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All original content is 

John C. Snider  

unless otherwise indicated.

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The Joe Nickell Files: UFOs and Alien Abductions

by John C. Snider 2003

Originally published June 2000 - Revised October 2003


No other topic grabs a bigger sector of the paranormal publishing world than UFOs.  If you put together all the books and movies about ghosts, strange animals, miracles, telepathy and the like, you'd have just a tiny molehill compared to the mountain of stuff published about UFOs, aliens and alien abductions.  The books number in the tens of thousands; the movies in the hundreds; and nearly as many people believe in UFOs as believe in God (or at least a god).  Naturally, paranormal investigator Joe Nickell has had his share of UFO sightings and has interviewed a great number of people about their experiences.  This is too big a topic to cover in any detail in a single conversation, of course; nonetheless, we gave it our best shot, discussing the history of UFO sightings, the psychology behind abduction experiences, and the relationship between science fiction and pop-culture mythology...


scifidimensions: It's good to talk to you again, Joe!


Joe Nickell: Good to be here.


sfd: Tonight we're going to be talking about UFOs and aliens, so let's start out by defining what we're talking about when we say "UFO"...


JN: Well, it simply means Unidentified Flying Object (a little bit of a misnomer in that some things that are UFOs may not be actual objects - they could be reflections or illusions), but it's a pretty good working term.  It simply means we don't know what it was we saw.  It does not mean a flying saucer from Mars.  In fact, much of what is done in the name of the paranormal is a logical fallacy called "arguing from ignorance" and it works like this: if we say we don't know something we can't attach a "therefore" to it and make a logical construct.  We can't, for example, say "I don't know what that noise was that I heard in the old house, therefore that's proof of a ghost."  No, that's just proof that we don't know what we heard.  Could be squirrels on the roof, or a rat, or a creaking of an old house, whatever - it doesn't imply the supernatural.  And the same with, say, spontaneous human combustion.  We don't know why this person caught on fire, but that doesn't necessarily mean it was spontaneous combustion.  And with UFOs, just to say it's an unidentified flying object means simply that; it does not infer that because we don't know what it was, that therefore, it's something paranormal.  You know, I've seen some UFOs in my time, and was fortunate enough to, at some length, to find out what they were.  And the UFOs then become what we call IFOs...


sfd: ...Identified Flying Objects?...


JN: That's right.  And it's interesting when you realize "Gee, it sure seemed quite different until I knew what it was."  One example I believe I mentioned to you once before - that I saw a disk of white light, and got out of the car and saw it that come back, and back, and realized it was a regular occurrence, and later traced it to a searchlight beacon at an airport, and that the light was just playing on a low cloud layer.  However, the first time I saw it it caught me off guard, and sure seemed the darnedest thing and it was quite eye-catching and amazing. 


Another time, traveling near Niagara Falls, Ontario, I saw what looked like a large, very bright light (too big to be a star) and a smaller light beside it.  They seemed to be moving together, and then they actually merged and then came apart again, and I just had never seen anything quite like that, and I remember it startling me.  As I drove further and further I eventually saw that it was a sight-seeing helicopter over the Falls and what was happening was that the helicopter was simply turning, and putting one light in front of another.  But my depth perception was such that at night I was caught off guard and surprised, and I saw something that seemed to me very unusual.  And one other instance was out in Los Angeles - I saw a multicolored light display like nothing I had seen before or since.  My thought wasn't that it was extraterrestrial, but rather "What on earth is that?"  And it turned out to be an advertising plane, and I was seeing it from an oblique angle, so I couldn't read the multi-light display message.  I was just seeing this array of strange lights.


sfd: And I can relate a brief incident that occurred to me.  In the early 1980s, I happened to look up in the sky at night, and I saw a fireball, apparently the size of the moon, move very slowly across the sky.  So I knew it wasn't a comet.  It wasn't a meteor, and it wasn't a crashing airplane, but it scared the hell out of me.  And I went back in the house, and a few minutes later the news reported that many, many people had seen something over a three-state area.  And ultimately, a few days later in the newspaper it was reported that the Soviets admitted that they had a satellite that de-orbited that night.  If I had looked up two seconds later or two seconds earlier I would have never seen it.


