One of the most famous close encounter cases in the archives of ufology is the Socorro, New Mexico incident. One spring afternoon in 1964, police officer Lonnie Zamora heard a loud explosion and observed a cone of flame over a nearby hill. Rushing to the scene, he observed on the ground an aluminium-white oval object. There were figures around it that he judged to be about the size of small adults and they were wearing white coveralls. Stopping the car about a hundred feet or so away, he approached on foot. Before he could get close-up, the figures disappeared from view and the object roared away with a high-pitched whine, flame issuing from its underside. It travelled up and away, just missing a nearby shack, and disappeared behind another hill.
This is exactly what you would expect a typical UFO close encounter to be like. The witness happens to find himself in close proximity with a strange aerial object which, notwithstanding his astonishment, he observes in just the same way as he would observe, say, an unfamiliar conventional aircraft or a rare bird. The reality is very different. Most close encounter experiences are not like that at all. In fact, if we disregard the obvious hoaxes and those where the witness has failed a lie detector test – I would say only a handful or so – I’m hard put to think of any that are. Of course, if your only sources are second-hand (or third, fourth or umpteenth-hand) accounts in the popular UFO literature, you might be forgiven for thinking they are. But if you take the trouble to ferret out the actual first-hand accounts of the witnesses or, better still, dig deeper by interviewing the witnesses, you'll find that virtually all other close encounter experiences are fundamentally different from Lonnie Zamora’s encounter. In particular, you'll find that there’s a whole lot more going on in the minds of the witnesses than can be accounted for in terms of what is actually perceived with the senses.
To begin with, there is an intimate and peculiar relationship between UFO and UFO witness that is utterly atypical of the observer-observed relationship that holds in the ordinary, everyday world of reality. For example, the witness will often report a feeling that the object is aware of him. LAPIS investigated a CE case in which a man had to get up to let his dog out in the middle of the night and while standing waiting in the darkness and silence outside observed a bright orange disk drift slowly across the sky then hover over some railway lines adjacent to his yard. ‘My stomach sank,’ the man recalls, ‘I knew exactly what it was as soon as I saw it.’ He went on to say: ‘I felt...I might be wrong...I felt I was being watched.' When asked why he thought this, he at first offered the suggestion that it had changed its orientation as he was looking at it, so that it seemed as if ‘that thing corrected itself because I was looking at it...only thing I could think of...it was trying to hide itself from me’. The more he thought about it, however, the more unsatisfactory this explanation seemed so that he eventually gave up on it and conceded that it was ‘just a feeling, you can’t explain it’.
This is typical of the way the witness will latch onto something in the behaviour of the UFO – its movement, anything – in an attempt to justify the feeling that the UFO was aware of him. He will then express puzzlement or confusion at the inadequacy of his own explanation before finally acknowledging that there was really no reason he can think of for why he felt the object was aware of him - he just did. It wasn’t anything he could put his finger on, it was just a feeling he got.
The feeling that Erica Goetsch and her friends had went beyond a sense of merely being watched to a distinct sensation of something actually getting inside their heads. Their encounter occurred in the autumn of 1986 whilst taking a drive in the Waterloo area of Iowa. They were all singing along to music that was playing loudly on the radio when Erica was startled to notice what she first thought was an airplane keeping pace with the car. Not wanting to disrupt the singing, she didn’t draw attention to it until heavy static drowned out the music and the car stalled. It was then that the object approached the car and they saw that it wasn’t a plane at all but a dull, silver saucer-shaped craft.
Erica recalls: ‘We were all so scared...because we knew something was watching and listening to us reading our thoughts or inside our heads something ...communication of sorts.'
When witnesses describe feelings of being watched, we naturally presume that they mean that aliens or other entities within the craft are watching them. Yet this isn’t always the case. Absurd as it may seem to attribute awareness to metallic craft or anomalous light forms – as if the whole experience isn’t absurd enough – witnesses do often claim that it is the UFO itself that seems to be are of them.
In a little-known case from Northern Ireland during the Troubles, a couple were walking home one evening with their young daughter and had turned the final bend into the narrow lane which brought them into view of their home when they were surprised to see a pure bright white light hovering just above the roof of their house. At first they took it to be the moon, then quickly realised that the real moon was visible in another part of the sky. The actual size of the UFO, they calculated, had to be about twice the size of the house and it was hovering about a hundred feet above it. As they gazed up at the light, it seemed to them that the globe of light was sentient, for ‘it was as if it was breathing...it was moving rhythmically in and out like the chest of a person breathing’. Perhaps the light form conveyed the impression of breathing rather than pulsating because it was already felt to be sentient.
