In a recent interview about his film, Cold Case Hammarskjold director Mads Brugger is asked the question: What’s your favorite conspiracy theory? His reply?
My all-time favorite conspiracy theory? That is really what you would call a boutique conspiracy theory. It’s a theory about — it’s called Ong’s Hat — about a community not far from New York in a forest area named Ong’s Hat and these [people] began experimenting with and developing time travel technology. You should Google it. It’s a fun conspiracy theory. Not to be taken seriously, of course, it’s a fun example of what you would call a left-wing conspiracy theory. I like the title — “Ong’s Hat” — it’s a fun title.
Welcome back to It Gets Weird! In this episode, Nile and Kyle discuss a mystery that’s been kicking around since the late 1980s: the secret of Ong’s Hat, New Jersey. What even IS Ong’s Hat? A charcuterie? Ye Olde Hat Shoppe? Ah, wait, says here in our notes it’s a town. Turns out some shamans and mystics and chaos scientists got together to conduct some pretty zany experiments, things like transporting a bunch of people to an alternate dimension. Join us on this bizarre inter-dimensional tale!
“The creative energy of Mightywords’ self-publishers exceeded the technological innovation of the enterprise. Some of it raised eyebrows among those looking for profit curves, not necessarily cultural ones, and had envisioned MightyWords as more of a business-to-business enterprise than a retail portal — B2B being Wall Streets flavor-of-the-month at the time. (Remember, this was just prior to the current era of social media whose business model thrived on clicks and user-supplied content.
I’d give author game-creator Joseph Matheny first prize for sweepingly imaginative use of the medium to play with an entirely new literary form beyond what we concieved — or, at first, knew what to make of. To this day, Matheny declines to state whether he intended his novel-length work (Ong’s Hat: The Beginning, first offered for sale in as a book form through Mightywords), as fiction or nonfiction. Its narrative structure allows it to be enjoyed as a speculative fiction. Through hyperlinks that invite readers to various online sites in which they can interact with content, it also invites readers on an immerrsive, interactive adventure. Internet scholars and critics tag it as the first of many Alternate Reality Games (ARG), a transmedia form that has evolved in complexity and popularity over the past twenty years since Ong’s Hat was first released. (This interactivity was a stretch given the limitations of supporting digital platforms at the time – but nevertheless clearly and breathtakingly feasible in terms of its promise.)
The author spun his tale around a nontoxic, benign (Remember those?) conspiracy theory that had been floating around chat-rooms for years. The conspiracy stories purported that the real ghost town of Ong’s Hat, New Jersey, had been the site of secret experiments by rogue scientists from the underground “Institute of Chaos” who opened an interdimensional portal – using a machine dubbed “The Egg” – through which of the town’s former resident’s had disappeared. This led to a loosely structured, Internet game in which participants traded information about sighting of Ong’s Hat evidence and former residents.
Matheny’s work expanded on this plot twist. It follows characters who had used the portal to escape the town after a deadly, toxic spill from a nearby chemical factory. Instead of using roads, the characters travel inter-dimensionally. Readers are invited to use hyperlinks to track the characters’ appearances in verious other locals, as well as report their own sightings, adding to the narrative. The work remains available through Matheny’s website and other venues, including Amazon.
Regrettably, unlike the myths of Ong’s Hat, Mightywords proved ephemeral. One minute it was poised for an ISP that would made even staffers like myself who had been given founders’ stock incredibly rich overnight. The next minute it fell burning like Icarus from the Silicon Valley sun. The high tech bubble burst in 2001, taking lots of startups with it. Our backers pulled away and pressured MacAskill to close down and sell the tecchnology – sans its creative content, which was owned after all by the authors. Barnes & Noble, which had also invested in the venture, stepped forward and took away what was left of both Fatbrain and Mightywords. Ironically, this could have given B&N a competitive advantage over the then still fledgling Amazon. But B&N remained wedded to its brick-and-mortar, trad-publishing business model and let Jeff Bezos eat its lunch, as we all know now.”
“One can be too far ahead of the curve. Timing is everything when it comes to technological innovation. Your new idea has to appeal to Goldilocks and be neither too hot and nor too cold. It might be different for creative ideas like Matheny’s opus. Often the greatest ideas show up in the early days of a form — like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which remains unchallenged as the first major Western European novel and still among its greatest. Maybe if I had read Matheny’s instructions carefully enough, I could have found that interdimensional egg machine back to the some alternative future where things would have worked out differently.
There is a parallel between the mythical interdimensional disappearence of Ong’s Hat, New Jersey, and of the now vanished Mightywords, of which hardly a wisp remains onlinr. The enterprise – which had taken up two floors of a large, Silicon Valley office park building, disappeared as quickly as it had appeared all shiny and bright with its millions in venture capital loose change. I nearly forgot the plac myself as I continued on my quotidian path meanwhile, using my vaunted founder’s stock certificates as birdcage liners. Nonetheless, I’m happy to be able to say that I was there at the birth of indie digital publishing in any case. It’s also worth noting, that as far as we have come since Mightywords’ early, online book delivery system, we’ve yet to equal the creative scope of how digital storytelling could evolve online. The current platforms, however efficient, don’t allow for much Ong’s-Hat-style interdimensionality, or for inserting a modest hyperlink, or a video clip, or sound, or such that is available to me right now in writing this modest blog, even. Perhaps moving forward will involve checking back for stuff we’ve left along the curve we’re always trying to get ahead of.”