JN: Well, that was a UFO!


sfd: That was a UFO, but it ended up being an IFO! ...What, really, is the origin of the modern UFO phenomenon?


JN: Well, there have always been strange sights in the sky, and of course you can trace those back to biblical times and beyond, but people tended in ancient times to see these as omens, or signs and portents.  But in modern times we begin to get, by the late nineteenth century, in the 1890s, something called The Great Airship Mystery.  These were reports that giant airships were traveling across the US, and there were elaborate stories, eyewitness accounts and so forth.  Some of these were no doubt journalistic hoaxes, and some of it was hype, and who knows what else, maybe some fantasies of imaginative people.  But it appears that there were no airships in the sky in the 1890s!  So it's a lesson in mass delusion, and what scientists might call "contagion", but an interesting kind of forerunner, because there were ideas of airships in the science fiction literature.


sfd:  How has science fiction affected the UFO mythology?  It's obvious that people in the 1700s, for example, didn't have pulp magazines to read about, and so they never reported short, gray, big-eyed aliens abducting them... so how, really, has science fiction injected something into this?


JN: Well, it does seem that science fiction has always been kind of a step ahead of "reality".  The idea of airships was in the science fiction literature before the Airship wave.  And then, in the 1920s and 30s and 40s we had these pulp science fiction magazines (I'm sure you're more aware of them that I am).  But, what was it, 1929, I believe, that Amazing Stories made its debut?


sfd: That's about right.


JN: These pulp magazines began to describe extraterrestrial visitations and there was colorful artwork showing circular craft, and you can find humanoid creatures sometime by the 40s or 50s. You certainly begin to find prototypes of the creature that we'll later recognize as the familiar alien of today. And so, I think the ideas were there for someone like Kenneth Arnold, who in 1947, in his plane near Mount Rainier, saw objects he said moved like rocks skip on water.  We're not sure what he saw, but it may have been some kind of an illusion due to a temperature inversion.  But he coined the term "flying saucer", and pretty soon people were seeing these flying saucers or flying disks around the country.  What science fiction did, I think, is provide a model and an expectation.  There's a term used for things like the Loch Ness Monster called "expectant attention".  If I create the idea that you're going to see a lake monster (for example) in Loch Ness, but what you see are some otters swimming in a line, you'll see that as one multi-humped monster!


sfd: So, we're sort of preconditioned by science fiction to see certain things.


JN: I think so, and in fact, if you see a sort of lozenge shape, you may think that's the saucer on-edge.  Or if you see a ball you may interpret that as a disk turned at ninety degrees.  There's kind of an expectation that's created by science fiction.  I think that science fiction and the "real world" have interplayed.  People putting together science fiction movies may very well want to look over the eyewitness testimony of UFO sighters for ideas and interesting things to make their spaceships and creatures look like.


sfd: It just reinforces it even more.


JN: I think so.  I think there's almost this dialog back and forth, and I find that a very interesting idea.  But I think you could almost always show that whatever trend you've seen in the so-called real world has been anticipated in science fiction.  It could be shown that there were alien abductions in Amazing Stories long before that was ever really reported.


sfd: Didn't UFO reports jump dramatically when the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out?


JN: I'm sure that they did.  There's almost no doubt that any kind of advertisement for a phenomenon will increase our expectation, will have people going outdoors and looking up at the sky; and, of course, if you look at the sky a lot, sooner or later, something unusual will happen - a meteor, or a upper-atmospheric research balloon, or a secret test craft or something.  If enough people are looking at the sky more and more, and there are more and more things in the sky because of our technological age, they will coincide and we'll have sightings.


sfd: Let's talk for a minute about the most famous of all the UFO cases - the Roswell Incident.  Most folks know that, allegedly, an alien aircraft crashed near an army base in Roswell, New Mexico, in the late 1940s, and there have been all sorts of reports of various flavors about aliens being seen wounded on the ground.  And most folks - if you've seen The X-Files you've seen this - believe that there is wreckage at Wright Patterson Air Force Base...


