Thursday, June 17, 2010

Men in Black and Shades of Gray

I've been reading up on 1950s UFO writers lately, and honestly, I'm beginning to think that these guys in the 50s who first started writing about aliens and UFOs were even more colorful and slippery than their mercurial subject matter.

There's a hell of a book in THAT for anybody with the time and means to write it--Hey maybe it will be me. (Weird things have happened.)

Yesterday I watched an excellent documentary about Gray Barker, the one time editor of the 1950s rag The Saucerian Review, and author of such classics as They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, The Silver Bridge (Barker's book about the sightings of the Mothman creature that preceded the collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, WV in 1967), and MIB: The Secret Terror Among Us. 

The documentary film, entitled Shades of Gray, is focused more on Barker than it is on flying saucers, but it's well worth watching, and it opens up quite a few compelling questions about the nature of paranormal research and the motivations of the people who do it.

Gray Barker and John A. Keel both wrote books about Mothman and the collapse of the Point Pleasant Silver Bridge, and both tied the events to UFOs to a greater or lesser degree. Barker's book preceded Keel's by five years, and took a more methodical, detached approach to the topic that didn't stress the UFO connection as strongly as Keel's more popular Mothman Prophecies.

Some years after Keel's book came out, Barker complained to the skeptical press about Keel's tendency to whip up witnesses by inserting his own paranoia and is own theories into his interviews, and he also accused Keel of changing some of the 'facts' presented in his version of the events.

While it appears to be true that Keel's personality was impossible to extricate from his investigations and his theories (some of Keel's witnesses said many years later that Keel terrified them, and that for weeks after he left they were unable to sleep or relax), it's also true that Barker himself was quite the hoaxer and that he loved playing mean-spirited jokes on fellow authors and subjects. Keel's counterfeit letter from the State Department to contactee George Adamski is now famous--a staple of ufological history and myth--so the very idea of Barker criticizing Keel's integrity is pretty funny.

Barker was a complex man by any standard. The Saucerian Review was the first publication of its kind to present contactee information as plain fact. The more outrageous the content, the better Barker liked it.

At the same time, Barker clearly believed that something genuine was going on with some UFO phenomena, and that paranormal phenomena were sometimes more than simple delusion.

He was fascinated by his subject matter, yet he wasn't above exploiting its weirder aspects in order to make a buck. He also had no problem with pranking others in the field or with mocking his own contributors, a quality that on the only hand is less than admirable, but on the other makes him all the more interesting a character in his own right.

I thought that one of the strangest and more poignant aspects of Barker's career was his attempt late in life to market the true story of his daily life as a fictional novel. This came after years of marketing patently ridiculous stories as plain truth and having all kinds of fun doing so. In some sense, Barker could only write his true story as fiction. This irony could not have been lost on a man of his unique genius and bizarre humor.

Barker was a homosexual in the South at a time when it was a lot safer and less awkward to be from outer space. The kind of duplicity and secretiveness required of a writer in such a position had to be toxic beyond imagination.

I hate armchair psychoanalysis, especially when it comes to writers and historical figures, (so here I go, diving in anyway), but it really is hard not to see relevance in this case. Barker's work revealed an obsession with dangerous secrets, duplicity, and illusion. It put me in mind of Charles Fort's procession of the Damned, the march of the excluded--or even, one might say, the alienated?

I also find no small measure of romance in the gritty, drinking, smoking, 50s sleaziness of these guys--Keel and Barker both seem larger than life, the kind of writers who pound out the latest bit of pulp insanity on a manual Royal typewriter with a scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other. There are photos of a young John Keel floating around the internet that make Brando and James Dean look like pussy poseurs.

They were bad, bad boys. That much is undisputed. 

I've lately been playing with the idea that UFOs can't really be studied in a detached way, that it isn't even possible--that at least when it comes to this specific topic, the observer needs to be embedded in the observation in a way that science does not allow. Gray Barker gave me much to think about in this regard, and now I want to know more.

You can watch Shades of Gray yourself on your desktop at Netflix, or order it from the filmmaker's website.

BTW, if you find a copy of The Saucerian Review at a yard sale this summer, jump on it.

Those little rags are worth hundreds of dollars now.

