Ep 11: Nazis & UFOs [Pt. 1]: The Emergence Of UFO Lore
Welcome back to the UFO Rabbit Hole Podcast. I’m your host, Kelly Chase.
Today we begin a three-part series exploring the complex and, if we’re being honest, utterly bizarre, UFO lore that has grown up out of the ashes of WWII. But before we dive into that, I think it’s important to take some time to understand both the emergence of UFO lore, and how belief systems emerge in general.
And I’ll be honest—this episode is probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever had to write. I’ll warn you now that there are no easy answers in what follows. There is no way to wrap it all up neatly with a bow. This topic is both full of tantalizing patterns and frustrating inconsistencies. It’s messy and incomplete, absurd and impenetrable.
Studying the UFO phenomenon reminds me of looking through a kaleidoscope. With each twist and turn, new colors and structures emerge before falling apart to form new ones. It’s a riot of both randomness and symmetry. And through observation of these ever-shifting forms, we can begin to guess at the internal mechanism that creates them. But until we can bust it open and see what really lies beneath, we have no way of knowing for sure how closely the models that we form in our minds mirror reality.
We may never be able to bust open the UFO phenomenon. We may never know what really lies beneath its utterly baffling manifestations.
But it’s important to our understanding of it that we absorb as much of it as we can, and allow ourselves to sit with the disquiet of not being able to fully resolve what we see into one consistent narrative.
An Acknowledgement & Gratitude
But before we begin, I’d like to take a moment to give credit and express gratitude to Dr. Diana Walsh Pasulka for her book American Cosmic.
I really struggled as I began to work on this series. In thinking about things like the rise of Nazi Germany and the emergence of modern UFO lore, I found myself coming back, again and again, to the idea of belief systems—both how we shape them and how they shape us. I felt instinctively that there was a larger story that I wanted to tell, but it was hard to put my finger on exactly how to express it.
American Cosmic provided that framework and helped to contextualize, analyze, and interpret UFO lore in a way I hadn’t before. I cite the book a couple of times throughout this episode, but I wanted to acknowledge that it had a major influence on the shaping of my understanding of the topic, and by extension, in shaping this episode as a whole.
In my opinion American Cosmic is one of two books, alongside Ross Colthardt’s In Plain Sight, that are absolute must-reads for anyone new to the topic who wants to understand modern ufology. If you’d like to dive deeper into some of the ideas explored in this episode, I can’t recommend those two books enough. They are both linked in the episode description if you haven’t read them yet and would like to check them out.
Alright. So let’s dive into it.
Before we begin to deconstruct the UFO lore surrounding Nazi Germany and WWII, I think it’s important to first attempt to place it within its greater ontological context. If you’re not familiar with the term, ontology is a branch of philosophy or metaphysics that deals with the nature of being. It’s the study of what is and of the underlying logical structure of reality.
We all exist and form our beliefs within the confines of different ontological frameworks. What I mean by that is that we all have underlying beliefs that provide structure to our overall view of the world. For instance, you may or may not believe in God, in the Big Bang, in free will, or in evolution. And wherever you shake out on each of those things informs a lot about what you believe, in general. Not to mention who you trust, and who you hang out with, and what you do with your life.
And your ontological framework isn’t just formed by what you believe and don’t believe, but also by what you know and what you don’t know. The ontological framework of Aristotle involved a created, perfect, static, eternal Universe with heavenly bodies that moved in perfectly circular orbits around the Earth. However, modern ontological frameworks involve a messy heliocentric solar system on the far spiral arm of an unremarkable galaxy, which itself is barely a grain of sand in a near infinite Universe that is hurtling at increasing speeds away from its center and expanding out into…we don’t know what exactly.
Those are two very different reference points from which to decide what you believe about yourself and your place in the cosmos. And based upon which one of those frameworks you’re using, you’re likely to come up with very different answers. And that is the understanding that we need to bring to our exploration of UFO lore as we put it into cultural and historical context.
Ontological Chaos Leading Up To WWII
Because, to put it simply, the 100 years leading up to WWII were a time of unparalleled ontological chaos for humanity. The events of this time period didn’t just change the world, but, in many ways, it fundamentally changed what it means to be human.
Living in the new world that the 20th century created, it can sometimes be hard to fully grasp how dramatically and quickly things changed. In fewer than 100 years we went from the earliest internal combustion engines to putting a man on the moon.
But this change isn’t just about the rapid emergence of transformative technologies — it’s about something deeper, as well. It’s not just about how we interact with our reality, but what we think about it…and about ourselves…and about God.
In 1871, Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man which applied his revolutionary theory of evolution to humans, describing how homo sapiens could have emerged naturally through biological adaptations and sexual selection. But what does this mean for people who believe themselves to be intentionally and lovingly created in the image of God? How does one even begin to process that?
Then in 1916, Einstein published his general theory of relativity, effectively putting a nail in the coffin of traditional Newtonian physics. Suddenly time and space weren’t just the stage upon which we lived our lives, but something bigger, more complex, and utterly foreign. Space and time, we found, were the same thing, existing in one unified field, composed of the very nothingness of empty space, that is also somehow geometrically and predictably shaped by mass.