On this edition of Parallax Views, a special, previously unpublished conversation with Joseph Matheny, a pivotal fixture of the bohemian tech counterculture during the early days of the internet, who may offer a key to understanding the wild social media phenomenon of QAnon and the general hijacking of counterculture by right-wing and corporate forces. This should be of particular interest in light of the recent FBI memo pointing towards QAnon conspiracy theories presenting a potential domestic terror threat.
Joseph Matheny is perhaps best known as a transmedia artist who pioneered the Alternate Reality Game (ARG) with the inter-based collaborative fiction Ong’s Hat. An ARG is a type of game that uses the real world as platform and have been used in marketing campaign for Halo 2, the Lost TV series, and Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero album. The genre has flourished because of the internet and is particularly interesting in that it does not require the player realize that they are playing.
The parallels between ARGs and the QAnon phenomenon are striking. In fact, due to the focus of conspiracy theories and arcane secret histories found in Ong’s Hat, some have whispered that Matheny is having a bit of a laugh as the possible mastermind behind QAnon. Matheny adamantly denies this and I believe him when he says he’s not involved in QAnon. However, both of us agree that QAnon, whether knowingly or otherwise, uses the mechanics of an ARG in a way that is quite eerie.
In addition to discussing alternate reality games and things like Pizzagate and QAnon as “Dark ARGs” in the age of MAGA, Joseph Matheny and I more generally delve into how counterculture appears to have been hijacked, perhaps even weaponized, by corporate and right-wing elements.
It’s a fascinating episode that you’re not going to want to miss!
Ong’s Hat used to be the suburbs within the Pine Barrens of Nj. However, within the 1990’s, rumours started to swirl online of secret experiments which had occurred there by several rogue scientists, and they had travelled for an alternate dimension. What this real? Or could it have been actually the earth’s first ARG. Let us explore.
The first thing one learns upon becoming a subject of press interest is that there’s actually very little one can generally do in the face of inaccurate or even malicious press coverage. – Barrett Brown
The tl;dr version
(I urge you to come back and follow the referenced links to verify the validity of the information)
There’s a podcast/website called The Skeptoid that is run by one Brian Dunning. The website seems to consist of a collection of transcriptions of the Skeptoid podcast, links to the podcast and a personal vita for Mr. Dunning. I learned that recently, Brian Dunning ran an episode of the Skeptoid titled: Ong’s Hat, which was, predictably about the Ong’s Hat literary game.
Brian Dunning claims that his podcast, “Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena is an award-winning weekly science podcast. Since 2006, Skeptoid has been revealing the true science behind popular misinformation and urban legends.” His words.
While I haven’t sampled any of the other offerings on that Skeptoid website, I did read the text transcription of Mr. Dunning’s “investigation” into the Ong’s Hat urban legend and found it dismissive and misinformed in the following areas.
Robert Anton Wilson is was a participant in the Ong’s Hat project
The Skeptoid, aka Brian Dunning, starts with the following basis for his analysis:
To explain what happened, I’m going to lay some groundwork by referring you back to someplace unexpected: last week’s episode #657 on the Illuminati. When we see pop stars and other celebrities today holding their hands up in the triangle symbol — possibly hoping to persuade their fans that they are members of the Illuminati which they believe to be an ancient, all-powerful sect — we learned that this legend really only goes back a few decades, to a little piece of cultural engineering dreamed up by a few writers at Playboy magazine. Robert Anton Wilson created the reader feedback campaign in the magazine and co-authored a novel trilogy, that essentially created the entirety of modern belief in a powerful shadow cabal called the Illuminati. It was a fascinating example of how a well-planned and well-executed cultural engineering campaign can effectively create whole mythology which not only survives but actually flourishes and persists for decades. Today, intelligent people honestly believe that the Illuminati exist — thanks mainly to Robert Anton Wilson.
When we look into the background literature for Ong’s Hat, guess whose name we find: Robert Anton Wilson. That should set the tone for where we can expect the rabbit hole of Ong’s Hat to lead. Wilson is mentioned several times throughout Joseph Matheny’s writings. In his book, Matheny wrote of having lived in Santa Cruz, California with a group of academics, authors, and pioneers of the psychedelic movement — a group who called themselves the Formless Ocean Group. Among them was Robert Anton Wilson. It was from these folks that Matheny — according to his legend — learned of and first read a collection of documents titled The Incunabula Papers. Supposedly, these papers are how he first learned of the experiments at Ong’s Hat.
I won’t bother with critiquing the theories regarding RAW and his role in the modern belief in the Illuminati that Mr. Dunning holds. I’ll leave that to the RAW fans out there. I am not here to teach a history lesson.
I will, however, correct the erroneous and confusing assertion that RAW’s name somehow appears in “background material” for Ong’s hat. While RAW was aware of the Ong’s Hat project he was not a participant. Yes undeniably, he was a mentor to and influence on me, but what one has to do with the other is tenuous at best. Correlation does not equal causation. I’m not sure what “background” literature Brian is referring to, but Bob’s name never appears in any of the Ong’s Hat material. Where Bob ‘s name does appear is on my website in conjunction with other projects we did together. I think Skeptoid is experiencing some information drift.
Anyway, that is a minor aside.
On to the meat of our corrections.
Skeptoid asserts that my dearly departed friends, The Formless Ocean Group, never existed
The Formless Ocean Group — which never actually existed outside of Matheny’s fiction — appears to have been based on other similar groups of counterculture intellectuals who came together, lived together, worked and wrote together, got high and broke new ground. Think of the free-living occultists who lived at Jack Parson’s house in Los Angeles called the Parsonage and founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as described in the book Sex and Rockets; or those who gathered at the New Jersey property of paranormalist Ivan T. Sanderson called the Farm and refined the New Age mythologies of ley lines, ancient aliens, and the Bermuda Triangle.