As the witnesses continued to watch, the globe of light began to move very slowly away from the house toward the middle of an adjoining field where it ‘hesitated for maybe about thirty seconds before shooting up into the sky with immense speed at about a forty-five degree angle, becoming smaller and smaller until it was the size of a dot, leaving a trail of light in its wake’. One of the witnesses said: ‘We were left with the abiding impression that as we were looking at it, it was looking at us.’
Witnesses sometimes say that they felt the UFO was aware of them and sometimes that it was watching them. There is not much difference in meaning between watching someone and being aware of them. Generally, in order to watch someone I have to be aware of them, though the converse is not true. I may be aware of someone – a person standing next to me in a bus queue, for instance - but not necessarily watching them. This slight difference may be reflected in the witness’s choice of words, but in analysing the patterns in UFO data, I have treated the two terms synonymously. Either way, there seems to be little or nothing in the behaviour of the UFO to justify the feeling witnesses have that the UFO is aware of, or watching, them.
The sensation that something or someone is watching them can occur to witnesses even before any UFO is seen. That should settle the matter of whether there is something in the UFO’s behaviour that gives rise to this feeling. If no UFO behaviour is observed it cannot give rise to any feeling.
Dorothy Izatt was in the kitchen making a cup of tea when, as she put it: ‘I had the sensation something was watching me, a very strong feeling. I went over to the window and there was this enormous object in the sky - it looked like an enormous diamond.’ This was in 1974 and was the start of a decades-long project of capturing on film anomalous light forms which, she says, respond to her thoughts and intentions.
Sometimes the witness will note merely that he felt the‘presence of a UFO rather than that something was watching him. I don’t think that even in these instances it can be argued that something has been picked up subliminally, for it is invariably something strangely felt rather than peripherally seen. It is the feeling not just of a presence but of an otherworldly presence: a feeling quite distinct from the ‘presence’ of, say, an unfamiliar light shining through the window that is seen out of the corner of one’s eye but that consciousness has not yet registered and which could be anything.
So much of what comprises the close encounter experience cannot be explained by what is observed by the senses. Izatt felt impelled to turn around and look through the window. Other UFO witnesses have felt an overwhelming urge to go outside and look up at the sky or an irresistible compulsion to drive to a remote spot, whereupon strange aerial phenomena manifest themselves. On occasions this may involve alien contact.
Most are familiar with the classic Pascagoula incident. Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker were doing a spot of night fishing in 1973 off a pier on the Pascagoula River when there were seized and taken aboard an alien craft. Less well-known is the fact that Hickson continued to have contact with the aliens infrequently, mainly on a local tree farm: “There are very few people goes [sic] into that area and I’ve been there many times, I go many times now. That’s when these things contact me. I have a feeling that I have to go there, alone. I go for that purpose.”
Witnesses may have a strong feeling that they are being led, that something calls them, even in extreme cases that are ‘chosen’ to receive and propagate messages for humanity (Hickson's aliens told him we are destroying the earth). Many contactees believe they are chosen often because the aliens tell them they are: ‘They spoke to me telepathically. [They were] able to read my thoughts... I started... asking questions, like what is going on...why have you come to me? They said they had found me. They continued talking to me saying that they had chose [sic] me.’ Telepathy, incidentally, or something like it is the aliens’ favoured means of communication.
Even when they do not feel any particular urge to do anything or compulsion to go anywhere, close encounter witnesses will often recall being overwhelmed by a sense of ‘something in the air’, figuratively speaking – and sometimes literally. Something stirs within them: a feeling of expectation, a premonition. Once again, there is nothing outwardly to suggest any reason for this, it’s just a feeling that something is about to happen. One abductee who has been ‘taken’ repeatedly and left with burns, needle holes and other skin marks says: ‘I can tell when this is going to happen. [There is] almost a sixth sense to it.’