And anyway, how cool is this stuff? I'm on the hunt from here onward, rest assured.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

UFOs and Marian Apparitions

DIMENSIONS: A Casebook of Alien ContactREVELATIONS: Alien Contact and Human DeceptionMessengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults

When I was small child, I had a recurring nightmare that should not have been a nightmare at all:

In my dream, I'm standing on our neighbor's front porch. (I used to walk to grade school every day with two kids who lived in that house--a boy my age and his younger sister. I also spent a lot of time on that porch playing with those kids and with other kids on our block.)

So in the dream I'm standing on this large porch which spans the whole front of the house. The front door is positioned in the center with two knee-to-ceiling windows on either side. One pair of windows looks into the living/dining area of the home, and the other pair looks into a small bedroom. 

As I look through these windows (it's hard not to peek into them, because of the way the porch is set up) I see, standing there, either in the bedroom or the living room--it doesn't matter, it's the same no matter which set of windows I look through--the Blessed Virgin Mary, just kind of looking back at me. 

Immediately I am struck through and through with a paralyzing, overwhelming terror. It is as if something wholly and completely 'other' is wearing a full-body Virgin Mary mask, and a lame one at that--kind of like one of those Richard Nixon masks, only the BVM. This 'other' thing is looking right at me, and I cannot move.

The reason this should not have been a nightmare is that the BVM is supposedly a beloved, merciful figure and a special favorite of Catholic children, especially Catholic girls--kind of like the best Mom a kid could ever want.

This characterization (which is still very much a part of being a Catholic kid) is in itself kind of weird. Whenever the BVM puts in an appearance anywhere around the world (as she did at Lourdes, Fatima, and Medjugorje, to name a few of her most recent visits) she almost always appears to children, tells them God loves them and blah blah blah, but too bad, humankind is about to die, fry, starve, kill each other, wreck the planet [fill in your own catastrophic future event about to occur as a consequence of our innate sinfulness].

She usually brings scary, scary news. To little kids. So why do they adore her? I can't answer that. 

It always goes down like this:

"You kids are great. Too bad my Son has to fry your little carcasses on account of the horrible things the grown ups are doing. Don't take it personally. Oh yeah, and tell your folks and the rest of the village about the warning. Gotta run, but I'll back so keep your eyes peeled."

The BVM always comes armed with prophecy, usually dire prophecy. This is interpreted as merciful by the Catholic Church. Presumably the BVM could just not tell us at all and leave us to the natural consequences of our sins, but because she's the BVM and she cares, she intercedes for us on her Son's behalf and advises, "Clean up your act. Do it now."

Marian apparitions have much in common with UFO sightings and close encounters, so much so that some of the most prominent and credible UFO researchers have written about the connection extensively.

The Marian Apparition

The typical Marian apparition begins when a group of small children unexpectedly encounters a very bright light. As their eyes adjust, 'a beautiful lady' emerges from this light. Interestingly, the beautiful lady never claims to be the Virgin Mary--this is assumed by the witnesses.

(The Catholic Church does not approve all BVM apparitions as official miracles and has its own concerns about them.)

If the religious interpretation is dropped out of the eyewitness and percipient descriptions of Marian apparitions, what is left strongly resembles a standard UFO encounter.

Here is Jacques Vallee talking about Fatima:

"The crowd that stood in a field
in Fatima, a small village in the district of Leiria, some sixty-two
miles north of Lisbon, on October 13, 1917, was waiting there for a
miracle, because three children had been assured such an event would
take place after a number of meetings with an 'entity' that came from
the sky in a globe of light. The witnesses were three shepherds:
Lucia, aged ten, and her cousins Francisco Mario and Jacinto Marto,
aged nine and seven. Today, Fatima is one of the most celebrated
places of pilgrimage in the entire world. 

"...According to the very words of the Reverend General Vicar of
Leiria, who was one of the witnesses, the lady came in an 'aeroplane
of light,' an 'immense globe, flying westwards, at moderate speed. It
irradiated a very bright light.' Some other witnesses saw a white
being coming out of the globe, which several minutes later took off,
disappearing in the direction of the sun. 

