“My girlfriend and I were returning from Olive Garden in my car,” said the witness, a physician in private practice. It was an uneventful trip home from a restaurant meal, until the couple “descended a large hill” a few hundred yards from their house and “an object materialized at the side (passenger side of car) of the road. We spotted it simultaneously but did not know what it was.”
It was 11:15 p.m. on the evening of August 10, 2012. Location: just outside Lancaster, Ohio. I heard the story a little under two weeks ago from Tom Wertman, Ohio director for the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), who spoke at the National UFO Conference 50th reunion in Cleveland. A few days later Tom graciously sent me the full MUFON report, which I draw upon here.
The mysterious object was “black, cubic, and about 2 feet on each side. S_____ said she could see four metallic legs under it. I thought I could see heat radiation coming off its surface. I tried to avoid it but it lifted up and rammed my right front fender hard as I passed, knocking off my fog light and folding the fender under the wheel well. The object had a metallic feel to it when it hit my car. S_____ rolled down her window because she said she ‘heard something weird.’ The car began vibrating roughly (I had kept going–I was frightened), as if it would stall. We both heard loud jet engine-like noises coming from the right side of the car. I told her to roll up the window and that I would try to get us home.”
Luckily they were already almost home. They parked in their driveway and got out. Their car had indeed been damaged by the impact, the driveway littered with plastic parts. The doctor and his girlfriend, a licensed nurse, got into his truck and drove back to the place of the encounter. No UFO; no debris.
“Neither of us spoke about the object’s appearance till the morning, i.e., the cubic shape. We were both sort of embarrassed to admit to each other the weirdness of what we actually saw, but we agree about the basics. I didn’t see the legs and she didn’t see the heat signature. We both saw the shape and color, however. We walked up the hill today along the road and found four more plastic pieces of my car. One has obvious melted areas as if heated.”
About an hour after their encounter, the couple saw a brilliant light “like an orb” traveling down the road, passing their house. Sometime afterward, I imagine the next morning, they found several dead birds in their driveway near the car.
The MUFON investigators, according to their report, thought both witnesses “honest and very straightforward.” The damage done to the car, in the area of the right fender, was unmistakable. Something clearly had impacted it, leaving a residue in the form of a brown smudge. That smudge turned out to be mud, containing hairs which, examined by the investigators under a microscope, proved to be those of an animal. Raccoon, most likely.
So the “UFO” was a raccoon struck by the doctor’s car. “THIS CASE IS CLOSED,” the MUFON report concludes. But is it?
No, I’m not quarreling with MUFON’s classification of it as “IFO-Natural.” There are a couple of loose ends, to be sure. The light seen moving down the road remains unexplained, and the MUFON investigators could only suggest that it was an automobile headlight. (If the car’s other headlight was burned out, the sight would have an eerie quality for people whose nerves were already jangled by their experience.) The dead birds are also baffling, though they wouldn’t be any less so if the “IFO” had been a real flying machine.
Overall, though, the explanation is convincing. It will account even for the “loud jet engine-like noises coming from the right side of the car”–the right front tire rubbing against the crumpled fender.
But I don’t think the story ends with that explanation. For me, it’s only the beginning.
My guiding principle is this: The UFO sighting may have a trigger in the external world. In this case, the unfortunate raccoon was that trigger. But the trigger is not the UFO itself. The UFO comes from inside the witness.
So the essential question for a serious UFOlogy is: by what psychic processes did these two sincere, apparently intelligent people transform an animal struck by their car into a low-flying metallic object?
It’s natural! you say. The encounter must have been over in a few seconds, if even that. Naturally the witnesses’ impressions of the thing they encountered would have become fantastically garbled. But I never said this was “unnatural.” It’s precisely the naturalness of the transformation that makes the episode interesting and important.
One element of the transformation was the reversal of cause and effect. The witnesses experienced a low-flying vehicle that slammed into their car. In fact it was the car that slammed into it, and its “flight” was the result of the impact. There’s a fascinating parallel in an episode from the 1987-88 rash of UFO sightings in (mostly) Wythe County, Virginia, when a UFO was seen to fly across a mountainside and blast a tree with its heat-ray, leaving a burned-out stump as proof of its presence.
“It turned out,” wrote journalist and author Paul Dellinger, “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.”
In the Ohio case also, the MUFON investigators noted that “the witnesses do watch shows relating the UFOs … watching the shows played a major part in their interpretation of the event.” But it’s hard to read their story without having the sense that something more is going on than life imitating art, or in this case pop-culture. It interests me that “neither of us spoke about the object’s appearance till this morning … both sort of embarrassed to admit to each other the weirdness of what we actually saw.” Why that silence? Why that embarrassment? It’s a motif I’ve run across in other contexts: two witnesses, spouses or lovers, jointly experience a bizarre UFO-related incident. Yet it’s days or weeks or sometimes years before they’re willing to talk about it with one another. Why?
The woman “said she could see four metallic legs under it.” OK: a raccoon does have four legs. Yet if (God forbid) you hit an animal with your car and it goes flying, are its legs really the feature that would stand out? Unless those legs, and their “four-ness”–I’m getting Jungian here–already have a psychic, or let’s say it, “archetypal,” meaning for you?
“Four legs,” let it be noted, have been a feature of some of the most baffling UFO sightings of the past. At Socorro, New Mexico, on April 24, 1964, patrolman Lonnie Zamora saw (or thought he saw) an egg-shaped object resting on four legs on the ground; four indentations remained after it was gone. In Papua New Guinea on the evening of June 26, 1959, the Reverend William Booth Gill and more than two dozen of his parishioners saw in the sky a foursome (quaternity?) of disk-like objects. Their sketches of the UFOs show four legs–functionless, since the objects never landed–on each of them.
Of course the objects over Papua New Guinea weren’t raccoons or any other animal! Martin Kottmeyer, in an unpublished paper which he was kind enough to share with me, has made a good case that Father Gill’s UFOs were triggered by planets and unusually bright stars. The rest, including the “legs,” was psychic projection. Which turns out to be no less fantastic, in its own way, than visitors from outer space. Will the “solved” Ohio sighting of a four-legged UFO shed light on the psychic mechanisms underlying the still-unsolved classic from New Guinea?
And what gave rise to the doctor’s impression that “I could see heat radiation coming off its surface”? The MUFON investigators suggest this was the raccoon’s fur. Unlike the rest of their very impressive report, this strikes me as strained and unconvincing. I can’t do any better. But if I had a close acquaintance with the witness, and understood what “heat radiation” meant for him, I bet I could.
Some of the points I’ve raised came to me only after Tom sent me the MUFON report, and I had a chance to read and digest it. But as soon as he spoke about the case in Cleveland two weeks ago, my first thought was This is important! and my hand shot up. But my old friend Allen Greenfield, sitting next to me, already had his hand up, and he said pretty much what I was about to say. Namely, that this is an episode that has an enormous amount to teach us, and shouldn’t be dumped into the waste pile of “explained” sightings and forgotten.
In other words, that the IFO has a lot to tell us about the UFO, if only we’re prepared to hear it.
Keep this in mind next time you’re disposed to laugh at skeptic Joe Nickell’s explanation of the famous “Flatwoods monster” of September 1952 as having been a barn owl.
No, sorry–the barn owl was the trigger for the monster. The monster came from within.
by David Halperin
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