12.11.10

UFO FOLK AND UFOLKLORE

Thomas E Bullard. The Myth and Mystery of UFOs. University Press of Kansas, 2010. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

In this important contribution to the UFO literature, Thomas Eddie Bullard looks at the development of the folk beliefs surrounding UFOs, how these reflect many long-standing traditions, and how they influence perceptions of anomalous experiences. Bullard notes that we do not have direct access to any UFO phenomenon (or phenomena) but, echoing the points I made in Truth Tales and Catalogues, he argues in greater detail how there is a trail from event, to how that event is experienced, remembered, understood, communicated to others, how audiences interpret that communication, how they then pass there interpretations on to a wider public, so that the event becomes established in popular lore,

The popular lore surrounding UFO reports - in particular the ever present ETH - not only alters perceptions and interpretations, turning for example anomalous lights and vague 'things' into machines, but also helps set up resistance to such reports from the cultural mainstream.

In the core of the book Bullard examines the growth of the UFO lore through several stages from the early reports of lights in the sky, though the rise of stories of close encounters and occupants, the growth of the abduction narratives, the tales of crashed flying saucers, the incorporation of conspiracy theories of various degrees of complexity, and on to the modern period "uforia without the UFOs". It has to be said that this timeline is rather US orientated, for example tales of landed flying saucers and meetings with occupants are out in Europe and South America at least 10 years before they become established in the USA.

Almost from the start the nascent UFO community began to construct a past for the UFO phenomena, ranging from the immediate past of ghost rockets and foo fighters, to the remote past of classical, Biblical and other ancient sources. These sources themselves can show us, Bullard, argues how culture can interpret observations (e.g. aurora perceived as armies fighting in the sky). He looks at the great airship flaps, perhaps rather superficially given the amount of work he once put into studying them. One feature he could have pointed out was how already these narratives were using folkloric imagery, and were invoking ambivalences about the rise of modern technology. The airships are already what the flying saucers will become, images of the transcendent machine.

Of particular interest is Bullard's account of how the rise of scientific and popular cultural images of extraterrestrial life mirrored earlier accounts of otherworldly voyages and encounters with others in semi-human shape. Though the imagined inhabitants of strange and foreign lands are seen as grotesque caricatures of the human (faces on their chests, one giant leg etc.) they are seen as humanoid and thus within the human community.

The rise of modern ideas about extraterrestrials centres around Martians, and Percival Lovell's visions of the dying Mars, which led to H. G. Wells's vision of the Martian invaders. The idea of Martians carries on into the modern UFO era with speculation about Martians being concerned about the explosions of atomic bombs. Long after Mars itself has been disenchanted, Lovell's vision of a dying world persists in the abductees visions of blasted and dying wasteland worlds.

Polarities fix our images of otherworlds, heaven and hell, paradise and wilderness, Utopian and despot, gods and devils, lovely peace loving Venusians and nasty warlike Martians (obviously the inhabitants of these planets should take after their respective classical namesake). Bullard draws out these themes of one the one hand salvation, and on the other invasion, again tracking beyond ufology into wider culture.

As we approach the abduction narratives and tales of hybrid children, Bullard is able to bring in multiple themes, the early American colonial tales of abduction by Native Americans, tales of fairy abduction and changelings, the parallels with the Satanic abuse stories, traditional witchcraft stories. Bullard concedes that the modern abduction narratives echo modern human concerns about being swept up into an impersonal modern world. The drab grey dusty personality-less greys are us, or what we fear we could become.

The fears of the abduction narratives are also of us in another way. The government, even if hiding the truth about the UFOs, was once seen as doing it for our own good, to prevent panic. Now much of this folklore portrays the government as being part of or party to some vast conspiracy with forces of cosmic evil. These tales of conspiracy involving mysterious secret governments have dark echoes. So too do the tales of the hybrids, the idea that the other is secretly walking our streets, THEY, who are both us and not us, are taking are women, are burrowing in the depths of many previous nativist fears.

One thing that Bullard does not quite grasp is that once the hybrids are no longer seen as wan fairy children safely tucked up in their vats in their otherworldly fairyland, but as adults walking the streets, and the image of the hybrid is fused with classical right-wing conspiracy mythology, the abduction myth has crashed through the safety barrier into the realm of what some writers have called antisemitism without the Jews. These dark paranoias seem to be at the heart of the new TV series "The Event", which portrays 'aliens' who look just like humans but are somehow subtly different and are entering our world for some unknown but presumably nefarious purpose.

Reading this book, we can see how much cultural accretion has accumulated around the image of the UFO, indeed many of us would argue that it has essentially constructed it. Bullard argues for some core phenomenon behind this accretion, and gives examples of a number of puzzling-looking reports, while conceding that many of these taken at face value make little sense.

The problem is that without the cultural structure of the ETH or its more esoteric cousins there is little reason to require the existence of a unitary UFO phenomenon. That, of course, does not automatically imply that all UFO reports are ultimately generated by well-catalogued and understood environmental or psychological/neurological processes, indeed such a view would imply that we know everything there is to know about ourselves and our environment. It does however suggest that really puzzling UFO reports might be generated by lots of different things.

Nor can we see an impermeable boundary to the UFO experience which sets it apart from other anomalous personal experiences. We would agree with Bullard than people do indeed have all manner of such experiences, only those portions of which that can be more or less shoehorned into some socially constructed category - with their own body of students - being regularly reported.

We can see how protean anomalous experiences can be so slotted by looking at the story of Kary Mullis and his luminous raccoon and enchanted farm, which Bullard devotes some space to. Of course such a story could equally be presented as one of a haunted farm, or due to the activities of fairies or witches.

Despite these slight differences there is much more in this book with which I agree, and I heartily recommend it to all Magonians.


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