And in 1923, the world was introduced to the world of quantum strangeness—causing us to question the very nature of our existence, and showing us that, at the most fundamental, atomic level, reality as we experience it is not always what it seems.
In only 52 years, science had managed to seemingly pull the rug out from under the entire foundation of Western thought and religious belief. It’s hard to truly grasp how strange and confronting these ideas must have felt for people of the time. And though people today can certainly find a logical and coherent way to believe both in a loving creator God and in evolution, the level of analysis and integration that would have been required from people of the time to get there would have been profound.
As a result, many people looked on in alarm and dismay as science encroached further and further into the sacred realm of religion in explaining things that had been once the exclusive domain of the Almighty. While others, when confronted with the seeming contradictions between scientific discovery and religious belief, lost their faith entirely, surrendering all that certainty to the new god of Science.
And the more I learn, the more I believe that it is this core ontological battle that is the true root of most of the conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries, from the World Wars to the Cold War to the Culture Wars. All because around 100 years ago our world got flipped upside down and we haven’t collectively figured out how to put it back together again.
New Paradigms, Old Questions
So what is this conflict about exactly?
That’s hard to define. The fundamental problems and paradoxes that have arisen in the wake of our accelerating technological and scientific breakthroughs are as complex as the times that created them. But it’s important that we try to wrap our minds around it anyway.
So let’s dive into it.
As science began to unlock more and more of the secrets of the universe, many people, particularly in the scientific community, began to ascribe to some version of positivism.
Positivism is a philosophical system that holds that anything that is real is governed by the laws of science—and, as such, it rejects theism and metaphysics. For positivists, only “factual” knowledge gained through observation with the five senses is trustworthy. If it can’t be measured or observed, it can’t be proven—and therefore, at least in a scientific sense, it doesn’t really matter.
As you might imagine, there were a lot of people who took issue with this idea, even as it rose to prominence among the academic elite. Suddenly science wasn’t just a methodology that could be used to better understand the world around us, but was being positioned as the sole legitimate arbiter of truth. And through some clever semantics, positivists were able to elbow out anyone who argued that there were things that science couldn’t explain, because by their own definition, those things don’t matter.
For many, this felt like science wasn’t just trying to erase God, but to usurp him. The rejection of that idea and the hostility against science and academia that it cultivated in a large segment of the population is something that we’re still dealing with today.
And listen—I love science. I’m a big fan. I come from an academic family. All four of my parents have terminal degrees. When I was growing up it was just assumed that I would go to college. Anything else would have been blasphemy. When talking about what I wanted to be when I grew up, my dad used to, not so jokingly, tell me that I could “be any kind of doctor I wanted to be.” And even though I ultimately disappointed him in that, I’ve always been firmly on #TeamScience.
But even I can admit that the anti-positivists have a point.
Let’s look at gravity, as an example. We have very accurate models of gravity that allow us to predict how it works and what will happen when gravity acts upon a certain object. And those models work so well that we know the exact angle and velocity that a spacecraft needs to attain as it approaches the moon, so that it will slingshot around it and come back to Earth. The slightest miscalculation could send our astronauts spinning off into empty space with no way to return. However, while we know how gravity works, we still don’t know why it works. We can explain how objects with mass attract each other, but we don’t know why they do.
And this is true about a lot of things. We know how an acorn grows into a tree, and how RNA converts the information stored in DNA into proteins, and how our observation of subatomic particles influences their behavior, but we don’t know why these things happen.
The positivist interpretation of this would be that, although we don’t know why those things happen, that they are acting in accordance to set Universal laws that we just don’t understand yet. The answer to why these things happen is knowable, rational, and discreet. There is no mystery, only our own ignorance.
But also, as long as those mysterious forces are not measurable or observable, scientists are free to entirely disregard their existence and only focus on what can be measured.
And I gotta tell you—that doesn’t sound super scientific to me. Virtually all of our greatest discoveries and quantum leaps forward in our understanding of the Universe have started out as an unanswerable question. If we go around throwing out all the questions we can’t answer, we’re inevitably missing a big piece of the puzzle.
Materialism & Physicalism
And by the 1930’s, we see the emergence of Physicalism—another philosophy that was as popular among academics as it was generally reviled by the masses. Physicalism is a more extreme form of materialism which holds that everything in reality is physical and arises from physical matter and interactions.
So what does that mean exactly?
Let’s take the example of human consciousness. Mind-body dualists believe that mental processes are nonphysical phenomena, and that the physical body, including the brain, is distinct and separate from the mind itself. For those who take this perspective, the brain is the seat of consciousness, but it behaves more like hardware or an antenna that allows the mind to interact with its surroundings through the physical body—but consciousness doesn’t need the body to exist.
Physicalists on the other hand, don’t see any distinction between the mind and the body. They believe that consciousness emerges from the physical and chemical interactions within the brain. When the brain dies, the consciousness dies. They cannot exist without each other, because they are the same thing.
So basically, while positivists were making the argument that anything that can’t be measured or observed doesn’t matter, physicalists argued that anything that can’t be measured or observed doesn’t exist. And according to a 2009 study, this is the view that is still held by the majority of philosophers today.
