Universe of Spies. Part 3, Eye-Yi-Yi

Martin Kottmeyer
Magonia 41, November 1991

“The eye to this day gives me a cold shudder…” (1) Darwin was speaking of the problem of explaining how the eye arose through a process of natural selection when he confessed these feelings to Asa Gray, but the power of the eye to elicit this sense of the uncanny is itself a product of evolved instinct. Staring eyes provoke physiological arousal in many species of animal.

The eye-shaped patters emblazoned on the bodies of butterflies, birds, snakes, fish, and peacocks evolved because of the instinctive avoidance the eyes provoke. The predator does not want itself to become prey. (2)

Eyes are one of the first things recognised and tracked by infants. Experiments have shown that masks consisting of two eyes, a smooth forehead, and a nose will by themselves cause an infant to react with a smile. The absence of a mouth makes no difference and serves to prove the smile is not imitative. It is only the area of the eyes which innately provokes the response. (3) After six months the response is limited to familiar faces. Strangers will elicit screams, particularly if they have large eyes (as when wearing spectacles) or show large teeth. (4)

The power of the eye is constantly alluded to in love poetry through the ages. Eye make-up highlights and exaggerates the allure of the eye in a manner which ethologists would term supernormal sign stimulation. Many species will react to stimuli that never occur in nature if they are exaggerated forms of stimuli that they normally react to in nature. Thus butterflies that show a preference for darker-hued mates will seek out unnaturally dark models of butterflies over their natural counterparts. (5)

Exaggeration of the size of the eye is a commonplace of art and sculpture. Eye idols and idols with eyes twice as large as normal have been found in places where cultural diffusion is an improbable explanation such as the Olmec culture of Mexico and cultures of the Indus and Euphrates. (6) Divine eyes have been regarded as a universal motif in mythology. (7) Though such images can connote, in their benevolent aspect, the love of parent for the child, they can also connote the authority of parent and society.

One finds eye imagery exaggerated in paranoia and paranoid art because of the focused attention on the eyes looking for any faint cues of disapproval. Film buffs will recall movies of the fifties, the era of the blacklist, as often possessing scenes of montages of disembodied eyes connoting disapproval of an anxious or harried outcast from society. Films of the alien invasion genre often possess exaggerated eye imagery in connection with a varied array of paranoid motifs. Some aliens are little more than giant eyes, such as in the films It Came from Outer Space (1953), War of the Worlds (1953), The Crawling Eye (1958), The Atomic Submarine (1959), Moonstone Outer Limits (1964) and Robot Spy Johnny Quest (1964). Humanoids with oversized eyes are also a commonplace. Less commonly the artist will evoke the fear of the stranger and have aliens present eyes without the iris and pupil. Bill Warren expresses well the reaction he felt when this device turned up in Not of This Earth (1957):

“You find yourself waiting for Johnson to remove those dark glasses again and yet, because blank eyes are intrinsically disturbing to human beings, who live so much of their lives through their eyes, you still hope he won’t remove the glasses again. This please-don’t-scare-me-again-oh-please-do reaction is basic to horror fiction in all forms, of course, and the simple sight of blank eyes may be one of the most elemental yet most sophisticated ways of expressing this reaction.” (8)

Other examples of blank eyes can be found in collections of pulp horror illustrations. (9)

The alien invasion genre of films provides an accessible body of paranoid fantasy with which to demonstrate certain facets of the psychodynamics of paranoia. The facet to be demonstrated here is the relationship between cataclysmic themes and supernormal eye imagery. Probably the best place to start is War of the Worlds (1953). The world of Mars is dying, so the Martians decide to wipe out mankind and take over our planet. Ships crash into the Earth as fiery meteors. The first thing to emerge from the crater is a large mechanical eye which spectacularly destroys everything within its gaze. Here is the old fear of the Evil Eye updated with a vengeance. It later transpires that the Martians aren’t much more than eyes with spindly arms and legs. The film is an orgy of fire and explosions and doom. Only the hand of God, the original term for plagues, ends the invasion.

It Came from Outer Space (1953) also opens with a fiery meteor crashing to earth. A scientist goes into the crater to investigate and confronts a huge spherical spaceship that resembles a huge eyeball with a hexagonal pupil. A rockslide starts descending around him at the sight of it and he flees with no proof. The rest of the film dabbles in doppelgangers, men in black, mysterious phone noises, and other paranoid paraphernalia.

Killers from Space (1954) is an especially fascinating work possessing a nakedly paranoid structure. It opens with an A-bomb going off and the crash of a plane researching the effects of the blast. The project official in the plane stumbles into base after the crash with amnesia and a surgical scar over his chest. While recuperating, he awakens one evening to see a pair of disembodied eyes floating towards him. He encounters the eyeballs again on a later occasion as he is driving down a highway. He complains that people regard him as a mental case.