In a nutshell, the entire story of Ong’s Hat was a fictional work, created mostly if not entirely by Matheny. Nothing about it checks out. There are no corroborating reports of any group ever calling themselves the Formless Ocean Group, and no record of any of its members living at its given address in Santa Cruz. There never was an Institute for Chaos Studies at the ashram; indeed, there never was a Moorish Science Ashram. No acres were ever purchased in the Pine Barrens in 1978. No group of runaway boys ever lived there. About the only thing that does have a grain of truth is the name of the place itself, Ong’s Hat.
I could even draw a full circle, from Matheny’s Formless Ocean Group to Ivan Sanderson’s Farm, to the Bigfoots and other cryptids that Sanderson pursued, to the Jersey Devil, to Daniel Leeds, and right back around to Matheny’s ashram. The fabric of our cultural legends is richly interwoven indeed.
Brian Dunning via The Skeptoid claims that the group made up of now mostly late friends of mine, never existed. The group was an informal salon-style group of people who met in Santa Cruz in the early 90s, primarily meeting in Nina Graboi’s and Elizabeth Gipps living rooms. Nina lived downstairs from me at the 2nd street apartment complex. This was pre-Internet, and the group never was formal in any way, it pre-dated public Internet activity, which explains why Mr. Dunning was unable to find any reference to it. This, of course, could have been deduced by the timeframe, clearly referenced by me in several places and the acknowledgment that this as an informal group but of course, if something isn’t on the Internet, it never really existed. Right?
Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to Ong’s Hat the Beginning, print edition:
Becoming a resident of 321 Second Street acted as a nexus point for me. Nina was fond of entertaining various counter-culture figures as they came through central California in her “parlor.” Eventually, a semi-organized group formed out of these salon sessions and took a name: the F.O.G., Formless Ocean Group. By the way. of association with Nina, Bob, and the F.O.G., I was brought into contact with many of the psychedelic figureheads of the time…
You notice in no way did I allege that everybody in the F.O.G. Group lived at the second street complex. However, I did, Nina Graboi did, others did, and at various times people came through and stayed with us or stopped by for a visit. It was, as I have said several times, a location that acted as a nexus for various people in the scene to stop by and mingle. The F.O.G. actually grew out of the impromptu salon that formed around Nina’s living room, which was downstairs from my apartment.
For example, here’s a photo of Bob and I in Nina Graboi’s garden (that’s Nina with her back to us). This photo was taken in 1991. At that time, Bob was living in LA but soon after he and Arlen moved to Santa Cruz to be near their children. As I said, that place was a NEXUS.
Funny aside, Bruce Eisner (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Eisner) who ran a more formal group called the Island Group, nicknamed the F.O.G. “Friends of Gips” since we were all part of Elizabeth’s extended family. I recall F.O.G. being started in part as an informal alternative to the Island Group. The F.O.G. members had little to no regard for formality or structure.
Here’s another photo of another salon style hangout, upstairs on the deck of the 2nd street complex. On this day we comingled with another slightly more formal group from Stanford (but annoyingly formal) called Millbrook West. A lot of the people pictured were also attendees at a lot of the FOG meetings.
What follows next in Skeptoid’s “analysis” is a lot of unfounded extrapolation that the living room salon group I hung out with in the early 90s is in fact somehow drawn from Parson’s Pasadena “Parsonage” and some place called the Farm which I had no previous knowledge of. (See Skeptoid quote above).
I would point out that none of this speculation is presented in the language of such by Mr. Dunning, but rather presented as a foregone conclusion.
Anyone who has followed my work knows that I have always dedicated my work to the F.O.G. The group dissolved by the early nineties, I had gone off to Silicon Valley to pursue my interests in technology and art, eventually, one by one all the elder members passed on. These people meant a lot to me and my time with them is still one of my fondest memories.
Ong’s Hat Was Not a Game
Some say Matheny was trying to create a game; a type called an Alternate Reality Game, a kind of real-world adventure where people follow a storyline, find clues, and solve puzzles. But there really aren’t any puzzles or solutions in Ong’s Hat. It’s just information, the fabric of a detailed urban legend, which you can choose to believe or not; you can take a deep dive and research thoroughly, or you can laugh it off as a silly story. Either way, Matheny did pull off a feat of cultural engineering by inserting the Ong’s Hat mythology firmly into pop culture.
This one is really hard to digest because there is no basis in fact and no real reason why he would make this assertion unless he is simply skimming and half reading things to draw his conclusions. I guess it must be awfully hectic trying to throw a show together every week or whatever his publishing cycle is.
I’ve said it a hundred times or more, I reiterated it in 2001 when I closed the game and I have repeated it multiple times since in print. THIS WAS A LITERARY/GAME HYBRID EXPERIMENT. Therefore, I’ll simply give you these links, rather than continuing to flog a dead horse. If you’re really interested, you can read them or you can repeat the opinion of someone who clearly did not.
The short answer is, many qualified people recognized it as a game because it was a game. It was designed to be a new style of game, one that blended literary style with video and RPG style narrative, and structured, ala, gameplay, to advance the narrative. It also attempted to use an infinite game structure as much as possible, playing for the simple joy of playing, rather than zero-sum game style. I think this is the part that baffled people most. Structure and feature wise, I took a swiss army knife approach and again I recognize that this could confuse some people. However, this approach has allowed it to pivot over time and therefore contributed to its longevity. Just because something isn’t a game as you understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t a game.