Now, who’s right and who’s wrong in this debate is a much larger conversation, and honestly, I’ll probably devote an entire episode to this at some point in the future. But for now, all that really matters is that we understand the basics of the ideological battle that raged throughout the 20th century—and that in many ways continues to this day.
A Cultural Divide
I think it’s also important to recognize in all of this that the questions at the heart of this conflict aren’t modern at all. Rather they are the questions that humanity has always asked, going as far back as we’ve kept records—and probably for millennia before that.
In many ways, the ability to formulate these questions, and our never ending quest for the answers, are central to what it means to be human.
Was the Universe created intentionally, or did all of this arise by chance?
Is there something after this life, or do we cease to exist when our body dies?
Is there such a thing as absolute “right” and “wrong”, or is that just an illusion that makes it easier for us to coexist with each other in large groups?
Do our lives have meaning, or is that just the wishful thinking of beings unfortunate enough to be aware of their own mortality?
And while these questions aren’t new, the rapid progression of scientific breakthroughs that occurred in the lead up to the 20th century and which reached a decisive crescendo by mid-century with the splitting of the atom and beginning of space exploration, brought these long-simmering ideological battles to a boil.
Riding high on all of these paradigm-shattering discoveries, many in the scientific community—and the public-at-large—began to believe that it was only a matter of time before science was able to lay bare all of the mysteries of the Universe. In 1897, the physicist William Thomson, Lord Kelvin looked at all the tremendous advancements in electricity, astronomy and biology that marked his age and concluded: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”
Which is a little embarrassing for him considering all of the breathtaking scientific discoveries from General Relativity to quantum physics that would occur just a few short years later. And yet, despite the fact that each new discovery seemed to open a Pandora’s Box of new questions, this mindset remains the default for many people even today.
Although we’ve hopefully been humbled enough to recognize that the discoveries that we’ve made thus far are but a single drop in a Universe full of oceans compared to what there still is to know, many of us operate under the assumption that the ultimate nature of our reality is scientifically measurable—or will be at some point.
And maybe it is. I honestly don’t know. I don’t think it’s an inherently crazy assumption—but it is, undeniably, an assumption. And a big one, at that.
And that assumption lies at the heart of this ideological conflict.
On one side you have people who believe that we are more than our physical bodies, that there is a divine order to the Universe, that our lives are inherently meaningful, and that “good” and “evil” aren’t philosophical abstractions, but fundamental realities.
And on the other side are people who believe that we are no more than the chemical processes that take place in our brain, that the Universe arose out of randomness shaped by nothing but the fundamental laws of physics, that our lives only have whatever meaning we give them, and that “good” and “evil” are culturally relative constructs without inherent meaning.
The former is horrified by the emergence of a worldview that seems increasingly invested in denying the most essential aspects of our humanity based on a faulty assumption and a staggering level of hubris. The latter is disdainful of what it sees as a dangerous attachment to superstition and religious thinking that they believe humanity must move past for the survival and advancement of our species.
And all you have to do is turn on the news to recognize that this is a war that still rages on in the form of the Culture Wars of our modern day.
But I’d caution you against thinking about this conflict in terms of sides or in terms of specific groups, even as our minds automatically jump to do so. Just evoking the Culture Wars likely has many of you already choosing sides in your mind, or at the very least knowing which side you’d be on by default. But not only will this kind of tribalist thinking compromise our objectivity, but, as we’ll see, this collective crisis of faith is so pervasive, so tenacious, and so slippery that it defies all labels and boundaries.
This isn’t about the conflict between any particular group or religion or ideology against any other. It’s about a collective set of questions that we keep asking ourselves, frantically seeking to bridge the gap of this aching divide—shouting all at once, screaming over each other until no one can remember the question anymore, much less pause to hear the answer.
UFOs: A New Paradigm Emerges
And in the midst of this ontological chaos, something entirely new began to take shape—a modern myth that was both technological and otherworldly, both apparently physical yet somehow divine. A new paradigm that challenges all of our preconceived notions about the very nature of our reality and our place within what feels like an increasingly infinite cosmos.
Appearing in the skies, revealing itself to common people—from pilots to ranch hands—while confounding all attempts at categorization or understanding by the brave few willing to climb down out of their ivory towers to confront the mystery head-on, the events surrounding the emergence of the UFO phenomenon feel both undeniably modern, and achingly ancient. It speaks to us in riddles and allegory like the scriptures of old.
In many ways, the phenomenon is like a Rorschach test, taking the shape of the mind that considers it. Some see our salvation—others our doom. Some see high technology, while others see a psychological construct worn like a costume by a metaphysical intelligence beyond our understanding. Some see nothing at all.
And yet, as the evidence mounts that this phenomenon is not just a projection or a fantasy, but a reality that our species has been grappling with since the dawn of time, we’re left to wonder what all this might mean, and what role humanity might play in a larger cosmic reality, the shape of which we have yet to glimpse, but which calls to us from just beyond the edges of our understanding.
Understanding The Emergence Of UFO Lore
As we’ve discussed in previous episodes, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the UFO phenomenon has been a part of the human experience for thousands of years—and perhaps even longer. And yet, although the phenomenon itself may be ancient, it’s hard to deny that UFO lore as we know it today has a definitive beginning.
