24 July 2014

Messengers and Harbingers: Sneaky Owls in Fantastical Movies

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

Owls and UFOs. To those with no interest in either the two might seem like chalk and cheese, but these ‘phenomena’ – one assumed to belong exclusively to our world, the other thought to originate ‘elsewhere’ – often go hand-in-hand; that is, at least, according to the testimonies of countless UFO experiencers the world over.

In has long been theorized in the UFO research community that the sighting of an owl or owls shortly prior to, during, or immediately after a UFO close encounter is a strong indication of a repressed abduction experience, with the image of the owl acting as a screen memory for the traumatised abductee. The logic here is that the large, penetrating (and sometimes glassy black) eyes of an owl closely resemble those of the archetypal alien ‘Grey’. Owls also swoop from the skies – the domain of the UFO.
In his fascinating and deeply personal essay Owls and the UFO Abductee, Mike Clelland considers the possible psychological function of owl imagery in abduction reports, but ultimately ascribes it a more profound and mystical meaning, concluding – or, rather, confidently speculating – that the owl in these circumstances may be “part of a shamanic initiation,” a wake-up call from the universe itself for those who suspect but refuse to acknowledge their lifetime of hidden experiences with intelligences beyond the realm of everyday perception.

Mike's essay -- which is now slowly working its way toward a book -- is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the abduction phenomenon or in the otherworldly beauty of the owl.

All of this may seem slightly off-topic for this blog, being, as it is, so tightly focused on Hollywood. But there is indeed a Hollywood connection, albeit a fleeting one, so far as I can tell (and I would welcome more input on this if anyone can offer other examples similar to those presented below).

Owl imagery was used prominently in the 2009 movie The Fourth Kind in an overtly alien context, and again more recently in the children's adventure film Earth to Echo (2014), but right now I’m more interested in how owl imagery can be used very subtly, even subconsciously by filmmakers.
Owl imagery in the 2009 abduction movie, The Fourth Kind.
A couple of months back, not long after having chatted with Mike Clelland on Facebook, and having owls on the brain as a result, I switched on the TV. The 1986 movie Short Circuit was playing. A high-concept, family-friendly sci-fi flick, the movie follows the adventures of Johnny 5, an escaped experimental military robot who gains sentience – and apparently even a soul – after being struck by lightning.

The scene that happened to be playing was a pivotal one in the movie: Johnny 5’s first meeting with the character of Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy). The scene is shot to resemble a distinctly Spielbergian 'close encounter' event, with Stephanie under the impression that Johnny 5 is not a robot, but an extraterrestrial. As Stephanie steps outside her house one night to investigate a disturbance, she sees a mysterious glow emanating from her van. “Hey, get outta there!” she yells, nervously. It is at this point that we cut to a close-up of an owl perched atop Stephanie’s personalized mailbox. The bird turns its head to her, almost expectantly.  

As Stephanie approaches her van, its side panel flips open vertically to reveal an alien-looking Johnny 5, bathed in misty light. We then cut once more to the owl, which turns its head to Johnny 5, and, in that moment, one can’t help but draw a visual parallel between the robot and the bird – both having large, round, yellow and black eyes harshly accented by a ‘frown’ (metal eyebrows in Johnny’s case, and ‘ear’ tufts in the owl’s).
Short Circuit (1986)

It is now that Stephanie exclaims: “Oh, my God! I knew they would pick me, I just knew it!” perhaps indicating that she expects – and even wants – to be abducted. “Welcome to my planet,” she says, excitedly.

It goes without saying that owls have always been a permanent fixture in the iconographic landscape of the horror genre. But Short Circuit is a sci-fi, not a horror, and, while Johnny 5 isn't actually an alien, in this crucial scene, the filmmakers have gone out of their way to present him as alien-like and as a potential abductor. Also seemingly significant is the positioning of the owl directly on top of Stephanie’s mailbox, which clearly bears her name, as if the bird has come for her specifically (just as Mike Clelland feels the owls in his own life are communicating something to him on an intensely personal level). We might expect an owl to be perched on a tree branch, but here the owl prefers a mailbox – a ‘message’ box, a communications receptacle. In Western culture, owls are often associated with knowledge and wisdom, and so it is fitting that, in the very same scene, the first thing Johnny 5 demands of Stephanie is “input.” She’s delighted: “That’s information,” she replies, “I’m full of it!” As an aside here, while writing this post I was reminded by an owl-loving friend of mine that Harry Potter’s beloved owl Hedwig was also a messenger, serving Harry faithfully for six years by delivering his mail to him.

The prominent inclusion of the owl in Short Circuit was, in all likelihood, little more than an effort to enhance the ‘spooky’ atmosphere of Stephanie’s introduction to Johnny. Nevertheless, in the implied context of the scene (a close encounter with an alien entity), as well as in the context of Mike Clelland’s essay, the presence of the owl assumes a deeper meaning, whether or not it was consciously intended.

The 1997 movie Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan, also features a curious owl cameo. Early on in the film, a young Ellie Arroway (Jenna Malone) -- who as an adult makes direct contact with an alien intelligence -- asks her father (David Morse) a crucial question: "Hey, dad, do you think there's people on other planets?" At the very moment the question is spoken, the observant viewer will notice a picture on little Ellie's wall...

