Magonia, 7, 1981.
Introduction: The film ‘Close Encounters’ was expected to provoke a huge UFO wave, it didn’t, and by 1981 when this article was written the subject had all but disappeared. This article didn’t actually succeed in answering why, though I used the question to write the big psycho-social history. Note it gives psychosocial explanations of the rise of the skeptics movements and psychosocial UFO theories themselves, something we are often accused of not doing.
When ufology did reappear at the end of the 1980′s it was transformed, with crashed saucers and abductions dominating the imagination.
I would suggest that it was the alien hybrid motif which really gave the emotional power to the abduction myth, that and its promotion by talented horror writer Whitley Streiber. These changes marked a major sea change in western society, the sexual replacing the social as the nexus of public concern and the new technologies which were on the horizon were not concerned with space travel but with reproduction. In the age of child abuse, Aids, abortion and IVF the abduction narratives would voice new concerns. Yes, the last paragraph is pretty cringe making, but it is a reflection of the ‘eve of destruction apoclypticism’ which hung heavy in the air between 1980 and 1987. After a decade we scarely remember, but we forget at our peril. Peter Rogerson, 1999.
Since the distribution in May 1978 of the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind the UFO experience has steadily declined. At the beginning of 1981 interest in the subject seemed to be at an all-time low. This appears to be something more than just another case of post-Condon blues, but part of a more profound change in the social climate. Until recently it was widely held (by your contributor amongst others) that UFO beliefs were likely to grow out of crisis, yet at a time of great international tension the UFO myth seems suddenly irrelevant. Why is this? In order to try to answer this question I have found it necessary to examine in some detail the sources of UFO belief.
Jerome Clark has suggested, in private correspondence, that perhaps the UFO experience was a phenomenon of the “good times”, when people had the psychological leisure to worry about matters of ultimate concern instead of worrying about the future of their paypackets. Taken at its face value this view seems implausible, for it is surely in times of great crisis that people’s attention IS drawn to matters of “ultimate concern”. As the saying goes: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Perhaps it is the kind of crisis which determines the level of popular interest in ufology and other related fields. For example, in the United States the mid-1970s were marked by a time of improving international relations, accompanied by a rapid flux in internal values. Today that situation is completely reversed.
Therefore I have decided to examine changing popular perceptions of the UFO experience in relation to the social climate of the times, with special emphasis on the United States and Britain. I shall use the terms “flying saucer mythology” to denote the belief systems supporting contactees and space-brothers and the “UFO mythology” to denote the military/scientific/hostile UFO belief systems.
One striking factor which arises in the early years is that contactees never obtained the sort of intellectual support and appeal in the United States or France that they did in Britain. Can we find an answer for this?
An analysis of some popular British writers on the subject from 1953 to 1959, and of editorials in Flying Saucer Review from 1956 to 1963, shows that the support for the 'flying saucer mythology' tended to come from traditional, humanistic 'classics men', who felt that their spiritual, intellectual and social positions were under threat from the rising generation of grammar school and red-brick university trained scientists and technologists. Thus Arthur Constance saw in the growth of technical education a surrender to the 'materialistic values' of communism. (1) The flying saucer was seen as an antidote to over-rapid social change. As an example, Gavin Gibbons (2) saw the flying saucers in an essentially millenarian light. They would land near Stafford and introduce the post-historic age of the utopian simple life. It would be “comparable with our village life, with an elder person of wisdom ruling with a benevolent rod of power”. The new age would be a true paradise in which “minds would be cleansed of all evil, good would prevail, and universal love predominate”. (2)
Of these writers, Waveney Girvan [left] (3) was probably the most able. Reared in the traditions of Scots Calvinist dissent, he was able to use the traditional language of the anti-papist nonconformist, and combine it with the public school distrust of the swot, to pour invective against the new priesthood of 'Sir Oracle' scientists. His most popular editorial technique at Flying Saucer Review was basically to mobilise popular resentment towards 'experts', then channel it against the scientific community and thus create a broad populist appeal, in which the common sense of the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus was contrasted with the pretensions of experts. ('moral crusaders' against sociologists, psychologists and penal reformers use the same technique).
In the United States the rival 'UFO' myth predominated. Though the contactees were American, there was little anti-scientific intellectual tradition to which they could turn, in a culture in which the inventor, at least, had a higher status than, say, the professor of Latin. The contactees drew their audience primarily from the metaphysical subculture of New Thought and mind cure. (4, 5) Indeed, one cult, Guy Ballard’s I AM (see (5) for details) provided the most important source of recruitment. Their ideology never rose much beyond the typical New Age economics – known to their critics as 'funny money' schemes; a vague anti-bomb sentiment, and a populist anti-intellectualism (for a history of which see Richard Hofstader’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life, Cape, 1964).
