TV Skeptic: 'Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files' looks at the real 'Battle of L.A.'
What a night. Feb. 25, 1942. It was just weeks after Pearl Harbor and a day after a Japanese submarine had shelled Santa Barbara's oil fields. The West Coast was on alert and there were reports of aircraft approaching Los Angeles. The city was under blackout and the night sky was lighted by dozens of searchlights.
And then the shooting started. The incident became known as “The Battle of Los Angeles” and it has inspired books, movies and most recently the opening segment of the season premiere of “Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files,” airing Wednesday at 10 p.m. on Syfy.
This episode examines what UFO experts believe is photographic evidence that aliens visited Los Angeles on that night in 1942. The show is filled with laughs and surprises, both intentional and not, and in the end reveals more about those who investigate the paranormal, than about any supernatural or alien presence.
No one knows what, if anything, the GIs saw in the early morning hours when their antiaircraft batteries opened fire. And after more than 1,000 antiaircraft and .50-caliber machine gun rounds were expended, there was no evidence that they had hit any targets. A single moment of the incident was preserved in a dramatic photo that ran in the next day’s Los Angeles Times, the image of several searchlight beams converged on a single point in the night sky above Culver City. Over the years that photo became legend among UFO-ologists who maintain the searchlights were trained on an alien spaceship, and that the photo is evidence of an extra-terrestrial visitation.
Enter “Fact or Faked.” In each episode the series investigates evidence of the paranormal and it’s the L.A. Times photo that the team dissects and recreates. The show is a part of the paranormal/supernatural-investigation subgenre that has cropped up on cable television over the last few years, which includes “Ghost Hunters,” “Destination Truth,” “Ghost Adventures,” “Ghost Hunters International” and a few others. Each promises to take a skeptical approach in its investigations and to rely on science to confirm or disprove paranormal claims. So far not one has been able to consistently keep that promise.
The series’ investigative team is lead by Ben Hansen, identified as a former FBI special agent. (In an interview, Hansen said he could not go into how long he worked as a special agent. He also said he had worked for a number of other government agencies. The FBI confirmed that Hansen was employed at Quantico, Va., where special agents are trained, but was not listed as assigned to any cases or a field office). Other team members are identified as a scientist (Bill Murphy), a journalist (Jael De Pardo), a photographer (Chi-Lan Lieu), a tech expert (Devin Marble) and a stuntman (Austin Porter).
Their investigation of the image begins with a close examination of what looks like an object, illuminated by the searchlights in the photo. Could it be a weather balloon, a barrage balloon, a visual artifact created by the convergence of the searchlights, or is it some kind of flying saucer?
As reported by Los Angeles Times bloggers Scott Harrison and Larry Harnisch, the version of the photo that ran in the paper in 1942 had been retouched in ways that would not be acceptable today. The skyline was darkened with ink; paint (similar to correction fluid) was used to brighten searchlight beams and to turn lens flare dots into antiaircraft bursts. The part of the image identified by UFO experts as an alien spacecraft was shaped by drops of paint on the print.
With that in mind, the show’s investigation of this photo becomes rather amusing. The team heads out to the desert with searchlights, weather balloons, machine guns and grenade launchers in an attempt to determine if they could create the same kind of bulbous shape on a photograph. And darned, if they didn’t do it.
As much fun as shooting those big guns in the desert must have been, the entire episode is a bit disturbing, in that so little was done in the way of research. Hansen said that he had spoken to someone who had seen the negative, and knew that the photo had been altered, but that the negative wasn’t available.
In an interview, Simon Elliott of the Department of Special Collections at UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library said any researcher could have requested the negative at any time.
The show missed a real opportunity with the Battle of Los Angeles segment. Bright lights and explosions probably make better television than visiting libraries, requesting photos and doing minimal research. The show with “Fact or Faked” in its title missed its chance to show that a key piece of historic UFO evidence was “faked” (the handiwork of a newspaper photo editor). Like the soldiers stationed around the city in 1942, the show simply took wild shots in the dark, both figuratively and literally. Rather than solve the mystery, "Fact or Faked" helped perpetuate it.
-- Ed Stockly
Photos: (from top) A scan of the heavily retouched photo that ran in the Los Angeles Times in 1942. Credit: Los Angeles Times
A photo of the re-creation undertaken by "Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files." Credit: Syfy
A scan made from the unretouched negative. Credit: Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive / UCLA