At some point, the stories of mysterious lights and objects in the sky and of encounters with angelic or otherworldly beings shook off the interpretations of the past and coalesced around a new paradigm—that of the UFO. And although that sea change occurred over a number of years, if not decades, it all seems to be tightly centered around the events that occurred over a few months in 1947, just two years after the end of WWII.
Kenneth Arnold & The “First” “Flying Saucer”
And it all began with what is traditionally considered to be the first modern UFO sighting.
On June 24, 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold was flying in Washington state on a business trip. At that time, a $5000 reward was being offered in the search for a Marine transport plane that had crashed near Mount Rainier. $5000 was equivalent to $65,000 today, so he decided to make a quick detour to fly through the area to see what he might find.
Arnold’s search didn’t prove to be fruitful, but as he was heading back east toward Yakima, Washington he saw something strange. A few minutes before 3:00 p.m., as he was flying at around 9,200 feet, Arnold saw a bright, flashing light like the glint of sunlight reflecting off of a mirror.
30 seconds later he saw another series of bright flashes in the distance about 20 to 25 miles away, just north of Mount Rainier. Arnold initially thought that these flashing lights were some kind reflection on his airplane’s windows that were causing an illusion. However, he tried rocking his plane from side to side, removing his glasses, and even rolling down his side window, and was quickly able to rule that out.
Arnold saw that the lights were reflections glinting off what appeared to be metallic flying objects. They flew in a long chain, almost like a flock of geese, but not only were they at too high an altitude for that to be plausible, they were also flying far too fast to be geese—or anything else that Arnold had ever encountered.
Doing some quick measurements, Arnold conservatively estimated that the objects were flying at speeds of at least 1200 mph—or nearly twice the speed of sound—something that would have been impossible for any known aircraft at the time.
And they didn’t look like any aircraft familiar to Arnold either. He described the craft as “saucers”, “discs”, “pie pans”, or “half moons”, as they were generally convex and thin. They darted swiftly between the mountain peaks, moving at speeds that would crush a human, and flipped around erratically as they flew, sometimes flipping up on their sides so that they became almost invisible.
Within days, the story of Arnold’s sighting was in newspapers around the world. And while there is considerable debate about the true origins of the term “flying saucer”, it’s clear that the Arnold sighting and the subsequent media blitz that ensued were responsible for popularizing both the term and the concept.
But it wouldn’t take long for flying saucers to be back in the news.
The Roswell Incident
Just two weeks later, on July 8, 1947, the public information officer for the Army Air Field in Roswell, New Mexico issued a press release stating that personnel from the 509th Operations Group had recovered a “flying disc”, which had landed on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. That press release read:
The many rumors regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the cooperation of one of the local ranchers and the sheriff’s office of Chaves County.
The flying object landed on a ranch near Roswell sometime last week. Not having phone facilities, the rancher stored the disc until such time as he was able to contact the sheriff’s office, who in turn notified Maj. Jesse A. Marcel of the 509th Bomb Group Intelligence Office.
Action was immediately taken and the disc was picked up at the rancher’s home. It was inspected at the Roswell Army Air Field and subsequently loaned by Major Marcel to higher headquarters.
However, by the next day the Army had changed their story. They claimed that what had been found wasn’t a “flying disk”, at all. In fact, it wasn’t even an aircraft. It was a weather balloon made of tinfoil, rubber, scotch tape, and thin wooden beams that had crash landed at the Ranch in Roswell.
Now, I personally don’t find it to be particularly plausible that high-ranking military officers would confuse a pile of materials that you could buy at a craft store for the wreckage of a “flying disc”. And certainly, if you dig into the Roswell case there is so much smoke that it feels impossible to believe that there isn’t some sort of a fire there. And yet, I don’t think that there is enough clear evidence to say for sure what happened.
What we can be relatively certain about is that something crashed in the desert outside Roswell in July of 1947, and that the Army was not honest with the public about what that was. And the reason that we can be so certain about that is that, in the decades since, the government has changed its story no fewer than 3 times about what really happened that day. Whether any of those explanations is the actual truth is impossible to say, but the changing story alone is enough to confirm a cover up of something.
A New Paradigm Emerges
Whatever happened at Roswell, it wasn’t the end of the “flying saucer” craze. Thousands more sightings were reported in the months and years that followed. And by 1950, just three short years after Kenneth Arnold made his report, the first major motion picture about UFOs was released titled The Flying Saucer, solidifying the new paradigm of the disc-shaped UFO in the public zeitgeist.
I find it strange, not just that this all happened so quickly, but that it happened at all. Because, as we’ve discussed, this phenomenon was not new. People had been reporting strange lights and craft in the skies from the very first Sumerian texts up through the reports of the mysterious “foo fighters” during WWII.
So what happened in 1947 wasn’t a beginning so much as a seismic paradigm shift within an existing mythology. In a very short period of time, the very concept of unidentified aerial phenomena became synonymous with flying saucers.
This shift also seemed to cement another realignment that was already in process at the time which was equating UFOs with technology. Whereas in the past people tended to assume that the bizarre things that they saw in the sky were gods, angels, or other mystical manifestations, now they were presumed to be highly advanced technology, whether it be human or otherwise.