The mystical connection between owls and otherworldly entities presents itself again in a very different film – the 1982 inspired-by-real-events domestic chiller The Entity, starring Barbara Hershey. 
This disturbing film follows the plight of Carla Moran (Hershey), a young mother of three, who, for all intents and purposes, is single (her boyfriend spending most of his time on the road). One day, without warning, Carla is viciously beaten and raped in her bedroom by a powerful but invisible entity. In the days and weeks that follow, Carla continues to be sexually assaulted by the entity and, fearing for her sanity, seeks help, first from a skeptical psychotherapist, and later from a team of parapsychologists. All the while, the entity is relentless in its aggressive sexual pursuit of this traumatised woman.

In many respects, The Entity certainly can be classed as a horror movie, but it also flirts with science fiction. It constantly defies genre expectations; perhaps, in part, because it is based on a true story – the rigidity of genre rarely applying to life as we live it.

The film’s sci-fi element is particularly identifiable in onscreen debate surrounding just what the entity actually is, and where it comes from. In the third act, the team of university-employed parapsychologists devises a plan to capture and kill the entity for scientific study. Their weapon of choice: liquid helium.

One of the parapsychologists explains:

“What we’re seeking is to determine if this entity has mass. If in fact this is the case, then we should be able to freeze it, verify its objective existence, and prove that it isn’t just a psychic projection, but rather an independent force from some other level of reality that has never been isolated.”

Spoken about in these terms, the entity seems to have less in common with the traditionally supernatural (ghosts, for example) and more with the interdimensional trickster intelligences theorized by the likes of Jacques Vallee and John Keel.

The interdimensional hypothesis posits that UFO entities might exist beyond space-time and can flit in and out of our reality at will, assuming a multitude of forms – from the faeries, goblins, and incubi of ages past, to the UFOs and aliens of modern times. This theory is explicitly brought to mind in The Entity during a scene in which Carla’s psychiatrist, Dr Sneiderman (Ron Silver), attempts to dispel her ‘irrational’ belief in the literal existence of her invisible tormentor, showing her old drawings of goblins, demons, and faerie folk: “They were supposed to abuse people sexually,” he tells her, “they were supposed to impregnate people. Do you think these things really existed then!?”

It is notable that the true nature of the entity is never discovered in the movie, although there is no indication that it is anything so mundane as the lingering ghost of a deceased man; indeed, no indication that it was ever human at all. In the movie, the entity’s few physical manifestations take the form of dazzling lights, bright, fast-moving orbs, and electrical discharges – phenomena typically associated with UFOs. In one scene, when asked by parapsychologists to reveal itself, the entity appears literally as an unidentified flying object, a vaguely spherical green light that calls to mind (to this mind, at least) the green fireballs frequently sighted over US nuclear installations throughout the late 1940s and which lead directly to the formation of the USAF’s Project Twinkle. The stunned parapsychologists look on in awe in shots that wouldn’t seem out of place in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
"Show yourself!" The Entity (1982)
So where do owls come into this? Well, they’re onscreen throughout the movie as decorative wall ornaments. In the hallway, directly by Carla’s front door, we can see a board displaying five owls made from coloured felt. In Carla’s kitchen we can see a woven owl on the wall near the sink. At one point, in Carla’s bedroom, her dressing chair even appears owl-like. The camera never dwells on any of these images, but they are noticeable to the perceptive viewer. Why this owl motif pervades the film, and whether or not there was conscious purpose behind its inclusion is debatable. The Native American Hopi people traditionally associate owls with sorcery and evil. In Mesoamerican cultures, the owl is considered a symbol of death and destruction. In the Mayan religious text the Popol Vuh, owls are described as messengers of Xibalba (the Mayan “Place of Fright”). In these folkloric and religious contexts, owl imagery perfectly complements the nature and intent of the malevolent entity in the movie.

I could waffle on about all of this for quite some time without threatening to reach anything resembling a conclusion. So, for now, I’ll leave readers with some stills from The Entity. Make of them what you will, and, next time you watch a movie – any movie – keep your eyes peeled for sneaky owls... you never know where they might decide to put in an appearance.
Five owls stand watch over Carla's front door. Is their purpose to keep something out, or to keep her in?
Above and below: In these, some of the final shots of the movie, immediately after being shut in by the entity and subjected to shocking verbal abuse, Carla calmly but defiantly opens her front door...

... Before stepping out into an uncertain future.

Above and below: the 'owl' chair.

The woven owl in Carla's kitchen.

Strangely, Carla here seems to be smiling at the owl. This is never explained.

The owl is noticeably skewed on the wall as Carla feels the strain of her abuse.




7 July 2014

'Signs', wonders, and TV

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

Inspired by the crop circle phenomenon, the 2002 movie Signs draws broadly from the UFO mythos and, in one of its more comical scenes, has three of its characters huddled together in tinfoil hats, wracked by paranoia. Beyond such cliché, however, M. Night Shyamalan’s film exhibits a deeper – perhaps subconscious – awareness of the UFO phenomenon and of the effects of its mass-mediation in the post-modern world.

