MARCH 25, 2004
Critique of Normalcy
Those who partake of the lonely occupation of listening to late-night radio know that this sector of American media can be rather squalid. Much of what occupies the AM airwaves during those hours when normal people are sleeping is divided between droning repetitions of the day's inevitably dreary news, and airings of vociferous, and often egregiously uninformed, opinions on call-in shows. But, thank heaven, there exists a place in radioland where, during the witching hours of midnight to 4 a.m., insomniacs, occultists, ghost spotters, conspiracy theorists, and other nocturnal enthusiasts of the paranormal can tune in for a spell to America's most listened-to late-night talk radio program, "Coast to Coast AM."
Broadcast from the "Kingdom of Nigh," Coast to Coast was, until recently, hosted by Art Bell, a self-styled expert in all things supernatural, paranormal, or otherwise off the map of credible scientific terrain. Having garnered, over the years, something of a cult following, Art Bell retired in 2002, handing over the reins of the show to George Noory, a broadcaster with a taste for spirits, both holy and not.
The topics on Coast to Coast cover just about everything more "respectable" talk shows always wanted to know about but were too afraid to address: from ESP and UFOs to hauntings and sasquatch sightings; from crop circles, celestial anomalies, and swamp gas to time travel, space odysseys, and out-of-body experiences.
It is tempting to regard this show as a joke or dismiss it as exemplifying the wildest in speculation. And, indeed, although guests on Coast to Coast are consistently articulate and knowledgeable, some of the discourse introduced by callers is so clearly dissociated from "reality," so lacking in "common sense," that attentive listening can easily devolve into dismissive snickering. But this kind of response is not only condescending, it fails to take serious account of the religious sensibility that the show simultaneously appeals to and evokes in its listeners.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant, with his vigorous critiques of speculative thought, is perhaps as far removed from the speculative dilettantism and conspiratorial sensationalism of Coast to Coast as can be imagined. And yet, it is Kant's concept of the "numen" that Rudolf Otto takes up and modifies in his classic investigation, The Idea of the Holy, and which I think helps explain the religious quality of Coast to Coast that consistently fascinates its audience.
Otto claims that the "numinous" mental state is one stirred by the fearful mystery and fascination of the sacred. The experience of the "wholly other," the encounter with that "which has no place in our scheme of reality," cannot be explained or conceptualized. Rather, the dread and awe of the holy is "awakened in the mind," as "everything that comes 'of the spirit' must be awakened."
The first and fearful awakening of religious feeling is, according to Otto, akin to the dread of ghosts. In fact, Otto cites the "ensnaring attraction of the ghost-story" as an example of that which, like the sacred, "entices the imagination, awakening strong interest and curiosity." Utterly beyond the sphere of the normal, the fascination in the face of the holy and the shudder elicited by a ghost story both attest to "an irrepressible interest in the mind."
Coast to Coast is, in some sense, one big ghost story. Whatever the topic, and whoever the guests, the show has a spectral atmosphere about it -- one that appeals to the religious sensibilities of its listeners while further awakening them.
Preposterous though it may sound, I imagine the Coast to Coast listener alone in the dark and, as others sleep, awakening with a shudder to an experience of something not so different from the holy.
Jeremy Biles is an occasional insomniac who earned his Ph.D. in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School.