The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

The Good Kind of Ass Out of You and Me: Toward a Post-Fortean Ufology

Like looking at the sun, you can sometimes get blinded by a topic of you stare right at it.

For six decades, those interested in paranormal and Fortean phenomena have been blinded by the subject of UFOs. It’s not that there’s too little information. It’s that there’s too much—too much conflicting evidence and not enough context for any of it. Too many sightings, too many photographs, too many different kinds of experiences, too many different kinds of objects, too many stories, too many witnesses, too many hoaxes, too many theories, too many preconceptions, and too many “investigators” with too many agendas. It’s also a subject that seemingly knows no boundaries. A recent issue of MUFON Journal had a cover story relating UFOs to 2012 prophecies—what an embarrassment, what bullshit (I’m not renewing my membership). Ufology is a chaotic mess, and it’s not surprising that the outside world has taken little notice of the field or the subject matter.

Like when studying the sun, the best way to study an unviewable topic is sometimes to block it out (temporarily) in order to see how it affects things around it. It is just in the past decade that a few investigators have adopted this more cautious approach—blocking out evidence for and theories about UFOs to focus instead on the history of the “UFO phenomenon” and its cultural, social, and political context. Mostly it has been by outsiders to the field, approaching the subject as academics or journalists. And the effect has been incredibly clarifying—and not, as one might expect, undermining. Quite the contrary. The entrance of historians and journalists into the field is more than anything else the reason the topic is making its first steps out of the Fortean ghetto and into the mainstream.

Richard Dolan, for example, is not a “ufologist” in the standard sense, but a historian who has documented the intense interest of the U.S. government, military, and intelligence community in the UFO phenomenon ever since the late 40s. He has also documented the interest of the interested in appearing disinterested. In the early 1950s the government exerted pressure on the media to not take “flying saucers” seriously. The effects of that are still seen: Any news report related to a UFO sighting is accompanied by X-Files music and jokes. And the powers that be have shown nothing but dishonesty when discussing the subject. Dolan shows that the two famous “investigations” of the phenomenon—the Air Force’s Project Blue Book and the University of Colorado Condon Committee—were both essentially public relations exercises; their mandate was to discredit the subject while making the government and military appear open-minded to the public’s concern over it. Only a small percent of the reports collected by either group were actually investigated; and Condon was chosen to lead the CU team because he had already expressed his unshakeable belief in the nonexistence of the phenomenon. These “studies” were farces, in other words.

Unclassified and classified documents obtained from the U.S. government through the Freedom of Information Act, and the files of many other world governments that have recently made public their UFO case records, massively document the existence of unexplained, solid, gravity-defying, astonishingly fast, and intelligently controlled aircraft (note: not necessarily spacecraft). Since the end of World War II there have been hundreds of thousands of reports of sightings from every country in the world, often by reliable witnesses including military personnel, police, commercial airline pilots, and astronauts. Many, many sightings have been independently corroborated by multiple witnesses (or even large groups of witnesses, as in Belgium in 1989-90 or the 1997 Arizona Lights incident) and are very often verified by radar. In a few famous instances, for instance in Washington, DC, in 1952, in Iran in 1976, and the 1989-90 Belgian case, such objects have been pursued by fighter planes, easily outmaneuvering them before disappearing at impossible speeds. In a few cases such as Malmstrom AFB in 1967, UFOs have appeared over missile launch facilities and somehow deactivated the missile launch systems.

The “caliber” of witnesses to the UFO phenomenon has increased in recent years. Serious documentary filmmakers and journalists like James Fox and Leslie Kean have worked to present the subject in a serious and sober, not sensationalistic, light, and this has certainly been an encouragement for people with a lot at stake, and a lot of respectability, to come forward and talk about what they know. These include pilots, who for decades have been forbidden from talking about their sightings, military personnel (including fighter pilots and soldiers at military bases), and astronauts. Personnel involved in the Malmstrom AFB incident recently spoke at the National Press Club about the event. Dr. Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, has openly stated that he knows the UFO phenomenon is real and that the government is wrongly concealing what it knows; Gordon Cooper, one of the original Mercury astronauts, has described his involvement in filming the actual landing of a flying saucer at a military base in the 1950s and then the confiscation of the film by military authorities (see Fox’s documentary, I Know What I Saw). These are just a few examples in what is a recent groundswell of high-caliber witnesses coming forward with their stories and their knowledge and clamoring for disclosure by the authorities.

As independent thinkers and skeptics, we should not be swayed by authorities. We should make up our own minds. Yet, it would be stupid not to look to those who know more than us for some guidance. The fact that UFOs have quietly been taken very, very seriously by people in authority since the 1940s, along with the fact that some of those people (who have a lot to lose and nothing to gain) are now publicly attesting their reality, is just one among many very good reasons we should not smirk at it anymore, or whistle the X-Files theme.

We are told assuming is bad, but it seems we should stop rehearsing the evidence and assume the reality of the UFO phenomenon and proceed from there. Because no matter how you slice it, if UFOs are real — and I really think we can now drop the “if” — then they are unquestionably the biggest story of our time.

If they represent the presence of extraterrestrials, it would be monumental, having profound implications for our conception of ourselves and our place in the scheme of things. It would be a reorienting of our perspectives on par with the Copernican revolution, which made the sun, not the earth, the center of the universe. It would make the cosmos a new kind of place, and I think it would alter many people’s priorities in a fundamental way.

If UFOs represent the existence of a more advanced secretive hominid species or a broken-off technological civilization originating on our own planet—a theory increasingly favored by many—then that too would be earthshattering news, with implications nearly as far-reaching as if they were extraterrestrial. Some have speculated that UFOs represent beings from our own future or from other dimensions. I don’t know if anyone really knows what “other dimensions” means, and these seem like wilder speculations that aren’t empirically testable anyway. But there again, even if something like that did turn out to be the explanation, it would have similarly huge implications for science, religion, and everything else.

Take even the most mundane theory: that UFOs are a modern phenomenon and represent advanced military technology kept “above top secret.” It would mean the powers-that-be possess technologies far in advance of those we have access to. Those would include technologies (antigravity, advanced weapons, etc.) that have never been deployed on battlefields but that would theoretically make conventional warfare, and the death of countless people, obsolete; It may include “mind control” weapons and holographic technology usable to manipulate people’s perceptions; it might include new energy sources that could help the world’s energy problems and perhaps reduce the destructive impact the latter has on the environment; it might even include medical advances that could cure health scourges. In other words, concealment of these technologies would not only represent a conspiracy, it could even me a moral crime, possibly of huge proportions. Again, a huge story.

I should add that the latter scenario, however “down to earth,” is pretty unlikely given the historical records. Reports exactly matching those made by modern witnesses appear in all literate cultures going back to antiquity. In Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, reports of “flying shields,” “flying hats,” brightly lit (or “fiery”) spheres, intelligently moving aerial lights, and flying triangles have been made numerous times, often by sober, careful observers, even astronomers—not just (not even mainly) by the illiterate, credulous, and superstitious. The astronomer Cassini reported seeing UFOs on two occasions. Michelangelo recorded seeing a flying black triangle with lights, identical to the triangles reported by hundreds of Arizonans in 1997 and by numerous civilians and air-force pilots in Belgium in 1989-90. Jacques Vallee has just published a catalogue of historical accounts of what we would now call UFOs, dating from as early as 1460 BC.

In short, there are a great many possibilities, but the evidence points to something real, and whatever the explanation, it would be huge. So, I am passionate enough about the topic that I think it is worth making a slight (huge?) ass of myself in going on about it.


I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at]

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