JN: ...or some other secret site...


sfd: ...the fabled Area 51. So, what is your take on Roswell?  What do you think is the most likely explanation?


JN: Well, I believe that now we know the particulars pretty well about Roswell.  Certainly, in the middle of 1947, with a great deal of attention being paid to "flying disks", which, if you think about it, flying disk was sort of a pre-term for a UFO.  And, again, the confusion may be that if you said you saw a flying disk, some people might think you meant an extra-planetary craft.  You might just mean you saw one of those unknowns. I think that's important to realize that distinction, because, certainly something crashed on Mack Brazel's ranch near Roswell.  Mr. Brazel described it as being wreckage that was very, very lightweight - so lightweight, weighing only a few pounds, he was able to take his tractor and drag the bulk of it into a shed.  He then went into town and described what he saw, and the Air Force became involved and at some point a PR man with the Air Force put out the story,and a newspaper picked it up, to the effect that "one of the flying disks has crashed and been caught."  And, of course, that looks very much like you're saying "a flying saucer has landed."  But if you think of it as just "something unknown has crashed" that doesn't mean quite as much.  People can go back to the Roswell Daily Record newspaper and read this for themselves: Brazel described foiled paper, sticks, string, tape and rubber.  This does not sound like a flying saucer - although I hasten to agree, I don't know what a flying saucer is made of - but doesn't that sound more like maybe a kite or balloon or something...some kind of lightweight item.


sfd: What about the people who say they've actually seen bodies on the ground and little green men?


JN: Well, those stories all come later.  What's interesting is that Mr. Brazel didn't say "By the way, I forgot to mention those little dead bodies that were lying there.  I was so busy mentioning the sticks and string, I just forgot."  No!  He didn't mention the extraterrestrial creatures, because they weren't there.  We now know that the original story that was put out was about something very much like a weather balloon.  It turns out now that what crashed on Mr. Brazel's property almost certainly was (let me lower my voice here) a secret...United States government...spy balloon...from Project Mogul.  These were weather balloon-like devices.  They weren't much different from a weather balloon.  They had corner radar reflectors, and that explains the sticks and foiled paper, and they also had some microphones to record anticipated sonic booms from any Soviet nuclear tests.  In the days before spy satellites these spy balloons would go aloft and try to pick up audible sounds from sonic booms from nuclear tests.


sfd: It's not that hard to imagine that the Air Force would be a little dodgy about just coming right out and explaining it all.


JN: That's right.  And there are two theories there, in fact.  One theory is that they had to put out the cover story that it was a weather balloon, which, after all, basically was the same thing, you see.  It was a weather balloon.  It wasn't much different.  The purpose and a little of the equipment was different, but, basically these are a type of research balloon, you see.  Call it a weather balloon, or a spy balloon, or whatever you want to call it.  They were a research balloon.  Another theory is that they just described it as a weather balloon, and put that label on it so it wouldn't be thought to be what it actually was.  Another very good, very strong argument could be made that the military people who found it and saw it didn't know about Project Mogul (they probably didn't) and they just honestly identified it as what it looked like; using the term very loosely and generically, a weather balloon.


sfd: Let's turn our attention now from just seeing UFOs to the phenomenon of alien abductions - and, specifically, I wanted to talk about a man named Whitley Strieber [a science fiction and fantasy author who has written a series of non-fiction books, the first of which is entitled Communion].


JN: Communion, and later Communion Letters, and Confirmation, several books...


sfd: He claims that he has had a life-long "relationship", for lack of a better term, with what people know as the Grays, the short, big-eyed aliens, and that they have abducted him throughout his life.


