The question that kept occurring to me as I read Eric Ouellet’s challenging, lucid, at times brilliant book: to what extent do you have to be a believer in parapsychology to accept its arguments? Cut the “para” from “parapsychological” in the subtitle; will the book still work as well, or nearly as well?
I think the answer is yes.
This gratifies me, since I have my qualms about parapsychology, although (as some readers have reminded me) this may simply be that I haven’t read enough in the field. I’m ready to stand up and cheer when Ouellet writes, in his introduction, that for him “parapsychology” doesn’t mean “the actions of ethereal or trans-dimensional entities of any kind. It implies, instead a form of human potential that is not well understood.” If this ill-understood “potential” can be grounded in our current scientific paradigm, I’m all the happier.
Of course Ouellet would disagree. A Ph.D. in sociology from Toronto’s York University and a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, he’s maintained for the past eight years an excellent blog called “Parasociology,” named for a social-scientific field of his own devising that stands in relation to conventional sociology very much as parapsychology does to orthodox psychology.
If parapsychology explores how human individuals interact with their “paranormal” potentials–telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis and the like–“parasociology” does the same for human societies. For Ouellet, the existence of these potentials is beyond dispute. What demands investigation is how they function within our social worlds.
As precursors, Ouellet can point to “those who propose a new understanding of Carl Jung’s concept of collective unconscious … construed as going beyond supposing that we share, as individuals, ‘hard wired’ archetypes, and accept[ing] that the collective unconscious is … dynamic and actively interacting with the social environment.” This explains what he’s talking about when, in Illuminations, he speaks of the UFO “phenomenon” as an active, volitional agency, even while making clear he has no belief in UFOs as vehicles from other solar systems or other dimensions.
It makes sense, then, that Ouellet draws a parallel between a UFO sighting wave and a spate of poltergeist activity. A typical poltergeist “haunting,” he says, unfolds in four phases. First comes the “surprise,” when eerie, unexplained noises and self-moving objects burst upon a seemingly ordinary household or neighborhood, catching everyone unawares. Enter the journalists and the psychic investigators, the latter providing a supernatural explanation for the strange goings-on. After them come the more critical investigators, in whose presence the phenomenon wilts. Often it has to be propped up by deliberate trickery, which naturally discredits all that’s come before. In the end it’s written off as a hoax and forgotten.
UFOlogists will find the sequence drearily familiar. As if a UFO wave is a poltergeist event writ large, playing itself out, not in a home or neighborhood but in a city, a region, often an entire country. Sometimes a country as big as the United States.
Now comes the interesting part.
A poltergeist haunting, Ouellet points out, will often focus on “an individual who is experiencing significant emotional turmoil (oftentimes a teenager or a pre-teen, but not always), but because of some social dynamics cannot express it.” The “poltergeist” then becomes “an alternate way to communicate about his or her psychological turmoil.” (And let it be noted: this analysis will work just as well if there’s no “psychokinesis” or any other paranormal process involved, and the weird bangings were from the very start done by the focus person in some ordinary but undetected way.)
So who is the focus person (or people) in a UFO wave? What social “turmoil” is expressed by mysterious objects that appear in the sky? What symbolic correlations can we find between the phenomena and the hidden message they’re trying to express? And once we’ve found correlations–how do we know they’re for real?
The devil is in this last question. Any correlation is only as strong as the conviction it inspires that it’s something more than random coincidence, and the standard argument offered for its significance–the rhetorical question Can it be coincidence that … ?–is just too easy to answer. Yeah, sure it can be coincidence. Why not?
Can it be coincidence, for example, that the Belgian UFO wave of 1989-90 will function as a symbolic mirror of the political events that were shaking Europe at precisely the same time? Here’s the story, as Ouellet tells it in the fifth chapter of his book:
The wave began on November 29, 1989. It lasted through the following March, although sightings continued to dribble in for another year or so (until March 1991). Although there was a wide variety in the objects reported, the single most common UFO type was a dark triangle in the night sky, “with a very bright white light in each corner and a weaker red light in the middle of the triangle.”
Triangular UFOs, unknown when I was a boy, were not quite a novelty in 1989. There’d been numerous nighttime sightings of triangular or “boomerang-shaped” UFOs from the Hudson Valley in New York State in the early and mid 1980s. But it was the Belgian cases that established them as a standard UFO genre, alongside the more traditional disks and cigar shapes. The American F-117 fighter, developed in secrecy during the 80s and first made public one year before the Belgian wave began, may have influenced people to expect such things in the skies.
But there’s a lot more to the story, as Ouellet shows.
