Thursday, April 21, 2022

UFO Patterns: Signals in the Noise

Hearing an unbelievable or absurd flying saucer yarn, Gray Barker would often respond with an enigmatic smile and say, “It all fits the pattern.” It was a private joke, since much of popular UFO lore was invented or circulated by Barker himself.

The human mind is always trying to find patterns. Most people are familiar with pareidolia, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.” Pareidolia applies to visual stimulus, but it’s a type of apophenia, “the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas).” 

From A Popular Handbook and Atlas of Astronomy, by William Peck, 1891

Apophenia is finding false signals in the noise. Confirmation bias can play a role as well, and once we’ve adopted a hypothesis, we favor that which seems to fit with, or support our view. An example of that is when Italian astronomer Giovani Schiaparelli detected lines on the surface of Mars, he interpreted them as canals, proof of construction by intelligent inhabitants. When flying saucers came along, it had people making all kinds of mental connections in trying to solve the mystery.

As early as 1947 the Air Force was looking at UFO sightings to determine some actionable data. The idea was that if UFOs were under intelligent control, some evidence of that should be found by identifying repetitions of some characteristics, such as shape, performance, behavior, and locations observed. In March 1953, Project Blue Book head Edward J. Ruppelt gave a “Briefing for Air Defense Command,” where he stated:

“We have made a statistical study of the data that we have collected in order to attempt to determine whether or not there is any common pattern in the sightings but we have had no success in finding any such pattern.”

Copy from The San Bernardino Sun, May 1, 1967

Dr. J. Allen Hynek was an astronomer who worked a side gig as a consultant to the Air Force. In the mid-1960s Project Blue Book had authorized Hynek to recruit assistance from colleagues in analyzing and processing UFO reports. Jacques Vallee, a young French ufologist who was pursuing his Ph.D. and working as a computer programmer, was brought in chiefly to assist in data management. Vallee was always looking for messages in the data, and in his 1965 book, Anatomy of a Phenomenon, frequently mentioned patterns and pattern-analysis:

“If new phenomena are present in the set of patterns that constitutes the UFO problem, there is a possibility that these phenomena may lie outside the scope of any one of the specialties recognized today by science, and still be discernible to the mathematical mind.” 

Hynek was influenced by Vallee and searched for common features or patterns in UFO reports. 

Hynek’s Observables 

The San Bernardino Sun, May 1, 1967, ran an article, “It's Easy to Be Ufologist -- Just Read Below” by Karl R. Edgerton. Dr. Hynek was quoted, saying the "more impressive cases" among the unexplained sightings "fit into a pattern." He listed five common characteristics.

  • The UFOs had a bright red glow.
  • They hovered a few feet off the ground.
  • They emitted a "high-pitched whine."
  • Animals in the vicinity were terrified, often before the UFOs became visible to the people who later reported them.
  • When the objects at last began to disappear, they vanished in seconds.

The next year (Amarillo Daily News, Feb. 15, 1968,) Hynek was asked about the Carroll Wayne Watts case and Texas UFO flap, and he was supportive. “He said many facets of the sightings at Wellington ‘fit the pattern’.” Unfortunately, the Watts case turned out to be hoax, a pastiche based on the alien encounter stories from Dan Fry and Barney and Betty Hill. Watts’ yarn fit the pattern through counterfeiting and mimicry.

Post-Blue Book   

After the closure of Project Blue Book, Hynek wrote a book in 1972, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry. In it he used the word “pattern” 343 times, most often in this context, “UFOs in general, have been reported from many parts of the world, and a definite pattern is evident.” Discussing the 1961 Hill abduction story, Hynek said, “If we discount entirely the account revealed only under hypnosis, the first portion fits the pattern.” Hynek talked about how conventional items mistaken for phenomena did not typically generate reports of high strangeness.

“An aircraft fuselage glistening in the sun, reported by some untutored person as a UFO, is not reported to rush away at incredible speeds. Flares dropped from airplanes (which have often given rise to UFO reports) are not reported as having stopped cars, frightened animals, or cavorted about the sky; nor do the reports contain reference to 'occupants' or to oval-shaped craft hovering six feet off the ground.” 

Jacques Vallee, and J. Allen Hynek wrote in their 1975 book, The Edge of Reality: A Progress Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, “definite patterns of appearance and behavior” repeat in cases throughout the decades:

“One would expect that if UFOs had no substance in fact but were entirely the products of human imagination, there would be considerably greater variety in UFO reports. It does not say much for human imagination to report the same old (but incredible) stories; over some three decades one would imagine that story tellers as well as out and out hoaxsters would bring some variety into their productions!”