Occasionally witnesses report feeling not quite well for some short time before the UFO event occurs: Elsie Oakensen recalls: ‘I felt a tightening sensation around my head and thought I was going to faint... It was if a band of material had been put across my forehead and around my head and was being pulled tighter and tighter.’ That was just hours before her classic encounter. These physical and physiological symptoms may even occur not hours but moments before the UFO manifests itself:
One late afternoon in February 1993, Brigitte Barclay and her friend Kelly were driving through Los Angeles, California, on their way to see to see another friend. She recalls: “I’m sitting waiting at the traffic lights... I feel strange… very strange. My stomach feels unnerved – like a horrible version of butterflies. It’s hot outside and my driver’s side window is down and I recall feeling the nice breeze. But something’s not right. Both of my hands are suddenly gripping the steering wheel like glue and I’ve never felt a feeling in my stomach like this before. There is an eerie, dead silence everywhere around me. Then I see it.” ‘It’ is a shiny, silver saucer-shaped object about 10-12 metres across gliding slowly in front of her. “There is no noise...either from the object or from anything around me.” Underneath there is an orange-red glowing light in the centre. Her hands are still clutching the wheel.
Note Brigitte Barclay’s observation of the ‘eerie silence’ all around that occurred not only just prior to but throughout her sighting of the silver disk. Sound only returned when the object was gone. This is one of the strongest patterns running through reports of UFO close encounters: total background silence. Most CE witnesses experience it, even if they do not initially report it. Witnesses will say things like, ‘even the birds stopped singing or ‘there was no noise from the nearby motorway’. Alan Godfrey, the police officer who encountered a UFO in the middle of a road in Todmorden, remarked that ‘it was really eerily silent...that really does stick in my mind, that, it was really eerily silent.’
Close encounter witnesses also describe being unable to move or even speak or cry out. They find themselves paralysed or ‘rooted to the spot’. One report in YUFOS files described it this way: “I don't know how long they were there but during that period all four of us were looking at these lights and afterwards all told each other we couldn't move when the lights were present. [It was] like being stuck in the spot we were in, being paralyzed.”
Another peculiarity of the close encounter experience is that witnesses’ emotional responses don’t seem to fit in with what is being seen viz. they don’t accord with what is actually being perceived with the senses. One might imagine that the predominant reaction of the close encounter witness would be astonishment. Yet this is not so. Certainly after the experience has ended, that is to say when the UFO and its occupants have departed – though strangely, often not for some while after it has ended – the witness will be overcome with a sense of profound shock and bewilderment. Yet during the actual experience these sorts of emotions are in
abeyance. Dorothy Izatt recalls only that she felt an ‘absolutely wonderful feeling. I
wasn’t afraid at all. It was so beautiful to look at that I felt lifted up. I felt really privileged to be able to see something like that.’ Other witnesses have reported similar feelings.
Rachel Devereux was driving across the North Yorkshire moors to High Bentham with her two children and mother when a blanket of silence descended and an intense bright pure-white sphere of light approached and hovered right above their car. The mother recalls, ‘I was aware of feeling so relaxed, like I couldn’t move, but I wasn’t really bothered that I couldn’t move.’ So far from being alarmed at being unable to move, she wasn’t at all bothered. If that sounds weird, then how about this. Rachel recalls: ‘It doesn’t make sense when I talk about it, but there was this overwhelming love that you just felt from it.’ Indeed, it doesn’t make sense. For how can inanimate spheres of light feel anything and even if they could, how could we know what it was they felt? Yet the mother felt this sense of love too and says: ‘You had this feeling of loss when it had gone because you wanted that feeling that it gave you...you wanted it back again.’ Once again, when it had gone, ‘shot off’ into the blue beyond, ‘all of a sudden the noise was back’.
Not all UFOs emanate feelings of love. Some exude quite the opposite: what can only be described as unalloyed malevolence and malicious intent , eliciting in the witness sensations of abject terror. In a classic encounter from 1980, Betty Cash and Vickie Landrum with Vickie’s young grandson, were driving through the Piney Woods of Texas one evening, when they came upon a huge diamond-shaped object hovering just above tree-level. All witnesses felt such an overwhelming sense of doom that Vickie thought it was the end of the world. Why would anyone think that a diamond-shaped object hovering above some trees signified the end of the world? One is inclined to think: ‘If I saw adiamond-shaped object hovering above some trees, I would be surprised, astonished even, puzzled certainly...but I wouldn’t think it was the end of the world.’ In truth, we do not know how we would feel, for UFOs cannot be compared to anything in the familiar, everyday world at all. They belong to a different order of reality altogether.
