Longtime radio talk show host and paranormal promoter Art Bell died on April 13, 2018, at the age of seventy-two at his home in Pahrump, Nevada. Bell achieved national prominence for Coast to Coast, a five-hour overnight show devoted to conspiracy theories, UFOs, and all manner of the paranormal. Much of the show was devoted to unscreened (and often unhinged) listeners calling in with their personal stories of seemingly unexplainable and sinister phenomena. Coast to Coast was broadcast from 1989 to 2003; at its peak in the 1990s, the show reached as many as 10 million listeners a week.
In (dis)honor of Bell’s position as a perennial promoter of paranormal pabulum, he received CSICOP (now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry)’s Snuffed Candle Award in 1998 for his track record of “encouraging credulity, presenting pseudoscience as genuine, and contributing to the public’s lack of understanding of the methods of scientific inquiry.” (Bell accepted the award in good humor, mindful that any attention is good attention.)
Bell may be most notorious among skeptics for his role in the death of thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult in 1997. As Tom Genoni wrote in his article “Art Bell, Heaven’s Gate, and Journalistic Integrity” (SI, July/August 1997):
Following the Heaven’s Gate suicides, the public learned that news of a “companion UFO” trailing Comet Hale-Bopp—a rumor spread predominately by late-night talk radio host Art Bell—may well have contributed to cult members taking their lives in an attempt to “graduate,” as their Web site described it, to a “higher level” and leave Earth in a spacecraft. …
Theories about a strange object near Hale-Bopp were first made public in November of 1996 when Chuck Shramek, an amateur astronomer from Houston, called Art Bell’s program to report that a photograph of his appeared to show a large object behind the comet, an object he speculated to be up to four times the size of Earth. The following night, Courtney Brown, a tenured professor of political science at Emory University and director of the Farsight Institute in Atlanta, was a guest on Bell’s show and claimed that three “remote viewers” associated with his institute had confirmed Shramek’s findings and, incredibly, had determined it to be a metallic object full of aliens … .
The cult’s Internet link to the Art Bell homepage indicates it’s likely they first heard about an approaching spaceship during Bell’s two-month-long UFO escapade.
But whatever the Heaven’s Gate cult members or anyone else may have done with the information presented on his radio show, Bell feels that is not his responsibility. “I’m not going to stop presenting my material because there are unstable people,” he insists. “That’s what the First Amendment is all about.”
Whether Bell believed the stories he helped popularize is unclear, but his influence on American popular culture is undeniable, and his legacy of broadcasting anecdotes and evidence-free conspiracy theories lives on in media personalities such as Alex Jones.