On Geraldo Rivera’s ABC talk show Good Night America on June 9th, 1977, Dr. Hynek was asked about the Travis Walton story, and he was supportive of it.

“It fits a pattern… we have some two dozen similar abduction cases currently being studied. Something is going on!”

One of Hynek’s last interviews was in Omni magazine Feb. 1985, and he was asked about his Center for UFO Studies. “What was the understanding that began to emerge from your work?” Dr. Hynek replied: 

“I realized that we don't have UFOs, only UFO reports. I defined the UFO phenomenon, then, as the continual flow of strange sightings and reports from all over the world. The patterns and contents of these reports constitute the UFO phenomenon. The phenomenon says nothing whatsoever about origin, nothing about little green men. The question about whether you do or don't believe in UFOs is irrelevant. If you define the UFO as the UFO report and its consistent contents, then the phenomenon is there.”

Ufologist and saucer satirist Gray Barker died on Dec. 6, 1984.

J. Allen Hynek died on April 27, 1986, so in that sense, Dr. Hynek had the last laugh. 

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Early Accounts of Alien Abductions

Notions of alien abductions were circulating long before the 1961 Betty and Barney Hill case, even before anyone had heard of flying saucers. Charles Fort’s 1919, The Book of the Damned discussed the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors, and he speculated that someone up there likes us - as in the way we taste.
“And I have data that, in this book, I can't take up at all — mysterious disappearances. I think we're fished for.”
The Fortean journal, Doubt # 13, 1945 had a short article that played off this notion, supposing that the missing crew of a German ship might have become a meal for Martians.

Doubt # 13, 1945

Science Fiction Kidnappers

“Earth Slaves to Space” by Richard Shaver, Amazing Stories Sept. 1946

Ray Palmer published the stories of Richard Shaver as nonfiction as in Amazing Stories, tales of an ancient extraterrestrials, the Atlans and Titans. Carrying a cover date of June 1947 but published at least a month earlier, Palmer put out a special all-Shaver Mystery issue, and his editorial stated:
“…Mr. Shaver declared that Titans, living far away in space, or other people like them, still visit earth in space ships, kidnap people, raid the caves for valuable equipment, and, in general, supply the basis for all the weird stories that are so numerous (see Charles Fort's books) of space ships, beings in the sky, etc.”

Science fiction and fantasy stories frequently featured stories of monsters or aliens abducting humans for examination or worse. When the flying saucers appeared, that sort of thing was mentioned, but only as a joke. On July 7, 1947, newspaper columnist Hal Boyle’s a silly piece about being abducted by a spaceman in a flying saucer was published. His alien abductor was a big green man, Balminston X-Ray O’Rune from Mars, “some eight feet tall, covered with thick green hair, with one eye like a hardboiled egg in the center of his forehead, and no visible mouth at all. He was naked, his hands were three-clawed.”

More seriously, John W. Campbell's editorial in the October 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction was titled, “Flying Somethings,” where he speculated that UFOs were extraterrestrial scout vehicles, and he discussed how they might abduct specimens for study. He wrote about it from flipped point of view, as if we were the explorers of another planet:

"For several months, our investigation would be conducted by noncontact observation; until we know much more about the people, we'll do well to stay clear of them. After some weeks though, a stealthy raid might kidnap a few inhabitants for general questioning and investigation. In this, we'd be very smart not to damage the kidnaped parties; the resentment of a technically civilized race can be distinctly unwelcome even to a more powerfully technical people. Investigation of local animals can give all the necessary basic biological science for preliminary understanding of the local race.”
(See pages 71-72 of this PDF for 
Campbell's full article: UFOs: A History, Supplemental Notes August 1—December 31 by Loren E. Gross.) 

Comics are often a good indicator of how a topic has penetrated the public’s consciousness, but occasionally they have been ahead of trends. An alien abduction kicked off the story in the Sunday Superman newspaper comic strip from May 2 to July 18, 1948. Superman and Lois Lane were captured by a scouting party for invaders from Mars and taken aboard their spherical Martian spaceship. 

The Martians wanted to conquer Earth to solve their water shortage, and the two were taken as test subjects to be taken to Mars and examined to see if earthlings could resist the Martians’ weapons.

(Reprinted in Superman: The Golden Age Sundays 1946–1949 by IDW Publishing, 2014.)

In the episodes that followed, it became a farce with the ugly Martian queen trying to marry Superman, but he solved their problem and helped her find a husband. Therefore, the invasion was prevented.

Into the 1950s...   

In October of 1952, the newspaper comic strip based on The Saint by Leslie Charteris featured a flying saucer storyline. A scientist wondered:
"Have you thought how many unsolved disappearances are explained by the 'specimens' of human beings that they have taken for study?"

