Fandom & Fantasy: Exploring the Anomalous at Dragon Con

DragonCon Babylon

Exterior view of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis


A living person is forgiven everything, except for being present among the dying ones of this world.  “Oh, holiest sacrifice of the (children) of the unique one.”

— Louis Cattiaux

It is odd to step out of my personal reality and into a fantasy world much more mundane than the mere act of making coffee in the morning at the Liminal Analytics Georgia offices. But so it was last week as I entered the neo-Babylonian hotel complex that hosts Dragon Con in downtown Atlanta each year. “There are no real freaks* here,” I murmured to my traveling companion at the convention, Dr. Tim Brigham, a professor of experimental psychology at Georgia Perimeter College, as we looked around at the nervous faces of conference attendees who were dressed as their favorite characters (or as those most convenient to their sense of outward escape). “Maybe once it gets dark, we’ll get some spirited folks in here,” I opined aloud as the agitated buzz of students, executives, and average Americans bent on an escapist weekend began getting on my nerves, making me wish I could leave for a nice, normal afternoon at a local Botanica to study the beautiful skeletal visage of la niña bonita, Santa Muerte.

Rationalized irrationality

Upwards of 60,000 people converged on Atlanta this year to attend one of the largest  fantasy, science fiction, comic, and gaming conventions in the world. I mused and milled among the Dragon Con attendees with Dr. Brigham as we awaited an opportunity to see how the realms of anomalous science might fare in such a heady environment. The convention played host to two well-stocked tracks of paranormal and skeptical speakers, and so it seemed a perfect opportunity to understand how the ideas that Dr. Brigham and I are used to experiencing through laboratory work, statistical analysis, and philosophical discourse play out in the public domain. And play they did, to the abrasive tune of crass commercialization and the repetitious mantra “I am here to escape.”

Having spent time with some of the world’s leading parapsychologists, I’ve often been confused as to how the skeptical subculture can exist in such seeming disconnect with everything that I’ve encountered during my reading, travels, and conversations. Dragon Con provided me with an unpalatable answer by revealing the illusory landscape of fantasy and fandom that the skeptics inhabit, far afield from those liminal, but legitimate, climates where anomalistic science holds proper court. If this is what the skeptics consider a reasonable place to air their ideas, then I’m not surprised that they express such dismay at the state of anomalistic science. I’ve never seen even one of these people at any of the serious parapsychological events that I’ve attended or hosted, and nothing I’ve attended or hosted has ever been so fraught with fiction as this Dragon Con convention. Yet here among the cosplay and comic books were such leading lights of the skeptical subculture as Michael Shermer, Ben Radford, Michael Stackpole, and Massimo Pigliucci.

Without going to Dragon Con, you can get a sense of where many popular skeptics are coming from in the fact that Ben Radford is a staff writer for Discovery News, a subsidiary of Discovery Communications, the company that has received attention recently for its decision to run television specials claiming the existence of living megalodon sharks (which have been extinct for upwards of 2 million years) and mermaids (which have probably never existed). The cognitive dissonance that’s palpable in this promotion of pulp fiction as fact by what purports to be a leading science education platform fact gives writers like Radford the leeway to make strange claims, such as his contention that the legendary Stanford Research Institute (SRI) Remote Viewing project returned no valid results. At Dragon Con I was unable to find anyone who had even heard of SRI, let alone who had looked at the research itself, and so skeptics like Radford, when pitted against a paranormal panel track stocked with ghost hunters, professional psychic mediums, a demonologist, and some UFO experts, were able to weave their web of rationalized irrationality with ease.

Woodcut of St. George slaying the dragon, Alexander Barclay, 1515 [Public Domain], via Wikipedia

Woodcut of St. George slaying the dragon, Alexander Barclay, 1515 [Public Domain], via Wikipedia

Our gods wear spandex

Current thinkers in the paranormal field such as Jeffery Kripal and Christopher Knowles have made the intriguing argument that comics culture represents a contemporary form of gnosticism. They see in it a cultural expression of the transcendentally inexpressible, a societal subrealm where superheroes are effectively new god forms that encapsulate and embody a vision of the farthest reaches of human potential.

