Friday, March 11, 2011

My Autumn of Aliens, or Why a Swiss Hotel Clerk Owes Me $1.25 (Plus Tax!) – Part 3

So as the seventies rumbled on my interest in UFOs and all manner of weird stuff continued. But along with my interest in the “weird stuff” came my growing interest in “slightly less weird stuff,” such as more conventional science (mainly astronomy and space exploration) as well as science fiction. While I was still a comic book collector, the number of titles I was buying began to slack off as I turned more of my budget to buying science fiction novels and magazines. Not to mention the explosion of movie magazines that began to appear in the aftermath of the release of Star Wars and the growing popularity of Star Trek.

In the fall of 1977, I started high school, and one my best friends was a big time science and astronomy geek. This association would only push me more in the direction of “conventional” science. Also, that fall the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released. At the time absolutely loved it, in some ways even more than Star Wars. It struck me as great science fiction with a really positive message about “man’s place in the cosmos.” (I should interject here that my opinion now is less glowing, but no need to get into that...) So I was rather surprised when one of my main literary heroes of the time, science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, came down so hard on the movie – criticizing it for promoting “pseudo-science” over “true science.”

And Asimov wasn’t the only one. I had also discovered astronomer Carl Sagan through his many appearance on television talk shows and documentaries, and he was fast becoming a hero of mine. Sagan was not only a brain, but he had a lot of natural charisma and really understood how to use television to his advantage. He was a staunch supporter of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial life, but could also be an incredibly harsh critic of UFO reports and many of the self-proclaimed “experts” in the field.

So for a while I was torn between two masters. Even though what people like Asimov and Sagan were saying made sense in a logical way, flying saucers and all the other associated weird stuff were just so darn cool. I finally settled on a middle ground where I felt it was good that someone was too skeptical, because that would be the only way the real truth could eventually come out. Yeah, that's the ticket...

"Just the facts, ma'am..." 

And Close Encounters had done its job well on the pop culture scene. Following the movie there was an immediate explosion of UFO books, magazines, documentaries and even TV shows. One my new favorites was the Jack Webb produced Project U.F.O., even if the show was a bit of a cheat at times. The typical episode would start off with some person witnessing an incredibly detailed sighting, often with occupants, but by the end of the episode Major Gatlin and Staff Sgt. Fitz would demonstrate how they had actually seen a flock of birds, swamp gas, or maybe a runaway balloon animal. Still, the Dragnet-just-the-facts formula worked for the show, and eventually the writers starting ending most episodes with some small bone that seemed to show what the person had seen really was unearthly.  (They just needed a big “THE END?” before the credits to make it complete.)

But the end to my days of high strangeness was approaching fast. As part of my new fascination with hard science I had discovered the truly excellent PBS documentary series, Nova. In March of 1978, Nova produced the special episode, “The Case of the Ancient Astronauts.”  While I expected some serious debating of von Däniken’s theories, I was not prepared for the epic smack-down that Nova delivered.

Point by point, the calm, collected narrator ripped the arms off ancient astronauts and beat them to death with their own detached limbs. The one that still stands out in my memory, and what I think was the tipping point for me, was the examination of the famous “spaceport” photo.  In Chariots of the Gods? von Däniken had presented the photo with the caption, “Another of the strange markings on the Plain of Nazca. This is very reminiscent of the aircraft parking areas in a modern airport.” Nova showed the lines from the exact same angle and then had someone walk down the “landing strip” to show that it was about two feet wide, and then pulled back to show that the lines were plainly the leg of a giant drawing of a bird!

What the TV Guide had to say about the smack-down of the millennium!

I was furious. This wasn’t just a matter of debating the interpretation of evidence. This was out and out fraud. And I had sacrificed six comic books for this? After the episode concluded I yanked my copy of Chariots of the Gods? off the shelf and took a black magic marker to spine in order to black the “Non-“ in the word “Non-Fiction.” Take that you lousy Swiss hotel clerk!

But my fury wasn’t totally reserved for ancient spacemen. Even though I didn’t take the magic marker to the rest of my library, the fun of UFOs, bigfoot, ghosts and the like seem to have vanished. Although there was not as clear of dividing line for the rest as there had been for ancient astronaut theories, the old thrill and appeal, not to mention the creepiness, just wasn’t there anymore.

Skip forward to the late nineties. Although my interest in weird stuff was occasionally sparked by episodes of Unsolved Mysteries or Fox’s incredibly goofy Sightings, not to mention the “Alien Autopsy” shell game or The X-Files, I never experienced a real temptation to return to my UFO “research.”  The skeptic in me was pretty hardened, not to mention the mythology that had developed since the seventies – abductions, the elevation of "Roswell" to scripture, “Grays,” government conspiracies, anal probes and the like – struck me as boring for the most part, and quite frankly, just not any “fun.”

It was on a road trip to Chicago in 2002 that my friends Jack Daves and Dave Conover got into an extended discussion about John Keel’s classic tome of weirdness, The Mothman Prophecies and the movie that had just been released based on the book. At the first mention of the word “Mothman” they had my attention – the old favorites never fail, and even though the book had been published in 1975 I had never encountered it.

When we got back from the trip I tracked down a copy and made several great discoveries. Keel was one of the first researchers to completely reject the extraterrestrial theory in regards to UFOs. Instead he postulated the UFOs were merely the latest “form” of a phenomenon that has been going on since the dawn of recorded history – and the way the phenomenon is perceived is determined by the culture and prejudices of the time. Of course this is a much oversimplified version, but the point is that both the skeptic and, even more important, the 10-year-old boy tucked away inside of me could accept this as a possibility.

But even better than a palatable theory was the fact that the book scared the crap out me.  Now, I love horror fiction and horror movies, but I’ve reached a point where they don’t scare me.  Maybe a small scare at the time I’m reading or watching, but not of the good old lying-in-bed-at-night-staring-at-the-ceiling-waiting-for-the-boogerman-to-get-me kind of fear. What I discovered was reading books about UFOs, bigfoot and the like really got under my skin – even in a case when I knew what was written was mostly B.S. It still gave me that old exquisite feeling of irrational terror.  And so my hobby of collecting pre-1980s UFO and bigfoot books began. And fortunately, I also found that a new generation of weirdness writers, who probably cut their teeth on books with “the font,” are rejecting the anal probes (can you blame them?) and conspiracies of the eighties and nineties and writing some fun and funky stuff.

But when it comes to von Däniken’s books, I won’t touch ‘em!  Us crackpots got to have some standards!

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