UFOs & Aliens
And speaking of the “human or otherwise”, it’s also interesting to note that the rapid emergence of the “flying saucer” UFO into public consciousness didn’t necessarily coincide with the belief that these craft were extraterrestrial in origin. In fact, that idea tended to lag behind, often being applied retroactively to sightings later on.
For example, when Kenneth Arnold first saw the flying saucers at Mt. Rainier, he thought that they were most likely some sort of secret military technology belonging to either the US or the Soviets. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that a man by the name of L. G. Bernier became the first witness to publically raise the possibility that these craft may be of extraterrestrial origin. In a letter that he wrote to the Portland Oregon Journal claiming to have seen similar craft flying near Mt. Rainier, just half an hour before Arnold, he said, “I believe it may be a visitor from another planet.”
It wasn’t until later that Mr. Arnold was willing to admit his belief that, if the flying saucers he saw weren’t a secret military project, then they were likely extraterrestrial in origin. And while there were certainly many who shared that belief, I think it’s important to recognize that that correlation wasn’t a given. It took time for it to evolve into the de facto explanation for the UFO phenomenon.
Even in the 1950 film The Flying Saucer, the first ever film about the topic, the disc shape craft being pursued by both Soviet and US spies is the invention of an American scientist. So even as disc-shaped UFOs captured the public consciousness, they still weren’t synonymous with aliens.
And even once they became so, it still took more time for the full UFO paradigm as we know it to take shape. For example, it wasn’t until 14 years later that what is widely considered to be the first reported “alien abduction” case occurred.
UFOs & Alien Abductions
On September 19, 1961, Betty and Barney Hill were driving down a dark country road in New Hampshire on their way home from a vacation in Niagara Falls when they noticed a strange light in the sky. After stopping for a moment to observe it with binoculars, it descended quickly and seemed to follow them as they got back into their car and began to drive.
The light came to hover just 100 feet above them, and the Hills began to panic. They heard a series of odd buzzing noises—and then nothing. When they came back to awareness, they were 35 miles down the road with no recollection of how they’d gotten there.
The Betty & Barney Hill case wasn’t just the first “alien abduction” case, but it seemingly set the blueprint for many of the abduction encounters that would follow, as well as the public’s perception of the phenomenon. Their reports of bright lights, a disc-shaped craft carrying humanoid yet distinctly otherworldly beings, and missing time are some of the most common hallmarks of the phenomenon.
And after later ongoing hypnotic regression in an attempt to recover their lost memories, the Hills also claimed to recall details of what you would immediately recognize as a typical abduction case including lying on a table or bed surrounded by strange beings and being forced to undergo medical procedures, many of which were bizarrely and undeniably sexual in nature.
And so here, again, with alien abductions we have this case where a phenomenon seemingly springs out of nowhere, with one reported incident quickly multiplying into hundreds and then thousands, until it becomes a modern day myth, an archetype that is woven into our shared memory and consciousness.
But like with UFOs, if you break the phenomenon down to its component parts, what we now commonly refer to as “alien abduction” wasn’t a new phenomenon either, though it had undeniably taken on a new shape. Stories of bright lights that come down from the sky, being taken by strange beings, being subjected to strange tortures and procedures that were often sexual in nature, being returned having lost time—all of these are stories that we can find throughout recorded human history.
So the Betty and Barney Hill incident in 1961 didn’t mark the beginning of a new phenomenon, but rather was the moment when the paradigm shift in our interpretation of these events occurred. From that point forward what was once most commonly attributed to demons, angels, fairies, and other supernatural beings was now ascribed to flesh-and-blood extraterrestrials. And the nature of this phenomenon went from one that was metaphysical in nature to one that was technological.
UFO Lore: Sorting Out Fact From Fiction
So why do I bring all of this up?
I bring it up because as we talk about the lore surrounding UFOs and Nazi Germany, what we’re really talking about is the emergence of a myth. Which, to be clear, doesn’t mean that we’re not also talking about something real. I’d argue that most, if not all, of our myths are based in some kind of reality. There’s a reason that these stories are recorded and passed down, there are reasons why they endure for millenia.
And in the case of UFOs, we have plenty of evidence to suggest that something significant did happen during WWII and in the lead up to the emergence of the modern UFO phenomenon in 1947—and that the United States government was taking this very seriously as an issue of national security.
On July 26th, 1947, just weeks after the Arnold and Roswell incidents, the National Security Act was signed into law. This monumental piece of legislation called for a restructuring of the Department of Defense including the creation of the National Security Council, the creation of the Air Force as its own entity separate from the Army, and the creation of the C.I.A.
Granted, this was at the dawn of the Cold War and in the aftermath of WWII from which a host of airborne technology had been born, and so one doesn’t really need the sudden appearance of flying saucers to plausibly explain the National Security Act of 1947. It makes a lot of sense within the context of its day, and these are moves that the United States likely would have made regardless.
And yet, the timing does feel a bit fortuitous.
However, regardless of whether or not the signing of the National Security Act was a direct reaction to the UFO phenomenon, just two months later, in September 1947, General Nathan Twining penned a now-famous letter about the flying discs that were being reported around the country writing that the craft were “something real, and not visionary or fictitious”. He described them as being metallic discs and said that they displayed astounding capabilities such as seemingly impossible rates of climb and maneuverability and the ability to evade when detected, leading him to believe that they were being controlled manually or remotely—with the strong implication being that this was intelligent control.