In many ways the voice of the dominant UFO myth was the voice of Donald Keyhoe. His books (6) with their tales of aerial dogfights, ashen-faced officials, and nameless secrets combined the elements of both war story and spy story. Keyhoe’s UFOs were always neutral at best, at worst, downright hostile. In one sense Keyhoe’s fears echoed those of the United States Air Force, where the UFOs were seen as somebody’s or something’s secret weapon. (7) Particularly in parts of Keyhoe’s second book, it becomes difficult to distinguish the alien threat from the Russian threat. Indeed, one can make a comparison between Keyhoe and Senator Joseph McCarthy. They both had a simple message: the boys in Washington are withholding from the American public the truth about the menace.
However, it should be noted that while McCarthy saw the threat as primarily internal (it is proverbial that he was never very concerned about the actual physical threat from Russia) Keyhoe projected it as super-external. Furthermore, by attacking Air Force censorship he was able to attract liberals such as Richard Hall (who never seems to have really belonged in a NICAP whose governing body at times read like a Who’s Who of the military-industrial complex) who were concerned about civil liberties, and to generate a wide appeal among people who had an ingrained distrust of the 'Washington Establishment'.
Unlike the saucer myth, the UFO myth did not go in for scientist baiting in a big way. Its source of grass-roots appeal is not very well documented. The constant undertone of hostile spaceships does not suggest that any great feeling of being supporters of a new science was being built up, though the growth of an optimistic technological milieu and popular interest may well have been contributing factors. But one suspects that a lot of American UFO buffs of the 1950s were mainly interested in a good yarn.
At the grass-roots level, as the decade wore on, the UFO and saucer myths tended to merge, and a third myth can now be distinguished, that of the space people who were prepared to provide the key to health, wealth and happiness, but who were being opposed by the entrenched powers that be – here one notes the similarity to Third World cargo cults. Vallee’s study of American UFO groups in 1965-6 (published in Anatomy of a Phenomenon) shows how widespread and convoluted conspiracy theories had become amongst both ufologists and saucerites.
A very good case could be made out that in the early 1950s the UFO might have several symbolic roles: promising salvation from celestial realms for American saucerites; symbolising an ill-defined menace to American ufologists; or, for the British saucerites promising resistance to secularism and social change. The evidence from the French experience suggests that the UFO already was becoming a symbol of the transforming power of technological progress.
Yet these myths played no part in such major crises as Berlin and Cuba in the early 1960s, or the rising racial tension and political polarisation in the USA. While no really conclusive answer to this conundrum is possible, it is permissible to make a few guesses. For example, the Berlin and Cuba crises were too sudden for any salvationist myth to develop, and they were followed by the defusing effects of the Test Ban Treaty. Perhaps the UFO/saucer myths had gone off the boil since 1957, and those most attracted to ufology and saucerism were increasingly being caught up in the enthusiasm for space travel and the progressive ideology of the Kennedy era. I suspect that UFO myths were already no longer capable of dealing with sudden acute crises.
For the United States, the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 marked the beginning of a period of massive instability and social change. This included changes in social mores, the Vietnam war, the explosive racial crises, the rise and fall of new scientific myths, and the coming of the space age into the centre of consciousness. Many of these factors influenced other western nations. In the United Kingdom, for example, social change was accompanied by loss of empire.
The return of the UFO in 1964 (Socorro in the US, Warminster in England) was in a period of major public interest in the space race, and intense speculation about extraterrestrial life. Now for the first time the idea of the ETH as a scientific concept, as presented for example in the writings of James Macdonald (50) and Jacques Vallee (8), began to move towards the centre of the stage.
This new “scientific” ETH mirrored the values of the age of the planner, Harold Wilson's “white heat of technological revolution”, and President Johnson's “Great Society”, in a resurgence of the kind of optimistic scientism which had been prominent in the 1930s. The ethos of the nuts and bolts ETH was that of the limitless potential of the engineer. This ethos had an especial appeal in the US, where it could be seen as a restatement of the old American cult of the practical inventor, as against the theorist and intellectual.
This scientific ufology quickly dispensed with the contactees’ overt salvationist message, but it certainly contained its own covert message that there was a glorious technological utopia, that someone in the cosmos had survived the perils of the immediate future, and that humanity could follow suit. The role of the scientist as engineer, manipulator and sole deliverer of progress was coupled with a disdain for all metaphysics and religion. The future was to lie in the 'secular city' (according to the theologian Harvey Cox), probably under a glass bubble on Mars.
The future was to lie in the 'secular city'
probably under a glass bubble on Mars.
