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Jordan Peele's 'NOPE': cryptids in the clouds?


Jordan Peele’s ‘NOPE’: cryptids in the clouds?

Some people really believe in the film’s big reveal.

The modern era of UFOs began on June 24, 1947, when recreational aviator Kenneth Arnold sighted nine crescent-shaped objects moving through the sky while flying over Mt. Rainier, in Washington state. Arnold subsequently told the press that these “objects moved like saucers skipping across the water,” thus inadvertently coining the term “flying saucer.” Arnold went on to become deeply involved in the burgeoning UFO and contactee movements, and would claim additional sightings.

But perhaps the most underreported aspect of Arnold’s contributions to the birth of ufology is that he didn’t think that UFOs were spacecraft piloted by extraterrestrial visitors, but rather “living organisms, sort of like sky jellyfish.”

Jordan Peele's 'NOPE': cryptids in the clouds?

Despite the fact that the idea of UFOs as cryptids is one which goes all the way back to the very beginnings of ufology, its representation in popular-culture (especially when contrasted with the all-pervasive image of the UFO as interstellar vehicle piloted by little grey men) has been scant. However, writer/director Jordan Peele’s fantastic 2022 film NOPE has shined a light on this more outré hypothesis, and in the process has given us one of the greatest Fortean horror films of all time.

NOPE follows Hollywood horse trainers Otis Jr. (“OJ”) and his sister Emerald, who live on an isolated ranch in Agua Dulce, California. Business is bad, as studios are increasingly choosing to replace live horses with CGI, and OJ is contemplating selling the ranch. One night, OJ and Emerald discover that a UFO is frequenting the skies above their property and devise a plan to capture it on camera and become “rich and famous for life.” But there’s more to this flying saucer than meets the eye.

In addition to the idea of UFOs as cryptids, NOPE contains several other notable examples of Fortean phenomena, including anomalous rains (later revealed to be the UFO regurgitating non-digestible matter) and the notion of the Haywood ranch as a “window” area where such phenomena regularly occurs, here explained as the animal’s “territory.” In the documentary “Call Him Jean Jacket” included on the NOPE blu-ray, Peele explains that the monster is what “UFO enthusiasts call a Critter.”

This shows that Peele likely derived some of the ideas for his film from occultist Trevor John Constable, the author of the book Sky Creatures: Living UFOs (1978). Constable refers to UFOs as “Critters” and speculates that they’re giant unicellular amoebas which are normally invisible to the naked eye, and can only be photographed with infrared cameras. Relevant to the plot NOPE, Constable also speculated that his Critters were predators who preyed on livestock, thus accounting for reports of so-called “cattle mutilations.”

Constable’s ideas about UFOs as Critters were heavily influenced by the writings of John Philip Bessor, who penned numerous letters and articles arguing that UFOs were living creatures, albeit ones that could materialize and dematerialize at will, and used telekinetic energy to propel themselves through the stratosphere. Little is known about Bessor, but scholar Joshua Blu Buhs, author of Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend (2009), has attempted to assemble a biography.

According to Buhs, the earliest printed reference to Bessor as ufologist comes from an article in the September 1949 Asheville, North Carolina Citizen Times, and concerned Bessor’s investigation into the celebrated Brown Mountain Lights of Chimney Rock, North Carolina.

That same year, Bessor sent a letter to the Saturday Evening Post, in response to the article “What You Can Believe about Flying Saucers,” in which he first speculates that flying saucers may not be spacecraft, but some kind of atmospheric animal. A similar letter by Bessor, titled “Saucer Animals?” subsequently appeared in the May-June 1951 issue of Fate magazine. The following year another letter, this time to Life magazine in response to the article “Have We Visitors from Space?” summarizes Bessor’s ideas:

For five years I have held the theory that these aerial objects represent a highly attenuated form of intelligent “animal” life of extra-terrestrial origin — possibly stratospheric or ionospheric; propulsion apparently akin to teleportation, possibly flight by sheer will or thought. The frequent undulating motion in flight is analogous to the weaving trajectory of observed poltergeist-projected objects. Strange, luminous creatures inhabit the depths of our seas, why not similar creatures of highly rarefied matter in the heights of our heavens, and as diverse in size and shape as living things on earth?

In December of 1955, Bessor’s first full article, titled “Are the Saucers Space Animals?” made the cover of Fate magazine. This consists of a more elaborate version of the speculations summarized above, with the new element of Bessor suggesting that so-called “star-rot” or “sky-jelly” was in fact the mortal remains of dead UFOs.

Buhs wrote that following his Fate cover story, Bessor seemed to have slowly lost interest in UFOs, for unknown reasons. No more letters or articles by Bessor on the topic of UFOs as cryptids appeared until 12 years later, when Fate published a short follow-up article titled “UFOs: Animal or Mineral?” in their November 1967 issue.

However, the same year as Bessor’s last Fate article, pioneering cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson published his book Uninvited Visitors: A Biologist Looks at UFOs (1967), in which he argues much the same case as Bessor and Constable. It should be noted that all three of these men were devotees of the work of Charles Fort, the name who essentially invented the paranormal. Not surprisingly, Fort himself suggested in his third book, Lo! (1931), that the various “unknown luminous things … seen, sometimes close to this earth, and sometimes high in the sky” may be “living things that occasionally come from somewhere else.”


Jordan Peele's 'NOPE': cryptids in the clouds?

From Arthur Conan Doyle’s Horror of the Heights

In my 2019 essay “Cryptofiction!” I argue that many of the key concepts which comprise the field of cryptozoology actually have their origins in sci-fi and horror fiction, and the idea of UFOs as cryptids is no exception. First published in the November 1913 issue of The Strand magazine, “The Horror of the Heights” concerns a recreational aviator seeking to beat the current record for highest altitude reached. He succeeds, but in the process discovers that the stratosphere is full of carnivorous monsters. The author of this ripping yarn was none other than Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, thus making him the true originator of an idea which found one its best expressions in NOPE.

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. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture. 

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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