Ecology of the Imagination
How UFOs Conquered the World
By David Clarke
Aurum Press, 2015
I wish I could say that I’ve seen an unidentified flying object, be it a strobe hovering in the night sky or a disc zooming by daylight. There’s an excitement and sense of kinship to be shared among those who witness the unexplained, and for the thousands of people worldwide who see UFOs (The Mutual UFO Network currently averages 500 reports a month), their connection to the phenomenon can be spiritually validating. Naturally, I’m less jealous of those who claim to have been kidnapped aboard an extraterrestrial craft, where menacing and bulbous-headed “gray” aliens supposedly conduct mating experiments.
The last time I gave these craft or their pilots much serious thought was during the mid-1990s, as a teenager obsessed with the conspiracy-heavy X-Files. And despite MUFON’s statement that UFO sightings have risen sixty-seven percent over the last three years, seeing or believing in extraterrestrial visitors is really something only my teenage self would have done. Journalist and longtime saucer devotee David Clarke backs me up in his new book How UFOs Conquered the World, which lifts the hood on the subject to reveal a tangled mass of human yearning and pop-culture empowerment.
By the time I was in high school, the terror of aliens who might paralyze you in bed before floating you through the window had been mostly co-opted. Stylized grays adorned my t-shirts, book bag, and even a hacky sack—because they’d become iconic television characters, not because I’d read The Roswell Incident (1980) by Charles Berlitz or Communion (1987) by Whitley Streiber. Nevertheless, a potential glimpse of these eerie travelers–or the hybrid fetuses they created—made watching the X-Files a gripping event.
Author Clarke, however, grew up in northern England during the late 1970s, near the Finningley Royal Air Force base (a strategically valuable Cold War target). The 1977 documentary Out of This World, which interviewed UFO witnesses to explain what they believed and why, fixated Clarke on the notion of extraterrestrial life. He then became a science fiction maven, consuming the works of H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (John Carter of Mars), as well as Star Trek and Doctor Who. As a journalist, he’s investigated the UFO “syndrome” across several technological and cultural zeitgeists, and in his book’s introduction says that the “ultimate source of the mystery lay not inside the UFOs but with the people who saw and believed in them.”
How UFOs Conquered the World is a science book. If you truly enjoyed Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods (1968), a non-fiction argument that aliens built Egypt’s pyramids, left a spaceport in the Andes, and guided human evolution, then Clarke’s reliance on logic will infuriate you. The author begins by splicing interviews conducted with people like Denis Plunkett (Chairman of the British Flying Saucer Bureau) and Alan Biggs (a freelance sports journalist) with pop culture reminiscences and snippets from ufology’s history.
Clarke presents the details of famous UFO incidents (repeat regional instances are called “flaps”) with a simmering pleasure, never sounding dismissive or cranky. Take the nine shiny objects seen by private pilot Kenneth Arnold in June of 1947, over Washington state’s Cascade Mountains. They flew in a diagonal line relative to his plane, and Arnold initially thought they were geese. He quickly discounted this idea because they reflected the sun so brightly and could be clocked—according to his calculations—at a minimum of 1,200 miles per hour. Clarke further says that
Arnold had all the makings of a credible witness. Both a businessman and a respected pilot, he gave journalists the impression that he was not prone to exaggeration. When he sat down to write a description of the objects for the military a few weeks later, Arnold said he ‘felt certain they belonged to our government’. One of the agents who subsequently quizzed him wrote ‘that if Mr Arnold could write a report of such character and did not see the objects, he was in the wrong business and should be engaged in writing Buck Rogers fiction’. Were they guided missiles or some type of new jet-propelled ‘flying wing’ like the Flying Flapjack that had recently been tested by the US navy? Arnold was puzzled by two things, in particular: the lack of tails and their incredible speed.
Within days of the sighting, “flying saucer” appeared on newspapers everywhere, despite the fact that Arnold only told reporters that the objects’ motion resembled that of a saucer skipping across water. This phrase, however, describing a range of unexplained objects in the sky, captured the public’s imagination the way “phantom airship” and “foo fighter” in previous decades did not. Ufology’s crowning event—the Roswell incident—occurred a month after Arnold’s sighting, in early July, 1947. With the crashing of a top secret “weather balloon” in the New Mexican desert (from which metallic debris and alien bodies were supposedly recovered), the U.S. government’s role in ufology as sinister manipulator was cemented.
This is where Agent Fox Mulder’s catchphrase “I want to believe” must begin drawing blood against Occam’s razor, the scientific principle that recommends operating under whichever hypothesis “makes the fewest uncorroborated assumptions.” Clarke speaks with a man named David Simpson about England’s Wiltshire countryside, a tantalizing UFO hotspot steeped in the magic of Stonehenge and other ancient monuments. David, accused of being a Man in Black by staunch believers, was a researcher for the U.K.’s National Physical Laboratory, which created computers, radar, and other cutting edge technology. In 1965, David and some colleagues founded the Society for the Investigation of UFO Phenomena, and spent the rest of the 60s and early 70s skywatching in places like Sussex Downs and Warminster.
