The National Parks are, according to Ken Burns, America’s best idea. Ken Burns made a twelve-hour long documentary telling of how we came to conserve nature. I have not seen Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, but I have seen Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the National Parks, a cheap show that turns beautiful parks into terrifying, dark places where evils lurk.
Once upon a time, we laughed at History Channel’s obsession with World War II. Now, to see anything historical on that network is a welcome oasis in a sea of Ancient Aliens. Scripted television is the greatest its ever been, yet reality television somehow keeps hitting new lows. Channels that once had a unique theme are now interchangeable. A&E may have once been a high-brow network, but now no such thing exists. No history networks exist. All have the same indistinguishable shows. Next up: Pawn Hunters, followed by a new Swamp Men!
Channels now air fictional documentaries about Megaladon and mermaids, and justify it by pointing to one tiny disclaimer in the end credits, visible only to ants crawling on the screen. The paranormal genre, represented by Sightings and Crossing Over with John Edwards in the 90s-early 00s, flourishes. You may not be able to learn about the War of 1812 on the History Channel, but by God will you learn about how aliens visited the ancient Egyptians, Mayans, and every culture outside Europe. These shows are harmless fun…until you consider the fact that they drove so many actually educational shows, about real history, off the air.
Last Friday I stumbled on a show called Mysteries at the National Parks. Airing Fridays at 10/9c on Travel Channel, Mysteries at the National Parks is the cousin of shows Mysteries at the Museum and Mysteries at the Castle. Those shows explore odd historical stories via museum exhibits and castles. They’re entertaining enough, and mainly stick to reality. Mysteries at the Museum features a UFO story every now and then. Mysteries at the National Parks is nothing but paranormal stories.
This is Saint Mary Lake, only the second largest lake in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Look at that image. It’s beautiful, right? That’s what you see.
A Travel Channel producer looks at that photo and sees Adolf Hitler.
The first of two episodes of Mysteries at the National Parks focuses on how Glacier National Park is home to a secret Nazi base.
We begin with a soldier seeing lights in the sky. Before we long, we make the incredible leap from “UFO” to…Hitler.
It seems a Nazi named Otto Skorzeny fled to Montana, with Hitler and other prominent Nazis at his side. Hitler retired there, largely because it resembles a region of Germany, and he was photographed in 1997:
We hear of tourists discovering train cars with shackles inside, and a deep base where defected Nazis work, similar to Operation Paperclip. We’re warned that if you get too close, you may be shot.
And for half an hour, this is all we hear about Glacier National Park.
Time spent on other elements of the park was minimal. We don’t hear about its Blackfoot history. We don’t hear about how it came to be preserved. We don’t hear of its animal life, which includes mountain goats and lynx. We don’t hear about how its titular glaciers will disappear by 2030 if nothing is done about climate change, but we do hear about how they possess strange abilities. We hear of its mountains, because they reminded Hitler of home.
All we hear about Glacier National Park is how it’s a scary place, home to Hitler and soldiers that won’t hesitate to shoot you if you wander off the path.
The second episode focused on Gettysburg National Park. If you cannot tell an interesting story about the site of the Civil War’s most important battle without resorting to tall tales about ghosts, then you have failed as a storyteller. Yet here we are, and here’s a half hour about how Gettysburg is home to ghosts, quartz and time travelers.
Apparently, Gettysburg is particularly haunted, not because of the many who died during the battle, but because it lies on a layer of quartz. Quartz conducts ghosts, as you may know if you watch these sorts of shows. I saw one once called Ghost Mine, about a mine haunted by spirits in the quartz. At one point, an investigator saw a shadow move past a light and yelled, “Does it make you angry that I’m a woman? And that I have red hair in a mine?” That one moment is more entertaining than this entire series, which adopts a tone that seems to mock its own material. It’s as if the narrator is saying “can you believe this stupid thing I’m telling you”?
Yet the true low point of the series comes with a self-described time traveler. A man named Andrew D. Basiago claims to have traveled back to Gettysburg as part of a DARPA project. He provides evidence – a photo of himself in the past. Surely conclusive, except…
Andrew D. Basiago also claims to have traveled to Mars with Barack Obama. Such are the experts trotted out by Mysteries at the National Parks.
Looking ahead, today – after a midday marathon of Ghost Adventures – there are two new episodes. One is about Chupacabra. The other concerns unexplained disappearances.
The makers of Mysteries at the National Parks look at beautiful places and see monsters. They look at historical monuments and see phantoms. They see you as a gullible rube, who must be terrified by imaginary demons and belittled by the show’s insulting, lowest common denominator tone.
When people attack reality shows, they generally talk about the Duck Dynastys and Honey Boo Boos of the world. At least the point of those shows is purely to entertain. It asks the audience to look down on its subjects. At their worst, they’re shows based on embarrassment. At their best, their broad archetypal subjects and easy laughs turn them into the modern equivalent of a TGIF sitcom.
But a show like this has no best-case scenario. It exists purely to misinform and scare. Its creators, or more likely its network, assume that this is all the world wants. It will, I have no doubt, perform well. Maybe it’s silly to spend so much time dwelling on a piece of cheap, Friday night death slot filler. But it is not alone.
As I type this, the Science Channel is airing a show about a man who claims to have been healed by aliens. The Animal Planet is airing a show about killer fish. I hear it promises a message of conservation. So did Discovery’s special where a man planned to be eaten alive by a snake. So does Shark Week. It’s easy to throw in a “save the animals!” message after showing them as objects of terror for an hour. It’s easy to have your narrator say they’re just asking questions to justify your specials about aliens and ghosts.
I can watch Long Island Medium, a show following a woman who uses cold reading to prey on the desperate and grieving. If I want to watch a show about skepticism, I can hope Mythbusters airs a episode not about movie stunts. I can watch Dr. Oz, an actual doctor, pitch miracle cures. If I want to see a show about medicine that doesn’t sell pseudoscience, well, I’m out of luck. The Mysteries at the National Parks of the world didn’t just take over, they pushed out anything more intelligent.
There is, of course, no audience for intelligent shows about history or science. That’s why Cosmos failed. That’s why Planet Earth was swiftly forgotten. That’s why there’s no such thing as a popular historian. That’s why there’s no interest in astronauts like Chris Hadfield, and that’s why Carl Sagan died in obscurity.
Mysteries at the National Park peddles bizarre conspiracy theories and fear in place of curiosity. It squanders wonderful, interesting places. It’s made by people who think the most interesting thing about Gettysburg is a guy who says he time traveled with Barack Obama. There may be worse shows yet in 2015, but none this sad. Here there be monsters – and I’m not talking about chupacabra.