One late evening in 1981, lying sleepless in my student bedsit at the top of a house in Manchester, I became aware of a pattern of bright flashing lights on the wall. All I could see through the curtainless window on the opposite side of the room was a strip of rather cloudy night sky. The vivid flashing was coming from within, or perhaps behind, a bank of cloud. As I continued to watch, an object materialised from within the cloud, advancing until it stood in plain view in the night sky.
It was a strikingly large craft of some kind, flattish but with rounded edges, like an old-fashioned bedwarmer, or perhaps a huge English muffin. It was sparkling-silver and covered all over with a regular pattern of flashing white lights. After hovering for a few seconds, it began to move across the sky, and as it reached the right-hand frame of my window, I leant over the side of the bed to keep it in view. At a certain point it ceased its progress and, at the same sedate pace, retraced its route back to its starting-point. There it lingered for a few more seconds, before retreating into the cloud-bank until its evanescent flashing had entirely dissolved from view.
I had not been drinking or taking drugs, I hadn't dozed off and reawoken, and I wasn't in a general state of agitation. It was a perfectly normal evening: I had gone to bed and was waiting to fall asleep. Nothing remotely similar has ever happened to me before or since. If everybody is entitled to at least one experience of the paranormal or unexplained, this was mine.
UFO sightings, along with all other kinds of paranormal activity, used to be commonplace around the world. Aeon Magazine's Stuart Walton explains why they may have gone missing.
UFO sightings reached their spate roughly within a decade of the release of Steven Spielberg's spellbinding film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). One good reason to believe there were never any UFOS is that nobody sees them any more. Once, the skies were refulgent with alien craft; now they are back to their primordial emptiness, returning only static to the radio telescopes, and offering the occasional meteor shower to the wondering eye.
It isn't only flying saucers that have receded into history. They are being followed, more gradually to be sure, by a decline in sightings of ghosts, recordings of poltergeists, claims of psychokinesis and the rest. Many of those with a vested interest in the supernatural industry naturally resist this contention, but there is far less credulity among the public for tales of the extraordinary than there was even a generation ago. The standard explanation attributes this to growing scepticism. But, as is only fitting for the paranormal, it might be that there are more mysterious forces at work.
Filming is now within the grasp of everybody with a smartphone. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) beadily observes the nothing that is all that seems to happen on deserted night-time streets. Video cameras used to be reserved for the signal events of a life (weddings, anniversaries, birthdays), but now scarcely anything is beneath the attention of YouTube. In the heyday of ghost stories, the elusive grail was a photograph or moving film of some spectral emanation. There should no longer be any technical obstacle to providing this, and yet all we see is the odd whitish blur that could as easily be a mark on the screen.
The dignity of spooky stories was that, unlike obvious tissues of lies, they occasionally managed to cross the divide between the highly unlikely and the just barely credible. If they could never be proved, neither could they ever be disproved -- except by pointing to the laws of physics, an alienating language spoken by experts who couldn't conceal their contempt for ordinary gullibility. Now that so much of the culture of the spectacle evokes the same response, the laws of physics have no greater claim to finality than do poorly produced video-hoaxes on YouTube.
The cameras of natural history programming miss nothing, even at the cellular level, even in pitch dark, and yet everything looks like the video that it is. There are those who continue to believe the moon landings were a hoax just because the film evidence looks so fake, and could so easily have been produced in a studio. By contrast, the notorious black-and-white alien autopsy footage from Roswell, New Mexico is an insultingly obvious fraud, as educated people reassured each other at the film's emergence in 1995, having forgotten for a moment that the absurdity lay not in the cinematography but in the very idea of a humanoid space-creature.
In the age of electronic mass media, when so much flashes around the world instantaneously, when video clips, in a telling usage, ‘go viral', there should be no doubt about what is real and what isn't. Yet the critical mass is no longer critical. There is an air of the semblance, of ‘facticity', about what we are urged to look at. The very fact that it is shrieking for public attention tends to speak against it.
A couple of years ago, I saw a documentary about the UK's dwindling UFO sightings. Various people who had reported them in the past were invited to relive their experiences, often going back to the very places where the incidents had taken place. Some of the interviewees were still as unshakeably convinced of the concrete reality of what they had seen as they were at the time, though the thrust of the program was towards likely explanations, set against the general cultural fascination there once was in the idea of alien civilizations. One man had seen a mysterious object in the sky, some time (if memory serves) in the late 1980s. He had drawn a sketch of it soon after. Hearteningly enough, it was identical to mine.
Aeon is a new digital magazine of ideas and culture, publishing an original essay every weekday. It sets out to invigorate conversations about worldviews, commissioning fine writers in a range of genres, including memoir, science and social reportage. This article has been excerpted with permission. To read in its entirety, head here.