Looking for the Death Worm
National Geographic Channel’s Beast Hunter shares much with “paranormal hunting” reality television, like Ghost Hunters or Paranormal State. But in replacing the ghosts with the Mongolian Death Worm and Orang Pendek or the Man Ape of Sumatra, the show becomes something else. Part travelogue, part environmental-endurance challenge, and part quest narrative, it promises to bring scientific rigor to the search for these strange, legendary creatures. While the actual science is rather thin, Beast Hunter—which premiered 4 March—offers a diverting hour of earnest beast hunting.
Host Pat Spain, we are reminded repeatedly, is the great-nephew of Charles Fort. Over a century ago, Fort collected tales of strange beasts and inexplicable happenings, and his The Book of the Damned is a menagerie of oddities. It includes reports of fish falling from the sky and hairy beast-men running through the mountains, spun his own theories about their provenance. A whimsical and poetic (and often inscrutable) stylist, he once claimed, “I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written.”
Beast Hunter could use a dose of Fort’s detachment. Each episode drops Spain into an exotic locale, where he’s often unable to speak the language. (The search for British Columbia’s resident sea monster is the exception.) Several times he engages in local customs in order to, as the show has it, “earn their trust.” In Mongolia, he wrestles with an opponent in the desert; in the Brazilian Amazon, he submits to the stings of venomous bullet ants. A lack of subtitles and Spain’s tendency to talk over his interviewees renders natives as backdrop for his adventure: there’s only one Beast Hunter, and it’s Spain’s show.
His enthusiasm keeps things moving, but the steady clip also cuts down on substance. Thus, statements like, “Stories of the death worm are coming from somewhere.” More than once, such head-slappingly claims get us to next scenes, rather than providing useful information. That’s not to say Spain doesn’t make other sorts of claims. He says, for instance, “As a scientist, it’s just bad practice to identify a species based on legends.” Again, it seems fair to suggest scientists can’t identify unicorns until we capture one. That’s pretty much the foundation of empiricism. But science—or more often, Science—serves a particular function in Beast Hunter. It’s both adversary and ally, because Science says these animals don’t exist, but using the tools of Science, Spain hopes to prove otherwise.
This vague but monolithic Science denies the existence of the Mongolian Death Worm and Caddy the Sea Serpent. But it also doesn’t prove a negative. Suggesting otherwise allows Spain to straddle the border between insider and outsider. He uses the tools of Science—the show reminds us every hour that he works in an “ultra-advanced biotech facility”—against the establishment of Science. A shadowy someone has declared these creatures impossible, we are to believe, but now Spain will seek out his own answers. Legends from the time of our fathers before our fathers speak of the Maverick Outsider of Washington, DC.
Spain’s investigations involve motion-sensitive cameras (called here “camera traps”) and night- or infrared-goggles. Usually he comes up empty. He spots ridges in the sand, just the kind of burrowing you’d expect from the two-foot-long, acid-spitting Mongolian Death Worm! Later he discovers an overturned camera trap. Could it be the work of a worm? After all, something knocked it over. Spain draws out the drama before revealing, no, a cow wandered into the camera. At least one beast appears on film.
As Beast Hunter repeatedly pits its rather superficial quest narrative against the non-opposition of Science, the formula quickly grows stale. But the show originates in a more profound emotion: the awe that can overwhelm humans facing the mystery of our world. The primal environment can stun and humble us, especially in those rare moments when we stop trying to dominate it. The scientific method and the knowledge it produces, as Spain unintentionally implies, can also become overbearing.
And so, surprises are welcome. In one episode, Spain dives deep into the ocean off of British Columbia. He’s looking for a Nessie-type sea monster, something both legendary and predictable. Instead he finds lion’s mane jellyfish, pinkly iridescent and medusal and strange, a truly alien life form. Overdosed on enthusiasm, Spain can’t stop narrating its grace and beauty. But if you mute the sound, you can focus on another view of nature, unknowable and inspiring.