This is the second part of a series which begins here.
Currently in my academic work, I study how radicalizing agents use online games to indoctrinate and recruit vulnerable young people. It’s a fascinating area and one that has gone largely unnoticed. The central framework I’m using is called significance quest theory which was developed by applying the work of Viktor Frankl to understand why suicide bombers in the Middle East do what they do. While significance quest theory is built on the presupposition that radicals have suffered an insult to one or more life-domains and seek to reestablish honor for their communities through acts of violence, Frankl’s work, encapsulated in his magnum opus Man’s Search for Meaning, ultimately focuses on how people visualize their future and attempt to realize it. In Hellier, the vision of the investigators is neither clear nor tenable, largely because it is equally not their own vision nor a realizable future.
Half-way through season two, I have already encountered more of the classist themes that plagued the first season. Once the investigators begin searching for the fictitious Indrid Cole in a more developed and less depressing setting than the series’ titular town, something interesting occurs. Standing on a street corner, surrounded by busy traffic and brick buildings, bathed in light and sound, one of the researchers comments how good she feels about being there and calls it Shangri-La, a reference to the Tibetan utopia of James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. Steeped in the conscious force of civilization, far removed from the wild unconscious realm of Hellier, the researchers feel at home; their view of this world, a world of economic opportunity and traditional forms, crystalizes into palpable joy. The responses of the researchers as they meander the streets of the small city reflect their comfort in the bourgeoise environment about them.
But beyond merely revealing their own positive biases towards people who live, talk, and think more like themselves, the most infuriating action the investigators undertake is one rooted in their own ignorance of a dark period in recent American history. As the second season unfolds, the researchers find themselves probing a claim that police, government officials, and even the United States Marine Corps are involved in a nefarious plot involving human sacrifice, cannibalism, and dark rites. Instead of seeing these claims for what they are–a revival of the millennial hysteria commonly called the Satanic Panic–the investigators launch into the claim and even dispatch a researcher to an abandoned wood where he finds little save a deflated mylar birthday balloon which doubtless lost its buoyancy and fell to earth where he retrieved it.
Rather than reject the absurd claim that the US Marines and several police agencies are involved in Satanic rites, the investigators pursue these claims and so provide some measure of legitimacy to the belief that vast evil conspiracies exist at the highest levels of government; it’s a form of the Pizza-Gate scandal, but far older and easily far more transparent. Moreover, the Satanic Panic had its own classist problems that culminated in the injustices suffered by The West Memphis Three.
For the accused West Memphis Three, poverty in the depressed town of West Memphis, Arkansas (a town where the median income today is just under $30,000 per year–less than the $35,000 per year in Hellier, Kentucky) poverty meant a lack of resources for mounting a thorough defense. The accused were found guilty largely because one of the young men was coerced into confessing (he later recanted) and another young man had a fascination with the works of Aleister Crowley, the same occultist whose Book of the Law provides the basis for the flimsy yet vaunted “cipher” the Hellier investigators tout as near-holy writ.
Moreover, as the investigator who finds the balloon searches the wooded area, a helicopter flies overhead and he panics. “They know I’m here!” he squeals as he laughs; for this young man, the potential for arrest is low and the thrill of being in potential danger–however imaginary–is exciting. But he has resources, free time, and–most importantly–a need to find meaning in life.
The investigators in Hellier are bored, wealth-privileged, white kids with a lot of free time on their hands and a need to feel important. Oddly, I can relate. It’s what led me into the occult, though I suffered significance loss at the hands of a society that does not tolerate homosexuals. When I passed through the ring of fire that led me from the Ordo Templi Orientis, I discovered a wider world opening up to me. I travelled, met and befriended rock stars, and came to know myself through struggle. Everything I sought in the world of conspiracies, the occult, and fantasy I found once I abandoned those same things.
For the Hellier team, significance is found in towns, in tin cans, and in old party balloons resting among the woods. When confronted with the symbols of the unconscious mind–the woods, the darkness, the dying town, and poverty–the team balks and acknowledges their own fears. As a group of people who speak highly of sycnhronicity, they fail to recognize that this phenomenon stems from deep, introspective work with the unconscious. They enter the woods hoping to find Young Goodman Brown’s witches’ sabbath and come up empty-handed–save for a can and a balloon. And yet they persist in the belief that the snipe ever roosts just over the ridge in the next vale. But meaning in life means facing reality, and facing reality means abandoning the fantasy that only wealth-privilege can afford.
In this season, we see the three investigators become four. The addition of the new participant begs the question, “When do they buy the psychedelic van and get the talking great Dane?” And while I haven’t completed the second season, I fear they will close in on Terry Wriste and ultimately fail to unmask him. I doubt seriously that anyone will pull the disguise from his head and gasp, “Old man Greenfield!”
Continue to watch this blog for further updates on the Hellier follies.