselves. This face-saving measure allows the media to make a claim, while preserving deniability which can be mobilized in the face of public scorn and/or irrefutable and confuting evidence to the contrary. Yet the media nevertheless capitalizes on public interest in the subject that they only half-heartedly acknowledge, playing the same game as the scientists by reserving the right to dismiss the entire subject and those involved as crackpots in the event they are subject to criticism. Thus in a fashion typical of its non-committal position, the television medium reserves the right to repudiate its own material, the same from which it derives revenue, negotiating between two versions of potential truth (one the absence of a presence and the other the presence of an absence) while signaling its willingness to embrace either so long as the subject does not interfere with the exchange of capital or the professional and/or intellectual credibility of the participants. The absence of true believers who require no confirming evidence is not lamentable, but the disposition of the program producers is an ironic concession to the idea that the program will never glean any decisive evidence. If, as the Monster Quest producer has indicated about “Sasquatch Attack,” the program merely offers the evidence and allows the viewer to make up his or her own mind, then the producers are effectively conceding that the program will never generate any irrefutable evidence, and if the producers are suggesting that they will not take a position on the evidence no matter what the evidence finds, then they are allowing their judgment to be influenced by the most powerful force in the area of cryptozoology and monster TV—the fear of public scorn and ridicule—and all of this over a subject that rationally should not have such a [page 76] powerful impact upon people’s thinking, save that the construction of social subjectivity within our ideological framework precludes or radically excludes belief in the supernatural or the unproven/unprovable.
The monster’s emptiness is an analogue for the emptiness of Monster TV which constitutes a structure without a center or a frustrated narrative teleology, promising a revelatory culmination while delivering only a still expected emptiness or an evidentiary fragment that can be easily dismissed or interpreted in a wide variety of manners and contexts, the promised revelation postponed indefinitely and yet always still expected, the trick of the art form lying in its ability to generate interest and to suspend disbelief not in the radical conclusions that it reaches but in the belief that it will reach any conclusion or offer any validation at all.
The process operating in much of “Monster TV” generally and “Sasquatch Attack” specifically is the same that drives apocalyptic narratives and teleologies such as the Christian meta-narrative of Armageddon and rapture. The apocalyptic is always immanent and never post, always unveiling, never unveiled. As cited above, the narrative device or form is defined not by its immanence, but by the possibility/impossibility of its realization. The participating audience must believe that revelation is imminent but must be comfortable with its interminable delays and postponements. The arousal and frustration of expectations must be repeatable indefinitely, this anticipation (re)produced via the manufacturing of the inconclusive trace that can validate either belief or doubt, either another fragment that will eventually produce a monster of prodigious proportions (both physically and intellectually) or another sign that there is nothing out there but a monstrous imaginary, and a cluster of random facts that do not now and will not ever add up to anything.
The Blair Witch Project, the highly successful independent film, may have something to tell us of the success and attraction of “Monster TV”; indeed from this perspective it even seems to operate as a parody of the genre. The unique film revolved around a group of three college students who went into the Maryland woods to explore the legend of a malevolent sorceress (and one manufactured entirely for the film). The group of three become lost in the woods, lose their map, discover admittedly odd yet by no means paranormal configurations of sticks and rocks, become frightened by sounds in the night, become separated from their companions, discover an abandoned and graffiti fraught house where they disappear, apparently under suspicious circumstances. In the fiction of the narrative, their film is later discovered as evidence in their disappearance. The Blair Witch frightened movie goers around the world, and some of the most unprofessional elements of the project made it seem the most authentic—the shaky camera movements, the unscripted, [page 77] repetitive, and even annoying dialogue, the absence of a linear plot, the black and white chromatics, the occasional blackouts of the narrative, and the poor acting, to name a few—because it made the (anti-)narrative seem fraught with possibility, seem realistic.