Sometimes I think I need to write a book about everything that went on in the background to make this work. Other times I feel like I should just stop trying to explain it to people who have shown no interest in understanding the work on its merits. I meet people all the time who instinctively get what I was attempting. I have also met people who have already made up their minds even in some cases telling me they had “no interest in hearing me out.” Anyway, back on point—
“ With Ong’s Hat, Matheny took the concept of ‘legend tripping’ – that is, the act of venturing to areas of some horrific and supernatural event aIa The Blair Witch Project- and shifted it online. “I set up this mythos, and hid elements of it all over the internet,” he remembers. “There were phone numbers that you could call, and you would get strange voice mail messages; you might even get a call back from one of the characters. Everybody would come at it from a different angle. It was not a zero-sum game. The whole thing was set up to be an infinite play, so different people would get different things out of its persistence.” This element “People who are interested in this kind of experience are interested in working together. It’s what the community calls the ‘collective detective’ scenario,” says Matheny. “One of my influences was also the murder mystery theatre things that they used to do … I think that people like that kind of stuff. They like to feel that the story is crossing the proscenium and they’re immersed in the story -even to the point of being a character in the story. of the experience, with players reassembling the scattered elements of the story in order to determine exactly what it all meant, would go on I think that’s the hook with ARGs.”
Put a pin in the above because it also dovetails into a future point.
The ”gameplay centered around two things. One the eBook and two the Darkplanet forum. The ebook has a lot of built-in rollover states and hidden clickable areas.
Download the ebook, here https://archive.org/details/inc-iso for just one example. Navigate to the page (seen below) and roll your mouse around. You will see some still functioning pop-ups and click states. Even though this ebook was designed in a very early version of Adobe Acrobat, a lot of the effects still somewhat function. Some of these used to lead to pages on Incunabula.org (now retired) with more solves required to move forward. I also used to set up “pop-up” pages on the website that would appear and then mysteriously disappear. Steganography was used on some of the images on the website and many times cryptic messaging was scattered across a fleet of interlinked websites. There were also geocaches, bookcrossings and dead drops. Why am I even explaining this? Oh yeah…
Like any good narrative, the Ong’s Hat story actually intertwined two distinct plots or sequences of events: the events in the Ong’s Hat Ashram in the 1970s that the “Incunabula 83 Papers” allegedly detail, which served as the story level of the narrative, and the discovery and distribution of the documents sometime later, which served as the discourse level of the narrative. So, undeniably, the Ong’s Hat experience had the aesthetic elements of a story required to make an ARG an immersive experience. Additionally, Ong’s Hat: Incunabula, by using the various real-world communication methods available on the Internet at the time to tell its story, and by requiring players to interact at a critical point of the discourse, also incorporated the game elements that traditionally make up and define an alternate reality game. At the very least, like House of Leaves, referenced earlier in this book, it was a literary/digital crossover, utilizing Xerox, BBS and later Internet technology, CD ROM technology, and even traditional print publishing as it’s various mediums. In fact, one of the creators of the original CD ROM has said that it included 23 intricate puzzles, most of which were never solved!
And one more for good measure, although far from the only clear signs of the game and puzzle aspects of Incunabula/Ong’s Hat.
In Legend-Tripping Online, he describes how his observations led him to a bizarre Internet phenomenon, the main focus of his book: an “immersive” online experience—part mystery, part game, part who knows what—known as both the Incunabula Papers and Ong’s Hat. Those were the abbreviated titles of documents that someone—probably a group of four provocateurs—posted on The Well, a pioneering Internet social site in the late 1980s.
The Incunabula Papers/Ong’s Hat was, or is, a “many-threaded, open-ended interactive narrative” that ”weds an alternate history of chaos science and consciousness studies to conspiracy theories, parallel dimensions, and claims that computer-mediated environments can serve as magical tools,” Kinsella explains.
Fortunately, he elaborates: After sitting largely dormant on the social Web site for a decade, the documents provoked a widespread “immersive legend-trip” in the late 1990s. Via Web forums, participants investigated the documents—manifestos—which spun up descriptions of brilliant but suppressed discoveries relating to paths that certain scientists had forged into alternate realities. Soon, those haunted dimensions existed in the minds and fantasies of Ong’s Hat’s many participants. That was evident as they responded to the original postings by uploading their own—all manner of reflections and artifacts: personal anecdotes, audio recordings, and videos—to augment what became “a really immersive world, and it was vast,” says Kinsella.
Rather than continuing to flog a dead horse, I refer you to multiple articles that can be found on my site: https://josephmatheny.com that clearly demonstrate that Ong’s Hat suffered from acute gamification.
I Am Still Being Cryptic About the Origins Behind Ong’s Hat
What does Matheny himself have to say? Well, he’s as cryptic as ever — stating that he’s kind of done talking about it, but he’s not yet giving any hint that he might have made it all up.
What follows is a small sampling of the many items prominently highlighted on my site. Does this looks like someone who’s being “cryptic”? I see that Mr. Dunning has a copy of a link to the Salon piece at the bottom of the article on Skeptoid, but I wonder if he actually listened to it? Well, I advise you to and then ask yourself, “Does this sound like a man being coy or cryptic?” Before you say it, the Salon article came out months before the Skeptoid article.
This Wikipedia entry was not made by me but I have never contested it nor tried to disavow it. It is correct and it has been in place for a very long time. I even link to it from my site, on the opening page.
This and Kinsella’s book, published in 2011 is something that I have not only never contested by have actively promoted on this site and others.
Remember when I said to put a pin in this?
“The response of Joseph Matheny to Legend-Tripping Online suggests the success of Kinsella’s read on the Incunabula Papers. On his Web site, Matheny wrote that Kinsella “did an excellent job and only missed the mark with two or three of his conclusions,” which Matheny said he would clear up by writing a complimentary account.”