JN: Let me make one little transitional link between Roswell and the work of Strieber.  You mentioned the alien bodies that are now much of the Roswell lore.  There was no mention at the time - Brazel, none of the people around, and Major Marcel - none of those people ever told anybody, ever said anything about there being alien bodies.  Years later, in the 1970s, a man named Robert Spencer Carr (who went around the country calling himself Dr. Carr or Professor Carr - he was neither), told the story of the bodies and how they were hidden away at some secret government installation such as Hangar 18 at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.  There is no Hangar 18, never was, but now of course, when you point that out, people will claim it's been moved to Area 51 or somewhere else.  But this idea of aliens isa proliferating kind of urban legend that people told, and there are many, many versions of these stories, so you know folklore is at work.  And they set the stage, then, for much of this type of alien experience that Strieber will have.


sfd: Do you think that Whitley Strieber is - is he a con man, is he delusional, or is he just a fantasy author with an over-active imagination?


JN: It's hard to know what's in anybody's mind.  I'm asked this all the time, is so-and-so sincere, or do they really think they talk to ghosts, or whatever.  I don't have much of a way to know that.  You just have to look at the evidence.  If you look at Communion, and you look at the experiences that Strieber describes, he describes a rather typical and classic experience known as a waking dream.  A waking dream is a phenomenon that exists in the twilight zone between waking and sleeping.  Most people have heard of sleep walking, but they maybe are not as familiar with waking dreams.  Waking dreams are almost the opposite of sleep walking.  In sleep walking your mind is effectively asleep, but your body is moving.  You're out in the yard, or walking down the street, and physically active.  In the waking dream, you're more apt to be awake; typically you might wake up.  You may feel paralyzed and unable to move, because, after all, your body's still asleep.  You will be conscious that you're awake.  Your eyes are open and you see your surroundings, your bedroom.  Under this condition, people tend to see bizarre imagery.  They may see bright lights or hear noises, have a vague sense of dread, but the more interesting ones - and these are very, very common - I have talked to just countless people about their experiences.  People believe they see all sorts of things.  Ghosts, for example, or angels, or maybe a dead loved one.


sfd: But the idea of a waking dream, just to be clear, is a well-defined physiological condition that any doctor, or psychologist, or psychiatrist would concede really exists?


JN: Yes, yes.  It's surprising that sometimes we do have people like John Mack (a psychiatrist at Harvard) who wrote a book Abduction. You would think that he of all people would be well aware of some of these mental states, and not have rushed in, being lured into the alien abduction mythology.  In any case, Strieber describes events that sound exactly like waking dreams.  We can trace these waking dreams back to the Middle Ages, when people saw incubuses and succubuses; they woke up to find these demons sitting on their chests, pressing down on them.  We can trace them all through the Victorian Era of haunted houses, and now they're being interpreted as aliens.


sfd: It sounds like this goes back to the idea that people will sort of backward-interpret what they've experienced based on popular culture... that people didn't have waking dreams a hundred years ago about aliens.  They had it about ghosts, or something else.


JN: That's right, that's right.  A waking dream seems to me to be some physiological quirk.  Usually our mind and body are in sync.  You and I are both physically and mentally awake now, and when we're asleep, most nights our bodies and minds are effectively asleep.  If you get them out of sync, you can get these strange things like sleep walking and waking dreams.  So it's a physiological quirk.  The subject matter tends to be psychological; for example, I've talked to more than one person who has experienced this, shortly after the death of a loved one, after a funeral, within a day or two or thereabouts.  I remember one woman telling me how she had dozed off on the sofa, and woke up, and there was her father standing right beside her couch, and spoke her name and then disappeared.  These are powerful effects because they seem real.  People will swear that they were not dreaming, because their eyes are open, and in fact they are not dreaming in the usual sense.  I've known skeptics who've seen vampires or aliens, and they'll tell you "If I didn't know what these were, I'd be a convert immediately."   It seems to me that the content is psychological in that, after a funeral, what do you see?  You see your dead loved one.  People in haunted houses, what do they see?  They tend to see ghosts, and if it's a gray lady's ghost, then that's what they see.  If they've just read Whitley Strieber's Communion... it's amazing how many people wrote him letters after they read his book, telling about having experiences themselves, and they describe experiences that are oftentimes these waking dreams.  Now, that's not an explanation for all alien abduction cases.  Some of those are done under hypnosis, which is an invitation to fantasize...


