By writing off

kooks, the 

experts miss 

the social 

and historical 

implications of 

the existence of

kooks, as well as

the fascinating 

stories behind 

their outlandish




Kooks and Kook Traditions
What is a Kook and why study them?
 By Donna Kossy 

Kossy is author of the book Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief and designer of the outstanding web site The Kooks Museum.

For the past fifteen years I have been collecting the irrational and often entertaining artifacts of “kooks.” You know the kind of material I’m talking about: marginless handwritten flyers exposing the world-wide conspiracy to torture one man with electromagnetic pulses; self-published books explaining the one simple answer to all the world’s problems; technical articles sent to professors at M.I.T. proving that Einstein was wrong or that a free energy device was unjustly suppressed by the patent office.

     While most would have tossed these “insane,” “false” and “worthless” materials aside in favor of something of value, even though I wasn’t entirely sure why I was doing it, I couldn’t pass any of it up. To me, it was wonderful, strange and even mysterious. What began as a casual collection of a few strange flyers soon grew to fill two filing cabinets and at least one wall of bookshelves.

     From the beginning I knew intuitively which material was worthy of my collection, what distinguished true kooks from mere eccentrics. But I found that others didn’t always understand my distinctions. Eventually, when I wrote my book on the subject (Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief, Feral House, 1994), I came up with this definition:

     A kook is someone with an outlandish, extreme or socially unacceptable belief or obsession which underpins their entire existence.
     This definition makes a distinction between kooks and other deviants: eccentrics, crazy people, quacks, frauds and hoaxers. Someone who acts strange, crazy or eccentrically is not necessarily a kook, by my way of thinking, because they might not have a strange belief. Conversely, a kook who thinks she has solved the riddle of the universe might act normally in private with no hints of insanity. Another important distinction must be made between kooks and charlatans such as medical quacks, frauds and hoaxers. In contrast to them, kooks are invariably sincere. They aren’t trying to deceive or defraud anyone, they are merely trying to get their point across. They usually haven’t any desire to become wealthy, sometimes even squandering fortunes on their pursuits. Thus many of the purveyors of the New Age, who are getting rich off of crystal healing or by channelling entities from the Pleiades, are not strictly kooks because of their strong pecuniary interest.

     The words “crackpot” and “crank” are often used interchangeably with “kook,” though these terms have a stronger negative tinge than the more neutral “kook.” “Pseudo-scientists” (what I like to call the “Mr. Science” type of kook) on the other hand are only one of many types of kooks, who also include religious fanatics, homespun philosophers and panaceists.

     “Kook” is a subjective term: one person’s kook is another’s genius. For example I would consider Zecharia Sitchin and Immanuel Velikovsky to be unusually successful kooks, but they each have thousands of followers who consider them to be misunderstood maverick geniuses whose work is shunned only because of the petty politics of scientific orthodoxy.

     Finally, whether or not someone is a kook is something that can change. For example, it was respectable to believe in phrenology during the 19th century, but anyone believing it today would probably be labelled a kook. Conversely, those who first claimed a link between cigarette smoking and cancer earlier in this century were considered health nuts and cranks. In that case, the kooks were indeed ahead of their time because almost no one--not even the tobacco companies--now disputes that link.

Why Study Kooks?

     Why, you may ask, should we care what kooks have to say; they’re just kooks aren’t they? There is a natural tendency, among scientists and other experts, to dismiss strange beliefs as the unfortunate result of psychological aberrations; terms such as “delusion” and “hallucination” are used to discredit those with outlandish beliefs. By writing kooks off in this manner the experts miss the social and historical implications of the existence of kooks, as well as the fascinating stories behind their outlandish ideas.

     I believe it is largely a waste of time to debunk the ideas of kooks. Those who believe these ideas do so, not because of reason, but because they have a deep psychological need to do so. For others, the ideas are obviously false or mythical, so debunking is superfluous. So, rather than debunk kook beliefs, I seek to appreciate them for their strangeness and - at times - brilliance, understand their causes, and trace their development.