In the film, a Pennsylvanian farming family – headed by old-fashioned priest and widower Reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) – is thrown into turmoil when a crop formation appears overnight in their corn field. From blanket TV news coverage we learn that hundreds of similar crop ‘signs’ have appeared suddenly and simultaneously around the world, baffling experts. Graham is quietly concerned and seeks to distance his family from the inexplicable events unfolding around them by refusing them access to the media circus now spoon-feeding the hungry masses. “See, this is why we’re not watching TV,” says Graham, “people get obsessed.” For Graham, despite the undeniable physical reality of the sign in his corn field and his own gut instinct that something strange is afoot, it is only through their mediation by TV news reports that the bizarre events can assume a sense of the ‘real’.
Discussing Baudrillard’s notions of hyperreality, John Storey notes that, “Representation does not stand at one remove from reality, to conceal or distort it, it is reality”[i]; implicitly aware of this, Graham opts to sever his own access to media images, leaving him free to interpret the events outside as he chooses and to continue to inhabit his own secure, albeit emotionally stagnant, reality. It is only when Graham catches a glimpse of an alien in his corn field one night that he submits to his family’s desire to be mediated (“Okay, let’s turn on the TV”). It is Graham’s submission to television that plants him firmly in the “present age” to which Feuerbach refers in The Essence of Christianity: an age “which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence...” For Graham, the grieving widower and priest faced with an incomprehensible threat to his family, now, more than ever, “Illusion only is sacred, truth profane.”[ii]

As the family watch “live” footage of numerous UFOs over Mexico City, Graham’s brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) quips: “the nerds were right – a reference to the generic UFO believers he had mocked in an earlier scene. Shyamalan’s decision to have the alien craft arrive over Mexico City clearly is inspired by the real-life mass-sightings of UFOs over this same locale during the solar eclipse of July 11, 1991 when hundreds of people witnessed what appeared to be a number of hovering, metallic, disc-shaped objects. Signs again draws from the UFO mythos during a scene in which Merrill reacts with horror as the TV news runs grainy, daylight footage of an alien prowling the backstreets of Paso Fundo, Brazil. This is an oblique reference the famous ‘Varginha incident’ of 1996 in which three teenage girls claimed to have been traumatised by a daylight encounter with an unearthly entity in the Brazilian city of Varginha.[iii]  

Several scenes later, the whole family has succumbed entirely to the mystical power of their television as they stare passively at the numerous “lights” now hovering over Washington DC and over hundreds of cities worldwide. Such is the magnetism of their TV screen that, rather than driving to the nearest city in an attempt to see the lights for themselves or even simply stepping outside to glance up at the sky, the family considers it more natural to watch the events on television and, most importantly, to record them. “We have to tape this,” urges Graham’s son, Morgan, “this is very important... the history of the world’s future is on the TV right now,” telling his younger sister Bo (Abigail Breslin), “We need to record this so you can show your children this tape and say you were there.” Clearly, the Hess family understand that the postmodern media do not simply provide, “secondary representations of reality; they affect and produce the reality that they mediate,”[iv] and that, “all events that ‘matter’ are media events.”[v]

As the saucer-shaped lights twinkle overhead, the anchorman informs viewers that “This image has not been adjusted or enhanced in anyway. What you’re seeing is real. It’s unbelievable.” Later in the film, Graham asks himself, “Is this really happening?” Such dialogue points to an awareness on Shayamalan’s part that the literal existence of UFOs is difficult to accept; not because of what UFOs might represent (otherworldly intelligences), but because of how the phenomenon has been mediated (i.e. ridiculed) for over sixty years. Shayamalan’s concerns along these lines are expressed subtly in his decision to confine his UFOs and aliens securely to his characters’ TV screen as objects of media scrutiny for all but a few seconds of the film’s total running time.  

The extent to which the family’s perception of UFOs has been historically mediated is also effectively illustrated through their inability to envisage what horrors might be unfolding beyond the four corners of their TV screen. When both their television and radio cease to function as a result of the unseen invasion outside, in the total absence of media to guide their perceptions, the Hess family are lost, as demonstrated when a terrified Merrill asks: “What’s going on out there?” A question to which Graham can only respond: “I can’t even imagine.” Indeed, in an earlier scene, when Merrill does attempt to make use of his imagination, he can’t help but fall back on iconographic imagery conjured by classic UFOlogical fiction, describing the scenes on TV as being “like War of the Worlds.”
During the film’s climax in which an alien intruder holds Morgan hostage in the Hess family’s living room, Shyamalan again chooses to objectify the aliens through television – this time quite literally. When Graham finally sees the alien up close it is in the form of a reflection in his TV screen, and, again, when the creature is defeated and lies dying on the floor we see only its reflection in the glass of the television. Are aliens real, or do they exist purely as media constructs? In Signs Shayamalan seems to answer the question with a question: “in today’s hyperreal society, does it matter?”

