Like many people, I grew up immersed in the so-called “extra-terrestrial hypothesis” popularized during the 1990s by shows like “Sightings”, “Unsolved Mysteries”, and the – horrifying at the time – adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s Communion. I huddled under the sheets in my bedroom, scared out of my wits every single night that I would abducted by the Greys, spirited away to a UFO where I would be cut, probed, prodded, and experimented upon. I had nightmares about their scowling, almond-eyed faces. I had triumphant dreams where I fought back, tore them limb from limb with my nine year old hands, rejoiced in their fear and inhuman screams. The idea that Earth was under constant assault from alien forces, perhaps even guided and supported by our very government, was a given to me. I would lie on my back in my driveway every night, looking for strange lights in the sky, and would tell my teachers at school about the grand conspiracy being perpetrated against the human race.
And then, tired of my constant nightmares and inability to get a good night’s sleep, my parents wisely banned me from watching anything UFO or alien related. No more “Sightings”, no more “Unsolved Mysteries”. For a while, I forgot about those huge black eyes and strange lights zooming around in the night sky. However, this changed in the sixth grade, when I made friends with a new girl at school who told me that, without a doubt, she had been abducted by aliens and gave me a detailed account of her experiences. Suddenly, the whole top blew off again. The seminal conspiracy television show “The X-Files” debuted, and my friend and I watched it every single week. I began thinking about aliens again. Remembering the film adaptation of Communion, I went to the local library the summer before 7th grade and found they had a copy. I devoured it, always making sure to turn the book over every night so I wouldn’t wake up and see that face staring at me in the middle of the night.
Communion was an important book for me in a lot of ways. First and foremost, it planted the idea that perhaps the strange kidnapping creatures that Whitley and others were encountering were not from another planet at all. Strieber never refers to them as such, in fact going to great lengths to avoid making that statement. Secondly, I read Communion at around the same time I had my occult awakening, when I came into contact with both Wiccan and Kabbalistic ritual materials. Several of my close friends were dabbling in the occult, and I saw a heavy occult symbolism in the experiences that Whitley went through, and in the phenomena at large. I started to see cracks in the extra-terrestrial hypothesis.
What tore those cracks wide open, and shattered the ETH forever, however, was John Keel’s unparalleled work The Mothman Prophecies. My dad had an old, ragged copy of The Mothman Prophecies that I stole from him and had been reading, off and on, since I was in the third grade. Having little context for the book when I was that young, I simply enjoyed reading stories about monsters and UFOs. But, when I combined Keel’s thoughts on the phenomena found in Mothman with the skepticism introduced by Communion, I finally realized that the extra-terrestrial hypothesis, at least in the sense that aliens were travelling to this world in nuts-and-bolts spacecraft and doing experiments on human beings, was bogus.
In particular, Keel makes the following statement about the messages of UFO occupants in Chapter 12 of The Mothman Prophecies:
Even more interesting is the fact that the messages received by psychics everywhere bear remarkable similarities in content, even in phrasing. I have researched obscure contactee type books written two and three hundred years ago and have found the same identical messages and phraseology were prevalent then. Since much of this literature is very obscure and hard to find, and since many of our psychics and contactees are poorly read, it is doubtful if this is a question of fakers repeating the earlier material. Rather, it seems as if there is a phonograph in the sky endlessly repeating the same material generation after generation as if there were a crack in the record.
I started to see the similarities in messages presented to contactees such as Woodrow Derenberger and others was simply a repackaging of the ideas and messages presented to the prophets and shamans since the beginning of human history.
Jacques Vallée’s groundbreaking 1979 book Messengers of Deception proposes the idea that the UFO contact phenomena is, in a large part, a method of control exerted by some other intelligence in an attempt to manipulate human activity and culture through deception and myth creation.
Two passages from William Burroughs’ 1975 essay “The Limits of Control” stand out in particular when applied to the UFO contact phenomena. Consider the following:
But words are still the principal instruments of control. Suggestions are words. Persuasions are words. Orders are words. No control machine so far devised can operate without words, and any control machine which attempts to do so relying entirely on external force or entirely on physical control of the mind will soon encounter the limits of control.
A basic impasse of all control machines is this: Control needs time in which to exercise control. Because control also needs opposition or acquiescence; otherwise, it ceases to be control. I control a hypnotized subject (at least partially); I control a slave, a dog, a worker; but if I establish complete control somehow, as by implanting electrodes in the brain, then my subject is little more than a tape recorder, a camera, a robot. You don’t control a tape recorder – you use it. Consider the distinction, and the impasse implicit here. All control systems try to make control as tight as possible, but at the same time, if they succeeded completely there would be nothing left to control.