I’ve often held sympathy with these views. Having grown up reading pulp horror and fantasy, and feeling a serious respect for the potential of genre fiction to act as frame stories for deeper narratives, I accepted such insights without hesitation. But now, after having seen the actual fan culture growing out of these supposed gnostic creative endeavors, I feel a bit different. Understandably, many will think me a bit harsh in the critiques that follow, and I admit that one of the reasons I did not pursue sociology or anthropology in my academic career is that I was never able to separate ethics and morality from my observations of cultural phenomena, which further led to my stepping out of academia itself. If it is true that, as Knowles states in the title of his book, “our gods wear spandex,” then I have now been shown why philosophers have often called loudly for the death of the gods.

Having seen firsthand what flowers in fields sown by the fantasy and science fiction subculture, it seems to me that while those of us who are committed to exploring the paranormal and anomalous may be able to interact with the cultural creatives themselves in terms of a deeper understanding, and may perhaps find in their personal experiences some viable strands that pull us out of the concrete mundane, without a deep critical analysis what comes of this is nothing but plasticine pantomime and reductionist imitations. Jeffrey Kripal is a deep and vigorous thinker, and Christopher Knowles has been able to tease out a fascinating contemporary mythos from the various streams of popular culture, but I now think it seems dangerous to encourage the dreaming masses, who lack these men’s cognitive capabilities, to follow them into the mystery and magic of contemporary myth as found in popular culture.

The stakes here are extremely high. To buttress this point with reference to a deadly serious “real world” situation that’s presently swirling all around us, consider the following, which describes something I actually encountered:

If you were a journalist with friends who personally knew Hunter S. Thompson, how many people could you encounter dressed up as Thompson himself, sitting at a hotel bar and watching wall-mounted televisions where scenes more decadent and depraved than anything the Kentucky Derby could offer up were playing out, with world leaders debating when and where to drop the next bomb — how many people of this type could you encounter before you realized with disgust that they honestly have no idea about who Thompson really was or what he was writing about, and that no amount of cultural regurgitation is going to give them this understanding?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I value the work of those who are mining pop culture for its deep philosophical and esoteric treasures. Knowles and Kripal, for instance, have done fascinating and valuable work by highlighting the anomalous/paranormal aspects of the work of legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby. Mitch Horowitz recently published a fascinating article exploring the ongoing cultural significance of Rod Serling’s work The Twilight Zone, a series with real metaphysical and paranormal resonances. All of this has caused me to gain a much deeper appreciation for the intricacies of the medium of popular entertainment as a means for going deep into contemporary cultural-philosophical issues. But this type of understanding is pointedly not something that I saw in evidence at the recent Dragon Con, and I find myself wondering what it would take to attract nearly 60,000 attendees to a conference that didn’t court the lowest and most base appreciation of pop culture.

Escape at all costs

In none of my interviews with various Dragon Con attendees did any of them say they were there for anything other than escape. Dr. Brigham and I arrived two days early to work out our press credentials, and we found it nearly unbearable to sit there beneath the high-mounted hotel televisions that were playing newsfeeds highlighting world leaders debating the fate of Syria while everybody we spoke with talked about nothing but escapist ideologies and the deep minutiae of fictional characters. But even beyond that, we discovered that if one had the audacity to mention serious world events in conversation, this elicited anger and disdain at the apparent impropriety of bringing some real-world awareness to what was universally regarded as  a blissful opportunity to leave all of that nasty reality behind.

Educated experience in any field requires cultivation and active engagement, and these require effective guidance to help those who are new to the game come in with some understanding of what’s going on. The lack of this kind of guidance is perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of events like Dragon Con, where the leadership is more lost than the attendees, who are just looking for a good time, or are looking to find some sense of place in a world that leaves little room for their hopes, fears, and unattainable aspirations, which have been cultivated by the endless streams of entraining entertainment propaganda that they go there to celebrate.

“With the world currently facing disastrous global issues that are exacerbated by the very techno-lust encouraged by most science fiction entertainment, the last thing we need is an entire subsection of the populace seduced by the anemic anti-artistry of Hollywood hacks.”

The sad thing, for me, is that these people could easily enjoy a less dissociated version of these fantasies in their own daily lives if they would take some responsibility with their mental and spiritual state. But instead, corporate handlers feed them a sugary mix of media spectacle and celebrity culture so that the insecurities of the attendees are heightened by encouraging paid autographs and awkward fan photos with their favorite actors and creatives. One woman I met, well into her 60’s, could not talk about anything besides the celebrities she had run into. She glowed with the joy of a new mother at the memory of bumping into Patrick Stewart in the elevator.

