Monday, November 17, 2008

Suburban Legends

It's amazing how a cheesy movie based on shaky historical facts will suck me in.

A couple of years ago I found myself enjoying the first National Treasure movie. I know. It's ridiculous, and it features Nicholas Cage. There are two reasons right there why I had no business renting the thing. But I fell victim to The DaVinci Code Syndrome.

When I read The DaVinci Code, I completely fell in love with historical puzzles built on obscure theories and based on ancient secret-carrying societies that probably never existed. Was it a particularly well-written book? Not really. Was it remotely plausible? Credible scholars of the subject would say no. Did I devour it and drift off into pleasant dreams of a reconstructed biblical history that never was? Sure. And then I actively sought other books and movies that take historical legends most of us have probably never heard of and explore them in a consipracy-laden action-adventure tale.

Most of what I found was junk food masquerading as meat-and-potatoes history. But it sure tasted yummy, even if it wasn't educationally good for me.

I was never a fan of history. I hated the subject in high school. I got through my two college requirements in world history mostly because I liked the professor (all hail The Hamminator.) Prior to around age 25, there were only two historical topics that ever really grabbed my attention: World War I (thank you, All Quiet On The Western Front) and the Kennedy assassination.

Post-schooling, before I even read The DaVinci Code, I began to get interested in religious history. I converted to Catholicism before I got married and found the history of the early church surprisingly fascinating. Then I saw the movie Elizabeth and started devouring biographies of that most fascinating English queen. One can hardly study Elizabeth without stumbling across the sometimes horrific history of her father, so I later became obsessed with Henry and his wives (fueled by Phillipa Gregory's based-on-history novels about the Boleyns and those poor women that followed.) The History Channel, at least in the summer, is one of the most watched cable channels in our house.

So last night found us homebound by the icky weather and browsing through Hulu and Netflix, which we now have access to on our TV through the Playstation (isn't technology grand?) Jason started the second National Treasure movie. I groaned. I knew I would have to severely suspend my disbelief to enjoy it. I was just grateful that he had found something to entertain him and Ains while I cooked and glad that I had something else to do so as not to pollute my brain with a story that only contained about 1/8 of a teaspoon of real history.

I should have known better.

Drawn by big booms and a big car chase and something about the Lincoln assassination, I kept finding myself wandering into the living room, dripping soup ladle in hand.

"Weird how these kinds of movies suck you in, isn't it?" Jason said. Ains had stopped what she had been doing to stare slack-jawed at the action, too.

Yes. Weird.

I think these stories appeal to the romantic in me even though the level-headed sort-of-scholar that usually runs the show objects to all the inaccuracies and outright ridiculousness (a scene in the second National Treasure involves Cage and Co. breaking into the President's desk in the oval office in the middle of the day--yeah, that'll happen.) I like the mysteries of history--the might-have-beens, the conspiracies, the shocking secrets our forefathers took to their graves.

The second National Treasure really got me with the whole idea of "The Presidents' Book." I had never heard it put that way before, but my conspiracy-loving mom used to tell me the similar urban legend: that all modern-day U.S. Presidents are given two great truths after they are sworn in. They are told who really killed JFK, and they are taken to Area 51 and shown the alien remains.

"That's why all the Presidents age so badly in office," she used to say, partly joking, partly believing this legend as strongly as she believes that Jesus is coming again and that right soon. "The minute they see the aliens their hair turns gray."

Hm. I always thought the stress of being a major world leader living on 4 hours of sleep a night did that.

I used to debate this with her when I was in college and knew everything. If men like Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan were living their civilian lives with this kind of mind-blowing information, what kept them from yelling it out to the world? What's to lose at that point?

"Those men are never in their lives alone again. The Secret Service and the CIA have plans in place for Presidents who say too much, and it wouldn't end well for the Presidents and their families."

Well, there you go, I guess.

But I like this legend, though I don't believe it. Most days.

I also like to believe that a nutcase lone gunman did not have the brains and sharpshooting ability (and luck) to get a fatal shot at a beloved President in his motorcade. I prefer to believe that it takes a village to kill a great man. It makes it a little easier to sleep at night. The book The Best Evidence had me convinced for a long time that Oswald did not act alone; I've since grown up and seen in this post 9/11 world that one man can indeed do awful things.

Many of our students are fervent believers that Neil Armstrong did not walk on the moon and that the Apollo missions were filmed and photographed in the desert. Even my conspiracy-loving mom doesn't cotton to this one; she watched the moon landing and felt that consuming pride that all who watched it felt. Neither she nor I can be swayed by one Fox special, but I can see why this generation is skeptical; skepticism and fantastical historical reconstructions are more entertaining than a thousand-page history text.

But here are some historical legends I like:

I like to imagine the Declaration of Independence and Constitution dropping down into a secure nuclear-assault proof chamber miles below D.C. should we ever be attacked (again.)

I like to think there is something quite shocking out in the dry, desolate lands around Area 51. I don't know if there be aliens there, but I have to believe there is something really fantastic out there that the government believes it needs to protect our fragile souls from (and my heart will break if it's just something relatively dull like a stealthy new aircraft.)

As a late, great TV show once said...I want to believe.

What are your favorite historical urban legends that capture your attention? Are there any that you would really like to know are true?

1 comment:

Karen said...

You need to get your students to watch the episode of Mythbusters where they showed how the moon landing photos were not faked. :)