THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT UFOS. Most such books try to make a case for UFOs’ physical existence as visitors from other planets or possibly other dimensions. A much smaller but still substantial chunk of the literature will argue that they’re a sustained absurdity, a mishmash of honest human mistakes compounded by dishonest ones. Those are the two main currents of thought on the subject: that of the “believers” and that of the “debunkers.”
I’m writing as someone with a particular investment in the topic. Back in the 1960s, I was a teenage “UFOlogist.” I grew up to be a professor of religious studies whose main research interests have been religious traditions of heavenly ascents and otherworldly journeys. I’ve worked with the visions of the Biblical prophet Ezekiel, particularly the first and strangest of them: the vision of the “living creatures” and the wheels that sometimes rested on the ground, sometimes flew in the air. In other words, UFOs.
I don’t believe, nor do I debunk. This book will advocate for a third way.
My starting point: UFOs are a myth. But in saying this, I don’t mean what you might think I do.
A little over fifty years ago, two books appeared within a few years of each other bearing almost identical titles—and almost opposite messages. One was The World of Flying Saucers: A Scientific Examination of a Major Myth of the Space Age, by astrophysicist Donald Menzel. The other was Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, by psychologist Carl Jung. Menzel, the most vocal and prominent UFO skeptic of the era, used myth as people often do, to mean “bunk, nonsense,” or at least something that isn’t true. For Jung the word had nearly the opposite meaning: not falsehood, but the profoundest truth of all.
Jung’s writings are notoriously dense and difficult. Flying Saucers, the last book he published before his death in 1961, is no exception. How valiantly I struggled through it as a budding UFOlogist, just past my thirteenth birthday! (It was one of three books on UFOs in our local library.) Of course I could make neither head nor tail of it. I hadn’t a clue about the assumption on which it rests: that our ordinary awareness is an eggshell boat on the vast roiling sea of the unconscious, the deeper (“collective”) levels of which we share with all other humans.
These depths, accessed through individual dreams and the collective dreams called myths, aren’t always bright or benign. But they’re holy, or “numinous,” as Jung liked to say: uncanny, transcendent, timeless. When a myth takes visible form, when it’s projected into the sky as a flying disk (or “mandala,” as Jung would say), that’s a major event, akin to what our ancestors might have called a vision of God.
All this is controversial, hardly less so than UFOs themselves. I find Jung’s models just plausible enough that I’m prepared to use them as tools if they make sense of the otherwise unintelligible. When other tools work, I also take them up gladly. The insights of twenty-first century cognitive psychologists into the evolutionary grounding of our disposition toward myth add depth and poignancy to our human inclination to trust what the Bible calls “the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). The timeworn Freudian dictum that “every memory returning from the forgotten past . . . puts forward an irresistible claim to be believed, against which all logical objections remain powerless” turns out to shed unexpected light on some of the thornier riddles of the UFO. None of these approaches can be ignored.
In his emphasis on the gravity of myth, on the force of its claim to our attention and respect, Jung marks out the path I’ve chosen to travel. As “myth,” UFOs aren’t nonsense. They’re about the furthest thing from “bunk” that can be imagined. They’re a creation of the space age and yet as real, as vital, as universal as any myth that has spoken from our unconscious since the dawn of prehistory. The central question that needs to be asked about them isn’t, What are they? or Where do they come from? or, conversely, How can any sensible person believe such rubbish? The question is, What do they mean?
Grant that UFOs are a myth. Or even more: a full mythology, complex and ramified, stretching into areas of experience that seem far removed from objects in the sky, its true subject not space aliens but who we are as human beings. Yet there’s a sharp difference between UFOlogy and the great mythical systems of the past, such as that of the Greeks. Those mythologies were the consensus beliefs of entire cultures. UFOs seem doomed to a shadow existence on the fringes of ours.
