Last year, I began reacquainting myself with interests which once had intensely excited my imagination and had afterwards been pushed so far aside that it was as if they’d never been. Two of these were cryptids and UFOs. When I last visited Michigan and went through several boxes of belongings I left behind before moving out of state, I found and brought back a book entitled Bigfoot and Other Legendary Creatures. It’s a short book, less than sixty pages. Each chapter is a fictitious account of a cryptid followed by some italicized paragraphs that give a brief historical context for the creature and sightings. I never owned more than several of these sorts of books, but I can remember indulging my curiosity by going straight for the paranormal sections in school and public libraries, much like how I now tend to go straight for the architectural sections. If I were to use childhood drawings (including two detailing the physical attributes of a green, plesiosaur-like animal) as a measuring tool, my interest in cryptids and UFOs might have begun around fourth grade and fifth grade, respectively. It’s harder to determine when that interest went into a decades-long state of hibernation. My guess is that it happened near the end of middle school.
If you were to see drawings from when I was even younger, it would be fairly easy to deduce why cryptids fascinated me. These drawings are full of “monstrous” sealife: hammerhead sharks, giant squid, placodermi, sperm whales, jellyfish, and so on. Just as plentiful were drawings of insects and arachnids: critters which, despite (and sometimes because of) their minor size, terrify many people because they appear so distant from ideas of biological normalcy and animality. I had an abridged version of Moby Dick, and Disney’s adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was for a while a favorite film. Both feature an encounter with an aquatic monstrosity. When I had a Godzilla obsession for a couple of years, Godzilla versus Biollante was the one I watched over and over again most of all for Biollante’s appearances. Sure, the mysteriousness of cryptids was a significant appeal — their elusiveness spoke of an untameable quality within nature — , but the visual, anatomical aspect was just as exciting. Cryptids like Bigfoot never grabbed my attention like Ogopogo because a larger, hairier humanoid simply didn’t register as interestingly, as strangely, as a marine creature.
When I reflect on these fascinations, I realize too how potently one story or another could instill fearfulness. Maybe, given my lack of exposure to horror novels or movies proper (some of this had to do with limits set by my parents, mostly my mom, on what media was acceptable; in retrospect, these limitations seem healthy), cryptids and UFOs filled an absence of horrific thrill. I can remember being kept up late into the night one time after reading a story of children coming close to the edge of a forest at dusk, out of which floated a large, glowing being. Another story at a different time disturbed me by telling of some men who, in pursuing a cryptid called the skunk ape, were deep within a densely wooded area when they found themselves subjected to a revolting, overpowering odor. It may be a meaningful coincidence that both recollections involve stories set in rural areas. It’s categorically less frightening to think of seeing a monster, supernatural being, or flying object in the midst of a city. In fact, statistically, it would seem that such sightings are much rarer. Technology has given us a false sense of security, for the world’s wildernesses are still places charged with old powers, capable as ever of drawing out our superstitions, survival instincts, and religious impulses. Who wants to stay the night, by theirself, in a forest they have no familiarity with? Not many of us.
My historical interest with UFOs and “aliens” is, given my current preoccupations, more relevant to this essay than our modern canon of evasive monsters. Here, I would rather speak of the beings associated with flying saucers and such in terms outside of the category of cryptids or extraterrestrials. They seem to belong rather to the realm of the fae folk (goblins, peri, sylphs, etc.), or angels and demons. For legibility’s sake, though, I’ll continue to refer to them as aliens. Four pieces of media from my adolescence stick out, three being feature-length films: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Independence Day (’96), and Contact (’97). The steady presence of the aliens and their enormous spacecraft in Independence Day probably accounts for how it captivated my mind. Conversely, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact are slow build-ups to a definitive yet unresolved moment. I remember being disappointed by Contact’s representation of an extraterrestrial intelligence; today, however, I might describe the movie as the best of its kind. The fourth piece of media was a VHS video of the controversial so-called alien autopsy footage, purportedly showing the dissection of a body recovered from the 1947 crash near Roswell. In 2006, a public admittance was made: the film was not authentic, “but rather a staged reconstruction of footage […] viewed in 1992, but which had deteriorated and become unusable…” But even at the time when I watched it, when my desire to believe would’ve been at an all-time high, the footage had little effect. It just seemed too good to be true.