Read the rest at your own leisure and tell me, does me promoting these items sound like someone who is being “cryptic?
“I set up this mythos, and hid elements of it all over the internet,” he remembers. “There were phone numbers that you could call and you would get strange voice mail messages; you might even get a call back from one of the characters. Everybody would come at it from a different angle. It was not a zero-sum game. The whole thing was set up to be an infinite play, so different people would get different things out of its persistence.” This element “People who are interested in this kind of experience are interested in working together. It’s what the community calls the ‘collective detective’ scenario,” says Matheny. “One of my influences was also the murder mystery theatre things that they used to do … I think that people like that kind of stuff. They like to feel that the story is crossing the proscenium and they’re immersed in the story -even to the point of being a character in the story. of the experience, with players reassembling the scattered elements of the story in order to determine exactly what it all meant, would go on I think that’s the hook with ARGs.”
Yes, I already hear the objections but check the dates of those articles. ALL of them precede the publication date of the Skeptoid article, with the exception of the Gizmodo piece.
My Conclusions Regarding Brian Dunning and The Skeptoid Podcast
All in all, if I were a fan of Skeptoid I would unpack a few episodes besides this one and see if Brian is on point with other of his self proclaimed “Skeptoid style investigations”. I mean, after all, he is encouraging us to be skeptics, right? I see from a simple search that this isn’t his first error or even his second or– well you get the point. One can only hope he is a sincere actor and learns from and admit to his errors.
As I said before, be careful who you allow as the curator of your “truths” on the Internet Because after all, it is 2019 and it is the Internet.
One of the things I always wanted to do in 2001, post-Incunabula/Ong’s Hat was host to a conversation about what’s real and how perception can be weaponized and used against you. I was not allowed to do this mainly because the conspiranoia crowd had such a violent reaction to my “admission” that a far-out story like Ong’s Hat was actually a modern Borgesian fairy tale. Too bad, because considering all the things that followed, like Pizzagate and Q-Anon, that may have been a useful conversation to have had that early in the process. That part of it was always intended as an act of closure, it just never happened due to irrational hysteria that shouted down any attempt.
I fully support the stated mission statement of Skeptoid but at least, in this case, it seems they do not really live up to the promise.
In conclusion, I’ll remind you, gentle reader, be a critical thinker, be a skeptic, by all means, but please, if you’re going to critique something, take the time to actually read and/or listen to the material you are critiquing. Otherwise, your critique is neither a critique nor is it skeptical inquiry. It is merely dismissive opinion and frankly, looks like click-bait.
It’s fine to be critical and skeptical of someone’s work. Just do so based on the facts and not based on supposition or a pre-constructed narrative or heaven forfend, on incomplete research and therefore, misinformation.
Be well and stay safe. Lots of mind virii are afloat these days. Always remember to wear the cognitive condom of critical thinking and always, TFYQA.
Here’s a show with Grimerica that I recently did with my old friend Denny Unger along with the hosts of Grimerica, D-Ron, and Grahambo.
There’s one more interview I did back in December of 2018, supposedly still floating around in post-production limbo. If that ever sees the light of day, then that is it. No more interviews.
I made an exception for this one because Denny and I have never done an interview together and I really liked the idea of our great team dynamic being on display in an interview. I hope you enjoy.
Interview Starts at 36:05
Denny Unger and Joseph Matheny join us for the last chat about Ong’s Hat, Alternative Reality games, Magick and the last couple decades of Conspiracy Culture.
Denny is the CEO and Creative Directive of Cloudhead Games and used to run the website darkplanet in the early 90’s which was a big part of the Ong’s Hat mystery.
Joseph is an internet litterbug from the ironic school of conspiracy, reality hacker, storyteller, synchronicity inducter, and a hypermedium magician among many others.
We chat about how synchronicities and how they multiply when people get interesting in AR, and the flip flop aspect of the Mandela affect. We chat about the various aspects of the Ong’s Hat mystery, weaponization of contemporary conspiracies, Joseph’s past interviews, Alternative Reality Gaming, legend tripping, grift, pizzagate, ritual magick, zen, larping, and Q just to name a few….
In the ‘90s and early 2000s, seekers looking into the legend online began to believe that just reading about Ong’s Hat was starting to affect them. “People reported various synchronicities, strange dreams, unusual visual perceptions, and shifts in reality monitoring,” wrote Michael Kinsella, a professor at Central Michigan University Mount Pleasant and author of Legend-Tripping Online: Supernatural Folklore and the Search for Ong’s Hat, in an email.
If you were into science fiction or the paranormal, “you’d eventually butt up against Ong’s Hat,” said David Metcalfe, who runs social media for the University of Georgia Business School, and edits Threshold: Journal of Interdisciplinary Consciousness Studies. When he discovered Ong’s Hat as a teen in the late ‘90s, said Metcalfe, “It was popping up on chat boards and message boards, it would bleed into your life.”
Unlike the Jersey Devil, or other Barrens horrors, this was no ordinary urban legend, shaped over years of teen campfire retellings in the woods. Rather the Ong’s Hat story, the Incunabula catalog, and the rest of the surrealistic sci-fi pretzel were manufactured by Matheny and his friends, like Herbert, over more than a decade, starting with photocopied pamphlets in the ‘80s, and bolstered with fake documents, radio show appearances, and other hijinx. But the exercise in collective storytelling made its deepest impression online, amassing a following of internet detectives who filled page after page on web forums and personal blog sites with research and theories about what really happened at Ong’s Hat.