They may have “conquered the world,” as the title of a recent book on UFOs puts it, but it’s a hollow sort of conquest. More than seventy years after their emergence, they show no sign of going away, but neither do they show the smallest capacity to move into the mainstream. They remain the province of the eccentric, the discontented, and the deluded, if at times the wildly gifted. Can a mythology of losers and misfits be of any significance for the rest of us?
The following reply suggests itself: Who says the rest of us are nonmisfits, nonlosers? “Fitting” in this life is a painful, difficult, always inadequate process, and at the end each and every one of us loses that which our whole being strains most terribly to keep. We point a mocking finger at the “losers,” the “kooks,” the marginal. Beneath our laughter is an awareness that we’re not really so different. What we see in those “losers” is here in all of us.
“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls / And tenement halls,” Simon and Garfunkel sang a generation and a half ago. As a scholar of religion, I’ve been well served by Freud’s insight that it’s often the jumbled and bizarre, the disreputable and seemingly senseless that’s the pathway into our deepest secrets. A mythology of the fringe is not to be presumed negligible, especially when it’s as plugged into the wider society as this one is. From the hinterlands, UFOs cast their shadows across our culture.
Ever hear of Roswell, New Mexico? Area 51? Chances are you have, even if you’re not sure exactly what’s supposed to have happened at Roswell or what Area 51, the top-secret tract of Nevada desert that’s seen some of the Cold War’s most horrific weapons tests, has to do with UFOs. When Barack Obama declared in 2013 that “when you first become president, one of the questions that people ask you is, ‘What’s really going on in Area 51?’” of course he was joking. But the joke would have fallen flat if there’d been no truth in it that his audience could understand and appreciate. Hillary Clinton may have been less than serious in promising a New Hampshire reporter that if elected in 2016 she’d “get to the bottom” of UFOs, sending a “task force” to Area 51. But would she have said such things if she hadn’t calculated that “courting the UFO believer vote,” as one web headline put it, would resonate with a substantial chunk of her constituency? And when some cartoon or advertisement depicts a creature with a face shaped like an old-fashioned light bulb and just as hairless, dominated by two enormous slanted, solid-black eyes, do you need to be told it’s an alien?
“Thirty-six percent of Americans, about 80 million people, believe UFOs exist,” ABC News announced in June 2012 on the basis of a study by the National Geographic Channel. Nearly four-fifths of those polled, moreover, thought the government was hiding something about UFOs. These figures, which can’t have escaped the shrewd Ms. Clinton, were in line with earlier surveys that suggest that an even larger percentage of Americans—something like half—believe in UFOs. This is not exactly a “fringe.” Not only are the UFOs embedded in our cultural awareness. In very considerable numbers, we seem to think they’re real.
Yet not to be taken seriously. In our culture UFOs are funny; those who see them, funnier; and those “fringe” types for whom they’re a significant part of reality, the funniest of all. This is a paradox, one of many to be explored in this book. Why does the UFO-themed Close Encounters of the Third Kind gross over $300 million and become a cinema classic, while organizations dedicated to UFO research languish for want of public interest? Why, in the words of folklorist Thomas Bullard, are UFOs “at once so popular and so despised?”
The resolution of the paradox lies in the slippery, elusive, “as-if” quality of UFO belief, which needs to be explored if we’re to understand its significance. This is a peculiar sort of belief, not quite what it appears on the surface. I should know. I once held it myself.
When Donald Menzel’s The World of Flying Saucers appeared in 1963, I was fifteen years old. I’d been a UFOlogist for two and a half of those years. I was not quite at the zenith of my UFO career, but I was approaching it. I’d known about Menzel’s book for a couple of months before I got my hands on a copy, and I dreaded the encounter.
I’d been warned: Menzel was the most persuasive of the UFO skeptics. His explanations of UFO sightings were so convincing that even the committed UFOlogists with whom I exchanged ten- and twenty-page letters in those pre-internet days—they were mostly teenage boys like me—found their faith wavering. Would the same happen to me?