Signs is an anomaly in the UFO subgenre. Consciously or not, it engages with the UFO subject through the intellectual framework of spectatorship and hyperreality. As a meditation on UFOs as a media abstraction (viewed most comfortably through the filter of television), the film serves as a reflection of popular attitudes towards the phenomenon today, demonstrating that, when it comes to UFOs, even Hollywood in its mass-mediation of the phenomenon is acutely aware that “There is no longer a clear distinction between a ‘real’ event and its media representation.” [vi]

[i]  John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction (Fourth Edition) (University of Georgia Press, 2006), p. 136.
[ii] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity: Translated from the Second German Edition by Marion Evans, 1890, xiii, in Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967.
[iii] Matt Moffett,Tale of Stinky Extraterrestrials Stirs Up UFO Crowd in Brazil,’ The Wall Street Journal, 12 July, 1996. Available at: http://www.anomalies.net/archive/cni-news/CNI.0060.html. For a popular accounting of the ‘Varginha Incident’, see Roger K. Leir, UFO Crash in Brazil: A Genuine UFO Crash with Surviving ETs (California: The Book Tree, 2005).
[iv] John Fiske, Media Matters: Everyday Culture and Media Change (University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. xv, in Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, p. 135.
[v] Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, p. 135.
[vi] Ibid.

