States of Mind: Some Perceived ET Encounters
On Tuesday, April 24, 2012, the popular afternoon TV show Anderson—hosted by Anderson Cooper—asked, “Are we being visited by aliens from space?” I was invited as a skeptic to provide balance to the three segments: the first introduced a woman who said a bright UFO hovered repeatedly over her back yard; the second featured two young ladies whose UFO sightings prompted them to try hypnosis, which led them to recall interacting with aliens; and finally a self-styled psychic claimed to be in telepathic contact with “star people.” A representative from the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) also participated throughout the show. He was only skeptical of skeptics.
Together, as we shall see, these cases illustrate that UFOlogy continues its long tradition of mystery mongering and the implicit reliance on a logical fallacy called “arguing from ignorance”: “We don’t know what was seen in the sky; therefore, it must have been an extraterrestrial craft.” The cases also reveal that much of what is claimed depends on the states of mind of the alleged eyewitnesses. Following the show I was able to spend more time investigating the cases, and here is a look at each of the three revealing Anderson segments in turn.
UFO: ‘Hovering’ in the Mind’s Eye
First up was Denise Murter, age fifty-two, from Levittown, Pennsylvania. Her encounters began in May 2008, when she and her husband were awakened by their growling dog, Alex. Finding nothing unusual in the apartment, she took the dog outside so he could relieve himself. Thereupon, she “noticed a light in the sky,” which she guessed to be “about 1000 feet in the air.” While it seemed to be “moving very quickly from spot to spot,” nevertheless, she stated, “It was hovering over the trees in the yard.” There was no noise and Alex became “perfectly well behaved.” The light hovered for some twenty minutes, but she does not say what became of it.
The incident was repeated about four weeks later, but the night sky was more overcast, so she said of the UFO that she “could just see parts of it creeping in the clouds.” Depending on how it moved, it appeared circular or boomerang shaped.1 She saw windows that were “bluish green” and “were all the way around the craft.” A “little pink light” was following it, and “On the bottom there were three giant headlights in a triangle shape.”
After another month, Alex again woke her and she “immediately knew that they were back and I had to go outside again.” The craft appeared closer to the house “but still hovering over the trees.” Then she saw a beam of light and a sparkling powder that “looked like it was dancing in the trees” (Murter 2012a).
Murter stated, “I was paralyzed. I could not move.” She waited until the next day to tell her husband because this particular experience “was just too unbelievable. . . . I didn’t want people to think I went bonkers; it was like it was in a movie.” Her husband advised her not to tell others of her experience, but she “told MUFON”—the Mutual UFO Network—about it and more (Murter 2012a).2 Another version of the events, citing a MUFON field investigator, describes “half a dozen sightings” beginning April 20, 2008 (Howe 2008).
The “paralysis”—together with the strange as if “in a movie” experience—provides a clue as to what probably happened on this occasion: Being half asleep (and perhaps having rested on one of the lounge chairs in her back yard to watch the hovering UFO),3 Murter had a hypnagogic experience (or “waking dream”). This occurs in the interface between being fully awake and asleep. It is typically characterized by hallucinations, often with bright lights reported, and sleep paralysis, the body’s inability to move because it is still in the sleep mode (Mavromatis 1987, 14–52). This state probably explains Murter’s perceived beam of light and sparkling powder. I suspect that during at least part of each of her reported events Murter was not fully awake, and that that affected many of her perceptions.
Regarding the UFO itself, I discussed Murter’s sightings with James McGaha, one of our organization’s UFO experts and director of the Grasslands Observatory in Tucson. He suggested that the UFO might have a ready explanation, given the direction in which Murter was looking at the approximate times and place reported: that is, a celestial object, some twenty-five times brighter than the stars in her field of vision—namely, the planet Jupiter. That it seemed to move was probably due to the autokinetic effect (McGaha 2012). This occurs when one stares at a bright light in the dark, particularly when it is well above the horizon (so there is no frame of reference). Autokinesis is due to “small involuntary jerking movements of the human eye” (Hendry 1979, 26). (In one UFO case, for example, a light that “zigzagged” while remaining in the same basic position for forty minutes proved to be a combination of star and “autokinetic motions” [Hendry 1979, 95].)
As to the shifting colors Murter described, McGaha (2012) noted that that effect would be due to scintillation—that is, the “twinkling,” not only of stars but also of planets like Jupiter when the atmosphere is especially turbulent. Scintillation can occur on the clearest nights, even affecting a single celestial light, and it results in refraction (bending) of the different wavelengths to cause the changing colors. Like autokinesis, scintillation can also produce “an illusion of motion” (Hendry 1979, 26). Both probably helped cause the illusion of changing shapes Murter described, aided by her own imagination. After the show’s taping she sent me an angry note in which she said, “I know what I saw” (Murter 2012b). Actually, of course, this no doubt well-meaning lady only “knows” what she thinks she saw.
Anyway, as I told Cooper on his show, it seems farfetched that extraterrestrials would traverse the incredible distances involved—on some secret mission to Earth—then repeatedly hover over Murter’s back yard with their bright lights on!