Within a couple of years a disenchantment with this technological dream had set in. As conflicts mounted, the image of the hostile UFO re-emerged with renewed vigour. At first the threat was seen in extremely concrete terms, and books with titles like Flying Saucer Menace (10) and Flying Saucers are Hostile (11) portrayed the ET equivalent of the massive firepower being used in Vietnam.
Rising tensions in the ghettos seemed to be bringing the war home, and the new UFO mythology projected the hostility not against the military targets of the 1950s, but against civilian communities. The image of the flap area, such as Exeter (12) or Point Pleasant (13) was that of a community under siege. The image of the besieger was to suffer a gradual desecularisation and become more diffuse as it became more supernatural. In the writings of John Keel (13-16) we see the image of the UFO as a force of universal negation achieve an eloquent expression.
Keel’s themes of mysterious open-ended conspiracies, plots and subversion attracted a growing number of people who were alienated from a society which seemed to be beyond control. His vision of an implacable, perversely hostile universe against which humanity was powerless, and of all religions and secular ideologies as lies aimed to manipulate people, echoed Alfred de Vigny’s nightmare of the “God who is as unjust as he is omnipotent” (quoted in (17)). It was the cry of the disillusioned and cynical who had seen through the masks of society’s gods.
Keel’s writings illustrate perfectly what I said earlier about the menace coming home. Keel’s omnipresent elementals are a far more subtle and terrifying threat than Steiger or Whritenour’s nasty metallic space ships. In his portraits of small towns under siege by nameless forces he achieves a remarkable metaphor of the traditional Middle America besieged by a world it can no longer understand, and in which values once taken for granted are crumbling.
The sense of man’s impotence before an alien and inhuman society was neatly summed up in the story of Betty and Barney Hill in 1966, which was to set a long fuse for the explosion of abduction stories which were to start coming in from 1973 onwards.
Though the growth of the space industry assisted the development of the ETH, it may well have also contributed to its downfall. It is significant that the great disillusionment with the ETH coincided with the Apollo moon shots. This was certainly true for the present writer, for once I had seen those splendid photographs of the Earth from Apollo 8, I was never again able to believe in nuts-and-bolts spaceships visiting the Earth from other planets. Furthermore, for many people the moon shots were regarded as increasingly irrelevant. The counter culture which grew up in the mid-1960s viewed science increasingly as a hostile and dehumanising activity. This romantic backlash was to renew the vision of the UFO as a transcendent anti-scientific symbol. (18)
This new humanism developed around very different social groups than had the saucer cult of the 1950s. It was intimately connected with the drug culture and the underground press. It became the fashion for pop stars and their circles to go on skywatches and possess UFO detectors. John Michell, regarded by many in the late 1960s as a guru of the new romantics, identified the UFO with Fairyland, the Holy Grail, and a primal paradise of the imagination. (19) Jacques Vallee, disillusioned with big science, turned to folklore, “where gentle folks and graceful fairies dance and lament the coarse world below”. (20) The depths of hostility which could now be marshalled against technology, and the UFO as a technological symbol, can be seen in the following comment by John Rimmer:
“…the extraterrestrial hypothesis has never appealed to me because it is so unattractively mechanical… The thought of great hulking lumps of metalware clattering and screeching, dropping oil all over the landscape, jettisoning slag or crashing down to their doom in flames and clouds of polluting smoke, is such an appalling one that my mind tries desperately to resist it.”
Significantly, that passage was written in an article entitled 'The UFO is Alive and Well and Living in Fairyland', published in MUFOB in 1970.
But of course Fairyland was by no means just a place of 'gentle fairies'. It also had its hidden menace, and was a place where nothing was what it seemed. In this very ambiguity of Fairyland/Magonia, both romantics and those who saw the UFO as a source of fear could find common ground in a new folklore (or perhaps a very old folklore given a new gloss). Both sides could be attracted to the notion that Magonia was in our midst; that UFOs could mimic everyday objects such as motor cars, or that the mystery of the cosmos might be revealed in a leaf blown in the wind. These ideas suggest a terrible and transcendent quality behind the phenomena of everyday life, and suggest that indeed there was an “eternity in a grain of sand”. It is perhaps significant that such feelings about everyday objects are reported by those who have taken psychedelic drugs, or who have experienced acute schizophrenic breakdowns. Whether one reacted to this revelation with awe or paranoia depended much on temperament and conditioning (as indeed with reactions to psychedelic drugs).
Into this heady brew was thrown a further, and potentially far more explosive, ingredient – a renewed millennial speculation. The myth of the Age of Aquarius was nothing less than the reappearance of the spectre which had haunted western Christendom since the 13th century, that of Joachim de Fioio’s Third Age, or Age of the Holy Ghost, (21) in which the Holy Spirit would descend on all, both Church and State would vanish, and universal peace would reign under the Everlasting Gospel. Among the more recent claimed manifestations of this belief system have been Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich and Marx’s Classless Society.