So much of the UFO contact phenomena seems to revolve around these attempts by some unknown force to guide humanity through some grandiose message. Much of the time this message seems to fall into two categories – that mankind must treat others with kindness and respect, or that mankind must prevent the planet from being destroyed by some force. In the case of the latter, this force seems to change depending on the anxieties (or perhaps the honest threats) of the era. In the atomic nightmare of the 40s and 50s, the message warned of imminent nuclear destruction should mankind continue to proliferate atomic weapons. Later, in the 80s and 90s, contactees were warned of environmental dangers, being told that mankind was on the path to destroy this planet through climate change. Whatever this intelligence is, at least on a surface level, it would appear to have our best interests in mind. But why?
One of the aspects of the contact phenomena is how it breeds hierarchy and creates prophets – or cult leaders – that bring humans together and create structure through which civilization and culture can develop. Terrence McKenna postulated that religion as a whole was inspired by the effects of entheogens such as psilocybin. It’s to be noted that many of the UFO contact experiences are similar to the visions experienced by users of enthogenic substances. While early homo sapiens likely had hierarchical structure similar to the structures existing in other primates, it appears that these contacts with – for lack of a better term – a Spirit World through either the use of entheogenic drugs or UFO contact style encounters created a new hierarchy: the shaman. Through the use of religion, these shamans – liaisons between common man and the spirits – were able to exercise control not strictly based on pure materialistic qualities. And through the revelation of magical techniques, these shamans were able to perform miracles and effect change in the environment in accordance with will, further cementing their structure, a structure revealed to them and guided by the hand of these extra-human intelligences.
While it doesn’t really touch on the more esoteric ideas I’ve presented here, you’d be well-served by checking out the excellent BBC World Service series “The Forum” and their four part series on hierarchy in humans. I’m placing the link in the sources at the end of the article.
So it appears that some external (alien, if you will) intelligence that may or may not be extra-terrestrial in origin has been subtly manipulating mankind’s social strucutres for the majority of human history through hallucinatory encounters with otherworldly beings and strange lights in the sky. These encounters are perhaps the only way this intelligence can communicate with humanity. Perhaps it has as much trouble trying to talk to us as we would have attempting to communicate with a hive of ants.
This co-creation aspect to the phenomena is vastly interesting to me. Vallée’s other groundbreaking work, Passport to Magonia, exposed thoroughly that UFO contact phenomena had been going on as long as there had been recorded history. He showed that the phenomena melded itself and manifested using the imagery relevant to the era. It’s not just that people in the 1400s could only describe a UFO as a flying ship, they literally saw a flying ship – anchor, sails, and sailors included. It’s not that they misinterpreted a space alien for a winged angel, they actually saw a winged angel. Just as people saw mysterious flying airships in the 1800s, so did observers in the 1950s see the flying saucers popularized by their movies and television shows. The vast array of monsters and weirdos present in the UFO contacts of the 1950s, 60s and 70s is because there was no central meme that pervaded popular culture. It wasn’t until the ubiquitous image of the Grey was thrust into the forefront of the experience by the Betty and Barney Hill case, the works of Bud Hopkins and Strieber’s cover for Communion did the meme of the Grey solidify and dominate the narrative. I don’t believe that the phenomena manifests itself using these memes intentionally, but rather these are the building material it has to pull from human consciousness in order to manifest. Again the analogy of the human trying to communicate with the ant. Our only way to get the ant to move in the way we want it to move is to gently nudge it, scare it perhaps, or shine a magnifying glass that’s amplifying the rays of the sun.
But again, why? Why do these intelligences have this invested interest in humanity in particular?
Many ufologists and researches endlessly concern themselves with the “how” of the phenomena. While I also find the “how” extremely compelling and have plenty of my own theories about it, ultimately I don’t believe that’s the important question to ask. It’s quite possible that this question is fundamentally unanswerable. Maybe trying to determine how the phenomena manifests or affects human consciousness in the way it does is akin to attempting to explain to a two-dimensional being what a sphere is. We utterly lack a context for the information.
A better question, I think, is “why”. Why would a supernatural, possibly external intelligence be attempting to communicate with us? Is it perhaps out of pure curiosity? We keep pets such as dogs and cats and speak to them, but they are fundamentally incapable of understanding our intentions or language, except on some empathic level. Although, given the high strangeness of the phenomena at large, perhaps it’s fallacy to believe there is any logic to it that a human being can understand. Even further along that path, there’s no reason the intelligence behind it has to have a motive at all – to think otherwise is to anthropomorphize a phenomena that is likely anything but human. I’ll leave you with a quote by Damon Knight – famously misattributed to Charles Fort by Keel in his closing line to The Mothman Prophecies – that still resonates with me, and that I try to remember whenever I explore this world:
If there is a universal mind, must it be sane?
- Keel, J. 1975. The Mothman Prophecies. New York: Saturday Review Press and E. P. Dutton. ISBN 0-8415-0355-9.
- Messengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults (paperback ed.). Ronin Publ. June 1979. ISBN 0-915904-38-1
- BBC World Service – The Forum: Hierarchy – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02dsb4q