The realism of The Blair Witch Project was so successful that many audience members refused to believe what the directors and producers had made clear from the beginning that the entire legend/phenomenon of the Blair Witch was manufactured for the film. Fans of the film began showing up in the Maryland town that served as its setting. The Blair Witch phenomenon shares much with Sasquatch narratives—a legend of dubious origins, a failure of participants to collect substantive data, the assumption of hoaxing (even a hoaxing of the hoaxers), an over-determined walk through the woods, a misreading or over-reading of traces that may suggest a human presence, terrifying sounds and movements in the night, an air of apprehension, and a concluding indeterminacy. Moreover, Blair Witch phenomenon obviated its own intertextuality, not just in so far as it obscured/even deconstructed the relationship between its various cultural productions—faux documentary, casebook, musical CD etc. The film generated its own fake context, produced its own antecedent materials. Similarly, Sasquatch or “Monster TV” tales are wholly dependent upon antecedent materials; they are in and of themselves wholly insufficient to generate proof or belief in anyone but the participant, but they are part of a tradition that sustains them, that rescues them from dismissal. The feeble collection of evidentiary materials is maintained by its invocation of related narratives and artifacts. Each new Sasquatch production is strung out in a chain of productions that invoke and answer each other. The viewership is compelled not just by the materials that are included in the hour-long mystery program, but with all of the other cultural productions that have addressed the topic. The fragmentary evidence of the Sasquatch is recurring—hairiness, smelliness, largeness, shyness, invulnerability, apishness, bipedalism etc. The viewer need not rely entirely upon the findings of a single “Monster TV” episode, but can make connections across time and culture, supplementing the paucity of material verification provided by any specific production. In this sense, the audience is already partially convinced, and like The Blair Witch Project, the Sasquatch or monster narrative creates its own history, a history that in many cases and ways postdates the material it contextualizes. Thus “Monster TV” is not a linear narrative, not a fictional teleology; its meanings and objectives are manufactured and foreclosed at the start, pathways leading nowhere or perhaps back to their beginnings, just like the missing college students lost in the woods. When a pathway or movement has no ending and no direction, it ceases to be meaningful. [page 78]
How then does the Monster TV attract an audience? How can this be understood in a way that is more thoughtful than asserting that the public loves a mystery? The answer for the success of “Monster TV” may lie in its marketing, another process that Blair Witch directors and producers masterfully employed. Without expert marketing The Blair Witch would not have attracted much attention since the production quality was very low and the narrative itself weak inconclusive and, at times, annoying. However, the producers created interest by televising a faux documentary about the Blair Witch on the SciFi Channel, a documentary that could sustain interest by creating sensationalized material since it required no commitment to accuracy or truth and was completely unfettered by reality, as compelling as invention sought to devise yet sufficiently restrained to promote belief. However, at the core of the piece was a tantalizing emptiness--the recently unearthed film text created by the missing students/documentarians. However, just as in “Monster TV,” the evidence of supernatural or paranormal events proves frustrating and inconclusive. There is no there there. The evidence is only meaningful in the context manufactured for the tale—in the Blair Witch a series of meaningless traces amounting to little more than a sign that others have been in the woods (finding a coke can would have been as revelatory), with the film itself a trace indicating that some scared kids wandered lost for several days and may or may not have met with an untimely end or perpetrated an elaborate hoax, and in “Monster TV” a collection of fragments whose analysis cannot and will not add up to a Sasquatch. In both cases the audience comes to the production with an expectation of its failure to resolve the ambiguity of the unknown. Counter-intuitively, they come to the production with a greater interest in the construction or perpetuation of a mystery than in its resolution. While the audience may yearn for closure, the suspense of the mystery making process is what drives them, so the failure to produce does not preclude public interest, indeed it allows the programming to retain skeptics and believers alike, giving the latter adequate cause for hope and affirming the skeptic’s presumption that there is nothing out there.
Returning to our original analogy with the Heart of Darkness, we recall the narrator’s assertion that it is “the idea that saves us.” The mad scramble for loot that justified the barbarous treatment of African natives by the European imperialism in the Congo was facilitated by the belief in the latter’s ability to bring light and civilization to the benighted souls of Africa. Thus the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources required a manufactured philanthropic context, one that sought to elucidate and eradicate the mysteries at the heart of the darkness, but Marlowe discovers the darkness of Africa was imported by the so-called emissaries of light who created a context that not only could not produce answers but could [page 79] only create more mystery, broadening the contemplation of savagery to encompass colonizer and colonized alike and facilitating the slippage from the explanations of geography and history to the explanations of psychology and metaphysics. The object of study is not the mystery at the end of the journey but the subjectivity of the studier. Similarly, the revelation of the mystery in “Monster TV” lies not in the discovery of Bigfoot or UFOs or Atlantis or Lake Monsters, but in the process of mystery making and maintenance and the commercial value of that process. The entertainment industry does not want to discover or prove the existence of Sasquatch, it is already as real as it needs to be in American culture; it can be exploited to produce revenue. One can imagine the scenario in which Sasquatch is paraded across the television screen, an irrefutable presence in an episode of “Monster TV,” yet the newscaster or narrator initiates the report with the non-committal evocation: “Is this Bigfoot? You decide.”
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MLA citation (print):
Keller, James. "A Structure Without a Center: Is 'Monster TV' a Heart of Darkness?." Supernatural Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2013, pp. 65-79.