The identification of this Third Age with the astrological Age of Aquarius appears to have originated during the Renaissance, and featured in the writings of Theosophists and other 19th- and 20th-century new age writers. It was probably pushed into public consciousness by the American Catholic seeress Jeanne Dixon, who proclaimed that the Age of Aquarius will be inaugurated by a new world leader, born in the Middle East in 1962, who would establish universal peace. The following year the influential folk singer Bob Dylan proclaimed “the times, they are a-changing” in a song rich in traditional millenarian imagery.
During the next twenty years, the character of this New Age was to undergo successive metamorphoses. In rough order, these were:
- a) A belief in radical but “normal” political activity – the reformist phase (e.g. the civil rights movement in the United States, the Great Society)
- b) A belief in radical non-normal forms of political activity which would alter the entire order of things. For example, the various student movements of the 1960s
- c) A belief in the violent, revolutionary overthrow of all things, and the creation of a new world order by the direct action of a “saving remnant” (Black Panthers, Baader Meinhof, some cults)
- d) A belief that society could only become changed by a revolutionary change in the nature of individual consciousness, leading to a new transcendental” politics (Yippies, certain types of Black Power, feminism, the early drug culture, communes)
- e) A belief that the new order could only be brought about by the direct transformation of individual consciousness, with any social change a welcome, but incidental, by-product (consciousness movement, humanistic psychologies, the psi revolution, some cults)
- f) A belief that society was doomed and that a saving remnant must separate itself from the mainstream to survive (most cults, The Two)
- g) A belief that only the transformation of the individual mattered, and that traditional social values should not only be maintained but strengthened (the Born-Again” movement).
This progression suggests that the sacralisation of the millennial ideal grew in proportion to the failure of secular political activity. This drift into increasingly radical but then quietistic responses can be seen in the progress of sectaries in the English Civil War, Commonwealth, and after the Restoration.
It was in the atmosphere of the early Age of Aquarius, at about position d), that Jerome Clark launched what might be called the manifesto of the New Ufology:
“We are entering a weird, wonderful, terrifying age. The world we have always known is changing rapidly, almost inexplicably, heading towards either final chaos or the birth of a new order. Humanity has discovered a new consciousness of itself in the universe… if you don’t believe it, check your local bookstore’s supply of works on UFOs, psychic phenomena, witchcraft and other borderline fields; watch out how fast it is sold out. Magic, it is said, is being reborn… Lifestyles change with fashions… powerful drugs like LSD, whose workings science is at a loss to explain, change those who take them in mysterious ways they can scarcely perceive. Men everywhere are searching for new gods, find them, and the pace of change accelerates.” (22)
Clark proclaimed that involvement in the hippy subculture was vital to “begin to understand the fundamental earth-shaking changes our planet is going through”. (23)
This type of linking of parapsychology and ufology with the youth subculture led to extremely hostile reactions, and was destined to produce a fundamental shift towards science on the part of many supporters of the status quo.
As we saw previously, many conservative thinkers had seen science as a threat to the social order, and it had become routine for parapsychologists to appeal to fundamental social values in opposition to materialism. The extreme right-wing psychologist William McDougall made a typical comment, shortly after the First World War:
“Unless psychical research… can discover facts incompatible with materialism, materialism will continue to spread… No other power can stop it; revealed religion and metaphysical philosophy are equally helpless before the advancing tide. And if that tide continues to rise and advance as it is doing now, all the signs point to the view that it will be a destroying tide, that will sweep away all the hard-won gains of humanity, all the moral traditions built up by the efforts of countless generations for the increase of truth, justice and charity.” (24)
McDougall’s comments were supported by the English psychical researcher G.N.M. Tyrrell, who saw in psychical research an antidote to the collectivism of Communism and Fascism “by showing the centre of importance lies in the individual and not in the mass”, and to the loneliness of the individual in the crowd. (25) McDougall’s own pupil, the pioneer parapsychologist Joseph B. Rhine, saw his work in psi as helping to defend 'American Values, against atheistic Communism, (26) a sentiment strongly echoed by science writer Henry Pierce (27) as late as 1970.
However, the increasing identification of ESP with the occult and the drug and youth subcultures led to a definition of the rational as a central value under attack from a new antinomianism. In a comment which makes almost a complete mirror image of that of McDougall, Nathan Adler argued that the term psychedelic "reinforces the science fiction fantasies about mind expansion, reopens the gate to the tide of superstition and occult, obscurantist mystification that constantly surges against the dykes of rationalism that were slowly built up and won…” (28)
In such emotional reactions as these of McDougall and Adler, there is more than a hint of the battle between the cosmos” built up by some Promethean effort, and the chaos outside. The cosmos” here refers to the central value systems of the social universe. It is also noteworthy that Freud once referred to the occult as a black tide of mud, and anti-pornography campaigners refer to tides of filth. The sea is clearly an image of wild nature, untamed and untameable by man and his society, and always threatening to sweep it away.
