By Jon Ronson
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For years conspiracy theorists have spoken of a network of secret clubs from which evil, shadowy cabals rule the world. Sometimes these cabals are known as The Illuminati, sometimes the New World Order.
Some conspiracy theorists say these wicked elitists attend a secret summer camp called Bohemian Grove in the forests of Northern California, where they dress up in robes and hoods and perform a bizarre ritual that culminates in a human effigy being thrown into the fiery belly of a 50-foot stone owl. They say the Bushes regularly attend, as does Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger.
“That can’t be true,” I thought. But yet the rumors persisted, so I decided to see for myself. I snuck into Bohemian Grove.
An Inside Job
I had no idea how to accomplish this. My original plan had been to enter the forest alone, perhaps climb up some hills, and basically just scout around until I found it. Recognizing that this was an ill- conceived strategy, I telephoned Alex Jones, a famous conspiracy talk-show host from Austin, Texas. He instantly invited himself along.
“That place is sick,” he yelled. “You’ve got presidents and corporate chieftains running around naked. They have orgies. They worship their devil owl. I’ll smuggle a camera in and get right up in their faces.”
“I think stealth might be a better approach if we want to witness the owl burning ceremony,” I said.
“You’re right,” said Alex. “Stealth.”
I rendezvoused with Alex and his friend Mike at the Occidental Motel, near Monte Rio. A local lawyer named Rick – who had infiltrated the Grove himself – agreed to give us advice on how to get in.
I told Rick my vague river/terrain plan.
“Going in that way,” he replied, “will get you killed. We are talking about a sheer rocky canyon.”
“So what’s the secret?” I asked.
“Just walk up the drive,” he said. “That’s what I did. There’ll be one or two security guys sitting on the side of the road looking bored. What you don’t do is stand out. Dress preppy. Hell, I’ll come in with you.”
The next morning we drove into town to buy preppy clothes at Eddie Bauer. The visual transformation was astonishing. Alex and Mike no longer looked like highly-strung Texans. They were now the very picture of East Coast elite, dressed in sport shirts and khaki. They honed their newfound preppiness back at the hotel by wandering up and down the corridor in an effeminate fashion and discussing nanotechnology.
In the end Alex and Mike went in separately from me. They couldn’t be completely sure that I wasn’t part of some complex trap to capture them and offer them up as a sacrifice to the owl god.
Rick stayed with me and we walked up the drive together. We were immediately approached by a security guard.
“Hey there,” said Rick.
“You guys should have driven up here,” smiled the guard.
“Oh, we wanted to enjoy the air,” said Rick.
“No problem,” the guard replied. “Have a good time.”
And that was that; we were in Bohemian Grove. I couldn’t believe it was that easy.
Cremation of Care
The first thing we noticed were clusters of canvas tents everywhere. Red lanterns hung in the trees like little devil eyes. The Grove’s ambience seemed deliberately spooky, as if a designer had been instructed to give it some kind of chic druid-Satanic milieu.
“Look,” Rick said. He was standing by a notice board of snapshot photographs of elderly preppy-looking gentlemen drinking and laughing. Some were dressed in full drag, with fishnet stockings and hideously applied make-up, humorously oversized fake breasts protruding from their nylon blouses. There was also something else on the board: a guest list. I quickly scanned the names. Bohemians were wandering past me and I didn’t want to appear too nosey. Under C was the name Cheney, Richard. Under B was Bush, George.
I turned around to find myself face to face with a giant stone owl, nestled between two huge redwoods.
“The shrine,” whispered Rick. “Hey. There’s your friends.”
Sure enough, Alex and Mike were heading down the path towards us.
“Hi, you two!” I said.
“Don’t go that way!” hissed Alex. “There are cameras in the trees!”
“There are owls everywhere!” Mike exclaimed, his eyes wide in terror.
Before I could say another word, they were gone.
9pm. There was no formal announcement, but the Bohemians instinctively knew that the time had come for them to head down to the lagoon. Rick and I found a prime spot, directly opposite the owl.
The grassy bank was soon packed. A thousand men had drifted down and were crowded together, sitting cross-legged on the grass. A few scrutinized me. I was probably the youngest person there.
I looked behind me and spotted Alex and Mike. We briefly made eye contact.
Suddenly we were plunged into darkness. The drums thundered. Boom! Boom! As each boom rang out a robed man carrying a flaming torch appeared amid the trees.
“Hail, Bohemians!” said the High Priest, wearing a robe of silver and gold.
After much pomp and circumstance, the High Priest informed the crowd, these men of wealth and power, that “Dull Care,” arch-enemy of “Beauty,” must be slain!
“Bring fire!” he roared.
A startling thunder crack rang out through the trees, followed by a scary, cackly voice. It was the voice of Dull Care.
“FOOLS!” he roared. “FOOLS! When will ye learn that me ye cannot slay? When ye turn your feet to the marketplace am I not waiting for you as of old?”
“Nay, thou mocking spirit,” spluttered the High Priest. “We know thou waitest for us when this our sylvan holiday shall end. But this too we know: year after year, within this happy Grove, our fellowship has banned thee for a space. So shall we burn thee once again!”
At this moment, a papier-mâché effigy was thrown into a bonfire in front of the owl.
“AAAARGH,” said Dull Care, his grotesque death-rattle filling the forest.
“Hooray!” The crowd erupted with celebration.
Fireworks went off, we all clapped, and the Grove descended once again into silence, broken only by the sound of elderly men murmuring to their neighbors: “Could you possibly help me get up?”
Seeing is Not Always Believing
I met up with Alex back at the motel.
At one o’clock in the morning Alex hooked his hidden camera up to the TV set. He’d managed to capture the whole thing.
“Nobody has ever lived to get this footage out before,” Mike said.
“I’m not going to lie, I was scared to death in there.”
It was clear that the Texans’ interpretation of the ceremony differed from my own. My lasting impression was of an all-pervading sense of immaturity: the men in drag, the odd spooky rituals. Alex and Mike, on the other hand, saw it as proof that the ruling elite are evil and satanically worship owl gods.
“It was much worse than I expected,” Alex said. “I was hearing little bits of conversation. Old men were saying, ‘Yes! That’s the key! We must burn him again! I do want to burn him again.’ These people were in a fever.”
“Even so,” I replied, “it isn’t as if you overheard any of them secretly discussing global control or anything like that.”
There was a short silence.
“Yes I did,”Alex exclaimed. “I heard old men going around bragging about how they manipulate the world. I heard two guys saying to each other, ‘Yes, we’re going to get him elected.’”
“These people are sick,” Mike added.
Reflecting on the Grove
In the weeks that followed, Alex streamed his footage of the ritual onto Google video, where you can still watch it for yourself. His voice-over inferred that it might have been actual human sacrifice that we witnessed. Soon after, Richard McCaslin, a fan of Alex’s who believed his warped interpretation of the events, was caught trying to break into the Grove.
He was heavily armed.
Jon Ronson is an author and documentary film maker from London. His books include Them: Adventures with Extremists (in which you can read more of his Bohemian Grove adventure) and The Men Who Stare At Goats.
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