Why Look at Flying Saucers?

By Benjamin Aldes WurgaftOctober 7, 2020

Why Look at Flying Saucers?

The Unidentified by Colin Dickey

I RECENTLY WENT THROUGH an old box of childhood possessions and found part of Nessie — a single dark green ceramic arch, one of the humps of the Scottish serpent named for the loch in which it swims. I’m not sure where the other parts are — they originally made up a small ceramic monster designed to appear to be partially submerged under the “water” of a desk’s surface. About 30 years ago my Dad and I drove across the Scottish Highlands and spent a day and night at Loch Ness, on our way to the Isle of Skye. I remember staring into the loch for a very long time, as if hoping to see a head emerge. We must have picked up Desk Nessie as a kind of compensation.

In his new book The Unidentified, Colin Dickey asks what happens when people go further than I did — when they see or hear something move in the water, perhaps take a blurry photograph, and enter the world of fringe thinking. The Unidentified is a thoughtful, searching book about people’s deep investment in unexplained phenomena, about how flying saucers, Sasquatches, and lake creatures are strung together on a thread of desire. As I read it, I traveled back to that moment at Loch Ness and asked myself why I, the son of a historian and an anthropologist, the product of a skeptical subculture, stared at the dark water and felt tempted to believe.

One of the epigraphs to The Unidentified comes from primatologist John Napier’s 1972 book Bigfoot: The Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality: “It is simple enough to apply reason to what is reasonable, but it is much more difficult to argue logically about the illogical.” For me, this quotation recalls a scene from the annals of Jewish studies. Gershom Scholem, the historian of Jewish mysticism, was about to give a talk on the Merkabah (Ezekiel’s chariot and its journey to the throne of God) at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. His introducer, Talmud scholar Saul Lieberman, a skeptic about the subject, ushered him onstage with these words: “Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is a very important science.” In other words, history (or anthropology or any other interpretive field) can make sense of human practices that seem, on their surface, nonsensical. This sense-making is a significant part of what interpretive social scientists do when they sit down to write.

Similarly, you could say that there are two types of work on unexplained phenomena: those chiefly concerned with whether or not Bigfoot is real, and those that ask why the first class of work exists in the first place. The Unidentified is the latter kind of work, a detective story whose quarry is not aliens or cryptids but a particular logic of belief. These beliefs are widely shared among Americans, incidentally. A 2018 Chapman University survey suggests that 41 percent of us believe that aliens have visited this planet, perhaps as described in Erich von Däniken’s well-known (and thoroughly debunked) 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. Some 57 percent said yes to Atlantis — that is, to the existence of ancient civilizations beyond our ken. And Bigfoot’s existence went from 13 percent in a prior survey to 21 percent in 2018. Fringe belief edges toward minority report.

You don’t have to be a big believer in the power of survey data to see that behind the monster stands meaning. Belief in the existence of monsters, Dickey explains, rarely starts with a chance observation in the woods. It requires psychological preparation. Often, a sinuous neck, a flipper, is just the tip of something that sits much deeper in the waters of culture and history. Our exotica reflect the political, economic, and social tensions in our daily lives. They reflect our hopes and our blood fears. In his last book, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (2016), Dickey took much the same approach, showing that the United States has gotten the haunted houses it deserves. The ghosts that populate our old dwellings reflect this country’s histories of racism, slavery, and violence, and its extension of materialism into avarice.

The Unidentified is more forthright about its thesis and develops it further. Fringe beliefs, Dickey argues, are a response to the sweeping historical processes of modernization and secularization, and to the intellectual movements that pushed them forward: the Scientific Revolution and the European Enlightenment. The generations of thinkers involved in these movements, from the 16th through the 18th centuries, wished to understand the natural world better, and reason was among their primary tools, along with the microscope, experimental method, and peer review. In the process, as sociologist Max Weber famously claimed, they “disenchanted” the world, dividing natural phenomena into explainable chunks. Cosmic unity fell away. Whereas natural creation was once God’s other book — with moss and minnows and meerkats all morally legible, just as the Bible was — now nature was simply a set of phenomena. Moss became Bryophyta, minnows Cyprinidae, and meerkats Suricata suricatta, distant relatives on life’s tree.

