Belief in aliens is often used as a trope on television and movies to signify instability or insanity. The hundreds of accounts available consist largely of unverifiable evidence and arguments that are shaky at best. Many of the reporters of alien phenomena seek to find them. Their seeking is “wishful thinking” in the words of Carl Jung (1964, p. 69). Yet, in his one book on the subject, Jung (1978) admits that “a purely psychological explanation is illusory, for a large number of observations point to natural phenomenon, or even a physical one” (p. 132). “Something is seen, but we don’t know what,” he adds (p. 136). The witnesses fall into a few distinct categories: those prone to fantasy and self-delusion (of course), those who are awake and outdoors at odd hours (security staff and police officers), and those attuned to the skies (pilots and air traffic controllers). My dad is one of the latter:
Me: How long have you been working in air traffic?
Dad: 43 years total.
Me: Have you ever seen a UFO?
Dad: Not that I can document, but I’ve seen a couple of things I had no other explanation for other than maybe a reflection of light.
The best way to prepare for the future is to keep an eye on the sky. That’s where everything else is not. Meanwhile, information pours invisibly across its friendly expanse, and it is up to us to absorb as much of it as our systems can tolerate. — Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets
The descriptions in the many reports I’ve read seem either embellished or evasive, imbued with insistence depending on how much the witness wants to believe. There’s just no way to tell if anyone has actually seen anything. The very designation “unidentified flying object” is so ambiguous as to be nearly useless. The Condon Report (1969), the culmination of all of the Air Force’s investigations into so-called sightings (e.g., Project Sign, Project Grudge, Project Blue Book, etc.), defines a UFO as follows:
An unidentified flying object is here defined as the stimulus for a report made by one or more individuals of something seen in the sky (or an object thought to be capable of flight but seen when landed on earth) which the observer could not identify as having ordinary natural origin, and which seemed to him [sic] sufficiently puzzling that he [sic] undertook to make a report of it… (p. 9).
In filing the report, one is saying that the sighting was “sufficiently puzzling” enough to file the report. It’s not so much defining what a UFO is as it’s defining what filing the report means. The Air Force either took the reports seriously enough or just received so many of them that they had to make them the subject of several official projects. Ex-Project Blue Book member Fritz Werner (not his real name) said in an interview that Blue Book existed because the Air Force “was getting too much publicity and there were too many people, other than official people seeing things and reporting them” (quoted in Randle, 1995, p. 58).
Some such reporters, as in the case of cults like Heaven’s Gate, build religions around their search for truth. Balch and Taylor’s germinal 1976 Psychology Today article “Salvation in a UFO” describes Heaven’s Gate members as “metaphysical seekers”: “Before joining [Heaven’s Gate], members of the UFO cult had organized their lives around the quest for truth. Most defined themselves as spiritual seekers” (p. 60).
In Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion (NYU Press, 2014), Benjamin E. Zeller concurs. In and out of other such groups before settling with Heaven’s Gate, the founders and members could all be described as seekers. Zeller’s study of his subject is through religious scholarship. Contra the media’s reports of Heaven’s Gate’s mass suicides in March of 1997, Zeller writes, “Heaven’s Gate emerged out of two theological worlds: Evangelical Christianity and the New Age movement, particularly the element of the New Age movement concerned with alien visitation and extraterrestrial contact. The movement’s leaders and members certainly drew from a broad array of influences, including secular ufology, science fiction, and conspiracy theories, in addition to their religious influences. Yet ultimately the group’s theology was a Christian one, as read through a New Age interpretive lens” (p. 65). The New Age aspect included the belief that in synchronized suicide, they were to board a UFO following the Hail-Bopp comet to salvation.
Where Jung saw the UFO phenomenon as seekers longing for a more complete life, Michael Heim (1998) sees it as “technology sickness” (p. 182). Heim (1993) posited Alternate World Syndrome (AWS): The switching between virtual and real worlds highlights the merging of technology with the human species, an extremely alien feeling we have yet to assimilate. It’s the ontological jet lag that comes from visiting or envisioning another, alien world. Heim (1998) writes, “The fascination and pain of the UFO phenomenon shows us only the first glimpse of our ultimate merger with technology” (p. 197).
From merging with technology to escaping the end of the world, The Secret Space Age (Adventures Unlimited Press, 2014) tells the story of a parallel space program bent on abandoning Earth before the Apocalypse. The book follows the controversy behind Alternative Three (1977), a film that supposedly shows the development of alternative settlements on the Moon and Mars. Written with the language and excitement of a senior thesis, The Secret Space Age is a fun romp through conspiracy theories of all kinds. It’s less about aliens coming here and more about our leaving. As Michael Heim (1998) puts it, “What a thrill to feel the tug of war on the thin thread of shared belief!” (p. 174). A tug of war indeed: Out for some person-on-the-street verisimilitude on the reported sightings at O’Hare International in 2007, WGN Reporter Juan Carlos landed a minute and a half with this seeker of truth:
Balch, Robert W. & Taylor, David. (1976). Salvation in a UFO. Psychology Today, 10(5), 58-60.
Heim, Michael. (1993). The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford University Press.
Heim, Michael. (1998). Virtual Realism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jung, Carl G. (1964). Man and His Symbols. New York: Bantam.
Jung, Carl G. (1978). Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mooney, Ted. (1981). Easy Travel to Other Planets. New York: Ballantine Books, p. 74.
Philips, Olav. (2015). The Secret Space Age. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press.
Randle, Kevin D. (1995). A History of UFO Crashes. New York: Avon Books.
Zeller, Benjamin E. (2014). Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion. New York: NYU Press.