11 June 2014

Aliens in the '80s: Friends, Playmates, Brothers, and Lovers

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

The sudden influx of heart-warming UFO movies in the 1980s prompted cinema theorist Vivian Sobchack to observe that aliens surprisingly had become “our friends, playmates, brothers, and lovers.”
In this excerpt from my forthcoming book Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies, I take a look at big screen imaginings of peaceful contact during the 1980s – scenarios in which aliens visit our planet or communicate with our species in a spirit of goodwill, or at least with non-hostile intent...
For Hollywood, the 1980s was gargantuan: a decade of blockbusters and movie merchandise, sequels and trilogies; of action, adventure, and science fiction thrills. Thanks to the huge success of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, cynical studio bigwigs had by now cottoned-on to the public’s enduring fascination with UFOs and had accepted that aliens needn’t always come as invaders – benevolent beings could generate big bucks too. And so Hollywood’s new sci-fi blueprint was drawn in the image of the alien saviour, of intergalactic missionaries and humanity’s ultimate cosmic salvation. It was perhaps inevitable that the most significant film of the decade to work from this blueprint would spring from the very imagination that conceived it: Spielberg’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982) was an instant global phenomenon and reduced millions of hardened cinemagoers to tears with its tender tale of a lonely boy and his strand botanist buddy from beyond.
E.T.’s plot is as simple as they come: a friendly, physically vulnerable alien bestowed with powers of healing, telekinesis, and mental telepathy becomes stranded in suburban America only to be ‘adopted’ by a lonely boy named Elliot (Henry Thomas). They become the best of friends, connected by a deep psychic and spiritual bond. Meanwhile, government agents are in hot pursuit of E.T., intent on subjecting him to medical experimentation. At one point, E.T. dies at the hands of his government captors, but he returns to life in Christ-like fashion. Eventually, he is reunited with his own people and returns to his home planet, but not before assuring Elliot that the bond they share will span the stars forever.
Few would have believed prior to its release that a modest film about a diminutive alien could become the biggest film in the history of cinema, but it would remain at the peak of the box-office heap for eleven years until Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park finally toppled it in 1993. As Elliot bids an emotional farewell to his Christ-like friend, he tells him: “I’ll believe in you all my life, every day.” It was a sentiment many Americans seemed to share. When asked in a 1982 Gallup Poll ‘Do you believe life exists on other planets?’ 43% of respondents answered in the affirmative. Based on U.S. population figures for the year 1980, this percentage equated to some 97 million Americans believing in some form of extraterrestrial life. The poll was taken one month before the nationwide release of Spielberg’s film. It would have been interesting to have seen figures for one month after.
Bizarrely, E.T. was very nearly a nightmarish horror movie. In 2011, Spielberg told Entertainment Weekly: “It [E.T.] was going to be called Night Skies, based on a piece of UFO mythology... where a farm family reported little spindly grey [sic] aliens attacking their farm...This farm family basically huddled together for survival... It’s a story that’s well-known in the world of UFOlogy, and we based our script on that story.” Spielberg was, of course, referring to the Kelly-Hopkinsville farm siege of 1955. The director even went so far as to hire legendary effects designer Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London (1981)) to bring the impish Hopkinsville aliens to life for the big screen. It was only when Harrison Ford’s then-girlfriend Melissa Mathison came onboard to rewrite the screenplay that the movie became the one that audiences know and love today.
Romancing the alien
As the decade approached its mid-point UFOs were beginning to arrive in Hollywood en masse, planting their landing gear firmly into pop-culture. 1984 saw the release of John Carpenter’s Starman, an E.T. wannabe starring Jeff Bridges as the eponymous alien who crash-lands on earth, finding himself stranded. Romance ensues as fate brings him to an attractive but lonely widow and the pair set off on a cross-country adventure to a site designated by Starman’s people for his heart-rending return to the stars. Inoffensive, but ultimately uninspired, Carpenter’s film sought to capitalize on the popularity of the emerging image of the alien as savior, and, fittingly, his Starman performs all manner of ‘miracles’ during his time on earth, including seeding his infertile lover with a star child (who, we are told, will be a “teacher”), and twice bringing the dead back to life (though he stops just short of turning water into wine).
UFOlogical themes are identifiable in the movie; for example, Starman’s spacecraft is recovered by the US military, and his star child with Jenny brings to mind the stories of hybridization that would proliferate in UFO literature toward the end of the 1980s, throughout the 1990s, and beyond. It is important to note, however, that real-life stories of human-alien interbreeding comfortably pre-dated Starman, most notably in the case of Antonio Villas Boas, who, in 1957, claimed to have had sex with a human-like alien woman aboard a landed UFO near São Francisco de Sales in Brazil. When the deed was done, the alien smiled at Boas, rubbed her belly and gestured upwards: the child would live among the stars, Boas assumed.
The producers of Starman requested no support from any branch of the government. Unsurprising, since, as military historian Lawrence Suid notes, “the Pentagon would undoubtedly have looked unfavourably on a request for assistance because of [the negative] portrayal of the military leadership and of the alien spaceship as a flying saucer.” Suid is correct in essence, although Starman’s spaceship is not a flying saucer, per se, but rather a flying, highly-reflective sphere. The work of Close Encounters production designer Joe Alves, the Starman UFO was intended to break the flying saucer mould, which Alves felt was at risk of becoming stale. “It was a more simplistic design,” Alves told me of his Starman craft, “it was a counter thing to Close Encounters.”
Several months prior to the release of Starman, a 1984 reader survey for the American Psychology Magazine posed the question ‘Do you believe in UFOs?’, its implication being that UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin. 50% of respondents said yes – a strong indication of America’s growing conviction that we were not alone in the universe. The closing ceremony for the Olympic games in Los Angeles that year was a testament not only to how deeply UFOs and aliens had become engrained in the American psyche, but to the extent to which they had become inseparable from cinema. The highlight of the event was the staged landing of a giant ‘flying saucer’ and the subsequent emergence from within of a ‘space alien’ (friendly, of course) who then officially declared the games closed. In an awesome spectacle clearly inspired by the final scenes of Close Encounters, the Olympic saucer communicated with the awestruck crowd below through a series of elaborate lightshows, the orchestral music swelled to a crescendo, and the UFO descended to rapturous applause. It was a sight bizarre and magnificent to behold.
The healing touch
1984 saw the release of The Brother from Another Planet, a low-budget, independent social commentary piece from director John Sayles. In the movie, a UFO crashes near Ellis Island Immigration Centre and its human-looking, black-skinned occupant emerges dazed and confused into the strange and unwelcoming landscape of ‘80s New York City: just another lost soul trying to find his way in the world. We soon learn that The Brother has ESP abilities and, by touching any given object, he can ‘hear’ its history. He also has healing powers like so many other screen aliens of the 1980s. Healing powers have also been attributed to alien visitors in a number of contactee accounts. Take Jose Benedito Bogea, for example, a bespectacled Brazilian chicken farmer, who, after being rendered unconscious by a close encounter with a UFO near San Luis in July 1977, awoke the next morning to find that he had 20/20 vision and thus no further use for his glasses. Bogea would later recall being taken to an expansive alien environment populated by men and women “all looking very much alike; about 30 years old, five feet tall, slender, and nearly all dressed in grey and brown clothes...” Most of the people were “light skinned,” said Bogea, and “the women were pretty and had long blond hair.” Bogea further noted that the people seemed to be talking to each other, but he could hear no words. Presumably mental telepathy was at play.
Another fascinating case involving health benefits for a contactee is that of Paul Mayo, who now resides in Worcestershire, England. His testimony is documented here for the first time in print. Growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, Mayo was afflicted by numerous physical ailments stemming first from his prolonged exposure as a young boy to thick mould concealed behind the walls of his bedroom, and later from organophosphate poisoning caused by a farming accident which saw him immersed in sheep dip. All throughout his youth Mayo suffered constant headaches and, by the ache of 22, he had developed chronic bronchitis. His doctor at the time told him bluntly that he may not live past the age of thirty, such was the dire condition of his immune and respiratory systems. Then, on a Saturday morning in November 1978, at the age of twenty-nine, Mayo had an experience that transformed him both mentally and physically. He was sat on the edge of his bed, dressing himself for the day ahead. His wife was downstairs making breakfast. It was around 7am. They had risen early as they had planned to drive into town that morning to do some grocery shopping. As Mayo sat there in his bedroom pulling on his socks the door began to open slowly and he was puzzled to see a “man” poke his head around the door. The man, who was five foot six in height and ordinary in appearance, entered the room silently and raised his palm in a waving gesture. It was at this point that Mayo realized he could not move. He was paralyzed where he sat at the edge of his bed. The stranger now began to “dissolve” before his eyes, leaving only an intricate outline of his nerves and blood vessels, which shone brilliantly, “like a million fibres of light.”
A light being from the 2009 movie
Knowing recalls the appearance
