Saturday, February 2, 2013

Art Bell's Return: Is the king of all things that go bump in the night heading back to the airwaves?

If you listened to late night radio in the 90s, you undoubtedly heard Art Bell. His late night radio juggernaut  was the soundtrack to many a late night in my youth. Bell's show was truly a product of its time. The interest in the paranormal was part of the larger interest in spirituality that grew throughout the 70s and 80s and reached its zenith in the 90s as part of the lead up to the turn of the millennium. Bell managed to play off the growing interest in all things strange and unusual, especially the burgeoning interest in UFOs that went into high gear with the popularity of the X-Files. Bell also profited from the increased paranoia regarding government control and the belief in a global conspiracy that accompanied the rise of globalization. Those were exciting times in the exchange of ideas, and Art Bell provided a national forum for the fringe. Bell eventually retired from his regular slot at the end of 2002. His popular Coast to Coast AM was passed on to another host.

The change in hosts, after about a year of keeping things close to Bell's road map, eventually transitioned the show into a different  format, one which Bell increasingly disliked. For the passed two years, Bell has been silent on the mic and any trace of his original brainchild has vanished. Now, via his facebook page, Art Bell has announced that he is negotiating with another network for a new show. Now, you may ask yourself, "what does this have to do with theology?" Simply put, more than you may imagine.

Bell's original show was a forum for modern myth making. The mythos of Area 51 took on colorful definition with callers claiming to either be former employees on the run from the base or, in one instance, a caller claiming to be flying a private jet into its airspace. For added realism, this caller had his girlfriend fax Bell updates when his cellphone went out. There were tales of strange encounters with alien and ghostly beings. Then there were the truly out of left field conspiracies featuring odd instances of government control. For instance, a Washington man claiming to have a hole in excess of 25 mile deep (apparently bottomless) with strange properties. The property was later "confiscated" by government men in black and the Washington man has never been back. Or a certain notable figure who maintained there were artificial structures on Mars, with an Egyptian connection. Art Bell even reinvigorated interest in both Eric von Danniken and Zachariah Sitchin, two authors alleging that ancient extraterrestrial contact lay at the heart of man's religions. Most famously, Bell brought the work of the controversial Catholic priest Malachi Martin into the modern age, his interviews helping to create an enduring mythos for the late traditionalist author. Of course, Bell's active engagement with the human need to find the fantastic had deadly results. In the months leading up to comet Hale-Bopp's passage, Bell trotted out various guests who stated that there was a companion object travelling with Hale-Bopp. Whether through "remote viewing" or through claims of having encountered a secret government document, a narrative was told over the course of several months in which an extraterrestrial spacecraft was accompanying the comet on its way to establishing contact. The members of the Heaven's Gate cult followed Bell's program with much interest and referred to his shows as evidence that the mother ship was coming to beam them off of the earth and into the next plane of existence.

For those interested in the sociology of religion and/or the creation of new folklore, Bell's program was nexus of ideas. It will be interesting to see what might happen the second time around. The creation of new folklore has become more complicated. Google earth makes it difficult to weave tales of a bottomless hole in your backyard if anyone can load up the image and search. Accounts of secret government documents are harder to sustain in a world of wikileaks  and advanced computer hacking - one would think someone would find something about UFOs or the Kennedy assassination. The criteria for establishing new folklore, urban legends or religious beliefs has changed and in the past ten years no one of note has succeeded in developing something new. Perhaps all they need is a ring master to direct the circus; Bell is an expert at identifying cultural trends or memes worth exploiting. If the weird and wonderful world of the paranormal is going to have a rebirth, I suspect Bell will once again be coloring the emerging narrative.

It'll be fun. Just watch...and listen.