When we think about folklore and urban legends, generally we don’t imagine that the boundaries can be drawn merely at the edge of a city or even a state. How ambitious can a folklore legend be, when it supposes that the boundaries of its telling are not merely confined to our own universe? How incredible a claim can one story make? And how would the public respond to the discovery that somewhere out there is a fully equipped abandoned lab capable of transporting people from our own dimension to an alternate reality already populated with a rogue band of scientists who made their home there?
The story of Ong’s Hat started simply enough with xeroxed pamphlets and papers relating to a history of almost magical science and scientific discovery. Though the claims made were incredible, some found it unlikely that they would ever be uncovered as much of the evidence had been transported to another dimension – an alternate reality. With the rise of the internet, Ong’s Hat became more widely distributed and popular before finally receding back into the folds of the conspiracy crowd, supplanted by newer incidents in time.
Ong’s Hat itself, however, is generally accepted today as a social experiment. When Joseph Matheny collected the works into the Incunabula Papers and released it as a book, it chronicled the discovery and escape of scientists from Princeton as they made the dangerous journey to realms where no man had ever traveled. But was Ong’s Hat real? Were any of the events in the story verifiable? Or was this one of the earliest attempts at a social engineering experiment designed to create one of the Internet’s earliest memes when transmission happened primarily through xerox and fax machine?
But the facts surrounding the story are almost as incredible as the story itself. Now as we attempt to understand how viral videos, thoughts, internet inspired movements, and memetic thinking operates, we find that one of the earliest works to transition from pen and paper to the world wide web (when it was called the world wide web) is hidden in its history. And as the story itself becomes more obscured in its long history, we find it may one day be more difficult to tell where fact ends and fiction begins when a number of current things we take for granted today become lost in the sands of time. Even today when archived materials are readily accessible, the consensus over whether or not Ong’s Hat was all just a game, an anthropological experiment, reality, or somewhere in between still sparks debate among those who participated in it. Some suggest that somewhere in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey there is still a streamlined trailer with a hole in reality where a group of scientists and free thinkers left this planet and went somewhere else – away from everything.
Anthropologists have long said that stories that capture the imagination of a civilization tell us a great deal about the times they live in. What does the story of Ong’s Hat tell us?