of an entity described by
 contactee Paul Mayo.
Suddenly Mayo felt himself leaning backwards on his bed. The action was involuntary. His peripheral vision could now detect other men – as many as four – positioned either side of him; they were dressed in “tight-fitting silver clothes.” The last thing Mayo can consciously recall about this experience was being “ejected” from his bed and literally “floated” through his bedroom wall. Approximately three hours later, at around 10.15am, Mayo found himself back on his bed. He was so exhausted that he fell into a deep sleep for around an hour. When he awoke it was after 11am. He went downstairs to see his wife, who seemed not remotely curious as to why it had apparently taken her husband four hours to dress himself. Mayo asked her why she had not come upstairs to check on him – they had, after all, planned to go out earlier that morning for their grocery shopping. Mayo’s wife seemed confused – the thought to check in on her husband had literally never once occurred to her in those past four hours. She had eaten breakfast without him; his had gone to waste. They both agreed that this was most peculiar and Mayo’s wife was at a loss to explain her behaviour that morning. Mayo thought it best not to tell his wife of his experience for the time being; he was unsure even how to articulate it. One thing, however, was immediately clear to Mayo following his experience: for the first time since he could remember, he felt well; fit and healthy. In fact, he was “bouncing like a ball” for the remainder of the day. His many physical ailments – including his chronic bronchitis – seemed to have been cured. When Mayo saw his General Practitioner a few days later he was declared to be in perfect health, which the doctor said was nothing short of “miraculous.” Mayo’s experience also affected his diet as he thereafter found it completely impossible to ingest any kind of meat product. Mayo found that if he attempted to eat meat he would be prevented from doing so – the very act of bringing the meat to his mouth would make him feel instantly nauseous. It wasn’t until several years later that he discovered he could eat fish again, albeit only in small portions. Today Mayo is able to include meat in his diet, although only top-quality organic produce, and only in modest servings. Mayo, now in his mid-sixties, remains in excellent health, having suffered nothing more severe than a couple of minor head colds in the thirty-six years since his described experience.
Further parallels
The next three years in Tinseltown would see a flurry of ‘friendly alien’ movies released in close succession. In June of 1985 came Ron Howard’s Cocoon, in which, yet again, enlightened aliens arrived as saviours – this time to a bunch of crusty senior citizens in a Florida retirement community. The movie’s ETs are vaguely similar to the Greys in appearance, although they glow with an angelic radiance. Biblical themes are evoked when the beings grant their elderly friends eternal life and whisk them up to the heavens to an existence among their celestial peoples. Ancient Astronaut theory is hinted at in a subplot suggesting Atlantis was founded by extraterrestrials – a notion espoused by contactees such as Daniel Fry and Billy Meier in preceding decades. Both of these men alleged that certain alien races have their roots in the lost civilizations Earth, and that their resemblance to us – or rather us to them – is no coincidence.
Cocoon’s producers sought assistance from the USAF, but were denied, according to Lawrence Suid, “because the film portrayed the service unrealistically and posited the existence of UFOs, which ran contrary to Air Force policy.”
With July came Joe Dante’s Explorers, an underrated, highly imaginative children’s adventure about the exploits of three young boys (played by Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, and Jason Presson) and their attempts to make contact with aliens after receiving a schematic via their dreams for an anti-gravity device. The trio use the schematic to build a small spacecraft and make a fantastic voyage to the stars where their alien friends await them.
The UFO literature is replete with examples contactees and abductees claiming to have received information from alien intelligences via remote mental download – images and information seemingly projected into the mind as if from nowhere. The British contactee Paul Mayo claims to have had an extraordinary boost in knowledge following his aforementioned experience in 1978. Specifically, he found he had an aptitude for science, despite having no qualifications in the subject and no prior understanding of it. Mayo’s newfound scientific knowledge was such that he would go on to work for several years as a high school physics teacher.
This ‘downloading’ theme would feature again in 1986 in Disney’s Flight of the Navigator, which saw a young boy’s brain ‘implanted’ with complex data from an alien source and which is later downloaded by NASA scientists. In other respects previously mentioned the film also recalled the story of 1950s contactee Daniel Fry. Additionally, it touched on the theme of alien abduction, including the phenomenon of ‘missing time’ (in this case eight years). Flight of the Navigator features a secret UFO retrieval (although no crash), and scenes of the spacecraft parked in a secret government hangar which anticipate the stories of Area 51 that would emerge three years later. Despite instigating a cover-up and taking a boy away from his family for experimentation, NASA ultimately comes off an essentially harmless organisation, much as it did in Spielberg’s E.T.
Paul Mayo considers Flight of the Navigator to be the most “accurate” UFO-themed movie he has ever seen. It should be noted that while Mayo’s 1978 encounter was his first of the otherworldly kind, it was not his last. He claims to have had further experiences with different alien species (all of whom were benevolent) in the early 1980s and again in the early ‘90s. All these encounters were experienced in ‘real-time’ and were consciously recalled. In short, Mayo claims to have been onboard spacecraft on multiple occasions and that some of the beings he encountered expressed to him a grave concern for the future of our planet. “Whenever Flight of the Navigator comes on the TV I have to watch it,” Mayo told me. “I’m not a person to watch any film twice, but when that comes on I’m riveted. A lot of the things in it are the things I encountered myself.” When I asked for details, Mayo drew particular attention to the Navigator UFO being extremely similar to craft he claims to have been inside. He was especially struck by the sparse but functional interior of the Navigator UFO. The spacecraft Mayo claims to have experienced were essentially a series of empty rooms, and yet he had a clear sense that they were highly functional and that their technological apparatus was ingeniously concealed from view, as is the case in the Disney movie.
The following year, Steven Spielberg would again don his alien cap as he executive-produced Batteries Not Included (1987). Here, the aliens came in the form of tiny, living (and procreating) flying saucers that devote themselves to bettering the troubled lives of the tenants of a rundown New York apartment block, with typically heart-warming results.
Perhaps the most serious alien saviour film of the decade came in 1989 with the release of James Cameron’s aquatic Cold War epic, The Abyss. The film follows the blue-collar crew of a submersible oil rig in its fateful discovery of USOs and a Non-Terrestrial Intelligence located in the depths of a cavernous trench. Back on dry land, as the Cold War approaches boiling point, the aliens (or N.T.I.s as they are referred to in Cameron’s script) reveal their presence in spectacular fashion and deliver, à la The Day the Earth Stood Still, a message and an ultimatum to our warlike people, the gist of which: ‘grow up and live in peace or we’ll destroy you all.’ Unsurprisingly, humanity complies.
Researcher Ivan T. Sanderson explored the UFO-USO connection in his 1970 book Invisible Residents, and its influence on Cameron’s movie is plain to see. Throughout the 1990s, UFO researchers would document numerous USO encounters involving militaries worldwide, as well as persistent rumours that a number of undersea alien bases were dotted around the globe.
“Friends, playmates, brothers, and lovers”
The sudden influx of heart-warming UFO movies in the 1980s prompted cinema theorist Vivian Sobchack to observe that aliens surprisingly had become “our friends, playmates, brothers, and lovers.” In her 1987 book Screening Space, Sobchack noted that “in quite a transformation of earlier generic representations, most of the new SF films do no not represent alien-ness as inherently hostile and Other.” True enough, although the genre was not without its fair share of malevolent ET beasties either. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) was a deeply unsettling throwback to the paranoid invasion flicks of the 1950s. However, despite being arguably the best movie of Carpenter’s career thus far, it tanked at the box-office. Released hot on the heels of the warm and fuzzy E.T., critics and audiences alike were repelled by the horrific imagery of Carpenter’s ice cold creation, and its failure was regarded within the industry as a death knell for the ‘alien invader’ archetype of old. Three years later, director Tobe Hooper felt Carpenter’s pain when his 1985 ‘space vampires’ movie Life Force suffered a spectacular defeat in a head-to-head box-office battle with Ron Howard’s Cocoon.
The invaders would continue to rear their ugly heads – albeit sporadically – throughout the remainder of the decade. James Cameron’s 1986 sci-fi-action sequel, Aliens, filled seats (and pants) around the world with its intense and gritty rendering of humanity’s first organised battle against the terrifying Xenamorph species of Ridley Scott’s original Alien outing, and its muscular, techno-fetishistic approach to extraterrestrial combat would act as a major influence on the 1987 Schwarzenegger vehicle, Predator. Three months after the release of the latter, in September 1987, President Ronald Reagan would politicize earth’s potential alien threat in his now famous speech at the UN. Indeed, one wonders if the ex-B-movie star’s personal obsession with a space-based missile defence system (fittingly referred to as ‘Star Wars’) was fuelled, at least in part, by his own extraterrestrial concerns so frequently articulated. Within the Reagan Administration space increasingly was being discussed as a potentially hostile arena – a notion that would re-emerge post-9/11 and assume tangible form in the Bush Administration’s large-scale militarization of the final frontier. The films of the 1990s and beyond would serve to reinforce the political perception of space as a U.S. National Security concern.