"The last episode was the miracle itself. It was seen by seventy
thousand persons, among whom were pious individuals and atheists,
clergymen and reporters from a socialist newspaper. As promised, it
happened on October 13 at noon. Among the crowd was Professor Almeida
Garrett, of Coimbra University, a scientist, who described the
phenomena in the following terms: 'It was raining hard, and the rain
trickled down everyone's clothes. Suddenly, the sun shone through the
dense cloud which covered it: everybody looked in its direction. IT
I don't think that it could be compared to a dull silver disk, as
someone said later in Fatima. No. It rather possessed a clear,
changing brightness, which one could compare to a pearl. It looked
like a polished wheel. This is not poetry. My eyes have seen it. This
clear-shaped disk suddenly began turning. It rotated with increasing
speed. Suddenly, the crowd began crying with anguish. The sun
(disk?), revolving all the time, began falling toward the earth,
reddish and bloody, threatening to crush everyone under its fiery
Ultraterrestrial Messengers of Deception
Jacques Vallee, John A. Keel, J. Allen Hynek, and many others abandoned the ET hypothesis fairly early on in their UFO investigations, noting that encounters with UFOs and the beings associated with them resemble encounters with angels, fairies, ghosts, demons, and other paranormal phenomena, and that significant psychological elements also appear to be at play--not psychopathology necessarily, but elements of mind control and deliberate manipulation of human consciousness.

John A. Keel, an amateur hypnotist and professional magician, believed that the bright lights at the beginning of a UFO/alien encounter represented the material aspect of the experience, but that once attention was captured with the bright light, a hypnotic state was induced such that much of the rest of the experience was hallucinatory or psychic. This psychic dream-like experience or vision was then interpreted according to the belief system of the percipient. This analysis fits Marian apparitions very well.

What is actually seen by the  children initially is a very bright, often pulsating light that descends from the sky. The lady is seen after that, emerging from the light itself, and she is seen only by thc children.

Keel used to use the word 'demonic' when talking about UFO phenomena, but he did not mean the word in the way Christians would use it. Though he did see a dark side to UFO phenomena, when he called himself 'a demonologist',  he was referring in a value-neutral way to the duplicitous nature of the supposed aliens--they were like the 'daimons' of ancient Greece and earlier, like 'spirits of place' or nature spirits.

Keel, a Fortean with a unique background and perspective, observed that absurd elements were often a part of these alien encounters and that the absurdist element was edited out by ufologists as often as skeptics. He noted that although genuine and correct prophecies were made with unsettling frequency, once belief was established in a human subject these accurate prophecies were often followed by catastrophic false prophecies. Aliens (and Mary) are especially fond of gathering believers in fields and on hillsides to await the end of the world, which then does not come.

The spiritual content of Marian apparitions is also very similar in tone to the generic, bland, New Age-y sort of content channeled by UFO contactees. Vallee also noted this similarity as well. These prophetic apparitions/aliens don't tell us much spiritually that we don't already know, and they tend to prey on the fear of the day. At the time of Fatima, the Soviet Union and nuclear build up was a hot topic so they talked about that. Today, the aliens are worried about the environment.

Vallee and Keel both suspected that a genuine 'other' intelligence was at work in Marian apparitions and UFO contact/abduction experiences, they just didn't believe it was extraterrestrial. They both felt that the materialistic emphasis was wrongheaded and that more could be learned by taking detailed accurate accounts and doing information science on the results--analyzing patterns and taking everything into account, not just the bits that fit preconceived pet theories or beliefs.

Vallee, an esteemed information scientist who currently runs a venture capital firm in France, eventually got very disgusted with the circus that surrounds ufology and backed away from the subject almost entirely.

Vallee still thinks the phenomena are real and deserve serious attention, but he became sick of all the drama and duplicity surrounding both the topic and the community pretending to 'study' the topic. Vallee feels that ufology has devolved into cultish religion at this point and is part of the problem, actively making things worse rather than shedding much light on anything.

Keel believed that the aliens (disguised sometimes as the Blessed Virgin) are actually from earth, that they have always been here, and that they inhabit a dimension of time and space we do not fully understand. He often called them 'Ultraterrestrials'. Keel saw the aliens as another race of beings that share this planet with humans and for their own reasons enjoy messing with us sometimes.

Both men (and many others) see mechanisms of social and psychic control in the human interventions initiated by these ancient Ultraterrestrials. In other words, these beings, whatever they are--angels, demons, ultraterrestrials, aliens, fairies--intervene in human affairs by choosing susceptible people, changing their consciousness in very specific ways, and messing with the culture of the day through magic and hypnotic mind control tricks.

