When filmmaker Sean Kotz emailed five months ago, asking for my cooperation with his project “Strange Country,” I was excited. It was to be a documentary, he explained, on the UFO sightings of 1987-88 in Wythe County, Virginia. I’d heard about these sightings not long before; I had shared a panel at the February MystiCon in Roanoke with journalist and author Paul Dellinger, co-author with Danny B. Gordon of a book entitled Don’t Look Up! The Real Story Behind the Virginia UFO Sightings (Empire Publishing, Inc., 1988). The Gordon-Dellinger book, like so many others, had sat for several weeks unread on my shelf. Now, spurred by Sean’s email, I moved it to the head of the line.
It isn’t the most satisfying book I’ve ever read. I’ve changed as a UFOlogist from when I was a teenager: now it’s precisely the solved UFO sightings that interest me. The unsolved ones are simply riddles without apparent answers, things in the sky whose significance I don’t begin to understand and which therefore have nothing to teach me. Even suppose they’re alien spaceships, which I don’t believe for a minute. Nothing can be predicated of them. The aliens, being aliens, are not going to behave as we would in similar circumstances. (If they did, they wouldn’t have played hide-and-go-seek in the sky for the past sixty years.) To say “extraterrestrial vehicles” cashes out to the same thing as saying “we don’t know.” I prefer the three-word answer.
The episode in Don’t Look Up! that most interested me was an incident from Smyth County. A UFO was seen to fly across a mountainside and blast a tree with its heat-ray. Sure enough, a burned-out stump remained, as proof something had really happened.
But what was that something? “It turned out,” Dellinger wrote, “that someone had tried to smoke a squirrel out of that tree, and set a fire that built up inside the trunk until it literally blew up. What people had seen was the explosion, followed by a piece of flaming debris being hurled away from it—the reverse of what they thought they saw, having been conditioned by all the flying saucer reports to expect a UFO before the explosion.”
Now that’s fascinating. I learn from it about the nature of human perception, and what happens when perception is translated into memory. That, for me, is the locus of the real UFO mystery.
There weren’t any such neat explanations for most of the sighting wave that began on October 7, 1987. Danny Gordon broke the story, and the media went wild over it. This is part of the standard pattern: UFOs are news. Big news. (In April 2010, for example, a fireball was spotted over the Midwest and became the top news story on CNN.com. It completely overwhelmed the second-ranking item, about the arrest of one of Tiger Woods’ mistresses.)
The weeks passed. Gordon had his own sightings, some of them dramatic. And then the “answer” was revealed: what people had been watching was aircraft refueling operations. From then on that answer was canonical. The media would entertain no questioning. Never mind that witnesses had described craft at lower altitudes than would be possible for a refueling procedure.
This is also part of the pattern. The mystery is reported, promoted, milked for all its titillation. Then it’s dropped, and anyone who protests is a nut case. We forget all about UFOs. Until the next time.
In the meantime, Gordon’s life became a shambles. A roll of photographic negatives, with his UFO shots on it, was stolen from his home. To quote the website for “Strange Country”: “The house was entered without damage, no evidence was left behind and the only thing missing was that single roll of film. … Danny’s phone line would suddenly pop every time the discussion turned to UFOs and his daughter developed mysterious nosebleeds, both of which, he was told, could result from microwave surveillance techniques. Two men posing as reporters from Charlottesville came to Gordon’s home and after a while one feigned illness to get upstairs and search his belongings. Strange calls at strange hours came daily. … Some warned that he should back off the story suggesting that the government would eliminate him while others told him they had met before on a spaceship.”
Eventually he was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown.
How easy it would be to dismiss all this as incidental damage—interesting, no doubt, but not relevant to the real mystery in the Wythe County skies. That’s exactly what Sean Kotz refuses to do. The premise of “Strange Country” is that the UFO phenomenon is not essentially in the sky but here on earth.
Or, as I wrote in my last post, the observer is part of the sighting. So are the believers. So are the debunkers. So are the media that report it, hype it, drop it and spit on it when they’ve grown bored with it. So are the “crackpots”—with that disparaging epithet, have we really explained anything?—who swarm around it like moths at a porch light.
All these are what “Strange Country” is about. Sean doesn’t exaggerate when he calls it, on his website, “a different type of UFO documentary … about the people who are left behind in the wake of high strangeness.”
Even the book Don’t Look Up! is within the film’s subject. Not only does the book report on the Wythe County UFO phenomenon. It’s itself part of it.
I’d seen the facetious cartoons that disfigure the book, which the publisher added (Sean tells me) without Gordon’s or Dellinger’s knowledge or consent. Sprinkled through the book, they manage to undercut its gravity and sincerity. I didn’t really pay attention to the cartoons, though, and I didn’t grasp their significance until Sean pointed it out to me.
For example: on pages 10-11, Dellinger writes about “pharmacist Bill Elliott (no relation to the cowboy star)” who “was drawing customers with a ‘Flying Saucer Information’ sign in his drugstore window.” To which the publisher contributes a sketch of a comically rendered cowboy, standing on a high stool to post a notice “Flying Saucer Information Here.” A lumpy-nosed, goofy-looking alien with two prominent front teeth pilots a disk across page 93. Every few pages there’s more of this. Not-so-subliminal message: this is all pretty silly, ain’t it?
It’s painful to watch this sabotage of two thoughtful authors who had a serious message they wanted to convey—at least one of whom suffered dreadfully for having carried that message. Doubly painful; because something similar once happened to me.
It was back in 1962-63, when I was in tenth grade. I’d written an article on UFOs for our high school literary magazine. A good article? I think so—especially considering I was 15 at the time—although I don’t now believe a single thing I was then so convinced of. But I was convinced, not only of the UFOs’ reality, but of their immense importance. I badly wanted to persuade others. And so I marshaled my arguments in my gravest, most impressive prose.
The magazine published my article. Illustrated, however, with a full-page cartoon:
Which mocked me, mocked all that I’d said, the whole subject I’d written about. Of course I was a “good sport”; I laughed along with the joke. As I suppose Gordon and Dellinger did too. What choice did Empire Publishing, Inc., give them?
The joke, this kind of working both sides of the street, the puffing up of UFOs in order to deflate them with a great big horse-laugh—that’s all part of the phenomenon. This is what Sean Kotz has seen.
And that’s why “Strange Country” will be such an important film.