It is from such a perspective that one should evaluate the Condon enquiry (1969). In his conclusions, and later outbursts, especially about schoolchildren obtaining credits for reading UFO books, or in his opposition to any respectable scientific discussion of the subject, Condon was ritually reaffirming traditional social and educational values against a whole range of innovations and changes.
Indeed, the enquiry itself, like the Air Force Project Blue Book, had important ritual functions in defining the boundaries of the cultural universe. The cosmos was reaffirmed, almost in the manner of the parents who, in calming the night fears of their child, are calming their own doubts and fears, and reassuring themselves of the ultimate orderliness of the world.
And surely much horror fiction depends for its power on the failure of this reassurance, on the eclipse of the world of daylight reason and common sense, and the shocking realisation that all is not right with the world. Much the same feeling seems to emerge in UFO experience after UFO experience. In some sense we may argue that it was the very strain placed on the delicate fabric of “consensus reality” by that social, technological and political change, which opened up the rents that let in the sense of the mysterium tremendum in the heart of the ordinary.
The ufologists were amongst those who had to cope with this sense of the abyss, and the principal device that they adopted was a bureaucratisation of their own procedures. Compared with the freebooting days of the 1960s, when UFO groups rose and fell in marvellous disarray, the 1970s were to see a centralisation of activity and an almost obsessive concern with bureaucracy and paperwork. This ufology was often self-consciously respectable. On the surface its aim was to win friends and influence people. But from my own observations at UFO conferences there is an almost frantic desire to keep to the trivial, and mention the actual topic of enquiry as little as possible. I get the feeling of an at least unconscious desire to exorcise possible spectres. And the failure, when mythic material (often quite out of context) comes pouring through adds its own testimony to this feeling.
By 1973 the stage had been set for a re-emergence of the UFO myth, which had been dormant for the first couple of years of the new decade. The underground growth of ecstatic religious movements, the popularisation of “extraterrestrial Euhemerism” by von Daniken, and increasing concern over ecology and the mishandling of science were important new ingredients. And by 1973 these underground growths were to grow very public, with “The Exorcist”, Uri Geller, and UFOs emerging in short order.
The UFO wave of 1973 developed in a country which had suffered a de-facto military defeat, and was in the throes of an investigation that was revealing that its chief executive was a crook. The national morale was low, and by autumn it was clear that one spark could set off the entire UFO mythology again. There were, probably, two very different sparks – the millenarian speculation surrounding the coming of the comet Kohoutek, and the Yom Kippur war with its shattering effect on western economies. The dominant motif in this reincarnated ufology was to be the abduction, which was to prove an excellent symbol of the feeling of being “seized” by an increasingly remote and alien world which many people feared.
At the heart of the abduction syndrome there seemed to be the ambiguity of the child’s eye view of the doctor as both a healer and mutilator. John Hind has argued that the doctor is the main authoritative, scientific figure that the average person is likely to have encountered, and on to whom general fears of science could be projected. Furthermore, the abduction experience was to emerge at a time of public concern over several aspects of medicine – opposition to what were seen as mechanical and coldly clinical procedures, concern over radical techniques such as heart transplants, and much scientific and quasi-scientific speculation about the future course of medical manipulation.
One of the other strands of the renewed ufology contained the seeds of an even more dehumanising perspective. Euhemerism is basically the viewing of myth and religion as distorted history. It was employed by Christian writers against the Greek and Roman traditional religions. There has always been a strongly historical and factual bias in Christianity and the growth of the 'cult of the fact', from the 19th century onwards, accelerated it. Thus if religious beliefs are beliefs about matters of ultimate value, and only facts are accorded value, then it follows that the only valid religious truths are those about 'facts'. Hence there has been a powerful stream in fundamentalism (mainly in America) which were concerned to regard the Bible as a scientific textbook. To do this meant that some fundamentalists had to resort to more and more drastic rationalisations.
Writers sought to defend both Catholic (29) and Protestant (30) theology through recourse to 'extraterrestrial Euhemerism'. But while the theological dogmas were preserved at least as verbal formulae, much of the spiritual quality was drained away, and in the hands of popular writers like Jessup (31) and Blumrich (32) it had to all intents and purposes totally disappeared. In preserving the Biblical miracles as 'facts' their message had been lost.
