The Hidden Story of the UFO
- ISBN: 9781503607088
- Published By: Stanford University Press
- Published: March 2020
“In essence, the UFO is a religious phenomenon.” So argues David J. Halperin, a specialist in Judaic history and former professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina. In his new book, Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO, he goes on to explain that seeing a UFO can be “a religious event, an experience of the numinous that arises – spontaneously, it would seem – from our internal worlds” (243).
Although the study of the UFO phenomenon does not fit neatly into any one academic discipline, scholars of religion have long played a particularly important role in examining it and its place in modern (especially American) culture. This has included not only studies of UFO religions by the likes of James R. Lewis, Susan J. Palmer, and Benjamin E. Zeller, but also examinations of the phenomenon’s broader social significance by such scholars as Benson Saler, David G. Robertson, and D. W. Pasulka.
Halperin is among those scholars of religion who find accounts of UFOs and extra-terrestrials fascinating. In Intimate Alien, he recounts how this interest began in the 1960s, when as a teenager he established his own, short-lived Ufological journal. Now, over half a century on, he has returned his attentions to the subject, informed by a lifetime of studying mythology. Halperin does not buy into the idea that there really are alien spacecraft flying over the Earth, intermittently experimenting on humans and plotting to colonize the planet. He nevertheless clearly thinks that there is something significant going on when people see unidentified flying objects or come to believe that they have been abducted, something that is worth trying to explain.
Halperin does not simply dismiss those who report such experiences as delusional fantasists and liars. Instead, he argues that in many cases there has been an external “stimulus” that lies at the basis of their account, even if that stimulus is often perfectly explainable by reference to known phenomena. Where “the real UFO mystery lies,” he argues, is in that gap “between stimulus and perception” (41), in the mental processes that make people think that the light they saw in the sky was a spacecraft, or that scratches on their body indicate that they were abducted in their sleep. As Halperin sees it, it is traumatic events in a person’s life that often shape these mental processes, with the imagery the brain then evokes often featuring a “mythic theme” (243). In this way, he argues that there are ancient images shared by humanity that recur again and again – thus explaining, for instance, what he sees as similarities between modern descriptions of alien greys and the medieval Sheela-na-Gigs of Northwest Europe or the Neolithic Predionica Mask from Kosovo. Here, he borrows from Carl Jung, referring to humanity’s “collective unconscious” (160), although seems cautious in doing so, not going into great depth explaining Jungian theory.
Intimate Alien covers a range of different topics. Three chapters are devoted to stories regarding alien abduction. The first of these delves into the case of Betty and Barney Hill, a married couple whose claims to have been abducted in New Hampshire in 1961 helped set the stage for the broader abduction phenomenon. Betty was European American, while Barney was African American, and Halperin argues that the latter’s ‘recovered memories’ of the abduction stem in part from ancestral memories of West Africans being abducted by slavers. Halperin moves on to consider the profusion of abduction stories that appeared in the wake of Whitley Strieber’s best-seller Communion, published in 1987. In cases like Strieber’s, he suggests, the reports of abduction may have stemmed from memories of childhood sexual abuse, transmogrified by the mind so as to avoid facing the horrific truth.
After discussing abduction, Halperin devotes the following three chapters to other issues. First, he tackles the Men in Black, mysterious gentlemen who reputedly turn up to intimidate UFO witnesses and prevent them from publicizing their experiences. Second, he explores the Shaver Mystery, the claims made by a Pennsylvania man during the 1940s that a race of malevolent entities with advanced technology live underground. Finally, Halperin discusses the famous Roswell incident, during which a crashed object was recovered in the New Mexico desert in 1947 – an object which, by the 1970s, was being cited as an extra-terrestrial spacecraft by various Ufologists. In each case, Halperin interrogates the claims in search of clues regarding the psychological issues impacting the individuals making such allegations.
Intimate Alien is not designed as an academic introduction to Ufology and, although Halperin is good at introducing the topics he covers in an accessible way, it helps to have some background familiarity with the topic. While he is not a psychologist, Halperin turns to psychological explanations in trying to get to the bottom of UFO and abduction reports, and I wonder what sort of response he would get from accredited specialists in that field. His use of Jungian psychology and claims regarding ancestral memories in particular might raise eyebrows. Nevertheless, his broad point, that the brain has a role to play in influencing how people recall experiences like UFO sightings, is unlikely to be seriously challenged.
While Halperin’s book does not offer a completely novel take on the UFO phenomenon, it is an entertaining read and will likely appeal to those who have already enjoyed the work of Rice University scholar of religion Jeffrey Kripal. It is part of a spate of recent academic volumes on Ufology, alongside Pasulka’s American Cosmic, Ralph Blumenthal’s The Believer, and Zeller’s Handbook of UFO Religions, and like these will hopefully contribute to a growing willingness on the part of scholars of religion and related disciplines to delve into this phenomenon, an important – if often neglected – facet of modern Western culture.
Ethan Doyle White is an independent scholar.Ethan Doyle WhiteDate Of Review:December 27, 2021