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In Defense of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week Hoax

• August 07, 2013 • 9:21 AM

Megalodon. (ILLUSTRATION: COURTESY OF THE DISCOVERY CHANNEL)

When things seem bleakest, mythical creatures can get us back on track.

In 1999 I found myself in Santiago, Chile, for six months. It was during this period that ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet returned from a brief detention in Europe. The strongman’s return created doubts about the viability of Chilean democracy. One response to the doubts was a flight from conversation about politics. You did not hear much talk about the “Pinochet case” in Chilean media, in Chilean bars or squares, or even many Chilean homes. It was a scary and painful topic for a lot of people.

Instead, I found, people talked about sports. That was soccer and a Davis Cup match against rival Argentina (Argentina won, resulting in a brawl). When not talking about sports, they talked about a scandal involving a Chilean socialite and her affairs. After that, the excuse to avoid the elephant in the room was the Vina del Mar song contest, in which Enrique Iglesias won the coveted Golden Seagull award. Disrespectfully—and usefully for distraction’s sake—he threw his award into the crowd, not thinking that this was 1) offensive to the institution that had awarded it, like tossing an Oscar, and 2) likely to brain someone in the 15th row badly enough to draw blood, because a Golden Seagull has pointy sculptural wings.

After that blew over, which took weeks, Shakira came up to bat. She was then a children’s act for the most part, a Latin Miley Cyrus. (We’re talking before the Cyrus re-branding. Also Shakira’s.) A concert by the singer created an excuse for discussion about whether 12-year-olds should be encouraged to shimmy (consensus: OK when accompanied by a parent).

Meanwhile, Pinochet’s flight was warming up on a British runway. Shakira held a concert and moved on to Brazil. The Chilean soccer team lost to Peru. The shamed socialite embraced a public celibacy. Things became very nervously quiet.

At some point I went home and read the Chilean paper to see how it had all ended. A police finding suggested that the Calama chupacabra attack had been the work of wild dogs. It had barely made the back page.

Then, suddenly, a farmer in Calama, which is an agricultural community in the middle of the world’s driest desert, the Atacama, more or less saved the country by offering the best of all possible distractions. Coming out to his paddock one day, he was shocked to find his goats all lying dead, with bite marks on their necks. They had been drained of blood but were otherwise intact.

Traumatized, he contacted the police, which attracted local media. Before a couple of days had passed everyone drew an obvious conclusion. The goats had been attacked by a chupacabra, or goat sucker. It was possible the beast was still on the loose. It was possible it could multiply. It was possible that there was a connection between the chupacabra attack and NASA’s recent use of the Atacama, which is one of the world’s harshest environments, for tests of a new interplanetary rover.

Within a few days, Chile’s topic of conversation, at least in the media and the plazas of Santiago, the capitol, was all chupacabra all the time.

I MAY BE EXAGGERATING. I am exaggerating. I do not want to give the impression that the people of Chile, who had suffered immensely under Pinochet, were not thinking very, very seriously about the implications of his imminent return. But the discussion was not, I think it’s fair to say, very public. This was also pre-social media, which took away some of the potentially safe public space, limiting it to physical spaces that, at the time, had their share of ghosts.

I really should have left the country. A problem with being a reporter in a place where everyone is terrified to speak is that you can’t offer much to the boss and go broke really fast. I was a much younger reporter at the time. I rang the U.S. I rang everywhere I knew, all the newspapers I’d worked for at that point, a few Web pages, a few magazines, and said: “People are so terrified of Pinochet still, they are talking about vampire goats, just to avoid the issue.” No one went for it.

Surrendering, and with rent due, I called a guy I knew at the Discovery Channel. He very quickly agreed to hire me to look into the chupacabra itself. No Pinochet. But the goat sucker, absolutely.

I called NASA to get an official denial that they had genetically engineered a vampire goat or found one on the moon. I became immersed in the subject of cryptozoology, the study of animals that probably don’t exist, but just might. This is still some of the most fun I’ve had in 20 years as a reporter.