As disenchantment worked its way through the world, natural science took up a place of honor in universities, institutionalized as never before. But an irony lurked outside the walls of science buildings. Requiring training and degrees meant that modern science had an exclusive character. Many curious people were necessarily left with nothing but science’s limited public face, such as the natural history museum, open lectures, or magazines. Yet nonacademics could also lay claim to one legacy of the Enlightenment: Immanuel Kant’s slogan “sapere aude” — literally “dare to be wise,” but often translated, in a not just loose but positively baggy fashion, as “have the courage to use your own reason.” (Kant lifted the line from Horace’s Epistles. In full, it’s Sapere aude: incipe [begin]!)

The question was: Who gets to define that mysterious faculty, reason? Do you need a lab coat, a chalkboard, an Erlenmeyer flask? Kant’s slogan could be taken to mean “define reason for yourself,” especially if you hadn’t read him carefully. Early sightings of Nessie, in the 1930s, involved people making observations and then theorizing on the basis of them — isn’t that sapere aude too? (Notably, those sightings also involved fraud.) Institutional science seemed to offer more and more explanations for natural phenomena, but less and less room for the personal experience of nonscientists, including those who wanted to catch a glimpse of the fleeting edge of cosmic truth. Call fringe theory the desire for the world to cohere into sense, for personal experience of yetis or sea serpents or space aliens to lead to grand revelations about the nature of our reality, even to reenchantment. What are those strange lights in the Southwestern sky? The existence of aliens would call for a new logique du monde — er, logique au-delà du monde. Who made those heads on Easter Island anyway?

Cryptozoology and UFO-spotting may seem entirely amateur pursuits, the hobbies of loner cranks, but in The Unidentified we follow Dickey as he attends conferences, interviews prominent researchers, and generally moves through a world of self-made experts, credible within their subcultures if not on a university campus. Many of them seem pleasant enough, resigned to their truths being rejected by public consensus but holding to them anyway, contemporary Gnostics who affirm one another’s beliefs. The point of Dickey’s journeying is never to prove eyewitnesses and believers wrong, although he acknowledges that he experienced nothing extraordinary himself during his travels. The point is to find out what drives the faithful. Belief in cryptids like Nessie or Bigfoot, for example, is often “a critique of science, a rejection of the everyday,” as Dickey puts it; in cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans’s words, such a creature must be “truly singular, unexpected, paradoxical, striking, emotionally upsetting, and thus capable of mythification.” Those who believe in cryptids often want to demonstrate that the scientific consensus has left out a woolly or scaly or leathery fragment of our material reality. Belief in UFOs, by contrast, is often driven by anxieties, not about science per se but about invasion and possession (planetary or personal), often mixed with fears of government conspiracy.

The first UFOs popped up in American skies just after World War II. A cataclysmic war had prepared Americans to expect danger from the sky. The new Cold War with the Soviets made skyward glances tenser. Postwar UFO sightings in the American Northwest were likely prepped by a wave of wartime balloons, equipped with incendiary bombs, sent across the Pacific by the Japanese. These did very little damage, perhaps because winds blew them off course, but one did kill a group of Sunday-school children and their adult chaperone — the only known civilian casualties of the war on American soil. Then, in 1947, a traveling salesman and amateur pilot named Kenneth Arnold spotted, from his plane, nine metallic craft flying near Mount Rainier. They moved faster than any human-built plane or rocket could. He described the craft as flying “like saucers skipped over water,” but in the popular imagination, moving like a saucer quickly became being saucer-shaped.

Arnold may have inadvertently given the UFO its archetypal form (he later affirmed that the vehicles were “bat-shaped” or, even more evocatively, “like a pie plate that was cut in half with a sort of a convex triangle in the rear”), but his was not the first or last report of flying craft. Just three days before, from a boat near Maury Island in Puget Sound, between Tacoma and Seattle, a man named Harold Dahl saw something strange. He reported, as Dickey recounts, six “metallic objects shaped like donuts hovering at about two thousand feet in the air with no obvious signs of propulsion.” Anticipating the connection between UFOs and the US government that would grow in popular culture, Dahl also claimed to have been visited by a man in a black suit, driving a brand-new black Buick sedan. He treated Dahl to breakfast and warned him not to speak of what he’d seen.