Then he is caught passing along military secrets to an unknown party. Sodium pentathol is injected into him and out pops a story of his being operated on by aliens with eyes like painted ping-pong balls. They learn the aliens had removed his heart and repaired the damage he received from the plane crash. He is shown a screen on which appears the image of the aliens’ home world and their dying sun. It looks like an eye. The aliens, one billion strong, intend to invade our world by releasing monster insects and reptiles to wipe us out. Aware of the threat, now that the amnesia is lifted, the official contrives a plan which results in the destruction of the alien base via a surreally tilted nuclear blast which vindicates his sanity.

Skipping ahead to the more familiar territory of Star Trek, we can point to the award-winning episode 'The Doomsday Machine' as another illustration of the relationship. Starship Captain William Decker is found catatonic after losing his crew. He had beamed them down to a planet, but couldn’t rescue them when an immense automated planet-killer reduced it to rubble. Events lead him to command the Enterprise and take it into futile battle. As they approach the machine, the planet-killer looms up with the appearance of a giant eye. Decker eventually commits suicide and Kirk destroys the planet-killer by imploding the engines of Decker’s abandoned ship. Speaking of planet-killers, the Death Star of Star Wars also presents the appearance of a giant eyeball that shoots lasers from its pupil.

The most recent example to turn up has been the movie My Step-mother is an Alien (1989), a minor piece of paranoiac fluff involving a girl whose role as her father’s companion is being supplanted by a beautiful alien trying to save her world. At the climax, Earth is visibly about to be destroyed. Before that actually happens, the alien’s companion balloons into the visage of a gigantic eyeball accompanied by flashy electrical effects.

The reason for this intertwining of cataclysmic imagery and eyes is psychiatrically elementary. Paranoia is intimately tied to the experience of shame. It is shame which creates delusions of observation. Shame also has the effect of fragmenting the ego and this is accompanied by fantasies of world destruction or other images of cataclysm. (10) Paranoiac reactions, with their enhanced stimulus sensitivities, and loss of discrimination, will stimulate many idiosyncratic concerns, but these two are archetypal and structural.

Ufology, not unexpectedly, provides many examples of this relationship. Donald Keyhoe, our premier advocate of the belief that that we are being watched by other worlds, also expressed numerous apocalyptic fears in his early books: super-atomic bombs he feared would throw Earth out of its orbit or propel large chunks out of the planet with unpredictable results. Aliens might be here to play audience to a replay of Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision. He also feared that Russians would stage a mass A-bomb attack in 1954 employing rumours of saucer attacks to paralyse communication and transportation networks. (11)

Most of the early believers in the reconnaissance theory held some form of fear that catastrophe was impending. Albert Bender believed the polar ice caps were ready to capsize the Earth in 1953 with an attendant array of natural disturbances. (12) Harold T. Wilkins warned that lithium bombs would turn the Earth into a flaming nova. Morris Jessup feared either a pole-shift, a cosmic storm, or atomic holocaust would befall the Earth before 1980. Aime Michel regarded saucers as a sword of Damocles hanging over us, portending “the greatest catastrophe in human history” if they should contact us and learn of our inferior ethics. The Lorenzens felt saucers embodied an urgency comparable to Pearl Harbor and speculated Earth faced a crisis of the Velikovskian variety. More examples can be found in the list of another article. (13)

This relationship breaks down around 1974 as cataclysmic fantasies decrease in response to the reintegration of the ego taking place around that time in ufology. It is not surprising that ambivalence about the reality of alien reconnaissance takes place about then. A complete rejection however is difficult, since this might be tantamount to denial of the existence of a superego or conscience and thus a threat to the recovering ego.

There are numerous independent criteria pointing to the reintegration taking place at that time: the appearance of influencing machine fantasies, the decline in hypochondriacal pleas to diagnose the flying saucer problem as real, decreased death fears about mass poisoning or galactic experiments in creation. The shift in viewing Earth as a fiercely barbarous race and a prison or asylum to viewing Earth as a tourist attraction and an anthropologist’s prize similarly signals the increase in self-worth attending the ego reintegration of the paranoid over time. (14)

The UFO literature, as one might guess, does show evidence of this relationship. One example concerns the case of the abductee William J. Herrmann. On 10 November 1981, Herrmann was fired from his position as a Children’s Church teacher because the church believed he had become involved in Satanic things when he spoke on TV about UFOs. On 14 November Herrmann received by “automatic transmission” from his alien contacts a diagram of a power unit which contains images of a pair of eyes. That same day, he wrote an essay titled 'Inevitable Destruction' in which he warns that geopolitical events may soon lead to the entire Earth being engulfed in an 'Eternal Firestorm'. That these things turned up so soon after the humiliation of a public excoriation makes a clear case that a paranoiac reaction was in process. (15)