Cryptozoology is a real science, no joke. In the public imagination the discipline involves Bigfoot and perhaps dragons. In fact, the work involves debunking routine claims about fairly boring creatures. A radioactive beetle turns out to be a normal one that accidentally got spray-painted bright green under a barn by a guy who was painting his boat and also had tetanus from a rusty nail he’d stepped on without realizing it just before the bug bit him. A sighting of a fish no one has ever seen turns out to be a slightly esoteric variant of a carp that fell out of a helicopter on its way to a high-end restaurant, which had been fraudulently selling it as sea bass. At the time the really big news in the field was the discovery of a new sort of deer in Vietnam. A mythical deer with cool stripey horns, the existence of which a mountain tribe had sworn up and down for a century without anyone taking them seriously, until everyone did. Interesting, sure, but hardly a photo of the Yeti stacking pins at a bowling alley in Bhutan, which is really what you’d hope them to be after.

Still, they are fun people. I got to talk to Loren Coleman, a cryptozoologist of note, who doesn’t believe in the chupacabra. The sightings across the Americas and the Caribbean seemed to him to be a lot of accidental marketing based on a given place needing this sort of incident at the time for reasons psychologists would call projection. Also, the myth travels well. “It’s sort of like Jennifer Lopez, kind of cross-cultural,” he said. This was long enough ago that Jennifer Lopez was a meaningful reference point.

I never asked about giant sharks. They’re clearly fake. And that wasn’t my job at the time. Discovery ran the story and I got a lot of encouraging mail. A lot of people wanted to tell me about their chupacabra experiences. I hadn’t expected that. They were all messing with me. It was a lot of fun.

While I chased the goat, Pinochet arrived at a military airport, also in the northern desert. A caravan of his inner circle began the long drive to the capitol. Everyone hid indoors and waited for a coup. They took Pinochet to a hospital. A crowd formed outside. Snipers went up on the roof.

Then nothing happened. Nothing. No coup came, happily. Pinochet soon retreated to a ranch and lurked, but lost his sense of overwhelming presence, and became more of a figure from the past waiting to die. Think of Cheney in Wyoming.

Life returned to normal. People went back outside. People started talking about the elections happening about the same time, and the cabinet to be formed. Chilean democracy persisted, if a bit unsteadily at times, and still does. By coincidence, I happened to spend a week in Chile in 2009, 10 years after my first visit. No one seemed to have any problem talking about anything at all; quite to the contrary, people were screaming about all sorts of things at the top of their lungs.

At some point I went home and read the Chilean paper to see how it had all ended. A police finding suggested that the Calama chupacabra attack had been the work of wild dogs. It had barely made the back page.

THE ANGRY RESPONSE TO Discovery airing a fake documentary to kick off Shark Week has been instructive, I think. People are taking this very seriously, and it’s worth asking if that’s a good or bad thing. It’s certainly, I think it’s fair to say, a surprise. The emerging critique is that we used to have excellent science programming in the U.S.—stuff like Nova and Cosmos—and now we have cheap satire about giant fish that eat people. To make things more acute, this is all followed up by a post-game, in which a bad actor dressed in an even worse all-body shark suit does Borscht Belt schtick with a salami sandwich as a prop. (He calls his lunch order “the Pacino,” he says, waving the hoagie around, “because it’s a four-foot Italian.” Badda bing!) The impression this could leave is that Jacques Cousteau really does sleep with the fishes, RIP.

I would like to argue that there is something more interesting going on. I think some mid-level geniuses at Discovery are doing what the people of Chile did over a decade ago—if with dramatically lower stakes. If you watch the giant shark documentary, it operates a lot like the chupacabra fascination in Chile did. It says, at bottom: Look how far through the looking glass we are.

In Chile, the question the chupacabra fascination implied was: “Why can’t we talk about anything?” It was a very good question to provoke at the time, even if the answer couldn’t be stated in public. The message this morning about the Discovery Channel is similar: “Why aren’t we talking seriously about science this week? Why is our best science discussion dominated by reality programming about Alaskan truckers?”—which is also a good question to provoke. One can argue over how conscious this was on the part of the Shark Week programmers. The resulting outrage is worth whatever wrangling was necessary in-house, I’d argue.

Also the chum cannons were inventive.

Marc Herman
Marc Herman is a writer in Barcelona. He is the author of The Shores of Tripoli.

More From Marc Herman

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