Aliens and Hypnotic Recall
The next segment on Anderson featured two young women from Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, Brittany Fields and Jennifer Morgan, who encountered UFOs late one night, then, subsequently, under hypnosis, “recalled” alien encounters.
Their story began April 26, 2011, when, about midnight, the two went on a drive with three young male friends. As they turned down one road and looked over farmland, they saw a light above the trees speeding toward them. Jennifer first thought it could be a helicopter: It was “somewhat long” with lights on the front and back. However, when it flew over them it was “huge,” she said, “bigger than a helicopter,” and made a noise that was like no helicopter she knew. It sounded like a loud, high-pitched, thumping rhythm. There was also a high-pitched whining noise.” Soon, she says, there seemed to be lights everywhere, “red, white, and green,” that were “blinking sporadically” (Morgan 2012). Brittany described somewhat similar events, except that she had first thought their initial sighting was of a blimp (Fields 2012).
No doubt the young people saw something, and they categorically deny they were under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. However, the three males’ unwillingness to come forward does suggest that they were less inclined to become caught up in the imaginative possibilities (rather like Murter’s reticent husband in the previous case).
I also discussed this particular case with James McGaha—this time not in his persona of astronomer but as a former special operations and electronic warfare pilot. He stated that the witnesses’ UFO description had “helicopter written all over it.” He pointed out that the area was well within the reach of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, which is where American military helicopter training occurs. Stationed there is the famous “Night Stalkers” special-operations unit. (Indeed, it was out of Fort Campbell that the training for the days-later, successful “Night Stalkers” mission against terrorist Bin Laden took place.) The Night Stalkers unit has an impressive variety of huge and odd-looking helicopters that the public rarely sees. Major McGaha suggests that some nighttime helicopter training operation could explain the young people’s UFO sighting. As to the red, green, and white lights reported, those are the colors of lights on all aircraft—military or civilian.
In any event, Brittany says that later, “no one remembers a period of time after we turned left at a four-way stop towards the end of the night.” Because of this “missing time” and other concerns, she also contacted MUFON and “They proposed the idea of us getting hypnotized” (Fields 2012). Under hypnosis she “remembered” four small humanoid beings, one of whom held her hand, while the others poked at and examined her body. She “locked eyes” with the entity that was holding her hand and she “felt a flood of emotion.” He, too, seemed “overwhelmingly concerned” and “just wanted to make me better.” In a second session she explored the period of “missing time” and reported that she and Jennifer had been in a state “like frozen animation” (Fields 2012).
For her part, Jennifer says she “was not as responsive to hypnosis as Brittany.” Her session seemed “almost like a dream.” “The only thing I can remember,” she says, “was seeing a bright light, Brittany pulling off the road, and then literally my memory jumped from being in a car to being in a circular white room.” Completely naked, she felt a pain in the back of her head, and later her boyfriend found a scar on the back of her neck that she did not recall having. Did she think she was abducted by aliens? “There’s no other explanation. It’s the only logical explanation,” she concluded (Morgan 2012).
Actually, there is quite another, much more rational explanation for such encounters. They have their origins in a now-ubiquitous UFO mythology. Brittany said, on describing their first sighting, “Listen, I’ve always believed in this kind of thing” (Fields 2012). The willingness to presume that an unknown object is an extraterrestrial craft (an exercise in illogic called “arguing from ignorance”) sets the stage for other expectations. The familiar humanoid likeness, the “missing time,” the unremembered scar—these are common motifs of UFO lore.
In fact, there is nothing remarkable about a scar going unremembered, especially in an out-of-sight location. As well, “missing time” may result from nothing more than the percipient having been lost in thought. As to the supposed recall under hypnosis, that is simply mistaking imagination for memory. Hypnosis is merely an invitation to fantasize (Baker and Nickell 1992, 216–31). (Being easily hypnotized is even one of the indicators, though not diagnostic in itself, of a personality type that is characterized by proneness to fantasy [Wilson and Barber 1983]—discussed more fully later.) For these reasons, on Anderson I called for MUFON and others to immediately stop using hypnosis to elicit “memories” in UFO cases.
The Star People
The final guest on Anderson was a professed psychic named Cassandra Vanzant. She claimed to be in telepathic communication with extraterrestrials, whose messages she “translates.” At Cooper’s request, she told him he had a star family—the “Lamarians”—who live in “the fourth dimension” (Vanzant 2012). Cooper struggled to keep a straight face, and when he asked the audience how many believed Vanzant could indeed communicate with aliens, just one person raised her hand.
The audience was right to be skeptical. Vanzant is only the most recent “contactee”—one who purports to be in repeated communication with alien beings. (Contactees emerged in the early 1950s but were eventually supplanted by “abductees” who now also frequently serve as cosmic messengers [Story 2001, 134; Nickell 2007, 255–56].) Like others of this ilk, Vanzant exhibits many of the traits associated with a fantasy-prone personality. This describes an otherwise normal and sane person with a great tendency to fantasize. Vanzant, for instance, has what seem for all the world like imaginary friends (“Artoli” and “Madascrat”), believes she receives special messages from higher beings, purports to have psychic powers, has had an out-of-body experience, and exhibits other traits that are indicative of fantasy proneness (Wilson and Barber 1983).