In another well-known case from Victoria in Australia, Grace Askew was driving home with three friends through Bacchus Marsh, in the early hours of the morning when they saw some strange lights in the sky. Pulling up in the car park of a pub along the way they got out of the car and continued gazing up at the sky. After a while one of the lights approached them and they could see that it was a brightly-lit structured craft – ‘a ship...not of this world, that’s for sure’ –moving directly over their heads before disappearing into a gully. Grace says she experienced a terror beyond anything she had known. Even today, recalling the incident, she has trouble keeping her emotions in check: ‘I’ve got to be honest, I think it’s the first time in my life that I could identify with anybody telling me that they were scared they were going to die...[here her voice chokes] because I was.’
It is difficult to reconcile the widely-varying emotional responses to UFOs which, outwardly and judging by the witnesses’description of the UFO’s physical features, are near-identical. The diamond light form seen by Izatt was, as far as we can tell, near-identical to that encountered by Cash and Landrun yet their emotional responses were as different as they could be! Is it simply a reflection of the wide-ranging response humans have to the unexplained? Perhaps – in some instances. Yet the emotions themselves are quite incompatible with what is perceived with the senses viz. they don’t seem to be related to what the witness actually sees. Further, in some cases the emotions seem to emanate from the object itself in some inexplicable way. It doesn’t make sense – but then, little of the UFO close encounter experience does make sense. A parallel may be drawn with dreams where the manifest content of the dream material is perfectly mundane and non-threatening but whose latent content – the hidden meaning, if you will – is perfectly apprehended and understood on an emotional level.
Another characteristic of the close encounter experience is so well-known, so ubiquitous and pervasive, that familiarity has bred a kind of complacency, a dulling of the sense of puzzlement. It is usually referred to as ‘missing time’, though in reality the discovery that it is later than can be accounted for is merely a pointer to a whole spectrum or cline of inefficient memory recall.
In the typical missing time experience, a couple might be driving along the road late at night and find themselves in close proximity with a bright light. When they arrive home they discover to their surprise that it’s much later than they thought – they are quite unable to account for an hour or more of their journey. Suspecting that something has happened to them during the ‘missing time’, they subsequently undergo hypnosis, whereupon they recall being taken aboard a craft, examined by aliens and so on.
That scenario is of course well-known, even to much of the general population. What is less well-known is that virtually all close encounter witnesses and abductees have difficulty recalling their experience and no one seems to recall all of their encounter. That is why hypnosis is used to retrieve those memories. Even where witnesses are able to recall encounters with landed craft and aliens, they are not able to do so fully. There are always blanks in their memory (‘...the next thing I remember is being on the other side of the road’). Sometimes nothing at all is remembered of the experience until memories come flooding back years later.
There are a few significant cases where the witness instinctively knows that s/he is going to have difficulty recalling the incident later. Erica Goetsch recalls,‘I felt like we were in jeopardy of forgetting and I remember yelling to my friends "never forget this" repeating the phrase over and over. I was trying to find something to focus on that I would be able to recall later about the craft. So I quickly studied the lights...the colors were like I have never seen before, or since that day.’
Proponents of the ETH believe that the reason for the missing time is that the aliens have intentionally blotted out memories of the experience from their consciousness. It has to be said that there is some evidential support for this hypothesis viz. in a number of cases, this is what abductees are told by the aliens – or rather what they remember being told usually after undergoing hypnosis. One can only wonder why the procedure fails or partly fails in so many instances. An alternative explanation is that close encounter / alien abduction experiences are difficult to recall for the same reason dreams are difficult to recall: that they taking place in an altered state of consciousness. That is not to say that close encounter experiences are dreams – clearly, that explanation is inadequate – but once again there are parallels to be drawn.
There are many cases where witnesses report a feeling of familiarity with the UFO or aliens. It is not quite déjà vu but more the feeling of having seen the craft or known the entities before without being able to recall where or when. It comes to them as a distant memory and it puzzles them. Could it be because they have indeed had previous encounters with the craft or aliens of which they have no conscious memory - either because it was wiped out or simply because it occurred in an altered state of consciousness?