Then I read the book, and my fears were assuaged.
This was the same-old, same-old, I decided: a stuck-up, closed-minded scientific debunker parroting the line fed him by the Air Force debunkers. The UFOs were still flying as far as I was concerned, whether Professor Menzel liked it or not.
There’s something wrong with this picture. My belief at the time, which I held with complete sincerity—I can’t say this emphatically enough—was that UFOs were hostile. They’d come not as benevolent “space brothers” but as attackers, very likely as invaders. The newly discovered laser beams might be Earth’s best hope for self-defense. So shouldn’t I have been relieved to be convinced UFOs didn’t exist, and not the reverse?
I’d read H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. I had a pretty good idea, or at least a scary fantasy, of what an invasion from space would be like. Surely I should have felt some trepidation at the prospect? Yet I know for a fact that I wasn’t one hundredth as afraid of the looming invasion as I was of my father’s rages, or of the possibility that if I were ever to ask a girl for a date, she’d say, “Go out . . . with YOU???!!!” and spread it all over the school.
An “as-if” belief: Something that’s believed but not truly believed—the way I believe, say, that if I step in front of a moving vehicle, I’m apt to land in the hospital. A “let’s-pretend” belief. Yet at the same time absolutely real.
I’m not the only person to have held such a belief. Again and again, invited to bet real money that we’d see mass UFO landings in the near future, prominent UFO advocates have squirmed away from the challenge. Were they insincere? No more than I was; I’d have responded the same way. “I say that such belief has no reality,” George Orwell once wrote in a different but comparable context. “It is a sham currency.” But my belief wasn’t a sham. It did have reality. Just not the reality I thought it had.
My UFO belief was a stand-in for something left unexpressed, a representation of something indeed fearsome, indeed hostile, in my real, everyday life at the time. It needed to be acknowledged; it could not be acknowledged. It was a thing called death—specifically, my mother’s impending death—and like Medusa’s face in the ancient myth, it could be viewed only in a mirror.
Shatter that mirror, as Menzel threatened to do, and I’d have been left to face the unfaceable.
It’s not only UFO belief that demands our scrutiny. UFO disbelief does as well.
At first sight this statement seems odd. Menzel was right: there are no spaceships hurtling around our skies. Isn’t denying them a simple acknowledgment of reality? But it’s not so simple. UFO debunkers sometimes betray an emotional engagement that suggests a motivation beyond the rational.
An example: When the American Association for the Advancement of Science scheduled a symposium on UFOs for December 1969, some in the association went so far as to send letters to members of Congress, even to then-Vice President Spiro Agnew, demanding that they force its cancellation. No wonder that two psychiatrists who spoke at the imperiled conference came away with the impression that believers and disbelievers alike are invested in UFOs, perhaps in parallel ways. At issue, the psychiatrists suggested, was an “unconscious concern with death and immortality.” For believers, the UFO “symbolically represents a denial of the finite nature of life.” On the other hand, “those who have a need to deny that there is any anxiety at all around the issues of death and immortality may be led to attack the hypothesis with considerable passion.”
I won’t insist that the psychiatrists’ interpretation is correct, although for reasons that will soon become clear it resonates strongly for me, and evidence supporting it will accumulate in the course of the book. The essential point is that UFOs are capable of evoking visceral fury (or panic?) among those who don’t believe in them, as well as spacy enthusiasm among those who do. Such is their power to override what we think of as normal rationality. To understand that power, to trace the ways in which it plays itself out in our society and others, at present and in the past, is what this book is about.
The UFO doesn’t happen only, or even primarily, or even authentically in the sky. The witness is as much a part of the sighting as the object witnessed. So are those who hear the story, who believe it, who transmit it in speech or in writing, in the newspapers or on the internet. Those who debunk it, who ridicule it, who make the unfortunate witness’s life a misery for daring to speak of it—they’re part of the sighting too. The UFO mystery is the mystery of them, or more correctly the mystery of us.