The Brian Scott case is similar to the Herrmann case in that we again are confronted with a technical drawing that looks like an eye. Scott even called it a drawing of “photonic matter” as though to unconsciously draw attention to its optical associations. Two months earlier, during a hypnotic regression to explore a UFO incident, Scott spoke of images of explosions, a continental attack by high-magnitude bombs, and the complete annihilation of the western hemisphere, in conjunction with his encounter with an alien named Host. Tying the two motifs together is rendered problematic not only by the time interval separating the images and the drawing, but by an incident only three weeks before the photonic matter image. He was found in his underwear in his back yard after having gone missing for 28 hours. Perhaps that is the stimulus of the drawing and the earlier images of cataclysm have a different cause. Alternatively, both the underwear incident and the drawing could involve a paranoiac reaction and the sometimes erratic behaviour associated with it. (16)

In the Liberty, Kentucky triple abduction we find our paired motif, but separated into two individuals. Under hypnotic regression Mona Stafford sees a large “eye” observing her as she lies on a table. Humanoids in surgical garb then examine her and she is transported to a room in a volcano. (17) She then experiences travelling at the speed of lightning while glued to a stool. She later revealed a belief that she had been tested to be a messenger of God’s warning that man had to better his ways. “It’s going to be a terrible time”, as Revelations predict. She believed the effort to be as futile as warnings before Noah’s flood. She was personally convinced her life was going to be destroyed and she would never see another birthday. (18)
Louise Smith, one of the other abductees, did not experience seeing an eye during her regression. Instead she relived fluid material covering her that made her gasp for breath. She thinks they were making a mould of her body. She subsequently learned the aliens were coming from a dying solar system, but admits that this made no sense to her since she was unaware that a solar system could die. This may be derived from “Earth versus the Flying Saucers” (1956) whose aliens hail from a “disintegrating solar system”. Smith’s aliens allegedly could control rain. The movie’s aliens were able to induce meteorological convulsions on Earth to warn everyone of their power. Smith, subsequent to her ordeal, has felt invisible forces are watching her, the sense that someone is staring at her has been intolerable. (19)

One can also see this pairing of motifs in Communion. The eyes of the alien are horrifically blank, black and inhumanly large. Subsequent to his nightmare Strieber felt one evening the sky was alive and watching him. he had full awareness this was a paranoid fantasy. (130) In a hypnotic session he experiences an image of the world blowing up. Edith Fiore reports an instance of a friend of hers who felt faint and whose heart beat wildly upon picking up a copy of Communion. Fiore felt this reaction was peculiar and was able to elicit memories of a CE IV from this individual. This is not too surprising given the large staring eyes on the book’s jacket. As mentioned earlier, staring eyes stimulate physiological arousal in many animals besides man. Fiore’s ability to elicit a CE IV experience from this individual is deeply suspicious since it proceeded from the false premise that her friend’s reaction was unusual, whereas I think most people would find the image unsettling in one way or another. (20)

Barney Hill’s experience lacks a cataclysmic motif, but deserves attention here for a curious issue it raises about eyes and the UFO experience. It is safe to say that we would never have heard of The Interrupted Journey if Barney Hill had not reacted so dramatically to the image of the UFO he saw in the binoculars. This incident was not an artifact of the hypnotic sessions; it was consciously experienced and remembered. As he looked at the UFO he felt the leader was staring at him. On experiencing this he rips the binoculars from his face, tearing the straps, and runs screaming back to the car. This is very untypical behaviour, for Barney had served three years in the Army and handled himself well in crisis situations. He wasn’t the type to avoid danger and panic over something like being looked at. Getting to the car he threw it into gear and told Betty, his wife, to look out for the craft. Later, she admitted she thought his imagination was being overactive for when she looked up, she saw nothing. (21)

These facts alone point to the presence of a paranoid reaction, but we also know that he was in this state before the UFO experience. When they stopped to eat earlier at a restaurant, Barney complained everybody in the street was looking at them. This complaint, “all eyes are on us”, is a delusion of observation just like the image of the staring leader in the saucer. Barney himself realised everybody was actually behaving in a pleasant manner and that he had better get a hold of himself.

What is especially interesting about Hill’s account is the drawing of the UFO itself. As Lawson has pointed out, it has the general form of an eye in the sky. (22) This is an important point since the context of the eye-like UFO demonstrates its psychological origin beyond reasonable doubt.