November 1989 was a historic time, for Europe and the world. The Berlin Wall came down on November 9. The (mostly non-violent) crumbling of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe, which hardly anybody had anticipated, unfolded during the months that followed. Can it be coincidence that Belgium, so singularly favored by the UFOs of 1989-90–sightings seemed to stop at the German and French borders–housed the headquarters of NATO in its capital Brussels? That the NATO symbol was (and is) a white star, while the red star was a symbol of Communism? That the most common type of Belgian UFO displayed a Jungian-style quaternity of three bright white stars (lights) surrounding a faint red star?
Whatever people were seeing in the sky, it refused to show up on film. Most UFO photos from the wave showed only a fuzzy light or else nothing at all, even when the photographers were sure they were watching something far more dramatic. Proof, to me, that the distinctive UFO came from inside.
There was one exception: a beautiful close-up shot of the classic “triangle,” taken in April 1990. It turned out to be a hoax. The hoaxer, who finally confessed in 2011, “explains that it were [sic] the witnesses’ descriptions of ‘the Belgian triangle’ that inspired him to build a lookalike model. He further asserts that he has always been a true believer (‘I believe in UFOs, I believe in ufology and I’m sure the Belgian wave was the real thing’).
(This declaration confirms what Ouellet writes at the end of chapter 7, about the Canadian wave of 1966-67: “Some other sightings are likely to be misperceptions and hoaxes, but these other sightings, including the hoaxes, could be seen as synchronistic events that participated in creating a social psi event by keeping the attention on the phenomenon.” Cut the needless references to psi and synchronicity; the point Ouellet is making still stands. A hoax can be a legitimate part of a UFO “event,” in that bears testimony to how the event is understood by those involved in it.)
So no, I don’t think it’s coincidence. I think the medieval tradition of seeing–not just imagining, seeing–military and political upheavals mirrored in the skies was alive and well in late 20th-century Belgium. We don’t have to invoke “precognition”–as Ouellet does in some of the less convincing segments of his argument–or to assume as our ancestors did that the visions were prophetic. No need for prophecy: the Wall fell 20 days before the UFOs made their appearance. People saw wonders in the sky, because they knew already that something historic and wondrous was happening on the ground around them.
The Belgian wave is Ouellet’s most powerful and persuasive case. Some of his other correlations have a forced quality about them, like his suggestion that the rash of UFOs over Washington, DC, in July 1952 was linked to the Democratic National Convention (in Chicago) at about the same time. Others are a mixed bag of acute observations and linkages that can only be called–or at least that I would call–a considerable stretch.
In his discussion of the Betty and Barney Hill abduction (experienced in 1961, unearthed by hypnosis in 1964), Ouellet is one of the few UFOlogical writers to emphasize how cruelly Barney was “challenged … about his identity as an African-American man married to a white woman in the 1960s. The hypnotic regression showed that issue was a constant preoccupation for him.” UFOlogists usually ignore Barney’s having seen, through his binoculars, first a red-headed Irishman and then a black-jacketed Nazi inside the UFO. Naturally; what would an Irishman and a Nazi be doing aboard a spaceship from Zeta Reticuli? Ouellet properly insists on how crucial these details are to understanding the Hills’ experience.
But shall we take the next step with Ouellet, and see the Hills’ UFO as a mirror of the coach buses used in 1961 by the civil rights “Freedom Riders”? Here I balk, even though Ouellet makes the intriguing observation that, like the UFO with its red lights on either side (which I’ve always found baffling), the coach buses of the era had “red lights on top at each end.”
It’s also intriguing that, if you take Betty’s famous star map and invert it, it looks a lot like the 1961 routes of the Freedom Riders across the American South. Of course, you’ve got to turn it upside down first. Can this be coincidence? I think it can be, and is.
Is there really “a striking similarity” between the alien face made standard by the cover of Whitley Strieber’s Communion–again, turned upside down–and the sinister hood of the Ku Klux Klan? They do have the same shape, kind of. But the hitch is that the face that’s become so familiar since 1987, when Communion was published, was unknown in the 1960s. The alien face that Barney Hill knew, sketched, and described was substantially different, and less amenable to Ouellet’s interpretation.
So not all of Ouellet’s arguments are equally convincing. But all are stimulating, all are provocative. All contribute to making this book one of the most fascinating UFO books I’ve read in a long time–a vital contribution to the understanding of the UFO as a social and psychological phenomenon.
And if Ouellet wants to restore the “para” at the beginning of these two adjectives, I may disagree. But I won’t complain.
by David Halperin
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