This process was soon generalised and completely secularised in the mass of extraterrestrial euhemerist “ancient astronaut” literature. This, by rejecting all “non-scientific” values, and by denying human creativity, presented a view of humanity as a passive object manipulated by outside forces. A view which was aided by the fact that many people did feel just this way.
There were other very important strands to extraterrestrial Euhemerism: the rejection of mankind’s connection to the animal world so strongly shared by the creationists, or an echo of mankind as “a stranger in a strange land”, a spark of divinity imprisoned in gross matter; the latent millennial appeal of the promise that the “gods” might return; and von Daniken’s populist appeal against professional archaeologists.
Whatever the cause of the popularity of the
ancient astronaut myth, it ultimately
reduced humanity to the level of
someone’s or something’s experiment.
Whatever the cause of the popularity of the ancient astronaut myth, it ultimately reduced humanity to the level of someone’s or something’s experiment. A process which reached its nadir in the case of Dione (33) who saw mankind as the experimental object of an entirely arbitrary super-technological deity. This philosophy was readily applied to contemporary events. The Judaeo-Christian tradition has always regarded history as an arena in which God’s providences might be worked out. Prodigies and marvels had been regarded for generations as “Divine Providences”, so it was hardly surprising that the marvels of contemporary folklore should be regarded as the providential workings-out in history of the will of God the Behaviourist!
In his post-Watergate concept of the 'control system', Vallee (34) was in fact merging, with striking effect, the notion of a divine providence behind history with popular feelings of manipulation and loss of autonomy. There was now a UFO mythology which saw humanity as being both created and maintained as an experiment by superhuman forces which might intervene in individual human lives in an arbitrary fashion. Behind all this lay a fear of being swept away by a society changing out of recognition.
The growth of possession beliefs, stimulated by The Exorcist and its numerous copycats, was probably likewise generated by a profound fear of social change. Both fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist rationalists alike felt threatened by these changes in social values. Possession beliefs were especially strong in many of the rapidly rising fundamentalist churches, which sought to offer the stoutest defence of the eroding traditional values, and an ecstatic religion in a westernised format. Charismatic Christianity, with its traditions of glossolalia, demon exorcism and other 'gifts of the spirit', offers a culturally reaffirmative variety of shamanic experience, which could now set itself up against the so-called new religions.
By invoking demonic possession, fundamentalists were able to explain why youth, for example, no longer adhered to the traditional value systems of a given culture. That the possessee was often a child is a good clue to suchlike motivations.
Christian fundamentalists were quick to use the revived belief in demons to denounce UFOs as demonic forces. (35, 36) It is fairly clear that what they were “really”denouncing was the worship of secular technological progress. What was demonic about UFOs was that they were being (or had been) used by supporters of the ETH to argue for the inevitability of progress and for the possibilities of moral self-help on a cosmic scale and confirming a technological world view.
But the perception of UFOs as demonic was also well established within ufology. For many socially conservative ufologists, UFOs were symbolic agencies of social change which were being increasingly blamed for a variety of social ills. This was certainly true amongst that very same group of British ufologists who in the 1950s had hailed the flying saucers as the antidote to materialism, and allowed them to denounce the whole range of folk devils and moral panics (to borrow Stanley Cohen’s book title) of the British middle class as the result of this demonic activity.
John Cleary-Baker’s comments on “alien influences… at work in our society” is typical of this attitude. It is at this time that Cleary-Baker is also denouncing those who tried to introduce an overtly scientific emphasis into the work of BUFORA as “white-coated godlings of the laboratory”.
Almost invariably such beliefs in demonic UFOs are associated with a millenarian current. Demons are at work in the world because the end is near, and social and cosmic disintegration awaits. Almost all the concerns of the modern UFO mythology are to be found in the articles of the British UFO writer Gordon Creighton: the sense of the world out of control, of loss of autonomy, the millennial appeal, and the sense of being 'at Armageddon and in the Army of the Lord,, every bit as strong as that of a 1st-century Christian or 17th-century 5th monarchist. The passage quoted below presents the social dimensions of the demonic UFO theory in its starkest form:
“… For all too long has the naked ape harkened to the promptings of the demonic playmates against which every true prophet and seer … has warned. If disaster is now to be avoided, we have very, very little time …WHERE THERE ARE DEMONS … AND THEY ARE ALREADY HERE IN IMMENSE STRENGTH … THEN IT IS CERTAIN THAT THERE COULD BE, AND PERHAPS WILL BE WHEN THE CRUNCH COMES, ANGELS TOO …“Time is running out fast. All the indications – economic, social, geographic, geological, scientific – are that we are now in an exponential situation and that before the close of this century cataclysmic and apocalyptic events will rend the planet …“As the waves of senseless, irrational violence (telepathically induced?) rise higher and higher on the earth, soon to engulf every country, and as the signs of moral and spiritual decay multiply, who can doubt that certain of the “UFO entities” have a hand in the wrecking …IF INDIVIDUALS OR GROUPS CAN BE CONTROLLED, SO TOO CAN GOVERNMENTS AND WHOLE NATIONS.“A TRULY MARVELLOUS WRECKING JOB! Even the Christian churches (along with every human organisation, political, social, scientific, economic) have been deeply infiltrated.” (37) (Emphasis and capitalisation in original)
In this passage the impact of future shock is seen at its starkest, as is the utility of the demon hypothesis to anathematise change and to express middle-class fears. And in case that passage makes you laugh, remember that the only thing which would make many of the writer’s social class think him unbalanced is his choice of scapegoats. Substitute Communists, Jews, or any other scapegoat for 'demons' and is it all that different from the cries of newspaper leader columns?