Barney Hill’s UFO is not alone in the UFO literature in having a resemblance to an eye. Others have preceded me in this observation, but none more delightfully than Arthur Shuttlewood. After recounting the case of Terry Pell who characterised a UFO he encountered with the phrase “like a human eye”, Shuttlewood emphasised it was a “recurring description” and remarked it is “so relevant, I feel intuitively”. (23)

It will doubtless be argued that coincidence could account for some or all of these instances of eye-like UFOs. Flying saucers oblige at least one circle in their form and aesthetic symmetries would doubtless lead to other circles and radiating lines. I agree, yet plead frustration figuring out how to derive the expected number chance would demand and thus knowing when I could assert psychological processes are a necessary explanation. I do assert such processes are in operation. We can see it at work, for example, in dreams reported in Jung’s book on flying saucers. Consider this one:

“I was walking, at night, in the streets of a city. Interplanetary machines appeared in the sky, and everyone fled. The machines looked like large steel cigars. I did not flee. One of the machines spotted me and came towards me at an oblique angle. I think: Professor Jung says that one should not run away, so I stand still and look at the machine. From the front seen close to, it looked like a circular eye, half blue, half white.

“A room in a hospital: my two chiefs come in, very worried, and ask my sister how it was going. My sister replied that the mere sight of the machine had burned my whole face. Only then did I realise they were talking about me, and that my whole head was bandaged, although I could not see it.” (24)

Jung also reports on a woman’s dream about a black humming metallic object like a spider with great dark eyes that flies over her. She was not clothed and felt somewhat embarrassed. The spider flew alongside a large administrative building in which international decisions were being made and influenced people inside to go the way of peace which was the way to the inner, secret world. Obviously eyes are intimately associated with UFOs in the unconscious. Eye-like UFOs are to be expected.

There may of course be perfectly plausible ways of explaining away the eye-like nature of UFOs as a function of their observation equipment behaving like the machinery of the human eye. there may be perfectly plausible ways of of explaining the cop-sunglasses eyes of Strieber’s aliens as the plausible product of evolution from the environment of the planet they came from. But does it really make sense?

In the final analysis, one has to go back to context. The eyes appear in relationship to a web of paranoid themes in the UFO mythos and a structure of paranoid development occurring in paranoid systems of thought. We also see them in the context of a mythos grown up from Keyhoe in which aliens were assumed to be spying on us. It is a context filled with apocalypses, amnesia, persecutions, chases, influencing machines and conspiracies. And always there is furtiveness to allow evidence but never proof. What ultimately is the more meaningful interpretation – extraterrestrials or superegos?

Do I sense a cold shudder out there?

  1. Colp, Ralph; “Confessing a Murder”, ISIS, 77 (1986), 9-32
  2. Grumet, Gerald W.; “Eye contact: The core of interpersonal relatedness”, Psychiatry, 46 (May 1983), 172-180
  3. Campbell, Joseph; “Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God”, Penguin, 1985, 46
  4. Godwin, Donald W.; “Anxiety”, Oxford, 1986, 24-25
  5. Cambell; op. cit., 42-43
  6. Jaynes, Julian; “Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”, Houghton Mifflin, 1976, 168-173
  7. Meslin, Michel; “Eye” in Eliade, Mircea: “Encyclopedia of Religion”, Volume 5, Macmillan, 1936, 236-239
  8. Warren, Bill; “Keep Watching the Skies”, MacFarland, 1982, 384
  9. Haining, Peter; “Terror”, A and W Visual Library, 1976
  10. Freud; op. cit., volume 12, 68-69
  11. Kottmeyer, Martin; “Dying Worlds, Dying Selves”, UFO Brigantia, 47 (January 1991), 24-32
  12. Bender, Albert K.; “Editorial”, Space Review, 2, 2 (April 1953), 4
  13. Kottmeyer, Martin; “Ufology considered as an evolving system of paranoia”, in Stillings, Dennis; “Cyberbiological Studies of the Imaginal Component in the UFO Contact Experience”, Archaeus, 1989, 50-61
  14. Stevens; op. cit., 63-71
  15. Hamilton, William F.; “Close Encounter Report”, Nexus News, 1988. DeHerrera, John; “The Etherean Invasion”, Hwong, 1979
  16. Lorenzen, Coral and Jim; “Abducted! Confrontations with Beings from Outer Space”, Berkley, 1977, 126-127. Billig, Otto; “Flying Saucers – Magic in the Skies: A Psychohistory”, 94
  17. Billig; op. cit., 18, 23
  18. Ibid.
  19. Strieber; op. cit., 42
  20. Fiore; op. cit., 322
  21. Fuller; op. cit., 32, 76, 98-99, 174
  22. Lawson, A.H.; “Birth Trauma Imagery in CE-III Narratives”, in “International UPIAR Colloquium on Human Sciences and UFO Phenomena Proceedings”, Salzburg, July 26-29, 1982, 103
  23. Shuttlewood, Arthur; “The Warminster Mystery”, Tandem, 1976, p.61.
  24. Jung, C.G.; “Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky”, Princeton University Press, 1978