My short, and I thought rather bland, review of Whitley Strieber’s latest book seems to have provoked a surprising amount of comment. Looking at the debate, it rather reminded me of the sorts of arguments about George Adamski and his fellow contactees that used to fill the pages of UFO periodicals back in the 1950s and ‘60s. Opinion tended to polarise between those who took their stories as gospel, and those who saw them as nothing more than cynical money grabbing frauds.
There were some more nuanced views ranging from those who believed the stories were essentially true, but the aliens (or elementals, or ‘the conspiracy’ or ‘the phenomenon’) had lied to the contactees; through to those who thought that their faked photographs were ways in which they could bring essentially subjective experiences into the world of consensus reality; to those who suspected the contactees were ‘pious frauds’ who had made up their stories not so much for money, but as a means of getting their religious, philosophical or political ideas across.
Looking back with hindsight, one can see that all these stories were the products of the human imagination, though whether the spontaneous imagination of dreams and visions, or the crafted imagination of the story teller is a moot point. Much the same can be said for Strieber, though he has avoided to date trying to produce actual evidence such as faked photographs to back up his claims. One suspects that the mysterious implant will vanish one of these days, before it can ever be extracted and analysed.
There may be less distinction between the spontaneous and crafted imagination than we normally think. Several of the stories in the literature look as though they began in actual anomalous experiences, possibly the products of various kinds of sleep phenomena, but became extended and neatened by the crafted imagination. We should also bare in mind that several authors have said that their story lines and characters have come in dreams and fantasies and that their novels have almost written themselves.
Another figure that Strieber is coming to resemble is John Keel. Both use actual folklore and personal experiences to construct complex narratives, and both rely heavily on ambiguity, and statements which different audiences can interpret according to their own beliefs. Keel was never quite clear whether his elementals were meant to be taken literally or were metaphors for human belief systems in which we had become trapped because we had ‘forgotten’ we had created them in the first place.
Of abduction narratives in general, who can doubt that they are anything but the products of the human imagination, sometimes of very deep and buried parts of the imagination. They are narratives by which people can speak of the unspeakable. People like the late Budd Hopkins inadvertently mined into these deep, dark layers of the unspeakable. Somewhere more towards the surface was the stress and sense of helplessness felt by many people in the corporate capitalist world. This seems to have been a particular problem in the United States, where the official ideology was that the people were equal sovereign citizens in the land of the free and home of the brave. The reality for the majority of the population is quite different, they are wage/salary earners, mainly low down on the pecking order of hierarchical, largely pre-modern workplaces, still divided between master and servant, and where most people are relegated to the position of ‘human resources’, which is exactly what abductees are represented as being.
At a deeper level Hopkins and others mine into perhaps the nearest thing to a universal human trauma, the realm of dead babies. For virtually every family in the world, with the exception of those in the last third of the twentieth century in the affluent west there was likely to be the experience of one or more children dying in infancy, to say nothing of miscarriages and still births. This mountain of dead babies, generation upon generation has to be dealt with so life can go on, and to some extent lies repressed, the unspeakable. Furthermore the position of dead babies, particularly the still born, miscarried or those who died before baptism or other naming ceremonies was an ambiguous one, half in and half out of the community.
Traditional Christian opinion consigned them to limbo, which was officially promoted as a sort of secular paradise, the place of best natural happiness. Whatever theologians might have thought limbo in the folk imagination became associated with all sorts of folk elysiums, fairyland, Tir-na-Nog, Cockayne, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Fiddlers Green etc., and for many of the oppressed, natural happiness (i.e. not spending your life in backbreaking labour or starvation) outdoes spiritual bliss anytime. This makes fairyland too attractive, so at the folk clerical level a reaction sets in, in which fairyland/limbo becomes ever more problematic, its beauties are seen as a false consciousness, the right salve reveals the darkness and corruption underneath. The fairies/dead babies are consigned increasingly to the wilderness, sometimes imagined as being pursued across the sky by the wild hunt.
The abduction narratives tend to present this bleak picture of the realm of dead babies as a hollow paradise, its technological prowess bought through a lack of soul. It in turn becomes a metaphor for our world, and the theatre for fears of the future. The dark other-worlds imagined by abductees have never been real alien realms, they have always been distorting mirror images of our own world and its imagined dystopian future. Its babies are the damned and excluded, often portrayed through imagery taken from pictures of starving children in Africa or from images of children abandoned in hideous orphanages. In a way this is a generalised version of the more particular (and controversial) abortion trauma hypothesis presented by Dennis Stacey HERE.
An idea that seems to being resurrected again is that if only there was some sort of concerted study of UFOs and other Fortean/paranormal experiences then the whole thing would be solved in short order. This strikes me as a very naive idea, presumably coming from the sort of people who not only believe that there is a unitary UFO phenomenon, but that it is produced by nuts and bolts spaceships of the sort that Stanton Friedman once dreamed of building. This strikes me as just about the most unlikely hypothesis of all, not least because the sorts of technology investigated by Friedman and his cohorts is already years out of date.
In reality UFO experiences like other Fortean/paranormal experiences are likely to be generated by lots of different things, a wide variety of natural phenomena and psychological processes, no doubt some of which are still uncatalogued by science. The story contents of these experiences are clearly supplied by the human imagination. Having been engaged in the transcribing of the occupant reports from INTCAT for hopeful eventual inclusion on the website, I have been struck by how obvious this is, with ‘advanced technologies’ using levers, dials and other pre-computer equipment.
In a sense we already know what the result of any large scale scientific study of UFO reports is going to be, odd reports which are difficult to explain, perhaps even over a beer or two members willing to share their own strange experiences, but nothing approaching scientific evidence and an eventual conclusion not much different than that reached by Dr Paul Davies, the astrophysicist and one time member of Dr Hynek’s ‘Invisible College’, as shown HERE . Which views just happen to coincide with Magonia’s!
Even though it is only dealing with a limited area, and with mysterious lights which seem to reappear, Project Hessdalen in Norway has failed to come up with a complete solution. Other limited area mysteries such as the Loch Ness Monster just fade away, and compare with Dr David Clarke on the recent mystery bigcat cases. Exactly!
So I don't believe that the methods suggested about 40 years ago by Dr Ron Westrum and naive young me (HERE) would get us very far at all. Needless to say nearly all the reports that they would encounter would be obvious IFOs and how long before patience was exhausted, and think of all the very strange people who would bother them, and how the ufologists would howl when they didn’t come up with the answer, no doubt accusing them of being part of ‘the conspiracy’.
I was saddened to learn of the death of a correspondent of mine back in the day. Lou Farish. We had very different views, but after a rocky start we reached a modus vivendi by concentrating on our mutual interest in books. Lou Farish must have built up one of the most comprehensive UFO/Fortean libraries in the states and I note from HERE that his estate including an 80 acre farm has been left to UFO research. Dare I suggest one excellent use of this would be found the nucleus of a North American equivalent of the AFU archives, and eventually work in partnership with them?