Is it harsh and arrogant to see this as a problem, even in less extreme cases? This celebrity worship was rampant, and was encouraged by the very design of the convention. With the world currently facing disastrous global issues that are exacerbated by the very techno-lust encouraged by most science fiction entertainment, the last thing we need is an entire subsection of the populace seduced by the anemic anti-artistry of Hollywood hacks. Say what you will of the admittedly noble intentions of Gene Roddenberry and many other writers and artists, but when the people they engage want nothing more than autographs and memorabilia, any noble message has been lost.

Celebrities and skeptics

I now see how popular skepticism can exist in its current form within this culture, where skeptical celebrities sell ideas and court the image factory rather than doing any actual research or scholarship. On the other side of the very same coin, paranormal celebrities deliberately play on their clash with these figures, creating a binary situation where skeptical fantasy smashes into speculative fantasy, leaving behind the pesky issues of fact and truth, which appear like ugly and unwanted interlopers at the party.

It is disappointing that at such a large event, where people are drawn to explore the unanswerable mystery of life with such vigorous expressions of creativity, this mystery is cheapened by being framed against fantasy and fiction. Rather than using these media as tools for growth, such events warp reality and realign it to support the psychological and philosophical narcissism of fandom and celebrity culture. The alternative, sadly unexplored, would be to encourage and nurture a vital fascination with the real investigation of exceptional experiences and human potential.

Dream control

This includes not just the official programming but the after-hours parties. These events are prominently billed as hedonistic extravaganzas, but the partygoers seem to have missed the fact that narcotized fantasy is not an equivalent to the philosophical cultivation of sensual experience. There is nothing to be lauded about allowing yourself to fall victim to the easy answers provided by calculating executives who play your somatic system like a detuned guitar.

Out of all the people I met at the conference, the most educated, lucid, and interesting was an ex-con from a small rural town in the mountains of North Carolina. He went there specifically for the after-hours parties, and we had some wonderful conversations about small-town politics, world mythology, hoodoo, and the often unfortunate realities of contemporary life. We were able to look each other in the eye, share a firm handshake, and meet as brothers.  He was the freak I’d been waiting for since Dr. Brigham and I had arrived, and he was a rarity among the privileged escapists who made up the bulk of the conference crowd, and were lost in dreams.

Were these dreams their own, by the way, it wouldn’t have been as saddening to me, but given what I encountered at the convention, I couldn’t help viewing these people as unwary marks in a shoddy shell game who gave no thought to the bait and switch that was going on right under their noses, or rather in their heads.

I am the freak

When it was all over, I sought solace in the deep forests of North Georgia, taking a few days of quiet reflection and wilderness solitude to work through the desperate distaste that I had developed at Dragon Con for anything that reminded me of branded media or escapist entrainment. As I slept on the ground, scooping scorpions away from my bedding, removing ticks from my clothes, and gently brushing aside sizable spiders from my path, I realized that it was a bit much to expect anything more than escapism from those who had been weaned on the ease and privilege of contemporary suburban living. The dark woods where I find comfort are an abomination to most people in today’s world. At best they are a place where, covered in pesticide and sunscreen, a few folks can feel a bit of distance from the press of their everyday concerns.

Being one out of 60,000, I’m well aware that it is I inhabit the role of the outsider. I am the freak, the mutant, the anomaly. Cosplay and comics culture, celebrities and science fiction, are more real to more people these days than the wide starry skies that I slept under during my post-Dragon Con psychic detox. My disconnect with the skeptical subculture and their happy foils, the popular paranormalists, is due to the fact that I exist in a different world than they do, a world where natural wonders occur every moment and no television is ever turned on to block out the serene silence of empty space that surrounds us.

“Rather than using fantasy and science fiction as tools for growth, such events warp reality and realign it to support the psychological and philosophical narcissism of fandom and celebrity culture. The alternative, sadly unexplored, would be to encourage and nurture a vital fascination with the real investigation of exceptional experiences and human potential.”

My race, the human race, is dying with each day, and like some SETI signal from a nearby galaxy, these bitter missives, typed on digital technology provided by those who would see us gone, exist to remind you, me, all of us, that there is more to life, to living, than a signature from some actor that you recognize from a poisonous dream.