Now, consider that ninety-five percent of all UFOs end up explained. In the English countryside at night, decades before widespread light pollution, what is the simplest explanation for distant bright spots on the move? I won’t spoil the thought-experiment, but most will agree that technologically advanced beings, traveling barely fathomable distances just to tease us, is one of the most complex answers. And yet Clarke learns that certain people, once they start believing in aliens (or Bigfoot or fairies), want nothing to do with Occam’s razor:
David encountered a lot of anti-scientific feeling on Cradle Hill, where many ufologists gathered to watch the sky. ‘For example when discussing UFO sightings with them we might say, “this one looks like a satellite”, or “surely that one could have been an army flare”, he said. ‘They would then challenge us to explain ever more bizarre reports until we couldn’t think of a plausible explanation and then delight in exclaiming “ah, you haven’t explained that one”, or “science can’t explain everything”, as if our on-the-spot failure to provide a convincing explanation for a sighting we knew nothing about somehow proved a normal analytical approach was wrong.’ They also distrusted scientists, whom they blamed for all manner of ills, including the invention of the atomic bomb, which they believed the space people had come to warn against. David and his colleagues eventually started perpetrating hoaxes on the UFO hunters, using balloons and lanterns. Photographs of these fakes were submitted to the British UFO Research Association and Flying Saucer Review magazine—some even developed with intentional inconsistencies (contortions of distance, light, and shape), to nudge the ufologists toward more rigorous skepticism. Astonishingly, the believers contoured their expectations around the poor evidence, lining up with writer John Keel (The Mothman Prophecies, 1975), who theorized that saucers, rather than being physical, were “soft bodies” breaching from a parallel universe.
“You have not proved tonight that UFOs do not exist,” said Warminster regular Rex Dutta to David, upon revelation of the fakes. “All you have proved is that hoaxes do exist.” When scientists tilt evidence toward the conclusion they’re looking for, it’s called confirmation bias. When individuals are emotionally invested in something to the point where they can ignore evidence to the contrary, it’s cognitive dissonance.
Such is the case for the conspiracy theorists insisting that the U.S. and British governments withhold irrefutable proof of alien visitors. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act—which makes government documents public after thirty years—Clark is able to examine the British “X-Files” curated by the Ministry of Defense during the 60s. The files record thousands of thorough investigations, but offer not a shred of incontestable evidence for extraterrestrial life. Clarke also points out that in the age of global data leaks via the Internet—the cases of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden being the most prominent—governments have no permanent secrets.
And yet there are those in whom cognitive dissonance pulses like a second heart. Speaking with British ufologist Gary Heseltine, Clarke is told that multiple species of aliens “have kept us under surveillance for centuries,” and that the Earth is “like an exotic coral reef and we are the equivalent of ants.” Not fish, not octopuses—ants. “Some of them come here just to observe but others go further and collect the ants.” We’re free to snigger at Heseltine’s awkward simile. To keep the elucidating conversation humming, however, Clarke surely couldn’t. The concept of visiting aliens has colonized this man’s imagination.
Saucers in the sky, Sasquatch in the woods, serpents in Loch Ness—none of these things can be fully disproved. Neither can gods. They exist in niches of an imaginative ecosystem that our penchant for pattern recognition and storytelling has carved into reality. Clarke remains kind but firm when regarding those with the syndrome, those who have dedicated themselves to something stranger than mainstream religion and of dubious value to society:
Listening to Heseltine’s story I was struck by the fact that, for all its talk about evidence, ufology was not an empirical discipline. In order for it to survive it had to close itself off from the scientific method. This seemed to explain why its followers remained so suspicious of scientists and journalists, and why its leaders sought to excuse the continuing absence of convincing proof by turning to ever more convoluted conspiracy theories. For its proponents, the belief has become the arbiter of the evidence, not the test of the belief. This is the very opposite of scientific thinking.
Then again, it can’t be everyone’s role in society to step back and apply strict logic to mass behaviors. We’re drawn to novelties because life can be dull, and if bizarre things weren’t also beautiful, we’d be much worse off. Thankfully, How UFOs Conquered the World is more than just a sociological club with which to hit people. It’s also a collection of dark, bemusing vignettes from a story that the world has been writing collaboratively for over sixty years.
Clarke reminds us of the infamous Betty and Barney Hill case from 1961, the first ever to involve a roadside abduction by gray beings with large heads. The husband and wife were driving home to New Hampshire, through the White Mountains at night, after vacationing in Canada. Betty saw a UFO following them. Barney stopped the car and, using binoculars, saw the craft piloted by humanoids wearing black “Nazi-like” uniforms. Trying to drive away, the Hills heard strange beeping sounds and then lost consciousness. They awoke thirty-five miles from the incident.
Four years later, in hypnotherapy sessions, the Hills fleshed out their encounter and created the modern abduction template, involving pregnancy tests by beings who had “odd-shaped heads, with a large cranium, diminishing in size as it got toward the chin…and the eyes continued around to the sides of their heads…” It would be chilling to think this imagery came straight from Barney’s mind, but his aliens bear resemblance to one in an episode of The Outer Limits television show called “The Bellero Shield.” The entire abduction scenario, in fact, could have been lifted—most likely subconsciously—from the 1953 film Invaders from Mars. Even if neither of the Hills had seen the movie, the science fiction zeitgeist of the era ensured that they knew of it.
Clarke catalogs many more instances of the symbiosis between art and life that have spurred the UFO phenomenon onto greater weirdness. His book acts as a compendium, and is so entertaining that it should be reread and referenced. And while is it detrimental to humanity’s progress for too many people to disregard the scientific principles that shape our lives, I almost feel sad that a world conquered by UFOs is one that will probably cast them aside. Before extraterrestrials, seances spoke to our fears of living in a world of Great Wars and damaged families. Today, the fantasy of a robot uprising soothes our technological growing pains. If aliens are here to keep nuclear war at bay and mitigate nationalism—to prove that we are not alone—then let them.
We’re capable of imagining much worse.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.