General Twining was a former combat pilot and a WWII commander, as well as serving as the head of the United States Air Material Command. It would be hard to think of a source that could be more credible or less given to flights of fancy or hysteria. It’s very difficult to make the argument that this letter represents anything less than his best understanding of the situation based on the data that would have been available to an officer of his rank and station.
And it was this letter from Twining that recommended a detailed study of UFOs leading to the beginning of Project Sign in December of that same year. Less than 6 months after the Arnold and Roswell incidents we have the creation of the first official program to study UFOs. So despite the overall context of the Cold War, it’s hard to deny that at least some of the major moves that the United States government was making was in direct response to the emergence of the UFO phenomenon.
Project Sign became Project Grudge which became Project Blue Book, but their mission remained the same, to investigate (and many would argue, to intentionally debunk) reported UFO encounters. The program went on to study over 12,000 cases in the years between 1947 and its termination in December of 1969.
Given those facts, I personally don’t find it at all plausible that the emergence of the modern UFO phenomenon was just mass hysteria fueled by Cold War paranoia. Something real was going on.
But as we try to understand what that was, we need to put everything that we know about it into the proper context.
Over these next couple of episodes, we’ll be talking about UFO lore from WWII, but what we would consider to be the first modern UFO sighting didn’t happen until almost two years after the end of the war—and happened 5000 miles away. And even then, it took time for this new paradigm to fully develop and coalesce around the popular concept of UFOs that we’re familiar with today. So major themes and narratives of UFO lore from WWII sprung up years and even decades later and then were retroactively applied to the interpretation of historical events.
Which doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no correlation between that lore and actual events. It just means that when we’re talking about confronting a phenomenon that is so far outside of our understanding, we need time to process and interpret these things before we are able to attach labels and narratives to them.
This is typical of the way that major paradigm shifts occur. Going back to an example that we’ve used before, even though Albert Einstein was the singular mind behind his General Theory of Relativity, the model of the Universe that it suggested was such a paradigm shift that Einstein refused for years to accept the full implications of what his own math suggested.
This was because for basically all of recorded human history up to that point, humans believed themselves to be living in a static, never-changing, and eternal Universe—and yet the General Theory of Relativity predicted a Universe that was expanding rapidly outward from its center. Refusing to believe this could be possible, Einstein created the cosmological constant, which was basically just a method to fudge the numbers to make them conform to what he thought was true.
It wasn’t until Edwin Hubble showed that the light from distant galaxies was red-shifted away from the Earth, proving once and for all that the Universe was expanding, that he realized he’d been wrong all along.
When humans are confronted with challenging new ideas that shake the very foundations of our existing belief structures, we can’t absorb it all at once. There is a period of adjustment, discovery, and interpretation that occurs as our entire ontological framework realigns itself to allow for this new information.
And when we’re talking about a case like that of Einstein and the cosmological constant, that process can be tough, but at least in that case there was some kind of a solid foundation from which to work. There was Einstein’s theory as the theoretical and mathematical basis which predicted an expanding Universe, and then eventually we had solid, observable data from Hubble to back it up.
With UFOs, we have no such thing.
We have myths and legends. We have stories. We have an excruciatingly slow trickle of heavily redacted and incomplete data from world governments that have maintained a strict code of secrecy and outright lies around this topic that they’ve gone to extremes to keep hidden from the public. And we have the rising tide of voices from people claiming to have had encounters with these strange technological objects and mysterious humanoid beings that come from the sky.
To really examine the UFO lore surrounding WWII we need to be able to hold two seemingly conflicting realities in our minds at once. We need to recognize both that these stories likely have some basis in reality, and that the stories themselves are, by their very nature, partially or entirely fabricated—an amalgamation of various ideas, interpretations, and narratives that were applied retroactively to historical events.
I’d argue that this lore is both true and not true. It points us toward the truth, but provides no way for us to arrive there. And the stories it contains reveal as much about the people telling them as it does about the phenomenon itself—perhaps more so.
And so that’s why I refer to WWII UFO lore, and UFO lore in general, as a myth, while also firmly believing that it correlates to real world events and phenomena—and that UFOs are, quite literally, real. Both can be true. And I believe that it’s critically important that we bring this level of nuance to our understanding of the topic.
Are UFOs A New Religion?
And there are those who go a step further from regarding UFO lore as myth, and question whether the emergence of the modern UFO phenomenon might be the beginning of a new religion.
I’ll admit to initially struggling with this idea. After all, if there’s anything that modern ufology has attempted to do it’s to distance itself from the “tin foil hat” stereotypes. The stigma attached to the topic causes many to steer clear of the more “woo” and mystical aspects of the phenomenon for fear of being seen as crazy—I’ll admit to falling prey to that instinct myself.
After all, here I am for the second time, starting off a new series with an entire episode focused solely on offering evidence and context, not just to frame the topic that is the actual subject of the series, but to justify talking about that subject at all. Yes, we’re going to talk about Nazis and UFOs and Antarctica and Atlantis and secret alien bases and the moon landing, but I’m not crazy guys, I swear—and here’s a 10,000 word essay on why.