Decoder Ring is a podcast about cracking cultural mysteries. Every month, host Willa Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, takes on a cultural question, object, idea, or habit and speaks with experts, historians and obsessives to try and figure out where it comes from, what it means and why it matters.
On the early internet, a conspiracy theory known as Ong’s Hat flourished. It combined real physics, speculative science, mysticism, and radical politics, to tell a tale about a secret cult of interdimensional travelers. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, clues would emerge about the travel cult: brochures, book catalogs, mysterious interviews, buried artifacts, and more. For years, users worked together to solve the mystery of Ong’s Hat and the man who masterminded it all.
Decoder Ring talks to those seekers and the man behind the curtain, to find out the truth: What is Ong’s Hat?
Ong’s Hat, also known as The Incunabula, is the original ARG and laid the ground for all future experiments in transmedia storytelling. Join me as we take a brief look at the tale of a ghost town in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey…
Topics include: Crimbus gifts, planning our funerals, Scary German Lady, Philly Legends: The Bubble Fairy, Josh is home alone, Alien Alloys, BFS Road Trip, Corrections and Josh’s Chaos Dimension: Ong’s Hat, the Pine Barrens, and Joseph Matheny
Characters: Sammy Squarespace (the CEO of Square Space)
The methods used in creating alternate realities is also quite familiar to anyone with a background in Alternate Reality Games, which arose in the early Net and zine culture of the 80s and 90s at the hands of people such as Joseph Matheny. However, and this is absolutely essential, the intent of these works was to broaden the scope of creative possibilities, and was never in any sense to further political objectives. Here is what he said in “Transmedia: Who Invited the Lobsters Anyway?”,
In this special episode, we bring together STEAL THIS SHOW Patreon supporters Eric Barch and Joe Matheny to discuss a wide range of topics from filter bubbles and Jamie’s ‘bubble swapping’ concept, Joe’s attempts to create a standard for handling personal data online way back in the 90s, and the results of our mysterious, short-lived Tor spying experiment, Project Dirtbag. Project Dirtbag might have died a quick death, but the Patreon specials will live on!
This episode is part two of our interview with Joe Matheny. Part one, The Digital Underground, covered Joe’s experiences running The Grey Lodge, an early, underground private torrent tracker used by millions of people per month. Part two covers Joe’s groundbreaking ARG & literary work, Ong’s Hat, and its place in early internet culture, before we veer off into a discussion about how the ‘fakelore’ methods Joe used in the development of that work connect to the meme wars of today and the increasing political importance of memes (e.g. Kek, the ‘alt-right’ appropriation of Pepe The Frog.) We also discuss the very improbable connection (it really is) between Joe and Jamie, and how Joe became a patron of the show himself; PLUS, the potential for Kodi addons as a distribution point for indie creators.
The Grey Lodge was an underground private torrent tracker used by millions of people per month in their quest to uncover the esoteric, strange and the downright weird. In this episode we hear from Joe Matheny, one of the founders of the site, about how it kicked off in the very early days of BitTorrent, online culture in the early days of the Internet, proto-copyright trolls, how even weirdos eventually get pursued by the MPAA, and how the demise of indie trackers from Grey Lodge to What.CD mean a net loss for our culture.
Coming soon: the second part of this interview, in which Joe discusses his work as an early creator of “this is not a game” ARG experiences and his well-known work Ong’s Hat, The Incunabula Papers. We’ll be making that available for supporters on the Patreon (and maybe more widely) in due course. In the meantime, if you’re curious to take a look at some of Joe’s work, he’s been kind enough to give us a free pack including Ong’s Hat and some samples from his ARG! Enjoy.
2018: AKA the sweet taste of of validation. I told you all this was emerging. Note the original pub date of this article. ‘Nuff said
tl;dr: I am not now, nor have I ever been a “believer” in conspiracy theories, in a general sense. Of course, I am aware that there are conspiracies every day that have a myriad of goals and objectives. I am talking about this wacko milieu that’s grown up on the Internet, and which is nothing more than an entertainment vertical. I have used, what I perceived as the modern American myths, i.e. conspiranoia as content for a literary method I was perfecting because it was (formerly) entertaining and pervasive. It was an art project, nothing more. We have entered a new era and I have moved away from being associated with the conspiracy milieu since it has become toxic and counterproductive. The low crypto-fascist rumbles I have heard first hand in that milieu and that I’ve been warning about since the late 90s have fully blossomed now. They no longer even try to hide it. The Incunabula/Ong’s Hat project was an example of how reality is malleable and can be shaped and even manipulated, either for your own benefit or used malignantly against you. This is why I called it to a close and outed myself in the end. This is also why I fought so hard against those who wished to use it for their own personal gain or as a tool of exploitation against others. What follows is a poetic screed.
“We were fed up with the way in which everything that came over this new magic box, the radio, was being swallowed. People you know do suspect what they read in the newspapers and what people tell them, but when the radio came, and I suppose now television, anything that came through that new machine was believed. So in a way our broadcast was an assault on the credibility of that machine. We wanted people to understand that they shouldn’t take any opinion predigested, and they shouldn’t swallow everything that came through the tap whether it was radio or not. But as I say it was only a partial experiment, we had no idea the extent of the thing… -Orson Welles, re: War of the Worlds Broadcast
Innovators and creators of the world, this is to put you on notice. Your creations, the results of your inspirations will eventually be co-opted and used as tools for exploitation. No matter how hard you try to design around this inevitability, the gut maggots (and there are many) will find a way, they always do.
Multiple mixed metaphor alert
The parasites have taken over the asylum. The systems were designed by them, so naturally, they were designed to favor them. It’s the casino principle. The house always wins. Even when the occasional dupe slips through the cracks, they are paraded around as marketing material, to show all that “You too can win”. Just keep the faith! Even in this simulacra of winning, one becomes the bait.
