“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”
–“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)
Of course it wasn’t really the sun. The sun, considered as an astronomical body, doesn’t do that kind of thing. So when the nodding, grinning, half-crazy old man announces at the end of the opening south-of-the-border sequence of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” that “El sol salió anoche y me cantó,” Steven Spielberg gives us to understand: it was a brilliant, shining UFO, communicating (as Spielberg’s aliens like to do) through musical tones. The old man called it “the sun” because he didn’t know what else to call it.
Yet the sun does at times do strange things. So does the moon. And if they do these things only in the minds of the multiple witnesses, does that make them any less interesting?
In a paper in the 1988 collection Phenomenon: Forty Years of Flying Saucers, British UFOlogist Hilary Evans tells of a remarkable incident from late 1981. Jenny Randles, then Director of Investigations for the British UFO Research Association (BUFORA), “received a report from a Mrs Adams (pseudonym), aged sixty-five, who, while watching a TV film, had felt ‘compelled’ to go to the window, where she saw a large bright yellow object stationary in the sky. Going outside, she saw it more clearly as ‘like two blobs of golden jelly’ wobbling and pulsating, which shortly afterwards changed to a cross.
“Greatly excited, she phoned her son who lived nearby; he and his wife Janette couldn’t see it, but Janette came over to her mother-in-law’s home and both watched enthralled as the object changed shape repeatedly, seemed to emit smoke as though to camouflage itself, and was approached by aircraft which seemed to be investigating it.
“When at one stage the object disappeared, the women expressed a wish that it would return; and when it did, they felt this was in response to their wish. It was now very close, seemingly hovering over a nearby house, and Janette was able to see lights and structured sides on the object.
“The next day Mrs Adams saw strange figures on her TV screen which she believed were a message directed at her. Both she and Janette suffered from severe and recurrent headaches, and four days after the sighting Mrs Adams had what she believed to be a fourteen hour ‘missing time’ experience, and speculated that she might have been contacted. She believed she had been chosen and ‘called’ to look out the window; that the beings in the UFO were protecting her, despite the headaches; and her overall response was a surge of fresh confidence in coping with the world.”
Evans says that Randles “established beyond any reasonable doubt”–though he doesn’t say how she managed to do this–“that the UFO was simply the moon; that the ‘smoke’ was passing clouds, and that no aircraft had been sent to investigate the object.” Or, as I would prefer to put it: the moon was the external, physical stimulus for the UFO. The UFO itself, that which was truly “unidentified,” came from within the witness herself.
Or rather: from within the witnesses. The daughter-in-law’s responses are, for me, the most interesting part of the story. Initially, like her husband, she saw nothing in the sky. She must have seen the moon but attached no significance to it; why should she? It was just the moon. Only in her mother-in-law’s presence did she come to share the older woman’s vision of the thing transformed, split into two and turned golden, “wobbling and pulsating … afterwards changed to a cross.”
This last detail has obvious religious overtones. Also roots, however, in the local UFOlogy: flying crosses had been a feature of the British UFO wave of 1967. On October 26 of that year, a certain Angus Brooks saw in the sky an “insect-like” entity which put forth four arms, eventually taking on “the shape of a giant cross in the sky.” Like the two ladies in 1981, Brooks had the sense the unknown entity was aware of him, though he didn’t describe it as responding to his wishes. The earlier sighting, however, was a single-witness affair. Angus Brooks had with him only his dog, which, during the time the object was in view, “appeared distraught, clawing at him for attention.”
In a post almost exactly two years ago, I conjectured that the object that triggered Brooks’ experience might have been a jet airplane passing overhead. (It couldn’t have been the moon; Brooks’ experience took place in the daytime.) Yet in 1967 and again in 1981, the external stimulus was only the smallest part of the witnesses’ experience. The lion’s share by far came from the witnesses themselves.
“The fact that we can explain the stimulus for the witness’s response,” Evans comments perceptively, “by no means explains the response itself. Clearly there were psychological factors involved which predisposed Mrs Adams to turn a simple observation of a natural phenomenon into a highly specific experience which was directed at her personally.” And so “the negative view: ‘What was said to have happened hadn’t really happened, so nothing really happened’, falls far short of the true state of affairs.”
In 1981 there were two witnesses to a heavenly body doing what it shouldn’t have. Some 64 years earlier, a similar phenomenon was witnessed by a crowd that’s been estimated as large as 70,000. This was on October 13, 1917, the day when the five-month series of manifestations of Our Lady of Fátima (Portugal) came to their climax in what’s come to be known as “the Miracle of the Sun.”
Professor Jeffrey Kripal of Rice University describes that day in his 2010 book Authors of the Impossible. First there was a heavy rain, which stopped, and “a very white and brilliant little cloud raced across the sky.” More strange clouds followed, and then, as they parted, “a shining sun was revealed in full splendor.”
“It did a good deal more than shine, however. It spun. And then it fell to the earth with a terrifying zigzag motion. People were screaming in horror and praying in sheer terror. … To some, the sun was not spherical, and it shone very much unlike the sun, more like a conch shell or a moon. Others were a bit more specific, describing it rather bluntly as ‘a metallic disk as if of silver,’ or as ‘a very clear, silvery blue disk.’ Apparently, something ‘stood out’ from the sun that could be looked at, that could be seen, that was not the sun. And this is what fell to earth. …
“The ‘sun’ continued to fall until it almost touched the ground, until it got to the height of a pine tree, as one report had it. It seemed that close. [Compare the 1981 incident, in which the UFO seemed to hover over a nearby house.] And then it went back up, with the same weird zigzag motion, until it was its old stable self again. Some people now found themselves completely dry, while others, oddly, were still soaking wet.”
Kripal is keenly aware of the parallels between the “Miracle of the Sun” and the contemporary UFO experience–the classic UFO “falling-leaf,” a.k.a. “zigzag,” maneuver is a particularly striking one–as well as the futility of trying to explain these parallels by supposing that the throngs at Fátima were “really” witnessing a visitation of interplanetary spaceships. Of course we could dismiss it all by invoking “mass hysteria.” But does that derogatory label really explain anything?
I’d prefer to stick with what we know: that the sun can on occasion spin and fall to earth in a zigzag pattern; that the moon can wobble, pulsate, and descend to hover over a neighbor’s home. That these phenomena take place in the psyche rather than the sky does not make them any less important or mysterious. How do they happen? We don’t yet know.
This UFOlogist’s hope: that someday we will.
by David Halperin
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