The alien agenda is opaque. Their intentions may be positive, negative, both, neither, or they may have reasons for messing with us that we can't begin to understand.

One thing is certain:

Just like the Catholic Church, they know how to put on a hell of a show.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Shiny Scary People: UFO Cults

The clip above is from a longer program about UFO cults that can be found in its entirety at the History Channel or You Tube. It gives just a flavor of what these cults are all about.

Recently I was sent a little video I won't be posting because it is a fine example of this sort of cult propaganda, and the clip is also a bit sickening and unsettling to watch. The person passing this around was very impressed. I was definitely not.

Over the years, I have noticed a few things about UFO cults myself, even before receiving that clip:
  • A focus on transcending the body and getting beyond the earthly problems that come with embodiment. This may be done through energy work, 'ascension' teachings, bogus and incredibly confusing pseudoscience, psychic messages, 'higher' states of consciousness, other dimensions, other worlds, or whatever. The goal is always "get higher."
  • An emphasis on fake nonstop happiness and bliss, the like of which you might also get from really good heroin, except in the latter case you'd be nodding off and drooling on yourself and people would be less likely to follow you around, except maybe to steal your stuff.
  • A charismatic leader or two or three. Often this person emits a quality of light around the face that is mesmerizing and yet is more disturbing than comforting. Charles Mansion has this quality about his face and eyes, which I find both creepy and instructive. All that glisters is not gold. 
  • The idea that the universe is arranged hierarchically and that matter is the crudest, most 'corrupt' form of energy. 'Energy' is presented as better than matter. It's superior. More evolved.
  • A conviction that the leaders have been chosen for a VERY SPECIAL MISSION AND TIME IS RUNNING OUT! This same pitch is often made on ordinary TV infomercials for vegetable choppers and hair removers and such, except that with the vegetable choppers you don't have to wear weird clothes and then kill yourself at some point to prove your absolute faith and devotion. You just have to agree to pay four installments of $29.95.
  • A tendency to run down people who see things differently, even a little differently. 
Let me be clear here: I think that many UFO and alien contact experiences are real and meaningful and deserving of deeper and more thoughtful consideration than they usually get. That's why I put up this blog, and that's why I write about the paranormal in general and aliens and UFOs in particular.

But I also think that ufology makes really bad religion.

You know, there's bad religion, and then there's really bad religion. 

 Ufology would be that second kind.

In general, I have long noticed two common extremes in response to experiences of aliens or UFOs, and I believe both of them are wrongheaded and disturbing.

At one extreme are debunkers who mock, ridicule, and harass experiencers into seeking out small groups or keeping quiet altogether. These people are just bullies, half of them aren't even scientists, and I honestly don't see the point in acting like a dick just because you personally think something seems weird or funny. What is up with that? Ugh. It's very self-involved and hostile.

At the other extreme are people who take their experiences SOOOOOO deadly seriously they fall off the edge of the earth and start founding their own wrongheaded religions based on the space Masters or whatever--I mean, make up anything here and insert your own dogma, and make sure you have lots of good graphics and lots of cool New Age clothing to wear while you expound upon your crackpot convictions in workshops.

Somewhere in the middle of these extremes is something really fascinating and worth contemplating that I spend enormous amounts of time researching, reading, writing, and thinking about.

That's the part I'm personally interested in--that middle area, that creative tension betwixt and between extremes.

Weirdly, that perspective puts me on the 'fringe' of ufology,  puts me 'out there' with respect to others who consider these strange things, alienates me from self-proclaimed experts in both extreme camps.

Doesn't make me wrong though.

The life we have here is the only life we have. I have no desire whatsoever to transcend it. Nature is good. Bodies are good. Matter is great, especially when it involves chocolate or aparagus. (I love asparagus.)

Nobody feels good all the time. Life can be confusing, unpleasant, and unfair. Spiritual work can be painful and always requires great courage and honesty, and an ability to face pain and loss.

The spiritual life is not a fast path to happy land and never has been. It's a difficult, twisty path, and lots of people who embark upon it--Jesus being one notable example--suffer much and come to a difficult end.

These are my beliefs, such as they are. Tomorrow, they may well change.