My dear, late friend humdog wrote this in 1994. You may recognize the name as one of the people I dedicated the Ong’s Hat project to. Her name, in real life was Carmen, and while I did interact with her in real life from time to time, most of my interactions with her were online, so I will always remember her as humdog (lower case mandatory) or “hummy” as I sometimes affectionately called her. Carmen/humdog was a teacher who sometimes used some of my early on-line art stunts as examples in her classes about the then emerging on-line art scene and she was one of the people I chose to participate in my private Well forum, known as Kaos. Kaos was a invitation only forum where a few of the first on-line art projects were hatched and humdog was always there to give us constructive criticism and encouragement.
I read the following piece now and I wonder if hummy had some kind of inkling, some prescience of the coming age of the social network and the resultant commodification of the customer, that effectively rendered them the product. Then again, maybe it’s always been this way and I’m only now refreshing my view after wandering in the digital desert in a state of induced optimism. (Read denial)
Either way, I recently re-read this piece and was struck by it’s timelessness.
when i went into cyberspace i went into it thinking that it was a place like any other place and that it would be a human interaction like any other human interaction. i was wrong when i thought that. it was a terrible mistake.
Here is a reading I did of a segment of the late Robert Anton WIlson’s book: Cosmic Trigger. This reading was done at the bequest of the people putting on the play: Cosmic Trigger, currently showing in the UK. There are other people reading chapters, I believe with the intention of there being an audio-book assembled out the pieces.
Translation: Ong’s Hat, New Jersey, was founded somewhere in the nineteenth century by a man named Ong after he tossed a hat into the air and it got caught on the branch of a tree … very interesting about hats history, but anyway, put that aside and turn our attention to parallel universes.
Already by the 1930s, the city had become a ghost town, but despite this, it was never forgotten: this abandoned city became the subject of one of the first conspiracy theories of the Age of the Internet.
Theory has it that during the 70s and 80s, a new scientific paradigm called “Chaos”, which sought to find the relationship between everyday situations, such as tying shoelaces or reading a book and all the consequences that each could bring – for example, you are going to tie your shoes, you find a book under the bed, you take the book with you, you’re going to read it to a place, a person goes, read the title on the cover, it seems curious, decide to buy the book, read the book and becomes a serial murderer because of that, that is, if you had not tied the laces at that exact moment, there would not have lost a serial murderer – began to gain popularity.
Two groups of researchers, led by one Dobbs developed the theory that through awareness could model the universe itself, provided the ability to control the chaos and had, consequently, making available to the observer the journey other dimensions.Dobbs even have invented a machine that developed the brains of people to confront this strange complexity: the first sensory deprivation chamber dubbed “The Egg”.However, like any good story, this alternative has even more sinister than what you just read.
One version says that Dobbs did nothing more than finding an interdimensional portal.Remember to Ong earlier this sub?Urban legend has it that he was a man who was always well dressed in a suit and a silk hat, who founded the city in 1920 and had serious problems with his hat did not stay on his head.Ong was a pretty weird guy and no one knew where he came from nor where he was … to be exact, no one knows where were all the villagers after 1936. All were very demure and only had contact with the inhabitants of the same village .Still, back in 1932, according to a local urban legend, things got weird.Gradually, the city seemed to be disappearing.In early 1936, there was no trace of the city, leaving only the brick structures that once stood up there and an old shed.No inhabitant, nothing but the wind always Ong defeated the hat.
In 1970, Dobbs had come to the small left with a team of specialized scientists is populated Underground Constructions.For some reason – that is not entirely clear – Dobbs was aware that there was something on this village.And his hunch was correct, Dobbs supposedly found in a bunker sort of a machine called “The Egg” that allowed any man could travel between dimensions.
Translation: Ong’s Hat, New Jersey, was founded sometime in the 19th century by a man named Ong after he threw his hat in the air and lost it on a tree branch … a very interesting story about hats, but anyway, let’s leave it and then went back to the focus of the post!
By 1920, the city became a ghost town, but despite that, she has not been forgotten: the abandoned town became the subject of one of the first conspiracy theories in the Internet Age.
Account the theory that during the 1970s and 80s, a new scientific paradigm called “Chaos”, which is concerned with finding the correlation between everyday situations, such as tying your shoes and read a book and all the consequences that each of them can bring – for example, you were to tie the shoes, found the book under the bed, took the book with him, was read in a square, one person went, read the title of the cover, found curious, decided to buy the book, read the book and become a serial killer because of it, ie if you had not tied the cardaço that exact moment, there was no serial killer – began to gain popularity.
Two groups of scientists, led by Dobbs developed a theory that through consciousness can model its own universe, since it is able to learn to control the chaos, and therefore providing the observer travel to other dimensions.Dobbs would even made up a machinery to develop people’s brains to meet this strange complexity: the first sensory deprivation chamber called “The Egg”.However, like every good story has even more sinister alternative versions that you just read!
One of the other versions say that Dobbs did absolutely beyond finding a Interdimensional Portal!Ong remembers the beginning of this item?For the urban legend is the fact that he was a man always very well dressed in a suit and silk hat who founded this city in 1920 and had serious problems with his hat that he kept in his head.Ong was a very strange guy and nobody knows where it came from or where it was … to be exact, no one knows where all the villagers were after 1936. All were very modest and only maintained ties with the residents of the home village.However, around 1932, according to local urban legend, things got weird.Gradually, the town seemed to be disappearing!In early 1936, there was nothing else in the city, but bricks representing the structures that once were there and an old shed.No inhabitant, nothing but the wind that always knocked the hat Ong.