When she “channels” her clients’ star families, she first speaks to them in the “ET language” (“Twinkle” 2012), which sounds suspiciously like she is just “speaking in tongues.” Called glossolalia, it is typically “psychobabble,” which uses nonsense syllables to create pseudolanguage (Nickell 1993, 103–109). Vanzant subsequently provides “translations” that are rife with New Age clichés, such as “on this earthly plane” and references to people having “their own truths” (“Twinkle” 2012). Revealing, I think, is the fact that Vanzant also talks like this.4 The evidence suggests that she is herself the source of the “messages.” She seems to first fool herself, then other imaginative, credulous folk.
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Like UFOlogical cases generally, these examples from Anderson are telling. They illustrate how distorting the eye of the beholder can be, and how—through credulity, pro-UFO bias, illusions and misperceptions, altered states of consciousness, personality traits, and other factors, including a UFO-mythmaking culture—it can transform mundane phenomena into perceived alien encounters.
Following the show, Anderson Cooper received flak from flying saucer proponents (like the Herald-Tribune’s embarrassingly gullible blogger Billy Cox ) and even a bit from praiseworthy rationalists (like Ed Stockly , who blogs for the Los Angeles Times and suggested I did a “fine job” while being “outnumbered”). In my view, Cooper did a very good job, from identifying himself as a skeptic at the outset to giving me the opportunity to respond throughout. As Stockly noted: “Perhaps the best measure of Nickell’s effectiveness was shown when Cooper polled the studio audience. Only a few hands were raised when asked how many believed that UFOs were alien visitors, and all but a few hands went up when asked how many didn’t believe. Mark that one for the skeptics. It seems that Cooper’s audience is on the ball.” I would add that Cooper himself led the way.
I received considerable help with this project from Major James McGaha (USAF Retired) and my trusty assistant Ed Beck, to both of whom I am very grateful.
1. A photo Murter snapped (see Howe 2008) shows a non-aerodynamic, banana-shaped effect, very grainy or pixelated, probably a photo artifact caused by a point of light photographed by a camera in motion while the shutter is still open (McGaha 2012).
2. MUFON obtained samples from the tree and soil where Murter says the glittering substance fell. Unfortunately, “Three independent laboratories checked the samples with different results” (emphasis added); one unidentified lab reported traces of magnesium and boron (Mattar 2008). However, these could potentially be found in some fireworks residues (magnesium being a common ingredient and boron compounds producing a green flame); Pennsylvania is a state where fireworks are legal. Importantly, not one speck of the “glitter” or “little squares of light” was found, either at the site or in the samples (Howe 2008).
3. See photograph in Howe 2008.
4. Of course the “messages” sometimes are in a heightened form compared to her ordinary speech, just as Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” has a more elevated diction than his routine letters.
Baker, Robert A., and Joe Nickell. 1992. Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, & Other Mysteries. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
Cox, Billy. 2012. Memo to AC: Ditch this gig. Online at devoid.blogs.heraldtribune.com/12997/memo-to-ac-ditch-this-gig/; accessed May 1, 2012.
Fields, Brittany. 2012. In “I Was Abducted” 2012.
Hendry, Allan. 1979. The UFO Handbook: A Guide to Investigating, Evaluating, and Reporting UFO Sightings. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Howe, Linda Moulton. 2008. Morphing UFO Over Levittown, PA. Online at http://tech.dir.groups.yahoo.com/group/armageddon-or-newage/message/71220?var=1; accessed August 28, 2012.
I was abducted by aliens. 2012. Anderson show episode, CBS, aired April 24 (includes aired statements, unused portions, online clips, personal communications, etc.).
Mattar, George. 2008. Fallswoman stars in UFO documentary. Bucks County, PA, Courier Times, November 25.
Mavromatis, Andreas. 1987. Hypnagogia: The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
McGaha, James. 2012. Personal communications to Joe Nickell, April 9 and 11, May 18.
Morgan, Jennifer. 2012. In “I Was Abducted” 2012.
Murter, Denise. 2012a. In “I Was Abducted” 2012.
———. 2012b. Facebook communication to Joe Nickell, April 16.
Nickell, Joe. 1993. Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions & Healing Cures. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2007. Adventures in Paranormal Investigations. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Stockly, Ed. 2012. TV skeptic: A ‘balanced’ discussion of UFOs on ‘Anderson.’ Online at http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/showtracker/2012/04/tv-skeptic-a-balanced-discussion-of-ufos-on-anderson.html; accessed April 26, 2012.
Story, Ronald D., ed. 2001. The Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters. New York: New American Library.
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star—a Channeled Message by Cassandra Vanzant. 2012. Online at lightworkersworld.com/2012/03/twinkle-twinkle-little-star-a-channeled-message-by-Cassandra-Vanzant/; accessed May 15, 2012.
Vanzant, Cassandra. 2012. In “I Was Abducted” 2012.
Wilson, Sheryl C., and Theodore X. Barber. 1983. The Fantasy-Prone Personality, in A.A. Sheikh, ed., Imagery: Current Theory, Research and Application. New York: John Wiley & Sons.