In March of 1961, an unusual article appeared between the pages of Analogue Science Fact-Fiction magazine. Penned by an aircraft mechanic named Arthur W. Orton, its subject was the Bible — specifically the first chapter of the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel, in which the prophet has a vision of the Chariot of God.
Generations of Jewish and Christian theologians have struggled to make sense of this surreal scene, which includes a description of “four wheels” having the appearance of a “wheel within a wheel … the rims of all four [being] full of eyes all around.” Orton thought he had the solution. The theologians had gotten it all wrong. This wasn’t a divine revelation, but rather an ancient sighting of a flying saucer.
As unlikely as Orton’s explanation might sound, it caught on amongst the segment of the ufological community focused on “ancient astronauts,” and has been parroted ever since in the books of Erich von Däniken and on TV shows like Ancient Aliens. Qualified biblical scholars are quick to dismiss such conjectures as folly, but one of them, David J. Halperin, isn’t so sure. In his new book, Intimate Alien: The Hidden History of the UFO (Stanford University Press, 2020) the retired University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill professor argues that Orton was probably right, just not in the way he thought he was.
Intimate Alien’s first chapter explains Halperin’s approach and personal relationship to the subject of UFOs via a mixture of autobiography and methodology. Halperin became fascinated with the topic as a socially awkward teenager. Bookish and shy (especially around girls), Halperin’s mother was also dying before his eyes of an untreatable medical condition.
Halperin’s mother passed away around the same time he graduated high school, so UFOs served as an escape. He forgot all about them, though, when he went on to major in religious studies in college with a specific focus on mystical experiences, like Ezekiel’s vision of God’s chariot. Eventually he decided that these two subjects – religious visions and UFO sightings – might be one and the same.
Halperin is primarily concerned with the phenomenological aspects of UFO sightings and alien abduction experiences. He argues that the ufologists and the skeptics are both wrong. While people are not encountering literal spaceships and extraterrestrials, it’s equally not the case that they’re merely misidentifying mundane aerial objects and confusing nightmares for lived experiences. Rather, Halperin maintains that UFO witnesses and abductees have had a religious experience, a vision just like Ezekiel did thousands of years ago.
These visions, in turn, have formed the basis of a new mythology — the myth of the UFO. Halperin wants to know what this myth means, and so in the succeeding seven chapters brings to the topic both his considerable knowledge of world religious traditions and a fair amount of psychoanalysis of the Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud variety. It’s this two-pronged approach that divides Intimate Alien between arguments that are decidedly more and less convincing.
Intimate Alien is at its best when Halperin is playing to his academic strength: religious studies. His observations about the parallels between ancient and medieval Jewish mystics and UFO witnesses and abductees are fascinating and provocative, as are his insights into the phenomena of the so-called Men In Black, the stories of which he says have similarities to those of people accused of witchcraft in the early modern period.
Likewise Halperin tries to trace the visual roots of the Grey alien, made famous by the cover of Whitley Strieber’s Communion (1987). Halperin finds ancient antecedents for the Greys in the Irish Sheela na gigs, as well as the descriptions of Abrahamic angels, but the Ur-example is a ceremonial mask from the Balkans dated to between 4,500 to 3,500 BCE. Known as the Predionica mask, it really does bear an uncanny resemblance to a Grey alien!
Conversely, Intimate Alien proves far less convincing when Halperin steps outside his discipline and attempts to posthumously psychoanalyze UFO witnesses. This includes relying heavily on the controversial idea of repressed memories to explain the many experiences of alien abduction claimed during the 1990s. Halperin suggests that most abductees are probably the victims of childhood sexual abuse, and have created a fantasy in which their abusers are aliens, rather than trusted adults, as a coping mechanism. While Halperin seems to genuinely believe that such insights might be helpful to these supposed victims those familiar with the similar allegations made during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s will understand how dangerous such unfalsifiable conjectures can be.
Even more dubious is Intimate Alien’s argument that the abduction experience of Barney Hill – an African-American man who claimed to have been abducted by aliens while driving through rural New Hampshire with his wife in September 1961 – was a result of him tapping into genetic memories of his ancestors who had been victims of the Atlantic slave trade. Halperin admits he can’t explain why Barney’s white wife, Betty, should have claimed to have had the same experience so, he chooses to mostly ignore her.
Despite being an academic text, Intimate Alien’s prose is clear and easy to read. Halperin’s style is relaxed and disarming, like a conversation with a friend. It only has a few footnotes, but contains a detailed set of endnotes. The book’s accessibility allows it to be read more quickly than you might think at 304 pages. Intimate Alien contains a number of black and white photos and, despite being from an academic publisher, the book is reasonably priced for a hardcover at only $26.
Ultimately, all this actually makes the uneven quality of Halperin’s scholarship more disappointing. Intimate Alien could have represented an ideal vehicle for exposing general audiences to a book on UFOs, written by a sympathetic non-believer applying academic rigor to the issue. Unfortunately, Halperin’s reliance on half-baked psychology damages the overall quality of his work.
Special thanks to SUNY Cortland’s Craig Foster for his insights on the psychological topics discussed in this review.
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Every day this month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.
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