Yet another puzzling aspect of the close encounter occurs in the aftermath of multiple-witness cases. Witnesses will often testify to a puzzling disinclination to talk about the incident. Instead of the animated exchanges you might expect in view of the astonishing experience they’ve all just undergone, nobody seems to want to talk about it at all – in fact nobody seems to want to talk much about anything. They seem to be isolated from one another, each enveloped in their own cocoon of silence. Perhaps they were simply too stunned into speak. Or perhaps they had not quite ‘come down’ yet from their altered state of consciousness and like those bewitched by the ‘little people’ in enchanted woods of old, they are still ‘spellbound’.
There are too many puzzling features like these not to challenge the commonly-held view (among ufologists) that the close encounter experience belongs to the everyday world of reality. These patterns point to an altogether different kind a reality: an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole kind of reality, a Magonia-type reality, of the kind not perceived by the ordinary senses.
This brings me back to the Socorro case. Why did the Lonnie Zamora’s encounter share none of the features common to other close encounter cases? What was so different about Zamora’s sighting? This puzzled me for years. There is no indication that Zamora was lying, yet not the slightest sign either that he was in any kind of altered state of consciousness. It only ceased to be puzzling when I discovered, some weeks back, that this famous case has been revealed to be a hoax. Not a hoax perpetrated by the witness, however, but a prank in which the police officer himself was the victim. Evidence is in the form of a document found in the Special Collection of papers belonging to Linus Pauling, the Nobel prize-winning chemist. Pauling’s interest in UFOs was unknown until the posthumous release of his private papers. Among Pauling’s papers is correspondence, dated 1968, between Pauling and the President of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, where the encounter took place. It reveals that students from the Institute engineered the hoax – or, better put, prank - somewhat cruelly perpetrated on a police officer whom they felt to be not too bright (an assessment shared by Hynek, incidentally) and whom they felt was always harassing them.
To describe the authentic, bona fide UFO experience as taking place in an altered state of consciousness might seem to suggest that it is ‘unreal’, an interpretation the witness rejects with the whole of his being. I think we should be wary of exchanging it into small coin by making such presumptions. Certainly it is not real in the way trees and stones are real, but it may not be simply the stuff of dreams and fantasy either. We simply do not yet know enough about the alien experience to make definitive pronouncements about its reality status: more research is needed – and more listening to the experiencer. What we do know is that the UFO close encounter seems more real and more vivid than anything in ordinary waking consciousness. It has significance; it is meaningful in a way he cannot fully understand. He feels ‘privileged’ (how many times have we heard that!). He feels himself to be in touch with something outside himself, that is not himself. He is filled with a cosmic sense of awe, of the beyond, of the transcendent: a state of mind or being that has been called the 'numinous': that primal, irreducible and ultimately indefinable sense of the beyond which is impossible to convey if you have never experienced it. It is the feeling you get when the supernatural intrudes in your life, when you come face to face with the ‘irrational’ or unexplained. It is that feeling. If this attribute is absent from his recounting of it, if his account is not imbued with a sense of the numinous but is merely matter-of-fact, then it is not the real thing and we may suspect a hoax, a confabulation or something of that nature.
So what are we to make of Close Encounter experiences now? Are we to dismiss them as hallucinatory – or ‘psychological’, as the Condon report labelled them that long time ago? Shall we write a few footnotes in psychology textbooks conceding that even ordinary, sane people may hallucinate occasionally? Or shall we refuse to sweep the other half of the UFO data under the carpet – and admit that we haven’t cracked the UFO enigma yet.
If close encounter experiences are hallucinations, then what a strange kind of hallucination they must be! Imagine: hallucinations that can be shared, as they are in multiple-witness cases; hallucinations that leave ground traces or circular patches in rain-soaked roads (as Godfrey’s UFO did); hallucinations that cause radiation burns on skin and eyes; hallucinations that interfere with car engines, radios, lights and other electrical systems; hallucinations, in short, that are capable of impinging in so many ways on the physical world. If a duck goes miaow and catches mice is it still a duck?
If you ask me where this leaves us, I can only say: I don’t know. We are hunting a different creature from the one we thought we were hunting. We are in pursuit of a chimera: dual-natured, part physical and part psyche-cal, partaking of both ‘inner’and ‘outer’ reality and accessible only to one in an altered state of consciousness. The close encounter experience seems to be part of a wider phenomenon that is stranger and more complex than either ‘sceptic’ or naive proponent of the ETH could ever have dreamed up.
Joseph Dormer (23 Sept. 2012)