[APAK logo] Issue #68, October 10th, 1996

Keeping Tabs
by Lesley Reece

By the time this column is published, we will all be dead.

That's what the October eighth issue of the Sun says. On the cover, against a background of flames, is the headline "Bible scholars' secret computer probe bares shocking Apocalypse: WORLD WILL END NEXT WEEK!"

"Uh-oh," said the woman behind me in line at the supermarket. "Hope my rent check didn't clear yet." I laughed politely. But I also threw a copy into my cart.

My weakness for tabloid journalism goes back 23 years, to the day I discovered the old black and white National Enquirer. One issue of ominous Jeanne Dixon predictions was all it took to captivate my ten-year-old imagination. After that, I ran to the local Thriftway every Monday, eager to hand over 35 cents in exchange for another week's worth of gory crime-scene photos and pseudo-scholarly discussions of the paranormal. My favorite articles were the ones about spontaneous human combustion: "Mrs. A.J. of Belfast, Ireland, was watching television with her granddaughter when suddenly she began to feel very warm . . . " Usually, there was an artist's conception of the incident, but sometimes they'd run a photo of a pile of ashes on the seat of a slightly-burnt armchair.

The world was about to end in those days, too, but I didn't pay much attention. I was too busy trying to hypnotize my little brother ("Easy instructions on page six!") and wondering whether I had latent psychic abilities ("Do you sometimes know when the phone is about to ring?"). Once, I tried telekinesis on the girl next to me in the school orchestra. It didn't work. Class ended, and her violin was in one piece.

It was in the Enquirer that I first learned of Bigfoot, two-headed babies, and the hole in the ozone layer. There were also regular articles about aliens and UFOs, so I knew about the Roswell incident long before the X-Files aired.

Mom didn't approve of my new interest any more than my school friends did. "Nobody believes that stuff! It isn't true," they said.

"So what?" I always said. Narnia wasn't true either, but I liked reading about it. Why should Nostradamus be held to a higher standard?

As I grew a little older, though, I realized the difference between presenting a story and presenting a fact. C.S. Lewis was writing fantasies that entertained and inspired his readers. That made him literature. The tabloid reporters were lying to their audience. That made them reprehensible. The distinction was, and still is, clear. But it wasn't enough to make me stop reading the tabs. Even when the Enquirer went color about 15 years ago, I simply switched to the Weekly World News.

I'm not stupid. I know extraterrestrials don't have secret meetings with the president. I'm pretty sure Elvis is buried next to his father at Graceland, not zooming his Harley around rural Michigan. The Sun article about the Apocalypse says a "great destroying star that the Bible calls Wormwood" is due to fall into the North Atlantic on Saturday, after which "the people of earth will hear the trumpets that herald our destruction."

The hell you say. I'm shaking in my Doc Martens. But that's the power of those over-the-top headlines; they make it possible for almost anyone to say "Huh! Nobody believes that stuff!" That satisfaction, not the ridiculous "news," is what really sells tabloids, and the publishers know it.

I figured that out one day in 1974. I'd just finished reading an Enquirer piece which claimed that the appearance of the comet Kohoutek signaled the end of the world. We had three weeks left, and I was a bit scared. I was gazing distractedly at the ad on the back page of the issue -- the same one for amazing mail-order vitamins that's still there today -- when I saw the small print at the bottom of the coupon and laughed out loud.

It said, "Allow six to eight weeks for delivery."

We had at least that long.

One woman, a hundred thousand cold dinners.

[APAK logo] Issue #68, October 10th, 1996

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