Arnold’s report seems to have catalyzed a chain reaction. Over the following year, Americans reported hundreds of additional UFO sightings. In many cases, the witnesses were seen as reliable, upstanding citizens, and they included a few members of the US military. A now-famous episode at an Army airfield near Roswell, New Mexico, added to the jitters of the day. First, the Army declared that a flying saucer had come into their possession, even as a local rancher claimed to have seen a saucer-like object crashing. The Army retracted their claim immediately afterward, however, and instead affirmed that a weather balloon had crashed. Rumors of a cover-up naturally spread. Similar rumors followed the Air Force’s Project Sign, which interviewed UFO eyewitnesses. Was the Air Force just trying to suppress knowledge of an alien presence on Earth? Project Sign was later renamed Project Grudge, and later Project Blue Book, and its investigators took increasingly skeptical attitudes toward their interviewees’ testimonies, even working to debunk them.

Some of the richest sections of The Unidentified deal with the decades that followed, as flying (or crashing) saucer sightings quickly became a mainstay of American popular culture. As Dickey explains, they would soon be joined by other ET-oriented beliefs, such as alien abduction, which is often fueled by memories recovered under hypnosis, and sometimes spins into elaborate narratives about multiple alien species operating covertly on Earth. Some Cold War–era contactees reported that a tall, graceful alien reached out to them to warn of imminent nuclear annihilation. As the government closed doors in the face of the UFO-curious, personal experience flourished: sapere aude!

The long-running (and intellectually capacious) 1990s TV program The X-Files featured a now-famous slogan, “I want to believe” — the motto of FBI Agent Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny), whose smoldering obsessions often formed the show’s emotional center, alongside the skeptical intelligence of his partner, Dana Scully (played by Gillian Anderson). “I want to believe” indicated Mulder’s willingness to credit the existence of cryptids and aliens, but with some space for a measure of skepticism. Wanting to believe is different from believing. As for myself, I’m not sure I want to believe, and I’ll try to explain why. If believing means subscribing to myths and theories with which to make sense of a nonsensical reality, then perhaps the best relationship we can have with belief is one of ambivalence: recognizing that it’s a natural-enough impulse, an adaptation strategy for life in a world of swerving particles and sheer contingency. Theorization is how we stitch our world together, but we should be careful. “Apophenia” is the word for taking this too far. Apophenia is pattern recognition run wild, detecting connections, causation, and intention where none exist.

The X-Files isn’t a show about monsters and aliens reenchanting the world. Rather, it’s about the chase. Most episodes are structured around Mulder (trained as a psychologist, a profiler) and Scully (trained as a medical doctor, a scientist) uncovering clues, encountering entertainingly off-key locals in obscure parts of the country (which usually look like Vancouver and its environs, where the first five seasons of the show were filmed), and slowly arriving at a revelation — often coupled with some mortal peril they must escape. The show turns our lack of knowledge into drama. As I read The Unidentified, I got the distinct impression that The X-Files understood the true desires of many UFO and cryptid researchers: not to resolve their cases but to hope for their indefinite suspension, a continuation of mystery and the activity of research, in the service of belief as much as in the pursuit of knowledge. Mulder wanted to find the truth, and yet his slogan “I want to believe” contains a moment of hesitation, of suspension, open to the indefinite prolongation of the hunt. Conveniently enough, X-Files episodes tend to come in two types: “monster of the week” episodes featuring various kinds of cryptids, and episodes that advance a narrative arc dealing with space aliens, the same division we see in The Unidentified.

Dickey argues that after the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, fringe belief emerged as a kind of “bargain”:

[I]n exchange for giving up scientific consensus or objective rationality, the believer gets something in exchange: a little bit of wonder, a world reenchanted, a sense we’re not alone, or perhaps another way of finding meaning in a difficult world.