But if times of social change are a great threat for many in established positions, for others, on the margins, they are times of unparalleled promise. The weakening of the web of “taken for granted reality” allows for a radical reaction against the essentially negative view of humanity,which seemed so much a feature of many western philosophies. For many, especially younger people, the alternatives seemed either to reduce mankind to an economic calculus, as in Marxism and Capitalism; denounce him as a depraved sinner, as did traditional religions or, with much reductionist biology and behaviourism, reduce him to a lump of chemicals. The confusion of values in this wasteland permitted the emergence of a kind of radical, literalistic existentialism, which opened up the possibilities for the coming of the new superman.
This new philosophy was popularised and perhaps symbolised best by those two trickster figures of the early 1970s, Carlos Castaneda (38) and Uri Geller. (39) The two presented themselves as charismatic, almost shamanistic figures, able to bend the “inflexible” laws of nature. Their appeal was obvious to a generation which, in reaction against the flower-power 1960s, saw itself again imprisoned by social conventions and the dull routine of everyday life.
Castaneda represented an echo of the myth of the noble savage and western speculation about the occult powers of faraway societies. Geller directed his alleged PK powers against the minutiae of a technical society. (40) Both offered what might be characterised as an ultra-literalistic existentialism. The existentialists had proclaimed humanity to be “absolutely free”, and Castaneda and Geller were prepared to show how literal that freedom was.
The moral ambiguities surrounding both Castaneda (whose stories were an elaborate series of novels – or hoaxes, depending on how one looked at it) and Geller (who was widely regarded as a conjuror) probably enhanced their popularity rather than deterring interest; as befits the trickster who makes a buffoon out of the pompous. If Castaneda made himself into a character in a novel, Geller – who in particular was destined to play an important role in injecting the paranormal into ufology – did live his life like a character in a novel.
As a modern hero, Geller has some significant features besides his general moral ambiguity. The most important was the very ambiguity of that freedom itself. For Geller, although he appeared to be the epitome of liberation from the constraints of a fixed destiny, was himself being pressured by his mentor Puharich into taking up a charismatic, if not messianic, role. A role in which, furthermore, he was cast as the passive instrument of the very sort of manipulative supertechnological god that he was popularly thought to be opposing. A god” in the form of the computer Hoova, whose essential message seemed to be that the ultimate secret of the cosmos was a meaningless and absurd scientific formula. (41) Geller’s freedom could not save him from manipulation, nor could it allow him to perform any useful service; he argued, for example, that he was not competent to be a healer.
What Geller offered to ufology was a revival of the almost dormant “flying saucer” myth, with the important change in emphasis that the saving message was less a social than a personal one, as befitting the change in the climate of New Age thought from the collective to the personal.
Despite the apocalyptic tone often adopted by the prophets of the saving power of psi and the consciousness revolution, it was often difficult to see if what was offered was anything more than salvation from the straitjackets of bourgeois convention, and even that might be muted. Indeed, many of the consciousness-training techniques were little more than a revamping of the old metaphysical movements, with their “power of positive thinking”, aimed at improving one’s ability in the capitalist rat race.
Perhaps such judgements are harsh for, if nothing else, the whole range of consciousness movements did offer visions of human solidarity, and above all affirmed the intrinsic values of non-western cultures to a western audience. Such a message had a very poignant appeal to western societies, whose self confidence had been bruised by loss of empire and military defeat. The west was to receive a dose of the missionary medicine it had dished out to the Third World, and was not to like it.
The central theme of much of the New Age movement was a restatement of a mythology of hope. In its often naive optimism, its avoidance of the problems of evil and suffering, it was clearly the child of the metaphysical movement, and of the myth of the American Adam. (42)
Emerging from this fusion of ufology and parapsychology were the new ufologies of Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman, (43) and D. Scott Rogo. (44) These writers regarded the UFO experience as an essentially human affair, and ascribed Geller/Castaneda-like powers to humanity as a whole in order to do this. In this way they symbolically affirmed the autonomy of humanity and the primacy of human values. They asserted in effect that people were the masters of their own destiny and neither prisoners of impersonal (or even personal) transhuman forces, nor dependent on them for their survival. In Rogo’s case this was presented in the starkest fashion and came very close to invoking the image of the superman who was able to bend the universe to his will.