2 June 2014

Looking Back at 'Contact'

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers 

In a time when the idea of alien visitation is becoming inseparable from Transformers and Battleships, the 1997 movie Contact seems more rare and precious than ever...

Based on the novel by famed astronomer Carl Sagan, the 1997 movie Contact has become a firm favourite in the UFO community. Sagan, of course, was a vehement UFO sceptic, and so it is ironic that Contact connects so profoundly with so many in the UFO field; ironic, but perhaps not surprising considering the movie lends itself freely to UFOlogical readings.

In the movie, SETI scientist Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) – whose character is inspired by real-life former SETI director Jill Tarter – discovers an alien signal beamed from Vega, a star in the constellation of Lyra, some 25 light years from Earth. Her discovery and its subsequent public disclosure by President Clinton constitutes proof that we are not alone in the universe and captures the imagination of the entire planet, sparking fervent scientific, political and religious debate. Soon, Ellie and her team realize the signal is actually a complex schematic for a transport pod designed to carry one person to a destination unknown. That destination, in transpires, is Vega itself and is to be reached via multiple wormholes. Naturally, it is Ellie who takes the cosmic voyage, and, at the end of her epic journey, she finds herself in an elaborate simulacrum of a childhood memory: a warm beach in Pensacola, Florida. It is here that she speaks face-to-face with an alien intelligence which has assumed the form of her dead father, whom she lost as a child: “We thought this might make things easier for you,” he says, smiling gently. No little green or Grey men for Ellie, then; no flying saucers, no motherships or gleaming alien cityscapes, only a mirage of Earthly forms created for her personal comfort. “You’re an interesting species, an interesting mix,” he tells her. “You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.” She longs to learn more before being sent home, but is told “This was just a first step. In time you’ll take another… this is the way it’s been done for billions of years. Small moves, Ellie, small moves.” And so an individual is selected for contact and provided with philosophical nuggets but zero physical evidence of their alien encounter, before being left to tell their story to whomsoever will listen. Ellie, it seems, has much in common with the contactees of UFO lore.
“I can’t prove it”