In 1970, Dobbs would come to the small abandoned village with a team of scientists specializing in Underground Structures.For a Reason- it was unclear – Dobbs would have known that there was something beneath the village.And it seems that his hunch was right!Dobbs would be found in a bunker sort of a machine called “The Egg” that allowed that any man could travel between dimensions.
When this urban legend on the Internet came around 1999, received a new look at the story of Joseph Matheny.The urban legend hoax and ended up turning meme and eventually won hundreds of versions.The truth is that the towns of Burlington County always told lurid stories about this ghost town, though, where reality ends and fiction begins only Dobbs – if it exists – can say (although it is difficult to contact him now that he is in another dimension).
A professional version of The Incunabula Papers: Ong’s Hat and Other Gateways to New Dimensions is currently available for Audible.com, Amazon.com and iTunes.com. (coming soon) It is narrated by the inimitable James Lewis.
REVIEWERS: Contact me for a free review copy. Just let me know what podcast/show/blog you intend to review it for.
Note to creatives reading this: If you have any audio v/o projects and you want to work with a consummate professional and all around nice guy, you can’t do better than James.
Story from the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey newspaper on the legend(s) of Ong’s Hat.
“Two weeks ago there were these young kids, like 19 or 20, who came by asking about Ong’s Hat,” said bartender Jacky Colon. “I looked it up on my phone. It was this weird interdimensional thing. Hold on, I have to look it up, this is how I got all my information on Google.”
Very short synopsis of said legend: Mash-up of religious sect, jazz musicians, native Pineys and rogue physicists settle in Ong’s Hat, open a portal to other dimensions. More on this later. First, that name.
During a lull, you can ask about those legends. The modern one about Ong’s Hat — that portal to another dimension somewhere out in the pitch pines — was popularized in the 2002 book “Ong’s Hat: The Beginning” by writer Joseph Matheny, who creates transmedia works and is a prominent figure in alternative reality gaming.
“Nineteen eighty-nine, I think this started. I had a friend who had a cabin out there in the Pine Barrens, and he hosted these parties. He was very bohemian and had artists and writers of all kinds out there,“ Matheny said. ‘He gave me a pamphlet that purported to be this story about Princeton scientists and something called the Ong’s Hat Rod and Gun Club, where they used to hang out and relax.“
During World War II the Pine Barrens were a testing ground for weapons development. Princeton scientists did explosives and ballistics work in the Forked Ruiver Mountains, and a Johns Hopkins University team fired crude surface-to-air missiles from the Project Bumblebee site at Island Beach. “There are kernels of reality to this legend,“ Matheny said.
With Matheny and other contributors writing, the story line arose ithrough the 1990s, first on computer bulletin boards frequented by gaming enthusiasts, generating online versions of urban legend that’s grown to an elaborate body of work. One consequence is an uptick in younger visitors seeking Ong’s Hat. Hence Colon’s close encounter at the Magnolia Bar.
Folklorists call it legend tripping — the urge to visit supposedly haunted houses and the like. One infamous place is Leed’s Point near Smithville in Atlantic County. The supposed birthplace of the Jersey Devil — a half-human monster said to haunt the forest since the 1700s — attracts people around Halloween.
But the Ong’s Hat story is one of the first examples of “legend tripping online,” said Michael Kinsella, a scholar who studies new religions, paranormal beliefs and folk traditions at the University of California Santa Barbara. He’s author of the 2011 book “Legend-Tripping Online: Supernatural Folklore and the Search for Ong’s Hat,” published by the University Press of Mississippi.
“I’ve always been fascinated by supernatural beliefs,” said Kinsella, who like Ong’s Hat enthusiasts stumbled across the story online, and wrote a whole dissertation on it for his master’s degree in 2007, which led to the book. The cross-connections of various enthusiast websites — whether gaming, UFOs or conspiracy theories — lead like a trail of digital bread crumbs to Ong’s Hat.
He sees it as technology simply extending an ancient human compulsion. “People really want to seek out the eerie and paranormal,” Kinsela said.
There are other snippets from actual history in the Ong’s Hat portal legend, like radioactive waste. Around the time the legend was developing, the Department of Defense was figuring out what to do with thousands of tons of soil contaminated with plutonium when a nuclear missile burned up a few miles away at Fort Dix in 1961. That’s how modern legends grow, Kinsella said.
“It’s typical for these kinds of stories to mix up history and facts and legend,” he said. “So much weird stuff and stories seems to come out of the Pine Barrens, they reinforce each other.”
“If nothing else, it is a vortex of mysteries, legends, tradition and folklore…I’m interested in tracking it back as far as I can, but I don’t want to puncture that bubble,“ Matheny said. “There’s nothing in the structure of the story that I haven’t heard, in one form or another, from people in the area.”
Transmedia as an idea of collaborative, multi-platform creation and narration origins in the 70’s and 80’s of the last century, in the area of telematic art, where artists experimented with collaborative narration and defined the idea of transmedia.
It soon moved on to the gaming industry, creating so-called Alternate Reality Games (ARG).These are games that, based on the Internet as a main hub, use(d) multiple other technological platforms like telephones, email and real offline mail to tell and simultaneously create different parts of the game’s story in those medial habitats relevant to the players. So not just transmedia telling, but transmedia engagement that requires interaction from every gamer in order to bring the game’s plot to the next level. In other words: “Players interact directly with characters in the game, solve plot-based challenges and puzzles, and collaborate as a community to analyze the story and coordinate real-life and online activities.” (Wikipedia) An early example being Ong’s Hat.