     Much can be learned from this approach. For me, kook ideas are an entryway to history, sociology, religion, science, politics and psychology. When you begin to answer the question of why someone would believe, for example, that the earth is flat, you are forced to investigate the social, religious and scientific context that made that belief possible. If you read their literature and look into their history, you realize that flat earth belief is about more than just the shape of the world: it is a heartfelt reaction to modernism and humanism, symbolized by the Pagan conception of a spherical earth.

     After researching a dozen or so strange beliefs, you begin to notice how belief systems operate and how their tenacity affects all of us. Over the past ten years I have also had a front-seat view to religion in the making, the New Age and UFO cults rising from obscurity into the limelight of the evening news. I’ve noticed that most kooks remain in obscurity but that the “lucky” ones become cult leaders. Among those, a few persist and become established religions. Among the obscure kook beliefs I’ve seen rise from obscurity, the most dramatic and disturbing have been the anti-Semitic and hate groups. I understand, however, that these beliefs circulate underground among a tiny group of believers for years, sometimes centuries, only to erupt into mainstream consciousness at opportune moments in history, acting like magnets for collective frustration.

     The ideas of kooks, both benign and malevolent, often reflect the unspoken fears, hatreds and insecurities of the rest of us. For example, there are many paranoid writings in circulation on the subject of mind control and other technologically advanced methods of enslavement. For example Francis E. Dec tells us of the “Computer God Containment Policy Brain Bank Brain” on the far side of the moon, where we are all subjected to the propaganda of “Frankenstein Radio Controls” and “Frankenstein Eyesight Television.” Though few would be convinced of the objective reality of such devices, it’s important to realize that Dec’s writings reflect a popular fear of advanced technology and its potential use for human control. Such fears are like time bombs and many of them are beginning to go off.

Kook Traditions

     When I began collecting this material, the many kook ideas seemed so outlandish that I took each to be the product of one, very unique, very isolated mind. I thought that if I collected enough of them I could understand “the mystery of the kooks”: why each one believed what they did. But as I accumulated more and more kooks, and began categorizing them in my files, I suspected that the kook mystery amounted to more than just a noisy crowd of “lone nuts.” I began to notice a great deal of repetition, borrowing and overlap. A small amount of research told me that kook ideas are passed from one person to another, much like urban legends and myths. And many kook ideas have a long history, what I call a “kook tradition.”

     Some examples of kook traditions are: Anglo-Israelism, the idea that the Anglo-Saxons are the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel; UFO religions, such as the Raelian Church and Unarius, with benevolent Space Brothers as the saviors of earthlings; and hollow earth beliefs. In my latest book Aberrant Anthropology (scheduled for publication by Feral House in early 1999), I traced the kook traditions which cluster around the question of human origins.

     My favorite of the human origins kook traditions is the idea that the human race is the result of interbreeding, meddling or experimentation by extraterrestrials. In some versions we are a hybrid between apes and ETs, and in others we were “genetically engineered” by ETs, from earthly apes. Sometimes the ETs are benevolent, and sometimes they’re evil, power-hungry masters.

     What fascinates me about this story is how it seeks to combine and reconcile the Genesis story from the Bible with science. Almost every single book on the subject declares that the authors have finally found the middle ground between creationism and evolution and/or between religion and science. This reflects a yearning among believers for a smaller, more sensible, more palatable universe. The story has been developing for about one hundred years, from Madame Blavatsky’s anti-Darwinian “Secret Doctrine” to a myriad of variations today.

     One of the story’s latest mutations can be found in a book entitled Aliens: The Final Answer? by David Barclay. Barclay believes that super-intelligent dinosaurs developed the human race as a domesticated pet, from a smaller, less intelligent race of dinosaurs. No matter how many times I read Barclay’s very serious arguments in favor of such a theory, his viewpoint still amazes-and stumps me. It also convinces me that kookologists like myself will be in business for many years to come.

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