Tonight sees the premiere of a two-hour Discovery Channel Monster Week “documentary,” Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives. With its horror movie trappings, it makes a sensationalist hash out of a genuine historical mystery—the tragic deaths of nine hikers in the Ural mountains in February of 1959. Known as the “Dyatlov Pass incident,” this unsolved cold case has unusual aspects that give it something of an air of the inexplicable, leading to the rise of conspiracy theories and paranormal speculations. Notably, though the bodies of the hikers were eventually recovered by a search party, they were found scattered over a large area in states of partial undress, as though they had fled their tents in the night in a panic. Perhaps, some speculate, they were running from someone—or something? Cue X-Files theme.
I shouldn’t snark. It’s ghoulish to make hay from the untimely deaths of other people—in this case, people who have surviving loved ones today. But mystery-mongering television programs have rarely found a tragedy they weren’t willing to exploit—and distort.
Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives caps a marathon of Discovery monster hoaxes (both of their infamous and profitable mermaids hoaxes and last year’s Megalodon hoax are playing again earlier today). In this program, hosts Mike Libecki and Maria Klenokova set out to solve the Dyatlov Pass incident—or rather, to pretend on air that it had something to do with the Yeti.
For a detailed critique of the program’s claims, see this useful analysis over at Doubtful News. Short version: we don’t know what happened to those poor people, but it’s easy to posit completely plausible explanations which fit the facts. The party may well, for example, have fled from what they believed was an imminent avalanche.
Tragic, plausible scenarios are in ready supply. They’re just not good television.
You know what is good TV? Monsters. Huge, terrifying, tongue-eating monsters. (Much is made of the assertion that one hiker was missing part or all of her tongue—plausibly bitten during a fall, skeptics suggest, though her body was also found with other presumably post-mortem soft-tissue damage—almost inevitable after weeks of exposure in the forest.) Never mind that we have no particular reason to suppose that the Dyatlov Pass case involves Yetis in any respect (nor, for that matter, aliens, vampires, or griffins). Never mind that Yetis are probably best thought of as a modern myth, as Don Prothero and I discuss in our book Abominable Science! When it comes to the paranormal, media producers are delighted to untether themselves from all responsibility. For all the investigative posturing of programs like Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives, the producers will sacrifice anything—facts, plausibility, dignity, a respected television brand—in the pursuit of a ratings monster.
How can you construct a two-hour special about Yetis around a case that has nothing to do with monsters at all? How can such vivid tapestries be woven from such insubstantial stuff? Tabloid television’s traditional filler techniques are the pregnant question, the bald declaration, and the provocative non sequitur. Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives makes generous use of all three.
“When I found out one of the students was missing a tongue immediately I knew this was not caused by an avalanche. Something ripped out the tongue of this woman,” Libecki flatly declares near the beginning of the program. Turning to a Soviet-era Yeti expedition, the narrator asks ominously, “why do so many files related to the expedition remain classified?” I don’t know, because the show neither explains it nor demonstrates that any such files are classified at all. Citing one man’s decades-old recollection of having seen a military-style boot cover (a gaiter) in the vicinity of the disaster, the show leaps to the claim that “Somehow the military reached the crime scene before the search party. Yet there is no official record of any military presence in the area when the hikers died—begging the question, was the yeti expedition actually ended?” Begging the question indeed.
This show about Russian history declines to interview any Russian historians. Instead we’re treated to interviews with cryptid proponents Jeff Meldrum and Igor Burtsev. But this sort of cable mystery-mongering does cryptozoology few favors. Burtsev complains that the production came to him with a preconceived agenda:
The central showpiece of the program is a black and white still photograph showing a dark, unidentified figure standing in the trees. It is introduced with stark onscreen text: “The following image is one of the last photos taken by the hikers. It is being shown on television for the first time.” This picture is presented as evidence that a Yeti was stalking the doomed party through the woods—their inhuman killer caught on film. What are we to make of this “extraordinary photographic evidence”?
I was interviewed by [Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives director] Neil Rawles too. I understood that he was making a program to fit the solution of the puzzle under the ready answer. And he tried to get from me the same answer about fault of the yeti in group’s death. For this he was shooting me for many times asking only one question: could be yeti a reason of the death? But I couldn’t agree and rejected that…
To begin with, it doesn’t look much like a Yeti. With its short, rather thin arms, it looks a lot like a person in a coat. Its very lameness as Yeti evidence may be the best sign of its possible authenticity—authenticity as a photograph taken during the expedition, that is. (Probably a photograph of a member of the party.)
But the faked footage and invented on-air “scientists” of previous Discovery / Animal Planet hoax “documentaries” leave us little choice but to consider other, more cynical possibilities when viewing programs of this type on Discovery’s networks. Could the photo have been created for the production? How much of this “documentary” was simply made up from whole cloth? Libecki appears to be an actual person, at least—unlike “Dr. Paul Robertson” of Mermaids: The Body Found and Mermaids: The New Evidence, who was a fictional character played by Canadian game designer Dave Evans. (For more, see my 2013 Junior Skeptic story on mermaids inside Skeptic Vol. 18, No. 3.)
“No doubt it’s one hundred percent real,” Libecki says of the haunting photograph, explaining that it was included within the original, uncut negatives. Yet such is Discovery’s tattered credibility on such topics that we can’t take even the simplest facts for granted.
The rough cut I saw ends with the disclaimer, “This program contains elements of dramatization.” Yes—but how many? Reading this and thinking of Mermaids: The Body Found’s vague, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it disclaimer that “certain events in this film are fictional,” I can only reflect on the damage Discovery’s phenomenally successful hoaxes have done to their once trusted nonfiction brand—at least for me. At this point, Discovery could announce that they’d made a sandwich during Monster Week and I’d wonder if that were true.
Fool me thrice, shame on you. Fool me four times….
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