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.
What lies at the heart of Ong’s Hat?
Listen to this episode of Decoder Ring:
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?
Download the art for this episode.
Links and further reading on some of the things we discussed on the show:
• Michael Kinsella’s book about Ong’s Hat: Legend-Tripping Online: Supernatural Folklore and the Search for Ong’s Hat
• “Interdimensional Portal” on YouTube
• Audiobook version of The Incunabula Papers
• Scans of the original Ong’s Hat mail-art
• Joseph Matheny’s website
• Joseph Matheny’s interview on Coast to Coast AM
This episode was co-written and edited by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Frisch. Benjamin Frisch produced the episode.
*SPOILER ALERT* In case anyone missed it, here is the game that was embedded in that episode: https://www.reddit.com/r/trustaleph/
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…
FOLLOW THE WEIRDNET: TWITTER: @theweirdnet GAB.AI: @THEWEIRDNET FACEBOOK: @welcometotheweirdnet INSTAGRAM: @theweirdnet MINDS: https://www.minds.com/THEWEIRDNET ALTERNATIVE VIDEO SITES BITCHUTE: http://bit.ly/weirdnetbitchute OTHER PROJECTS: IDENTMUSIC/TOMMY SINGS: https://www.youtube.com/user/IdentMusic THE SCOTTISH STORYTLLER: http://bit.ly/TheScottishStoryteller
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)
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.
A lockfile with all the links mentioned in this episode is coming up for Patrons. Enjoy!
Presented by TorrentFreak
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.
Executive Producers: Mark Zapalac
Game magazine: Issue 135, available now at newsstands, print or digital. The article runs about 6 pages, with citations to Incunabula/Ong’s Hat and myself throughout.
Here is a small excerpt (used with permission) from that article:
“But what exactly is an ARG? For the community, that definition is largely rooted in the ‘this is not a game’ aesthetic. ARGs are games that do not acknowledge that they are games; they pose as alternate realities hidden away in streams of dormant internet code. Their stories exist not in unified narrative, but are spread across phone lines, email addresses, websites and any other forms of media that the puppetmasters – that is, the game’s creators – deem to be useful. ARG’s exist in real-time as constantly evolving, potentially boundless storytelling experiences.