Why then did these interests wane, disappear? A partial explanation is that I suffered from an unfamiliarity with the extent of topical literature. There are only so many times you can review the same handful of UFO cases, most being from the 1950s and 1960s, before feeling like it was a phenomenal fad, or a collective hoax — especially when persons step forth years later to announce that whatever they may have said or done decades ago was deceitful. When that’s your situating of the matter, any meager developments since the “fad” carry the lethargy of wishful thinking, fantastical extrapolations of slim or unfalsifiable evidence. Another partial explanation is that the literature I was familiar with, or rather the events’ framing, was the product of credulous minds with no parameters for determining validity outside of a story’s sensational qualities. I believe it is this contingent which is most responsible for the deplorable state ufology is in. It seems a travesty that a subject as fascinating (and surprisingly old!) as UFOs has been degraded to premise-fodder for an explosion-heavy summertime movie or the ostensible preoccupation of the uncritical enthusiast. The scientific community’s arrogance and overcorrected incredulity do not help either; yet one must admit, too, that it is hard to conceive how one would go about studying things which seem to resist concerted scrutiny. What is so interesting to me about the three videos supplementing the New York Times’ 2017 piece on UFOs and the Pentagon is not just the statistical particulars (such as the object in the third video being colder than the surface of the ocean) but that the visuals remain deeply inconclusive.
It was Carl Jung’s book, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1959), which helped to rekindle such interests for me in 2020. This was the first text of Jung’s I read — an odd introduction. It was one of the last books he published while alive, and Jung is not known for ufological studies. Moreover, the symbolic associations are as dense as they likely are bewildering to the unacquainted. Flying Saucers chooses for its specimens mostly the dreams and paintings of patients, and a selection of pre-modern artwork, so its array is fairly limited. But Jung’s commentary and interpretations remain critically important, for the UFO problem is highly subjective. His thesis was that UFOs were, and are, projected psychological phenomena. Anyone familiar with and sympathetic to Jung’s work would know that, were this hypothetical true, it would not diminish the reality of UFOs. As he writes, “Things can be seen by many people independently of one another, or even simultaneously, which are not physically real [emphasis mine]”; or, as he says in a filmed interview, “Everything was fantasy to begin. And fantasy has a proper reality that is not to be forgotten. […] It is a form of energy, despite the fact that we can’t measure it. […] …psychical events are facts, are realities.” Near the book’s end, Jung devotes a small chapter to considering UFOs in a “non-psychological light”, writing, “The only thing we know with tolerable certainty about Ufos is that they possess a surface which can be seen by the eye and at the same time throws back a radar echo.”
The next major text I read was Jacques Vallée’s Passport to Magonia (1969). Despite subsequent findings rendering a few examples irrelevant (such as the 1968 account of a Mr. and Mrs. Vidal being teleported in their car from Argentina to Mexico turning out to have been a hoax propagated to advertise a movie with a similar plot), Vallée’s book is of similar critical importance. Rather than starting from a zealously preconceived conclusion and adapting stories, anecdotes, and reports to fit that conclusion, Vallée explores a history of folklore and religious/spiritual experiences and notes characteristics with similarities to the UFO mystery, while being clear that, as he writes in his 1975 book, The Invisible College, “…I do not mean that some higher order of beings has locked us inside the constraints of a space-bound jail, closely monitored by psychic entities we might call angels or demons. I do not propose to redefine God. What I do mean is that mythology rules at a level of our social reality over which normal political and intellectual action has no power. Myths define the set of things scholars, politicians, and scientists can think about.” One of Passport to Magonia’s primary insights is that UFOs seem to manifest in cultural contexts which make some sort of visualizable sense to the referent(s). Correspondingly, an equally primary ambiguity concerns whether cultural specificity pertains to what the referent can compare the phenomenon to; or if, say, the witnesses of the 1561 celestial phenomenon over Nuremberg literally saw what was written as having been seen; or if it is a mixture of the two; or something else.
What Vallée’s text — and some other material, including a CIA document purporting the remote viewing of facilities beneath Mount Hayes — also did was connect these topics to the subterranean, long a locational preoccupation of mine. Writing on the Good People’s proclivity for abducting or soliciting humans, for example, Vallée recounts, “In another tale, the midwife’s husband accompanies her through the forest. They are guided by the ‘earthman’ — the gnome who has requested their help. They go through a moss door, then a wooden door, and later through a door of shining metal. A stairway leads them inside the earth, to a magnificent chamber where the ‘earthwife’ is resting.” Ever since I first read of it, regardless of the details’ scarcity, the legend of the green children of Woolpit has remained one of my favorite folktales most of all for this: “After learning to speak English, the children […] explained that they came from a land where the sun never shone and the light was like twilight. […] …the children called their home St Martin’s Land; […] …everything there was green.” A variety of interpretations have been made of this. It is my personal inclination to understand this as referring to an underground land which, as in the story Vallée shares, is “filled with light, although [the midwife] could not see any lamp or fire.” I do not write any of this to imply personal belief, nor to suggest that ufological concerns should be unilaterally turned towards what is beneath one’s feet rather than above one’s head, but to acknowledge a line of speculation which plainly excites me more than the dominant extraterrestrial narrative. Lacking personal conviction and hard evidence, one cannot discount the appeal to emotion and its influences on intellectualization. To refer back to that “horrific thrill”, it’s perhaps that the dreadful aspect of the subterranean stirs me in a way that outer space’s — the cold, groundless, unimaginable distance between one point and the next — does not.