So, yeah—I wasn’t crazy about the idea of the UFO phenomenon being the basis of a new religion. It smacks a bit too much of cults and whatever it is that Dr. Steven Greer is pedaling these days. However, after reading D.W. Pasulka’s spectacular book, American Cosmic, I’ve come around on that idea.
American Cosmic by D.W. Pasulka
Pasulka is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion. So, as you might expect, she approached her investigation into the UFO phenomenon as an academic looking to understand the appearance of a new belief system. She wasn’t looking to assess the validity of the belief in UFOs itself, but instead was focused on how it emerged, and how this emergence mirrored the emergence of traditional religions.
UFOs & Hierophanies
Pasulka drew a powerful parallel between UFOs and the mystical encounters between humans and the divine which serve as the basis of belief systems. These encounters, called hierophanies, occur when the world of the sacred, the mystical, and the unknown breaks through the veil of our reality.
The burning bush from the story of Moses and the Star of Bethlehem, are examples of hierophanies with which you’re probably already familiar, but the term can refer to any instance of the sacred being made manifest in the physical realm. And within that manifestation is an incomprehensible paradox created by the fact that the scared has been made manifest at all. And in manifesting itself, the sacred becomes in many ways limited, taking on the shape of its physical conduit. And in so doing it both reveals and obscures its own divine nature.
And so, while I may have been initially resistant to the framing of the emergence of UFO lore as the emergence of a new religion, once I let go of my preconceived notions about what that might mean and just looked at the argument from a purely academic point of view—I could see Pasulka’s point.
As she writes in American Cosmic:
“…the history of religion is, among other things, a record of perceived contact with supernatural beings, many of which descend from the skies as beings of light, or on light, or amid light.”
When you strip away the different layers of meaning and interpretation from the events themselves and just look at how they are described by those who bear witness, there isn’t much to differentiate the modern UFO phenomenon from the ancient experience of gods descending from the heavens.
And Pasulka is not alone in framing the UFO phenomenon in this way. In 1959, famed Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, published his book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth Of Things Seen In The Skies on this very topic. In it he wrote, “We have here a golden opportunity of seeing how a legend is formed.”
And in 1969, godfather of modern ufology, Jacques Vallée published Passport to Magonia: On UFOs, Folklore, and Parallel Worlds in which he examined over 900 credible sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena over the previous 100 years and made the case that these encounters follow the same patterns as folklore and religious tradition.
Shaping Hierophanies Into Belief Structures
So, if we are willing to look at the UFO phenomenon as a hierophany, it gives us a new way to understand the emergence of modern UFO lore, and how these bewildering encounters with mysterious objects in the sky transform into more complex belief structures.
In her book, Pasulka writes:
“In the history of religions, a contact event is followed by a series of interpretations, and these are usually followed by the creation of institutions. Such interpretive communities are often called religions or religious denominations.”
Let’s take the example of the emergence of Christianity to better understand how this looks in practice.
For literally hundreds of years after the events of the New Testament, Christianity existed primarily as an underground movement. It was actively suppressed by elites of the time who saw the fantastical claims of these radical new believers as being both too bizarre to be believed and fundamentally dangerous.
The result was a splintering of communities and interpretations of the events as secretive and insular Christian sects emerged. These interpretations were then retroactively applied by the writers of the Gospels, the earliest of which weren’t written until 50-100 years later.
It wasn’t until the year 380 that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. As the religion became more institutionalized, it began to coalesce around the ideas that we would recognize as modern Christianity. Up until that time there were a wide variety of beliefs and interpretations of the stories surrounding the historical Jesus that differed wildly across different faith communities. Even the divinity of Jesus was not universally agreed upon until hundreds of years later.
But even the institutionalization of Christianity didn’t stop it from continuing to shift and evolve. Its doctrines were shaped and influenced by the Church, by governments and kings, by philosophers and poets, and through the emergence of new media technologies from the printing press to the internet. Wherever one finds religious belief, you’ll find people with a vested interest in shaping it, with motivations ranging from the altruistic to the downright evil.
In many ways, modern ufology looks a lot like early Christianity. It’s a movement that exists mostly underground. Those who take the UFO phenomenon seriously have been stigmatized and marginalized by the government, the media, and mainstream academia who see their beliefs as both dangerous and absurd.
And just like with early Christian sects, there are seemingly infinite interpretations of exactly what the phenomenon might be—interpretations that continue to evolve being informed by everything from pop culture to the emergence of new data.
Of the early ufologists who were studying this phenomenon at a high level during the mid-20th century as it was emerging in its modern form, few are still with us. Like the Apostles, their testimony is a rare, yet imperfect glimpse into the incomprehensible events that they observed first, second, and even third-hand.
And despite their outward rejection of it, the government (and by extension, the media) has shown a vested interest in shaping the narrative of UFO lore—presenting alternate theories and explanations for the phenomenon—from swamp gas to little green men—many of which bear little resemblance to the actual records of these events.
And with the slow trickle of acknowledgement coming from the highest levels of our government over the last few years acknowledging the reality of the UFO phenomenon, it feels as though we may be moving into a new phase in the emergence of this belief system. Similar to the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, it appears that the government may be realigning itself, after years of denial and secrecy, to finally say, “Yes, this is real.”
