In Search Of… : A Beginner’s Guide To An Uneasy Universe

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In Search of… the classic–I’d even say paradigmatic–paranormal reality show, ran from 1977 to 1982. The show grew out of an earlier series of specials narrated by Rod Serling; Serling died while the weekly series was still in development, and so Leonard Njmoy, everyone’s favorite rationalist from another planet, was brought in as the host. For six seasons, Nimoy–sporting a fascinating range of turtlenecks and boldly patterned synthetics, and sometimes a mustache–led viewers in search of telepathic houseplants, reincarnation, time travel , killer bees, D.B. Cooper, and Michael Rockefeller, all set to an eerie, synth-heavy soundtrack that has a cult following of its own.

The show, now available on Youtube and as a boxed DVD set, was very much of its time, though its influence arguably lingers in everything from the X-Files to the Blair Witch films. The original, Serling-narrated specials were inspired by the ancient-alien bestsellers of Eric von Däniken, and UFO contacts and “alternative” archaeology remained favorite themes. The voice-over at the beginning of each episode reminds viewers that the series presents information “based in part on theory and conjecture”. The narration is a hymn to the possibilities of the Unreal Conditional, with “could”, “perhaps” , “might” and “may” framing some magnificently bizarre segues and rhetorical questions. A patient’s recurring dreams “could be symbolic of events from a past life”, Nimoy gravely intones in one episode, before we cut from the hypnotherapist’s office to a reenactment featuring a young woman in vaguely Grecian robes fleeing in terror through a forest (she’s about to be murdered, thereby triggering her future incarnation’s difficulty in relationships). In one of the original specials, “In Search of Ancient Mysteries”, the camera pans over a range of carved stone faces in the ancient Bolivian city of Tiwanaku, while Serling asks, “Are these models of men–or experimental designs for man?” Later, after recapping the standard Bermuda Triangle mysterious-disappearance lore, Serling announces: “But now we have one more question–is this a corridor to outer space?”

Good times. Or so my adult self now thinks. In the late seventies, when the show was in its glory years, my relationship with it was far more vexed. I loved it, but it frequently scared the hell out of me, to the point that my mother tried to ban me from watching it. At the time, my parents were recently divorced, something which now seems not unrelated to my attraction to the show, to the weekly ritual of trying to master my fears of a chaotic and possibly malevolent universe filled with forces beyond my control. The irony here is that my mother, in the years after my parents’ divorce, cultivated something of an interest in alternative phenomena, 70s-style, herself. She dabbled in past-life regression through hypnotherapy, and one of the men she dated was enough interested in psychic research that, wholly at my own insistence, I ended up sitting on the living room floor of his mountain house, blindfolded, trying (unsuccessfully) to read Zener cards with my third eye. (Note: This attitude of openness on my mother’s part stopped well short of the box that showed Charlie’s Angels and Battle of the Network Stars; the battle over In Search of… was not an isolated event. I wasn’t allowed to eat foods with too much artificial coloring in them, either.)

leonard-nimoy-in-search-of-stache

I’ve recently learned that, in the same era in which I was being driven back and forth through the suburbs of Denver from my mom’s house to my dad’s, the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult (of Comet Hale-Bopp suicide fame) were living somewhere in those same suburbs, after a period at a wilderness camp near Laramie, Wyoming. The Heaven’s Gate members apparently moved into their rented houses in the middle of the night and then sealed off the windows so they could follow their own arbitrary schedule without reference to anyone else’s day or night. It was part of their process of breaking down their human selves in preparation for ascension to a higher plane. In Search of… never did a Heaven’s Gate episode, as the group was virtually unknown before the final mass suicide in 1996, but it would have been right up the producers’ alley. (They did have one about Jim Jones and Jonestown, and there’s an excellent episode about former Episcopal Bishop of California James Pike, a very 70s figure who left the church after being charged with heresy, published a book about the psychic phenomena he supposedly experienced after the death of his son, and finally died in the Judean desert after heading out, with his new, much-younger wife, to retrace the steps of Jesus with nothing but two bottles of Coca Cola and a rental agency road map). What haunts me about the stories of Heaven’s Gate living in Denver is the idea of the group cultivating their own extra-terrestrial reality behind the sealed windows of–just maybe–one of the houses I passed by all the time, and if not, then in a similar house in a similar neighborhood, somewhere just across town. There seems to me something very suburban, and very 1970s, about this image of atomization under the bland surfaces of suburbia.

