It is hard for me to believe it, but this Spring and Summer marks 50 years of my interest in topics ufological, Fortean, Gouldian and paranormal. This interest was sparked by a television series called Court of Mystery which ran every other week from the 18th May to 13th July 1961. This featured a number of 'unsolved mysteries' including the Eilean Mor lighthouse, the Mary Celeste, Andrew Crosse the man who made insects, the loss of the Waratah, and finally 'The Flying Saucer'. I have still have some memories of most of these episodes, which clearly made an impact on a lad of about 10. The bits of the episode on Flying Saucers I can remember are those dealing with the famous Washington radar case of 1952, and the (fictitious) story of the monks of Byfield Abbey.
Some months later, in the winter of 1961/2 I bought my first UFO book, Aime Michel's The Truth About Flying Saucers in its Corgi paperback edition for the princely sum of 2/6d. (12½ p) (about £2 in today's prices, or £4.50 or so in terms of earnings, still very cheap by today's standards). Other works followed in the next few years, including some very strange stuff now discarded completely from my belief system, such as the works of Hans Bellamy and Immanuel Velikovsky but many others established the base for my 50 years of interest in these fields.
Of course as a pre-teen and teenager my approach to all of this was pretty uncritical, though Aime Michel had inoculated me against the contactees such as George Adamski, and my grandmother's Alzheimer's pretty much inoculated me equally against belief in life after death. I suppose my approach would have been characterised as nuts and bolts on many issues, I was a supporter of the ETH in Ufology, probably was convinced that plesiosaurs lurked around Loch Ness, the paws and pelts yetis strode the Himalayas, and people possessed all sorts of wild talents.
In the very early days I had day dreams that when I was grown up I would be involved in some great scientific enterprise to investigate these things, then I pulled myself up with the thought that long before then much of this would have been discovered, we would know for certain where the flying saucers came from, and the Loch Ness Monster and Yeti would be housed in Chester Zoo, yet here we are 50 years on and no further forward, or even in the case of laboratory psychical research several steps backwards.
My approach has, of course, got a lot more critical over the years as anyone who reads my articles, Northern Echoes columns and book reviews might see. Experience has been a hard teacher, as impressive evidence after impressive evidence goes west.
50 years seems to be a good time for some sort of summing up and assessment of where I stand.
I tend these days to class myself as a sceptical agnostic, though there are some things I am more sceptical of, others a little more agnostic. I am pretty definite that there are no plesiosaurs in Loch Ness, and I very much doubt that any UFO report has ever been generated by "genuine extraterrestrial hardware", and almost as doubtful about Bigfoot roaming North America, or poltergeists writing messages in note books, making threatening texts or eating mince pies. Some other paranormal claims, such as laboratory ESP are much more difficult to dismiss, though it can hardly be said that their proponents have made out an unambiguous case for their existence.
Part of the difficulty, as I have pointed out a number of times before, is that no one has ever been able to produce any really impressive physical evidence for any of these claims, although ufologists and cryptozoologists might point to peculiar marks on the ground or ambiguous fragments, other physical evidence turns out to be like fairy gold and turns to dross in the light of day. None of this has any significance outside of the stories told around it.
In most cases stories are all we are left with; stories often in which apparently sane and rational people report all sorts of impossible events and experiences. A great many of these may be simple misperceptions or misremembering of ordinary events and things. I suspect that a significant number of dramatic close encounter UFO stories are probably stimulated by seeing the moon, perhaps partially obscured, low on the horizon, its dark markings transformed into an alien crew. An example of this occurred to me the other night, going to bed I saw some strange multi-coloured lights behind the trees in my garden. On going out to investigate it turned out that this was indeed the moon, its light reflecting and refracting off the trees, producing pretty colours.
Still other stories are accounts of dream like, hypnogogic and related experiences, which we might regard as visionary. These are what I once called virtual experiences, and seem to be what Jerome Clark calls "experience level" phenomena.
Whether everything is accounted by various combinations of the two above is a moot point. Common sense suggests that there may well be lots of things about both the physical environment and human psychology we don't know much or anything at all about at present. If you end up with dreamlike visionary experiences stimulated by misperception of uncatalogued natural phenomena you may find you have created some very exotic stories indeed.
I am pretty certain of several things; one is that both the "event level" and the "experience level" are generated by lots of different things. Another is that there is no hard line separating them, a third is that the claimed dichotomy between cultural source and experience is a false one, both constantly reinforce each other. I am pretty convinced that all the folk explanations are wrong.
A point we have made on a number of occasions is that the anomalous personal experiences which get reported are probably only a tip of an iceberg, being largely those experiences which can be shoehorned into one of the categories in which there is sufficient public interest to establish groups of investigators or enthusiasts, and sustain books, magazines and websites.
These are experiences for which there are ready made and acceptable folk explanations: strange lights in the sky are the work of aliens, odd looking creatures are prehistoric survivals or uncatalogued animal species, things that go bump in the night and spectral figures are evidence of life after death, other visions can be assimilated into religious traditions.
It's only a slight oversimplification to say that if someone reports a strange figure dressed in something like diver's suit you call a ufologist, if its hairy all over you call a cryptozoologist, if it wears a historical costume call a psychical researcher and if it wears a robe call the local priest and establish a shrine. If you meet a black dog the size of a calf, if your hand goes through it, call a psychical researcher, if it doesn't run like hell and call a cryptozoologist. Its all as arbitrary as that.
Faced with these multiple complexities, lack of clear boundaries and constant overlaps between experiences, literalistic explanations look very inadequate, something we have been saying in Magonia and its predecessors for 45 years. The options seem to boil down to either 'paranormal' explanations in the broad sense (either in crude terms of shape shifting boggarts etc, or in more sophisticated notions involving 'third realms', 'imaginal realms', 'idea patterns', 'psychic ethers' and such like 'information field') or in 'psycho-social' explanations in the broad sense.
The latter seems to me the more promising approach, one which argues that the ultimate source of all the aliens, cryptids, ghosts, ghouls, lights in the night, anomalous craft, and every other sort of anomalous experience is the culturally informed human imagination, an imagination which can manifest itself in the way we perceive and remember events both ordinary and extraordinary, in the spontaneous imagination of dreams and waking visions, in the processes of telling stories, in the crafted imagination of both told as true stories and in acknowledged fiction.
In all its manifestations this imagination tells us things about ourselves, reveals deep ways in which human beings think about the world. One of these ways is to divide up the world into opposites (habitat/wilderness; human/animal; past/present; living/dead; natural/supernatural; self/other; matter/spirit; earth/heaven and so on) but then yearn for bridges between them, and to populate the liminal realms between them with all sorts of numinous beings of the imagination.