“The collective unconscious, too long suppressed,
will burst free, overwhelm the world, and usher in
an era of madness, superstition and terror, with
all its accoutrements: war, anarchy and fascism.”
Clark and Coleman, on the other hand, were presenting a far more sophisticated position. They were actually diagnosing what they saw as the human condition” of western man. The overvaluation of technology and rationalism had led to a loss of balance, or to use a phrase of Carl Jung’s a loss of soul. Western humanity had become alienated from the collective unconscious and a sense of the spiritual. This could easily lead to a pendulum swing to a new irrationalism. As chillingly predicted by Clark and Coleman, “the collective unconscious, too long suppressed, will burst free, overwhelm the world, and usher in an era of madness, superstition and terror, with all its accoutrements: war, anarchy and fascism.” (43) The collective unconscious here becomes a symbol of nature, and the old myth of the revenge of nature (Dionysius) is clearly spelt out.
To avoid this perpetual pendulum swing from incredulity to credulity and back again Clark and Coleman believed that a 'modern myth' was needed, and believed that they had found it in ufology. In 1975 such a hope seemed quite plausible. After all, as this article has shown, the UFO folklore had, in the past, effectively symbolised social anxieties, and it appeared to be effective in combining magical and scientific themes. Yet now, returning to the opening of this piece, ufology is now silent in the United States and the United Kingdom.
One reason for the loss of power of the UFO myth lies in an increasing sophistication of ufology itself, and in society’s response to its implications. The old ufological certainties have long disappeared with the credibility of many of its claims, and the old simplicities of flying saucer and UFO have become so ambiguous as to lose much of their power. By the very action of labelling ufology a modern myth, the new ufologists have in fact seriously impeded its possibilities of becoming just that.
Not only that, but some of the options which ufology presented are now almost ruled out. People no longer have faith in the saving power of modern technology; and the sheer moral ambiguity involved in “the great white chief from Ashtar Command coming here to take things in hand” is much more evident in the post-colonial age. Also, the evidence seems to suggest that the UFO is no longer really capable of symbolising concrete and external threats. The new vague and ambiguous UFOs symbolise vague and ambiguous threats, primarily internal ones. If saviours from space don’t add up now, neither do really concrete nasty aliens.
There has indeed been a shift back to a more concrete expression of the UFO myth. Foe example, there seems to have been a move away from abduction stories and back to the stories of crashed saucers, (45, 46) as well as aircraft encounters such as the now-famous New Zealand film. Yet the very fact that elements of the New Ufology” soon began to creep into that story (47, 48) shows how difficult it is to hold the line.
Furthermore, the identification of ufology with the consciousness movement aligned it with a philosophy which had failed to gain significant working-class support. It is very difficult to imagine the average Chelsea supporter being converted to John Day’s creed of peace and vegetarianism, or support from any disadvantaged section of society (the number of black American ufologists can surely be counted on the fingers of one hand).
Indeed, perhaps one can see in the short-lived Age of Aquarius the last swan song of the belief in progress. For myths of the 'new age on this world', from the mildest reformism to the most radical revolution, have faded. For instead of creating a bold new myth, the revolt against rationalism which Clark and Coleman feared and prophesied, has given a Frankenstein’s-monster-like pseudo-life to traditional belief systems.
In the cacophony of rival intolerances, whether the revival of Christian fundamentalism, or Islamic fundamentalism, or neo-Orthodox Judaism, re-Stalinified Communism, or even the stringent rationalism of James Randi, one senses the fragile dream of world dialogue shattered, and the various strands of the human community, shell-shocked beyond endurance by social change, retreating in despair to their laagers, like wounded beasts crawling back to their lairs to die.
And in this climate, it is interesting to note that there has been a growing scepticism about extraterrestrial life (49) and of attempts to communicate with with other forms of life, whether dolphins, chimpanzees, or extraterrestrials. Indeed, perhaps in these times a belief in the ETH would be somehow dangerous, making us too careless of our own survival. Maybe it is by a belief that human beings are the only means by which the cosmos can become aware of its own existence, that humanity can become aware of its own unity and essential sacredness. And in such a myth of the One People, the Children of Olduvai, bound for the stars, will perhaps come the strength to survive and to realise that to die for Ronald Reagan, Leonid Brezhnev or Margaret Thatcher would be a far greater madness than that shown by those who died for Jim Jones in the forests of Guyana.
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