By Jessica Carducci
Premiering just over five years ago, the American television documentary series Ancient Aliens has played an important role in popularizing theories on extraterrestrial life. Produced by Prometheus Entertainment, the show focuses on the belief that aliens have visited – and might still be visiting – human cultures on Earth and suggests that these aliens have influenced society, science, and religion. Unfortunately, this attempt to connect aliens with humans can have derogatory implications, and the episode “The Reptilians,” which aired July 25th, 2014, works to dehumanize those who are physically different by interpreting congenital physical difference as evidence of alien ancestry.
First, it must be made clear that I do not intend to criticize the beliefs of the show’s presenters, viewers, or any others who subscribe to the theories it presents. With its widespread popularity, Ancient Aliens has been criticized for presenting circumstantial evidence, pseudoscience, and pseudohistory as if these findings were indelible fact. It is also often derided in popular culture, such as in South Park or on the internet as a meme (KnowYourMeme). However, what this post intends to examine is the unintended consequences of this particular supposition offered up by the show, not the validity of the theories themselves.
In this particular episode, the argument is made that humans have reptilian alien ancestry and that part of this foreign DNA is still present in the human genome. As evidence for this argument, the show presents the idea that physical differences stemming from genetic mutations demonstrate reptilian origin. Unfortunately, the consequence of this claim is that it directly equates physical variations between people with the non-human. Historically, freak shows have done this same work, by dubbing Julia Pastrana a “Bear Woman” or calling William Henry Johnson merely “What is it?” Given the history of otherness and exclusion that defines the freak show, what are the implications of connecting freaks with aliens?
On a scale from human to non-human, Jeffrey Weinstock situates both freaks and aliens somewhere in the middle (328). While freaks will always retain some connection to humanity, though, aliens have more freedom regarding their placement along this continuum. They can range from practically human themselves – such as the character of Spock from Star Trek – to completely and monstrously unfamiliar – like the Xenomorph of the Alien franchise. In this episode of Ancient Aliens then, the show is attempting to connect the human to the distant, reptilian extraterrestrial by using human diversity as a stepping stone.
The examples cited by the show demonstrate this connection between the freak and the alien. The first case mentioned is that of a young boy born with a vestigial tail in India. In his community, he has been put on display because of his difference, though not in the traditional freakshow manner; the show contends that he is viewed and worshipped as a god reborn. However, this is still a type of display that serves to separate him from the rest of his community based upon one unusual feature – the superhuman is just as removed from humanity as the freak.
The speakers on the show itself do some of the work of freakification as well. They are quick to separate the “normal” from the “freaky.” One speaker, David Wilcock, says about the boy, “He otherwise seemed normal, but he had a weird, serpent-like tail at the base of his spine.” With this, the young boy is being directly contrasted against the “norm.” The show proposes that this is indicative of leftover alien influence in the boy’s gene sequence that has somehow shone through the human – or normal – parts of his DNA. As such, difference is being equated to alien origins.
Another type of physical difference that the show mentions as evidence is ectrodactyly. As defined by the National Organization for Rare Diseases, this is a congenital disorder where the hands and/or feet are cleft, often missing central digits or with the fingers fused to form a claw-like shape (van Bokhoven). Figures with this disorder have featured prominently in the freak show circuit. Jimmy Darling – a character on American Horror Story: Freak Show – is known as the Lobster Boy, a reference to Grady Stiles Jr., the real Lobster Boy. Stiles, along with the rest of the Lobster Family, was a popular attraction in freak shows of the twentieth century. Again, the show conflates alien ancestry with actual examples of human exhibition and freakification.
What the show is saying with this proposed theory is that while we all have alien ancestry, those who have some manner of congenital physical difference are more alien than those who are normates. Unfortunately, this directly serves to exoticize and dehumanize these particular individuals. While I don’t believe that the show intended to belittle these people, it nonetheless partakes in a continuation of freakshow culture by displaying, freakifying, othering, and dehumanizing individuals based upon physical difference. I can only hope that, in the future, the producers of Ancient Aliens will show a greater awareness of the implications of their theorizing.
KnowYourMeme. “Know Your Meme: Ancient Aliens.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 10 April 2012. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.
“The Reptilians.” Ancient Aliens. H2. 25 Jul. 2014. Television.
van Bokhoven, Hans. “Ectrodactyly Ectodermal Dysplasia Cleft Lip/Palate.” NORD. National Organization for Rare Diseases, 2012. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
Weinstock, Jeffrey A. “Freaks in Space: “Extraterrestrialism” and “Deep-Space Multiculturalism”.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 327-337. Print.