Captain Fantastic

Lou Sheldon mistakes Internet for reality, panics, declares world ending!

Photo by Johan VogelThe dark powers behind the entertainment industry have apparently turned their attention from warping kids' minds through video games and gone back to their roots: warping kids' minds through television. Fortunately, however, the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) is ready for them.

On Sept. 29, the Anaheim-based religious-Right organization, perhaps best known for its vehemently anti-gay politics, sent out an e-mail message to "pastors and lay leaders" urging them to boycott a new show about to air on Fox TV. Freakylinks, which debuted Oct. 6, was created by one of the guys behind the surprise indie success Blair Witch Project. It's an X-Files-type show that follows the paranormal investigations of intrepid webmaster Derek Barnes. The show's gimmick: it will also be aired on its official website (www.freakylinks.com), designed to add an interactive element for the fans.

According to TVC, the show also serves to indoctrinate innocent children into the ways of the occult. "Its effect on children could be devastating," the Reverend Lou Sheldon wrote in an e-mail to TVC members. "The episodes encourage exploration into the occult and supernatural activity. The show will also broadcast an Internet site containing a chat room and discussion board. Already, many kids have shared their personal experiences with witchcraft and the effects they have witnessed as a result."

As proof, the e-mail quotes several postings it says were found on the site (though I was unable to locate them) that purport to share the real-life cult experiences of participants. A representative sample: "Dear fellow freaks: I have a confession; I was practicing witchcraft . . . a spell called 'The Enemy's Bones.' Two weeks after the spell was performed, the kid died. That's the last time I practiced Dark Magic."

The TVC urged "Christians and concerned parents" to send messages to Fox demanding that the show be canceled—even before the first episode had aired. A similar campaign is being run from the Don Paul Ministries site (www.donpaul.org), only the conservative TV/radio minister goes even further than Sheldon—implying, somewhat disjointedly, that Freakylinksis part of an international conspiracy to bring the United States to its knees. "Haven't we had enough killings?" Paul asks rhetorically on his site. "I was looking forward to a peaceful year! . . . I remember a quote from years ago: 'We will destroy your country from within without ever dropping a single bomb.' According to the FCC regulations, is it in the public's best interest for a citizen of another country to own a U.S. television network like Fox?"

There's just one problem with all this panicking and bosom-clutching: even if you grant the premise—that the show could influence kids to get involved in the occult—and even if you grant that getting involved in the occult is necessarily a bad thing, odds are the occult practitioners they're quoting don't even exist.

You see, the Freakylinks site, while claiming to be genuine, is simply a fictional Internet counterpart to the fictional TV show, and much if not all of the material on the site is simply made up. Fox spokeswoman Melissa Wolverton declined to comment for this story, but in an article posted on the Directors World website (www.directorsworld.com), co-executive producer David Simkins admitted as much. "Although the site states that it was started a few years ago, in truth, we started it just after we did the pilot," he says in the article. "But since the commercials have aired on Fox, we have received over 3 million hits on the site, with users staying [for] 20 to 25 minutes! That is unheard of."

The "real" site is strongly reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, which owed much of its success to word-of-mouth spread over the Internet. The premise of that movie, of course, was that it was created from actual footage shot by actual film students, and the website (www.blair witch.com) extended that pretense, providing snippets from a character's diary and more historical background on the legend of the Blair Witch. The filmmakers even aired a "documentary" on the Sci-Fi Channel using interviews with the missing students' relatives, the cops who led the search and various other dubious sources.

Now Fox was pretty tightlipped about Sheldon's effort to kill the show, so it's impossible to say for certain that the specific postings Sheldon is getting so exercised about are fakes—actual fans are allowed to participate in the message boards. But I invite him to consider the possibilities: (1) the postings were actually written by a PR guy working for Fox; (2) the postings were from real fans, but in the spirit of the site or in an attempt to get attention, they made it all up; (3) a number of fans have indeed been practicing dark magic, and it actually worked as advertised, and, as a result, at least one person has died, and they thought it would be a real good idea to confess to his murder on a public website discussion board.

Of these scenarios, No. 3 is the least likely. The TVC didn't respond to repeated phone calls, so I didn't get a chance to discuss the distinction between fantasy and reality with them—nor did I get a chance to ask them how these kids could have been sucked into the dark world of the occult by a show that, at the time of their e-mail warning, had not yet aired.

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