Now if the previous three paragraphs seem to be impersonal summaries and at odds with where this essay looked like it was going, I have to clarify that I’ve brought up Jung and Vallée’s work because it has, for me, given the subject a depth and dimension which I feel the usual assessments lack. Jung illustrates how the psyche operates on a shared symbolic level while never reducing any of it to euphemism; and Vallée appreciates that we may find structural similarities between UFO stories and folklore, but that we are also no closer to perceiving a systemic grand meaning . . . if indeed there is a system. To me, these approaches are complementary and respect the matter’s psycho-social complexity. Jung writes in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, of a dream he had involving the sighting of three circular UFOs: “Still half in the dream, the thought passed through my head: ‘We always think that UFOs are projections of ours. Now it turns out that we are their projections. I am projected by the magic lantern as C. G. Jung. But who manipulates the apparatus?’”
If I were to name the commonest foible of “credulous minds,” it is the monomania which presumes that a vast web of mysterious variables (or historical items better interpreted by specialists, such as the lid of the tomb of Kʼinich Janaab Pakal I) are all the result of a single thing’s, often sinister, machinations. Monomania is a building block for conspiracy theories, and it is more prevalent than we may care to believe, for it is the telos of any ideology. Anyway, one can see this thinking process express itself among the comments sections for many videos and articles on UFOs and/or aliens. It is not always clear if what we are witnessing is mental illness or the indulgence of a desire for conclusions. In his essay from 1973, “The Flying Saucer Subculture”, author John Keel writes, “The two types of distinguishable personalities present at UFO conventions and club meetings are the obsessive-compulsive and the paranoid-schizophrenic.” How much this has changed forty-eight years since, I don’t know; nor do I know how much subsequent good-faith exploration has been done regarding the relationship between UFO-/E.T.-centric fanaticism and schizophrenia. Jung therapized and wrote according to a respect for the schizophrenic person’s reality and the interpretability of their visions and statements, yet it unfortunately forms no part of his ufological book.
I want to give attention to the dreadful aspect, though. It has occurred to me that really the only thought that can frighten me very late at night now, depending on what I’ve been reading or looking at, is the intrusion of aliens: that, perhaps after a meditation done in darkness, I will open my eyes, glance over at a corner, and see someone or something there. To another person, this could sound like the early stages of paranoia or madness. To me, however, it is one of those fascinating parallels between UFOs and religious thought; for I think it is possible to say, without implying or claiming phenomenal equivalence, that the beings of close encounter literature exemplify angelic and demonic qualities. In instances of the former, the being(s) may be there to share knowledge, as is related by Gerolamo Cardano in his mid-16th century text, De Subtilitate, who tells a story told to him by his father of a conversational encounter he’d had with “seven men […] clothed in silken garments…” In instances of the latter, as the popular case of Betty and Barney Hill demonstrates, the person is powerless, terrified, and traumatically afflicted (many know that the Hills recalled events through hypnosis; less know of those sessions’ horrific emotional intensity). Especially interesting are the cases which result in physical abnormalities, such as that of Stefan Michalak, whose chest and stomach were burned by a UFO and thereafter marked by a grid-like pattern. As somatic manifestations of inexplicable encounters, the effects are comparable to stigmata — for example, that of Francis of Assisi, who died after receiving his supernaturally inflicted wounds. Again, I’m exploring resemblances here, and not saying that two things are one and the same.
From the perspective of someone who’s had no close encounters and has no stake in a verdict, then, I find claims that UFOs are benevolent to be as naive as claims that they are maleficent. There is no way to say with deserved certainty that one emotional-experiential quality outweighs or negates another. This descriptive range is one of the things which makes coherently describing UFOs as a singular problematic currently impossible. What does appear to be common to this landscape of experiences is the person’s curiosity and then shock when they realize they are in the presence of an object and/or intelligence beyond their ken or control. It’s understandable that these happenings would be life-altering, and yet that they, like the numinous epiphany, cannot be substantiated (or that the substantiation is forever ambiguous; for example, the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or the “pancakes” given to Joe Simonton) — only shared. What I mean to say here by including myself is that UFOs may perform a similar sort of imaginative role as deities or spirits did for centuries when less inhibited forms of faith allowed fear a prominent place in religious feeling. It is a mistake of materialistic atheism and anti-religious progressivism to suppose that fear only ever existed within spirituality as the manipulative tool of an élite. That is, ironically, its own conspiracy theory. It is more realistic to deduce that fear was a varied reverence for what we now call the “natural world” and its autonomous phenomena. One can find in virtually any spiritual tradition, regardless of its level of institutionalization, the recognition of awful places and beings to be avoided or appeased.