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A UFOlogy for the 21st Century

Here’s a proposition—a UFOlogical proposition.

UFOs are a human phenomenon.  A UFO sighting, therefore, is not bounded by the sky in which it’s appeared, or seems to have appeared.  The observer—better, experiencer—is a part of the sighting.

So is everyone who believes in that sighting.  So is everyone who invests emotion in debunking it.  The Donald Menzels and the Phil Klasses are as much a part of the UFO phenomenon as the Barney Hills and the John Macks and the Gray Barkers—who, in turn, are as much part of it as the bizarre events whose reality they proclaim.

In this proposition, I perceive the crux of what my friend Matt Graeber calls “21st-century UFOlogy.”

(I call Matt my friend, although I’ve never met him.  That’s the way it always was among us UFOlogists.  As a teenage UFO investigator, I built my “invisible college” of fellow-researchers—most of them teenage boys like me—with a string of four-cent postage stamps.  Now I use email.  But it feels very familiar.)

Two UFO cases from the 1970s, which Matt published in two articles in the British journal Magonia, illustrate his method at its best.

The earlier of these articles, “The Raefield Affair,” discussed the case of four disk-shaped objects seen by a young man driving to work near Chester, Pennsylvania, on August 26, 1976.  “I estimate that they were about the size of a single-engine aircraft—like a Piper cub, about 19 feet long.  No noise was apparent.  A pale yellowish-white colour emanated from all the UFOs.  Also, as they left, a very pale green colour was around the middle of the entire craft from the direction I was coming.”

Matt makes a strong case that the UFOs—or, more precisely, the physical triggers for the UFO sighting—were birds of some sort, probably gulls or terns.  The moment I read this, I was ready to say: yes, yes, yes!  I’ve never forgotten the evening my wife and I took a walk in the vicinity of a tall illuminated tower in the city where we live, and spotted 6-10 strange lights wheeling over the tower.  I was mystified until my wife said, “They’re birds.”  And I looked again, and they were birds.  In the dark, without depth perception, they gave the impression of being much farther away and therefore much larger than they actually were.

For a Menzel or a Klass, the identification of Mr. Raefield’s UFOs as birds would be the end of the story.  Case closed.  For Matt—and, I’d think, for 21st-century UFOlogy in general—it’s only the beginning.  How was it that this intelligent, level-headed man perceived birds, however distorted their appearance may have been by atmospheric conditions, as four flying disks?

The answer, says Matt, comes from within the observer.

But, since our witness’s sincerity in filing the report is beyond question and because it is the very ‘stuff’ of so many other UFO reports, we must consider the fact that the mere sight of these strange objects must have been a tremendous psychological shock for Mr. Raefield.  In fact, we might even go so far as to suspect that in such a state … he was probably experiencing the event emotionally and physiologically as well.

Raefield’s marriage, Matt discovered, was disintegrating at the time of the sighting.  He was living alone, apart from his wife and two children.  He was seeing another woman.  Could it be that the four UFOs—three to the left of the road on which he was driving, the fourth to the right—functioned for him as symbolic representations of the three members of his estranged family; and, “on his side” of the road, a fourth, his girlfriend?  And that his chance encounter with gulls, or terns, or whatever they were triggered a healing vision, by which his psyche found a path to guide itself through its emotional difficulties?

Well, yes, sure it could.  And if you say, “Pure speculation!”, I’ll have to agree.  Reading Matt’s discussion, I couldn’t help but think that the fourth was more likely Raefield himself (though the identification of the three with his wife and children still made good sense to me).  And that, beyond what the four disks meant to Raefield’s personal unconscious, the archetypal Jungian Quaternity (3+1, the fourth somehow different from the other three) was making yet one more appearance.

But what have we got but speculation, in the current state of 21st-century UFOlogy?  Hypotheses need to be advanced, then tested.  To hold back out of timidity gets us nowhere.

Matt’s second case is presented in an article entitled “On Down-to-Earth UFO Experiences.”  It happens on the night of November 17, 1977, in southeastern Pennsylvania.  A woman and her three young daughters see a disk flying low over their car.  The disk makes a humming sound “like a motor”; it’s no wild conjecture that what they’re seeing is in “reality” a small airplane.  But why do they all perceive it as a disk?

At the time of the sighting the woman was in the process of leaving her husband; she suspected him, reasonably, of molesting their daughters.  She was rethinking her relationship with her Roman Catholic faith, which condemned the step she was taking.  In the middle of this pain and chaos, she looks up into the sky.  And lo and behold! a UFO.

You came to me in motion
I do not know from where
If memory serves me right
You just happened to be there.

You were my childhood dream, come back
On the seventeenth of November
A dream I’d often dreamed
And now always will remember.

It’s not great literature, this poem the lady wrote about her experience.  But it’s haunting in its emotional authenticity.  What was the “dream” she’d dreamed as a child, now fulfilled by the UFO?  It’s a major weakness of Matt’s article that he doesn’t explore this question.  But the conclusion seems inescapable.  The stimulus for the UFO came from the outside, in the form of a misidentified airplane.  The UFO itself came from within.

Says Matt Graeber, on the aftermath of the sighting:

Mrs. Bailey now expressed the thought that her existence was not mundane but rather exceptional and filled with new purpose (a sentiment often expressed by UFO observers).  These remarks were not the kind of ‘ego-inflating’ statement that might signify the lifting of one’s mind from its hinges, but, rather, the kind which bolsters an already battered personality, defending it from more harm.

Indeed, hers were expressions of an extraordinarily soothing nature, which emerged in her mind in a rapid-fire form of cognition.  In them she found refuge, strength, and hope.  Was her UFO sighting the modern-day equivalent of a genuine religious experience?  Her philosophical and ‘spiritual’ transformation (or conversion) seems to be, at least in part, related to the event.

She found herself writing more poetry, sleeping and eating much better (gaining ten pounds in one month), most interestingly, a nightly skywatch (UFO surveillance) performed with binoculars borrowed from her brother became a family ritual for about three weeks (nothing unusual was observed during this time).  Since then, her situation has improved–all of her children now live with her and she has met someone who is very special and she thinks that he feels the same way about her.  She is thirty-nine years old at the time of this writing and has just started to really live.

Is the UFO experience hallucinatory?  I wouldn’t shy away from that word.  But we’re used to thinking of hallucinations as pathological.  Matt has shown that it’s possible to think of UFO hallucinations as the precise opposite–manifestations, not of disease, but of the psyche’s self-healing.  It’s pretty much what Jung intuited a half-century ago; only supported (as Jung’s guesses usually were not) by specific data.

Misperceived reality + healing vision = UFO sighting

Might that equation serve as the watchword of a 21st-century UFOlogy?

by David Halperin
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