There are lots of different theories about why they may be doing this. But without getting too conspiratorial about it, I think it’s reasonable to assume that at least part of the motivation for doing so is to take a more active role in the shaping of how this phenomenon is interpreted by the public-at-large. After all, wherever you find a potent belief system, there are powerful forces that have a vested interest in shaping it.
But I want to be clear, that what I’m arguing here is not the idea that either Christianity or modern UFO lore are entirely fabricated. I only want to make the point that encounters with the sacred, the divine, and the unknown can have a profound and transformational effect on humanity, both individually to those experience it directly, and then eventually on the greater public consciousness as these events are interpreted and reinterpreted over hundreds, if not thousands of years. And understanding the processes by which this happens gets us a little bit closer to understanding the phenomenon itself.
Revelation & Biological Effects (Observable #6)
And speaking of the phenomenon itself, there’s something about the reframing of the UFO phenomenon as a hierophany that—once I fully absorbed it—about knocked me off my feet. And that is the fact that, unlike the events which lit the spark of Christianity, with the UFO phenomenon we are beginning to have actual data that speaks directly to both the reality of these events and their inscrutable and profound effects on those experiencing them.
In April of this year, the Pentagon declassified and released over 1500 pages of documents related to UFO research, and their contents were startling, even for many of those within the UFO community.
According to these documents, encounters with UFOs have reportedly left Americans suffering from radiation burns, brain and nervous system damage, and even “unaccounted for pregnancy”.
I know, dude. Let’s just take a minute to breathe and acknowledge the “what the fuck” of it all. [Deep breath.] OK.
And Lue Elizondo, the former director of the Pentagon’s shadowy UFO program, has begun talking about these biological effects—which he calls the 6th observable—in more detail. And what he has to say is equally stunning. On a recent episode of Earthfiles with Linda Moulton Howe, he said the following:
“It’s not at all surprising to me that the human organism—if it gets too close to something—can absolutely experience adverse biological consequences. Now, here’s the interesting part. There is also some preliminary data to suggest that some individuals actually report the opposite. So rather than having some negative biological consequence, now you suddenly have someone who is a piano virtuoso who’s never sat in front of a piano before, or who now becomes super artistic, or seems to have some sort of extrasensory capabilities or talents now, if you will— a sixth sense. Whereas before they didn’t.”
I’ll link that episode up in the episode description.
So what’s clear is that we’re not just talking about visions or sleep paralysis here. We’re not talking about a purely psychological phenomenon. We’re talking about something that has real and measurable effects in the physical world.
Interestingly, one of the things that originally got Dr. Pasulka interested in the UFO phenomenon was her previous work focused on the history and metaphysics of the Catholic concept of purgatory. For those who aren’t familiar, purgatory is where souls go who aren’t perfect enough to get into heaven. In purgatory, these souls go through a state of purification that allows them to eventually gain entrance into heaven.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, philosophers debated the existence of purgatory. They spoke of highly credible witnesses who claimed to have seen these trapped souls as well as producing physical evidence of their presence including things like burn marks on tables. Pasulka began to recognize parallels between these testimonies and that of people who claimed to have UFO encounters. After attending a conference featuring speakers who were UFO experiencers she writes:
“They described some of the same things I had observed in my research in Catholic history—shining aerial discs, flames, and orbs—and especially how these experiences transformed their lives. These experiencers interpreted these as spiritual or religious events. They either fractured their traditional religious belief systems or, more commonly, caused them to reinterpret their traditions through a biblical-UFO framework in which they viewed biblical and historical religious events as UFO events.”
So, where does all of this leave us? What are we to make of all of it?
To be honest, I don’t know. And as we look back through the long sweep of human history, we begin to recognize that the UFO phenomenon, though undeniably modern, appears to be, in many ways, the continuation and evolution of a phenomenon that has been a part of the human experience for thousands of years. But did it evolve? Or did we?
Again—I don’t know. And I often wonder if we, as humans, get to know. Perhaps our utter bewilderment in the face of this phenomenon is intrinsic in some way to the human condition, or to the phenomenon itself.
Jacques Vallée has argued that the absurdity and impenetrability of the UFO phenomenon is an intrinsic part of its very nature, and that it may, in fact, have a purpose. In other words, “It’s a feature, not a bug.” He writes,
“Contact between human percipients and the UFO phenomenon occurs under conditions controlled by the latter. Its characteristic feature is a constant factor of absurdity that leads to rejection of the story by the upper layers of the target society and an absorption at a deep unconscious level of the symbols conveyed by the encounter.”
So is the “control mechanism” of which Vallée writes? And what is the nature of the intelligence behind it? Is it divine, extraterrestrial, or something else entirely? And what are its intentions for humanity?
Again. I don’t know.
But what’s clear is that there are no easy answers here. And to get at the truth of the UFO phenomenon we must be willing to dive ever more deeply into the heart of the mystery.
Until next time.
- American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology | D. W. Pasulka
- In Plain Sight: An Investigation Into UFOs And Impossible Science | Ross Coulthart
- Passport to Magonia: From Folklore to Flying Saucers | Jacques Vallée
- Positivism | Britannica