This is part of what draws me back to In Search of…now, in addition to the pleasures of nostalgia and the enduring appeal of a good Loch Ness Monster story (the show’s experts are very confident it’s a relic population of plesiosaurs). Unlike many other people, I feel no real nostalgia for the willed consensus of the Reagan years, which seemed forced and artificial to me even at the time. I’m much more drawn to the uneasy 1970s, when everything was up for grabs and any given day might bring doomsday or utopia.

In Search of… certainly reflects this, shooting off in all different directions. The Noah’s Ark epsiode is hijacked early on by “scientific creationists” happy to explain how the Grand Canyon is really evidence of a single global catastrophe exactly 5,000 years ago. If von Däniken could find UFOS in the Bible, why can’t they find a real flood? In another episode we learn that a giant asteroid may slam into earth and kill, say, Chicago, but it’s okay, because we will soon be colonizing outer space where, apparently, racially integrated groups of people will lounge around all day in conversation pits playing three-dimensional chess. A futurist waxes enthusiastic about the possibilities while behind her stands a model of the invention that will make it all possible–the space shuttle. In Salem, the show finds a modern-day witch who phones in astrological forecasts to a radio show. The day’s harsh planetary aspects, she advises listeners, can be counteracted if they just “bliss out, fantasize a lot, and wear rainbows.” A gentle cryptozoologist, asked how he’s been able to create the rapport he claims with Bigfoot, says “there’s a great deal more love in this world than is ever expressed, and animals are no different than people.” On a far less tender note, an episode on the secrets of eternal youth features a hamster who’s been killed and brought back to life in the lab, over and over and over, and goes through it all again on camera.

My favorite episode may be “In Search of Anastasia,” which profiles Anna Anderson, who claimed to be Anastasia Romanov. By the time of the show, Anderson was married to a retired history professor obsessed with European royalty and living in Charlottesville, Virginia. Their home life has a definite Grey Gardens quality, complete with cats and overgrown shrubbery. The professor, babbling a bout someone bringing parakeets over from Honolulu after crossing on the Berengaria, tries to put Anderson on show, asking her to identify the Romanov siblings on an old calendar, while Anderson contradicts, defies, or simply ignores his every word. In another sequence, they sit for an interview at their country club (Anderson’s hot-pink ensemble with matching hat is memorable in its own right). The professor asks in a leading way if she’d like to see her claims finally accepted by historians. “I SPEET on them!” she snaps. I love it. Anderson has a close competitor, though, in Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant, who dominates the episode on the allegedly immortal Count St. Germain and who comes across, as an acquaintance said during a tweet-along viewing, like “ten pounds of crazy in a five-pound box.” Prophet also favors hot pink.

Much of the show’s fascination lies in the matter-of-factness with which it presents these people and their ideas. Here’s the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, living in a town much like yours. Here’s the man whose psychic dream may hold the key to preventing the fiery crash of the plane you’ll be on next week. And yes, an asteroid might slam into the earth tomorrow, but even if the scientists can’t bring you back the way they did that hamster, it’s surely only a matter of time until the aliens come to reseed the planet with a newer, better model of human. Until then, bliss out, fantasize a lot, and wear rainbows.

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This week’s guest star is Holly Hunt. Holly Hunt hopes someday to write about Hans Holzer’s The Habsburg Curse as the book that changed her life.

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