I walk in the welcoming darkness of nature, in love with her beauty, accepting her warm and deadly embrace. Having sat in the spectacle, I am saddened, but I cannot judge those who would flutter, mothlike, around the neon negation of entertainment’s escape. Flit on dear friends. May your dreams be pleasant, for the fires they ignite in a world devoid of your attention will most definitely not be.

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire

And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.

Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.

You making haste, haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly

A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption

Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant, insufferable master.

There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught — they say — God, when he walked on earth.

— “Shine, Perishing Republic,’ by Robinson Jeffers


* Note: I use the term ‘freak’ in this context endearingly, to indicate an individual who has stepped outside the norm in order to explore a deeper relationship with reality.

About David Metcalfe

In addition to writing De Umbris Idearum, David Metcalfe is the Books Editor for THE REVEALER, the online journal for NYU's Center for Religion and Media. He's also an independent researcher, cultural historian, and artist. He regularly contributes articles and reviews to Modern, Evolutionary Landscapes, Reality Sandwich, and Alarm Magazine.

Posted on September 10, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, De Umbris Idearum, Internet & Media, Paranormal and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I remember watching films like Ghost In The Shell and Wicked City for the first time knowing that there was an unspoken mysterium beyond conventional anthropological writings on Japan or whoever. So I watched these films over and over. Not because I wanted to be distracted and entertained but because I got a sense for a world beyond my imagination. I’ll post the trailer for Wicked City,

    I grew up in the 1990s. That Japanese animation studios were syncretizing the paranormal and the unexplained with the sacred beyond of communion with Kami – I could tell – was mesmerizing to me. Everything I was fed to be afraid of in the dark, mutated, and transcended into divine.

    I was fed copious amounts of propaganda about aliens and the CIA and so on, men in black etc, yet they unleashed forces into my consciousness that I don’t think they even understood. Maybe it was a mistake or a different time but now as as an adult I credit everything to the very counter-culture you’re criticizing.

    I recognize that I am a minority, but there is amazing stuff out there, that is immensely popular, capable of bringing young people into mystical states of awareness.

    And for me it was popular, sexy, new, different, trendy, cool, etc.. it was all of that and more.

  2. Another excellent example, and yet another YOSHIAKI KAWAJIRI film.. except he did the series and not the film but in any case… X/1999

    This film directly syncretizes Shinto worship, with cyberpunk techno-espionage.. that western paranormal world but infused with something I know Jeffrey Kripal really appreciates, whom I really agree with, that sacred paranormal realm.

    And only Japanese anime and the pulp realm as come close to priming new generations of young people into an understanding of the sacred. The churches have failed.

  3. You destroy any validity you might have brought to your discourse by the cheap trick of conflating the shows a television channel airs with the presumption that Discovery Communications itself is some scion of scientific virtue.
    The fact that your entire article seeks to contrast your “research” with a science fiction convention (and a commercially, media-oriented one at that) and its attendees is revealing in the extreme.

  4. @steve davidson I’m struggling to make sense of your comment. Please explain what you mean in the last paragraph

  5. Well, this definitely marks a departure from the usual tone of this site; some points are worth debating, but as a whole, it is near insufferable in its elitism and self-congratulatory emissions. So yea, you are unique, just like everybody else.

    In Europe, pop culture in general and comic books in particular have been subjected to critical assessment by distinguished academics and public intellectuals for at least 50 years. While it is true that most analyses focused on socioeconomic and political subtexts, quite a bit of theory has been published as well, relating pop culture to declining religiosity, syncretism, and all that jazz. You might be interested in, or even already familiar with, Umberto Eco and his preoccupation with pop culture as anything but simple escapist entertainment.

    Still, there is virtue in escapist fantasies and honestly, saying that sci-fi/comic book fans should not indulge in them, is like saying pornography loses its meaning when people masturbate to it.

    • I think what the author was trying to point out is that there -are- really great intellectual heady discussions regarding metaphysical interests in pop culture, but that conventions like these are losing a great opportunity to stimulate the popular culture. Compare Providence NecronomiCON to these other cons . There is a lot of wasted potential. Cons today are an economic circle jerk. And that is depressing

      • I heartily support scientific investigation of the paranormal, but most paranormal experiences occur outside of the laboratory, and “science” isn’t the only legitimate tool for exploring such phenomena.

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