sfd: Speaking of hypnosis... there are a number of people around the country (maybe worldwide) that make a living working with people who claim to have experienced abductions.  As a matter of fact, I believe Whitley Strieber includes as an addendum to his first book Communion, an affidavit from a psychologist who certifies that his hypnosis session with Whitley Strieber was legitimate and that the memories that he retrieved were sincere.


JN: Well, yeah, what happens with these abductees, and I remember when I first heard about alien abductions, and my reaction was like that of many skeptics: "Are these people crazy, or are they charlatans looking for attention?"  That's a false dichotomy, because in my experience most of these people are sane, normal, and sincere.  They have had a "real experience."  It may be a waking dream, or it may be a hypnotic confabulation.  I define it as the yellow brick road to fantasyland.  Hypnosis is an invitation to go into a fantasy, and some people do it better than others.  There are highly imaginative people (maybe 4% of the American public) that are so highly imaginative that they're called "fantasy prone."  These people will have, probably, more of those waking dreams I mentioned.  They also may have - and I say may, because there are a number of characteristics of fantasy-proneness.  All of us have some of them, I'm sure.  It'd be unusual if you didn't have any of them.  You'd be a very dull person.  If you have lots of the traits, you see, then we call it fantasy prone.  It's not a difference so much in kind as degree.  Some of the traits would include having an imaginary playmate as a child.  Many of us have these, but grow out of them.  The fantasy prone person may grow to have an adult version of that.  They may, for example, talk to the Virgin Mary, or have a personal guardian angel over their shoulder... or see an alien, and receive special messages from the Space Brothers.  If they didn't tell you about this, if they didn't mention this particular thing, you'd find them very normal people.  They just wouldn't tell you about their contact with a space alien.  And so, these are markers - being easily hypnotized, for example, having frequent out of body experiences, having vivid waking dreams or other vivid dreams.  A number of these characteristics and the intensity of them indicate, perhaps, a fantasizing personality. 


sfd: Have you talked to Whitley Strieber?


JN: Yeah, he called me up because I was on a program that he was a co-producer of a 2-hour NBC special called Confirmation, and we were to be together, sort of guest-debating, on an MSNBC program, and he called me at home to see if I was going to be able to get downtown and make it by satellite and debate him on the program.  He really wanted me to be on.  He seems like a very nice guy, but Dr. Robert Baker, a psychologist who has studied this phenomenon extensively, has shown that Strieber has a lot of these characteristics and certainly has had, I think, waking dreams.


sfd: What about the people who claim that they have physical evidence?  You've seen people who show scars, burns - there are people who even claim (I think Strieber might be among them) that small objects are in their body?  What do you make of that?


JN: Well... do you know that during the witchcraft craze in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, when there were people out looking for witches...one of the things you could do was, you could look for a witch's mark on someone.  And it turns out that almost anything can be a witch's mark - a birthmark, a strange birthmark, or a hairy mole, or almost anything might be the witch's mark.  If you sort of start with the mania that there are witches and you're going looking for a witch's mark you'll find something.  I was on a TV show with one young woman who had these strange scars, and I saw them, and I know for a fact that her dermatologist diagnosed them as ordinary, common stretch marks.


sfd: And she ignored him?