Back on Earth, during a government inquiry into her claims, Ellie is reminded by a panel member that she has “no evidence, no record, no artifacts. Only a story that, to put it mildly, strains credibility.” Ellie is asked: “why don’t you simply withdraw your testimony, and concede that this ‘journey to the center of the galaxy,’ in fact, never took place?” She responds:

“Because I can’t. I... had an experience... I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever... A vision of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not, that none of us, are alone! I wish I could share that. I wish that everyone, if only for one moment, could feel that awe, and humility, and hope. But... That continues to be my wish.”
Ellie is visibly frustrated. She has experienced direct contact with an alien intelligence, but she has done so in a manner that flies in the face of our preconceived notions (a saucer on the White House lawn, for example – a notion, which, ironically, was borne of cinema), and thus her claims are dismissed by official culture.

As Ellie leaves her hearing, the hardheaded atheist realizes that her contact experience was, in essence, a spiritual awakening not so different from those claimed by religious disciples. Indeed, the throngs of worshippers who greet her outside with placards hailing her discovery of “the new world” confirm her new status as a religious icon. Like many a contactee, Ellie has attracted followers with her stories of otherworldly communion. Certain elements of society see fit to believe her, while most do not. Either way her story is out there.

Although Carl Sagan was a UFO sceptic, the screenwriter for Contact, James V. Hart, is a self-proclaimed UFO believer. Not that this seems to have had much bearing on the film. Any UFOlogical readings we might ascribe to Contact the movie are also identifiable in the book. Intentionally or not, the idea of ‘missing time’ features prominently as Ellie assumes her hyperspatial voyage has lasted hours or even days, when to the eyes of outside observers her transport pod travelled nowhere at all. It is implied that her experience occurred in the space between spaces. Certainly it was beyond her limited comprehension and of those she would seek to convince of its actuality – something UFO witnesses can relate to.
Contact and Clinton

An intriguing UFOlogical side-note on Contact relates to President Bill Clinton. When in the movie the President announces the discovery of the alien signal, the Clinton we see and hear is the real Clinton – which is to say his image and words have not been manipulated by the filmmakers, as could so easily have been done through digital trickery. The President says, in part:

“...If this discovery is confirmed, it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered. Its implications are as far reaching and awe inspiring as can be imagined. Even as it promises answers to some of our oldest questions, it poses still others even more fundamental. We will continue to listen closely to what it has to say as we continue the search for answers and for knowledge that is as old as humanity itself but essential to our people’s future...”

These words, however, although actually spoken by Clinton, were presented out of context in the movie. While in the scene in question it certainly sounds like Clinton is delivering a cautious disclosure of contact with an alien intelligence, in reality his comments were delivered in August 1996 and referred to the possible discovery of fossilized microbial life in a Martian meteorite. Director Robert Zemeckis simply lifted this part of Clinton’s speech and used it to heighten the believability of his fictional movie. It was a decision that landed the director in hot water with the White House, which issued a complaint to the film’s producers citing unauthorized use of the President’s image. In truth, Clinton was probably delighted to be seen on the big screen announcing alien contact. By his own public admission, the Democratic President was and is fascinated by the idea not only of extraterrestrial life, but of UFO visitation; he has even spoken publicly of his frustration at being stonewalled on the issue. At a speech in Belfast in 1995, the President made a point of bringing up the famous Roswell Incident of 1947: “If the United States Air Force did recover alien bodies, they didn’t tell me about it, either, and I want to know.” He was even more direct in a question and answer session following a speech in Hong Kong in 2005. When asked about Roswell, the President replied: “I did attempt to find out if there were any secret government documents that revealed things. If there were, they were concealed from me too. And, if there were, well I wouldn’t be the first American President that underlings have lied to, or that career bureaucrats have waited out. But there may be some career person sitting around somewhere, hiding these dark secrets, even from elected presidents. But if so, they successfully eluded me.”

A contemplative film calling to mind the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and even 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact is a spectacular sci-fi that milked every penny of its $90 million budget to gross in excess of $171 million worldwide. Seventeen years on from its release Contact remains distinct from most all other movies to have explored the idea of human/alien interactions. It belongs to that lonely group of films which has dared to dream that life beyond the stars might one day extend to us a peaceful hand. Although from a screenwriting perspective it is arguably more challenging to explore the positive implications of otherworldly contact than the negative – explosions being easier to pen than profound socio-political or spiritual debate – Contact is testament to the fact that the challenge can be met with gusto, and to both critical and commercial success. Here’s hoping that, in the years to come, Hollywood will be more inclined to shake ET’s hand rather than to blow it off with a bazooka and a one-liner.

This article was originally published in Exopolitics Magazine, Issue 1, Summer 2014, which is available now for free download.