When The Blair Witch Project was released back in 1999, many critics questioned the ethics involved in presenting the film as a true story in order to generate box office buzz. Of course, humanity has been embellishing real life through storytelling since the dawn of time, so this wasn’t the first or last time that genre media would attempt to mislead audiences for fun and profit. Nevertheless, the movie sparked a conversation about how much reality we can really expect from our entertainment, though we never really found an answer.
These discussions would resurface a few years later with the rise of several popular TV specials speculating about the existence of mythical creatures, all presented in the style of legitimate nature documentaries. Tackling everything from dragons to mermaids and even colossal sharks, these specials became notorious for blurring the line between fact and fiction on networks traditionally associated with educational programming. However, putting ethical concerns aside, I actually think that these strange productions tapped into a primal fascination with monstrous mythology, and they’re still worth revisiting today, provided that you take their sensationalism with a grain of salt.
Of course, fake/misleading documentaries have been a thing since the format was first invented, with memorable incidents including the BBC’s infamous Spaghetti Tree special in the 50s and Fox’s Alien Autopsy investigation in the 90s. With the rise of Found-Footage movies and speculative nature docs like The Future is Wild and Alien Planet, plus an entire pantheon of shows based on Cryptozoology and Parapsychology, it’s only natural that networks would eventually attempt to use this format to explore classic myths and legends.
That brings us to Animal Planet’s 2004 special Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real (also known as The Last Dragon in its Channel 4 release), a blockbuster mockumentary that opens with an absurd battle between a T-Rex and a wyvern during the Cretaceous period. While Dragons feels a lot a natural evolution of the paleontology docs that were all the rage at the time, cutting between state-of-the-art CGI re-enactments and the supposed paleontological discoveries that inspired them, the show also boasted impressive visuals and sultry narration by either Patrick Stewart or Ian Holmes, depending on the region.
Even as a child, I was aware that the program was trying to entertain more than it was trying to teach, but much like the X-Files, wanting to believe made it much more fun. Even with bizarre theories like positing that dragons survived the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs by evolving into mythical sea-serpents, Dragons still managed to be a genuinely informative special. By exploring the far reaches of the dragon myth throughout several cultures and presenting a more-or-less scientific revision of classic mythology, the special works as a clever thought experiment, even if some of its leaps in logic don’t quite hold up to scrutiny.
In 2011, we’d see a similar show that would double down on the sensationalist elements with Animal Planet/Discovery Channel’s Mermaids: The Body Found. While it’s the most ethically dubious of these productions, with only a few easy-to-miss disclaimers explaining that it’s a work of fiction, it’s also the most entertaining. Structured like a genuine investigation of evidence suggesting that a race of intelligent humanoids is thriving under the sea while also dealing with some real world conspiracy theories, it’s no wonder that this special scared the crap out of people when it first came out.
Mermaids might not be the first thing that come to mind when thinking of horrific monsters, but The Body Found gives off some serious Lovecraftian vibes as “real scientists” discuss the implications of sharing the planet with sentient underwater creatures. There are also a few Found-Footage segments that went viral around the time the special was released, with folks claiming to have caught glimpses of these illusive aquatic beings. While most of the footage has clearly been altered with CGI, it was believable enough to stir up quite a bit of controversy, convincing many viewers (especially younger ones) that these findings were legit.
Despite being criticized for its misleading presentation, The Body Found was a ratings juggernaut, breaking several records and eventually earning a sequel with 2013’s Mermaids: The New Evidence. While this second doc is mostly more of the same, with “experts” doing their best to justify the existence of mermaids based on recovered amateur footage and supposed physical evidence, it was another massive success for the channel. The sequel did a better job of making sure that viewers understood this was a piece of fiction, but it was still a bit too convincing for some folks. Regardless, the Mermaids specials are still some of my favorite TV oddities, even though they probably shouldn’t have been broadcast on channels known for informative nature shows.
Of course, you can’t discuss nature documentaries (speculative or otherwise) without touching on the worldwide phenomena of Shark Week. And in 2013’s edition of Discovery Channel’s Shark-based programming, the network released the least fantastical of these mockumentaries with Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. Another pseudo-journalistic endeavor where scientists discuss phony evidence suggesting that these monstrous creatures somehow escaped extinction, Megalodon shattered all Shark Week ratings records with its premiere, proving that audiences were ravenous for speculative content.
As gigantic sharks are a bit closer to reality than mermaids or dragons, The Monster Shark Lives sparked the ire of several scientists and NGOs who accused the special of being irresponsible. While the show makes an effort to provide at least some scientific basis for its outlandish theories, there’s no denying that it feels a lot more like an entertaining prelude to a monster movie than genuinely educational programming.
Being such a huge success, it’s only natural that this one also earned a couple of sequels with 2014’s Megalodon: The New Evidence and 2018’s Megalodon: Fact Vs. Fiction. While the former dives even deeper into speculative territory, offering more Found-Footage evidence and outrageous testimonies, the latter is actually a re-edit of the original special with added segments debunking most of the phony pseudo-science. The added scientific context may get in the way of having fun with the original show’s premise, but I applaud Discovery Channel for attempting to inform viewers through speculative storytelling.
At the end of the day, these strange pieces of Docufiction might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but with the recent rise of Fake News scandals and a generalized distrust of authority, it’s funny to look back on this weird moment in television history when huge networks were willing to combine fact and fiction in order to spark a conversation. They might have been a little irresponsible at times, but I think there’s a lot of entertainment to be had in revisiting these shows in a new context. Much like the best speculative fiction, these specials suggested that maybe the important question isn’t “do monsters exist?” but rather “what if they did?”, and that’s enough for me to recommend them to monster aficionados everywhere.