JN: Yeah, you know, maybe she had some dream or something, and now she thinks she's been abducted. If you strip yourself nude, and search your body, you may find an odd scar that you've forgotten about, or a strange marking.  Some people have some kind of little object - but again, there's no pattern to these.  I've seen one that looked like a little broken-off piece of sharp plastic or something that you might have gotten, say, as a childhood accident stepping on something, and forgot about it.  It healed over and you forgot about it.  Some of these may be little nodules of calcium that the body produces, or some other little glitch.  There's certainly no scientific evidence that's been presented in a reasonable forum that suggests that any of these implants are extraterrestrial in origin.  Again, we have people saying they're unexplained and hoping to get you to jump to the logical fallacy of arguing from ignorance, and say, well, if I've got some little unexplained foreign object in my body, no matter how mundane it may look.  It may look like a little piece of gravel.  Nevertheless, because it's unknown or unexplained, therefore it's an implant from an alien, and that's just false logic.  No evidence that these are extraterrestrial, or have any pattern to them, or make any sense - and I've looked at a number of these.  


sfd: Setting aside the pop culture view of UFOs and aliens, which I think we've dealt with pretty well...how likely do you think it is (and I know I'm asking you to speculate) that there really is intelligent life somewhere else in the universe?


JN: Well, for me, that's almost a theological question, because I certainly don't have a basis on which to really answer that.  People are almost invited to have faith.  Carl Sagan certainly thought it was possible that the building blocks of life could be throughout the cosmos, and that seems to me a reasonable notion.  On the other hand, others have shown that the particular mix of things that have to come together to produce life and to foster evolution, are really rather rare and accidental.  My own view is that it is reasonable to think that in the vastness of the universe there could be other life.  The question that has the great import, of course, is whether any extraterrestrial life has visited the planet earth.  And my feeling on that is, yes, there's a lot of evidence, but it's very poor quality.


sfd: Do you think that the so-called Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a waste of time, or do you think that the government ought to continue to set aside a small amount of money for that effort?


JN: I support the idea of SETI.  I happen to know Jill Tarter, who's sort of the real life model for Jody Foster's character in Contact.  Of course, when Jill Tarter tells you she reads your articles, what can you do but support her?  But she's a very intelligent and serious person.  When she talked at the CSICOP center she seemed a little chagrined that people were more interested in filming the rubber aliens that I had displayed there, than in listening to some of her scientific details.  But certainly, SETI is a serious effort and it should be pursued.  Even if we find nothing, we're still finding out about the universe, and ultimately, of course, about ourselves.


sfd: What do you be would be the likely effect on society, if, in an open fashion, we were suddenly able to confirm that other intelligent life existed?  Most people are aware of the Orson Welles Halloween night radio hoax that sent thousands of people into a panic.


JN: I think that much of the paranormal, including UFOs, taps into our hopes and our fears.  I think that's a good example.  It's an emotional reaction.  I think, though, if we simply had word that we think we made contact with an alien civilization, I don't think there would be any panic.  I think the only panic would be if the horrible beings like in War of the Worlds were actually invading planet earth and doing terrible things. That might scare us.  Otherwise, I think we would be intrigued and fascinated, and I don't think there would be a great deal of panic.  I certainly don't think that the government would hide the Awful Truth from us.  That's a popular conspiratorial paranoid view of the UFO buffs, that somehow the government is hiding the awful truth of UFOs and aliens, that "they" know all about this and they're covering it up.  People - sensible people - ought not to listen to those conspiracy theorists, because they don't know what they're talking about.  They're just mystery-mongers, rumor-mongers, fear-mongers, and they don't have any evidence.  It's unlikely and against all good sense.


sfd: The government hasn't really shown an aptitude toward keeping other more mundane secrets.


JN: (Laughs) That's right, the government's no good at keeping secrets, and certainly not anything that vast.  I was invited once by the tabloid TV show Extra, who flew me in a big hurry to New York to view some film that had allegedly been smuggled out of Area 51, and it showed an interview with an alien.  Let me tell, you this was one of the fakest looking things I ever saw, and I put it down as an obvious hoax.


sfd: Joe, thanks again for talking to us...and we look forward to talking to you again in the future.


JN: My pleasure.


sfd: Thanks!


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