Where does one begin to explore so protean an enigma? I begin with me.
I know the hold UFOs once had on me. I know also that they still do. To cite Orwell again, I believe the years have given me the perspective to “feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are.” So in following the trail of what I call the “hidden story of the UFO,” I’ll start with my own story. From there I’ll branch off to the stories of others.
I won’t offer an explanation for each and every UFO sighting. I freely admit that many remain unsolved. These include the Kenneth Arnold sighting with which the UFO era began; they include the 1964 physical-trace episode in Socorro, New Mexico, described in my first chapter. I’ve never seen a satisfying explanation of the latter incident, which has reasonably been called (albeit with a question mark attached) “the best UFO case ever?” A few other cases where UFOs are reported to have left marks of their presence behind them—never, let it be noted, an actual piece of hardware that can be analyzed and shown to be otherworldly1—continue to perplex.
In my UFOlogist days, I would have declared such cases the solid nucleus of the phenomenon, proof that something tangible and alien had penetrated our skies. Grant that 90 percent of the reports, say, could be explained; as long as 10 percent were unsolved, the reality of the UFO was established. I’m now more struck by how unlikely it is that we can have had alien visitors for over seventy years with only a handful of genuinely puzzling incidents to attest to their presence.
No, I can’t explain the photos taken by an Oregon farmer in May 1950, which seem to show a solid disk-shaped object in the sky. (Did the farmer and his wife hoax them? They would have been acting out of character, but people sometimes do that.) But I’m more impressed by the challenge posed by present-day skeptics: Why haven’t the twenty-first century’s incomparably greater opportunities for on-the-spot photography produced a harvest of equally persuasive pictures? And the mysterious light that triggered the first of the UFO abduction reports (as described in chapter 3), identified more than forty years afterward thanks to a clue that’s since disappeared, should be a caution to anyone who thinks that unidentified readily translates into extraterrestrial.
The case for the UFOs’ physical reality is neither frivolous nor negligible. It’s problematic enough, though, to encourage us to seek out an alternative. That’s what I try to do in this book. My aim is to provide a different framework for understanding the UFO and to argue that this approach explains better than anything else why people see UFOs and believe—and disbelieve—in them, as well as what gives this despised phenomenon its enduring power of enchantment.
This trail of ours will be wandering and idiosyncratic. It will lead us on detours from the post–World War II UFO phenomenon to remote times, places, and events. The ships of the Atlantic slave trade . . . the moon over the Dardanelles one July evening in 1683 . . . back to Ezekiel in the Old Testament and Paul in the New . . . and far, far back to the prehistoric Balkans. It will take us all the way to 1947 in Roswell, New Mexico, the place where—symbolically speaking—UFOs have their beginning. Perhaps also their end.
1. In December 2017, veteran New York Times correspondent Ralph Blumenthal revealed, on the basis of what seemed good authority, that certain buildings in Las Vegas had been modified to store “metal alloys and other materials . . . recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena.” Interviewed on MSNBC, Blumenthal went yet further: “They have, as we reported in the paper, some material from these objects that is being studied so that scientists can try to figure out what accounts for their amazing properties . . . some kind of compound that they don’t recognize.” If this turns out to be true, it wouldn’t be just “news that’s fit to print” as the Times slogan has it. It would be just about the biggest news in human history. Nearly a year and a half has passed since Blumenthal’s revelations; we’ve heard nothing more about these “alloys” and their “amazing properties.” My inference: they don’t exist. I’m similarly skeptical of the report in religion scholar D. W. Pasulka’s intriguing and often insightful new book American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology of a metallic stuff found somewhere in the New Mexico desert, bearing no obvious signs of having been part of a UFO but which, analyzed by unnamed “research scientists,” proved “so anomalous as to be incomprehensible.” Of course, events could prove me wrong any day now. But I don’t think they will.