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Oct. 4, 1952

Dennis Wheatley's 1952 book, Star of Ill-Omen, was a tale of Martians kidnapping people to learn humanity’s nuclear secrets, in order to use atomic bombs in warfare on their own planet.

The notion of flying saucer abductions came up now and then, but not in reputable places. The October 1953 issue of Man to Man magazine featured the article by Leroy Thorp, “Are the Flying Saucers Kidnapping Humans?” It was not based on contemporary accounts, just an undated recycling of a mysterious disappearance supposedly taken from one of Charles Fort’s books.

Harold T. Wilkins wrote a book released in the U.S. as Flying Saucers on the Attack in July 1954. It included several stories about the unexplained loss of people, planes, and ships, and he suggested alien abduction as the solution:
“One wonders how many cases of mysterious disappearances of men and women in 1948 – 1952 might be explained as ‘TAKEN ABOARD A FLYING SAUCER IN A LONELY PLACE’?”

A Saucer-Related Disappearance Makes News

Two men took off in a plane searching for saucers, and they were never seen again. From the Los Angeles Mirror, Nov. 18, 1953, as reprinted in UFO Crash Secrets at Wright Patterson Air Force Base by James W. Moseley, 1992.

George Hunt Williamson’s summary from Other Tongues - Other Flesh, 1953:
“On November 18, 1953, the Los Angeles Mirror reported that two missing electricians may have been kidnapped by interplanetary invaders in a Flying Saucer. The two Saucer enthusiasts were Karl Hunrath and Wilbur J. Wilkinson. They had taken off in a rented airplane from Gardena Airport on November 11th with a three-hour gas supply. Despite widespread search, no trace of the plane or its occupants has been seen. The rumor that the plane was found dismantled on the top of a California mountain with no sign of the two men is unfounded. Officials claim that nothing has turned up in the case as yet.”

Vanished in Vermont

Rev. O. L. Jaggers had been lecturing on flying saucers since 1952, and asked, “From whence do they come? …Russia or some enemy nation? Are they interplanetary…?” Jaggers gave a lecture in San Francisco on August 22, 1954, on “How Flying Saucers are Kidnapping Human Beings from the Earth.” The lecture advertised that it would present: “Names and addresses of people kidnapped by Flying Saucers!”

Odessa American Sept. 9, 1955

From the looks of the article below in the New Castle News, September 2, 1954, one audience member tried to verify some of the details about the alleged flying saucer abductions. 
(Full text follows the blurry clipping.)

New Castle News, September 2, 1954

Missing Vermont Folk Not Whisked Off by Saucers
The town of Bennington, Vt., doesn't know what did happen to three persons who have vanished mysteriously in the last eight years but it is quite sure they were not picked up by a flying saucer and whisked off to Russia. It will so inform a San Francisco, Calif., clergyman who yesterday asked the Bennington Chamber of Commerce if that had really happened. Wrote Rev. Harold DeRoo, pastor of the Miraloma Community church in the west coast city:

"I am endeavoring to verify some information recently presented by an itinerant speaker who came to this city. His topic was flying saucers. In the course of the address he related the alleged fact that five men of Bennington, Vt., were literally drawn up from the face of the earth and have never been heard of. According to the accounts these saucers originated in Russia which has devised a magnet to draw people from this country. I should appreciate very much if you could either verify or nullify the account."

Bennington officials said they don't have the answer to the disappearance of Paula Weldon, Bennington college student who never returned from an off-campus stroll; Middie Rivers, a Bennington woodchopper who vanished a short time later, or a boy named Jepson who disappeared from his father's car at the town dump as the father was pouring food into a nearby pigsty. But they were sure there were no Soviet saucers involved in these cases and that there was no mass evanishment by a quintet of citizens.

The 1960s: Alien Abductions Become Mainstream

In 1966, the Betty and Barney Hill story was published in John Fuller’s bestselling book, The Interrupted Journey, and it had an enormous cultural impact. The book also led to the popularization and acceptance of the alien abduction concept.

The Des Moines Register Sept. 30,1966 and the Minneapolis Star Oct. 6, 1966

Jet magazine, Oct. 20, 1966

The Hills’ story was serialized in many newspapers and in Look magazine.

The Hill case became the industry standard, and the basis for comparison for all the many reports of alien abductions that have surfaced in the decades since.

. . .

We've just hit some highlights here. For more information on pre-saucer abductions, see:

Frank Edwards: Making UFOs Newsworthy

Dr. J. Allen Hynek on UFO literature (in  The Edge of Reality , 1975): “If I were to recommend anything in the popular category, I would cho...