This is one answer to the question “Why look at flying saucers (or at your area’s local cryptid)?” The physical world contains mysteries once again. According to one story commonly told about secularization, that process doesn’t involve the mere retreat of religious faith among the general public but rather the persistence of religious attitudes even in our beliefs about the physical world. You could argue that progress narratives about technology, including the fringe belief in an imminent technological “singularity,” are nothing but the old eschatology wearing new chrome. Religion’s influence in the secular world does not necessarily involve a belief in spiritual reality but rather the application to material reality of attitudes previously associated with the spiritual.

The trouble with reenchantment, though, is that it lives next door to darker kinds of fantasy. “Finding meaning” can easily slip into paranoia. Some believers go too far, committing acts of violence in response to the conspiracies they imagine behind every door. For example, just a few months before he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Timothy McVeigh visited Area 51, often rumored to be the place where the government stores alien spacecraft, possibly including wreckage from the Roswell crash. Never an active part of UFO circles, McVeigh nevertheless saw a connection between the famous Area 51, a symbol of the government’s power not only over the land but also over forbidden knowledge, and his own desire for personal sovereignty. For some reason, he wanted Area 51 and the long, figurative shadow of alien spacecraft to be part of his story. Through cases like McVeigh’s, The Unidentified reveals itself as a book about the limitlessness of the imagination, but also about the limits, and dangers, of acting on that faculty. Reenchantment, in short, comes in both benign and malign forms.

On a lighter note, the kitschiness of unidentified phenomena is a persistent theme in The Unidentified. My smiling Desk Nessie is positively tasteful compared to the accumulated bric-a-brac of UFO and cryptid fanciers, ranging from keychain fobs to self-published pamphlets to cheery signs showing a waving Bigfoot piloting a spaceship, poised above a diner. As The Unidentified closes, Dickey notes that subcultures once characterized by the systemic pursuit of knowledge about the weird are quickly being replaced by what he calls “improvisational millenarianism” — in other words, by a pastiche of ideas about the paranormal that abandons all notions of proof and instead anticipates imminent change, often through the agency of aliens or other beings. Such millenarianism puzzles me — after all, we stand on the brink of lethal degrees of climate change, far from the “thousand years of blessedness” the phrase “millenarianism” usually conjures — but we denizens of the early 21st century have to find hope where we can, perhaps even in the stars.

Yet, as a style, kitsch has its own deeper meanings. The critic Clement Greenberg once excoriated the phenomenon, in a 1939 Partisan Review essay to which Susan Sontag’s better-known 1964 piece “Notes on ‘Camp’” was a response. Before the advent of flying saucer-shaped bumper stickers, he called kitsch the aesthetic style of mass consumer society, even of totalitarianism. He praised modernism as kitsch’s antidote, a style capable of getting art viewers to think for themselves (sapere aude!). Is kitsch really thoughtless? Certainly, Dickey’s book charts a descent, in fringethink communities, from respect for some form of expertise, into a mere pastiche of imagery. By treating the iconography of the weird as an equal-opportunity bin of elements to be combined with postmodern abandon, the artist of the weird rebels against what passes for expertise in cryptid and UFO research. What results is a collage that cheerfully announces the meaninglessness of its subject. Sontag’s response to Greenberg was that he missed the fact that, well, kitsch can be fun, especially when rendered as camp. True enough, but we should nonetheless be careful: all bumper stickers purport to offer equivalent truth claims.

But of all the possible challenges to the expertise of scientists, the belief in cryptids or aliens feels comparatively benign. It isn’t anti-vaxxing or a refusal to wear a mask during a pandemic. Perhaps it’s just as well, then, that the real searchers will keep searching. The cryptid, the alien — these things exceed proof, just as the imagination does, but since we made the cryptid and the alien, we can learn to recognize parts of ourselves in them. The desire for belief is as old as the desire for knowledge, and impossible to expunge. Better to find healthy ways to entertain it, lest it flatten into kitsch or detonate as apophenia. The truth is out there, because we put it there.


Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a writer and historian. His most recent book is Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food (University of California Press, 2019).

LARB Contributor

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a writer and historian, whose books include Ways of Eating: Exploring Food Through History and Culture (University of California Press, 2023), co-written with Merry White; Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food (UC Press, 2019); and Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt (Penn, 2016).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!