Break a Leg: The UFO Experience as Theatre


From Magonia 27, September 1987

Break a Leg
The UFO Experience as Theatre
Martin Kottmeyer

What is the purpose of the UFO phenomenon? Answer that question and perhaps the rest of the picture will fall into place. What they are and where they are coming from might be better answered by approaching the problem in the reverse direction.

The solution to the teleology of the UFO phenomenon has in the past tended towards two hypotheses, when it has tended anywhere at all: learning and teaching. I reject both these alternatives on the grounds of non-contact. All good education is based on interaction between student and teacher. If they want to sway us they would not display themselves furtively and seek to create fear and paranoia. If they want to learn from us they should come among us and ask questions. If they want us culturally unchanged as an experiment in sociology, they would disguise their activities better.

The irrationality of the UFO phenomenon has been commented upon frequently by ufologists. The alien way of doing things has frequently gone beyond the inscrutable into the totally dumb. Toying around with patterns in UFO behaviour one day, I realised that, for all its irrationality, the UFO phenomenon nevertheless did possess a logic. Not the logic of education, the logic of theatre.

The tip-off was all the chases. Chases are staple items in our fantasy lives. It is a formula element in most action-adventure television. Where would film-makers be if there were no screeching tyres and rising speedometers to maintain the illusion something is happening? Half the block-busters of recent years have chases in them: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and appropriately, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The reliance on chase sequences is understandable: it is a quick, easy way of heightening tension and accenting the conflicting relationships between characters. The kinetic imagery and the hint of danger excites the senses.

The frequency of chases in movies and TV contrasts outrageously with their frequency in real life: few people ever witness such a chase, let alone participate in one. The audience presumably realises that this is unreal, but forgoes criticising that illogic since they recognise fiction operates by conventions only occasionally having to do with real life. Reality, after all, is not as exciting as entertainment. That’s why entertainment exists. Those conventions are excused by one phrase – dramatic licence.

In ufology it is a simple matter of observation that chases are absurdly commonplace. In a relatively small sample of 80 cases drawn from the Uintah region of Utah by Frank Salisbury, no fewer than six chases were in evidence. Salisbury felt this constituted a pattern which forced the question of why UFOs should want to follow cars on to ufologists.

George Fawcett in a wider study of the repetitive features of the UFO phenomenon determined the pursuit of UFOs by planes in the sky and by cars on open highways is a feature which must be explained if we are to solve the flying saucer mystery. For the year of 1967 alone, Fawcett tallied 81 UFO car chases worldwide.

What is more, the chases involve every dramaturgical gimmick that can be seen in mass entertainment. The UFO phenomenon rivals the James Bond series in its attempt to yield every permutation of vehicular mayhem. Consider if you will an incomplete tally I have compiled of vehicle-related motifs culled from the literature: saucer chases car; saucer bumps car; car controlled by alien force; saucer forces car out of control; vehicle becomes airborne; car lifted up on two wheels; car made to do 180ø turn; car teleported; saucer crashes into car; police chase saucer; saucer chases ambulance; saucer chases train, plane, hitchhiker, snowmobile; saucer fires at car; man jumps from car before crashing into building; saucer blocks road; saucer plays chicken with plane; saucer rescues ‘copter; saucer swallows plane; saucer blows up plane; and plane disappears after reporting trouble involving saucer.

The existence and character of these cases lack any plausible explanation outside the realm of theatre. What possible rationale could chases serve for an extraterrestrial piloting a souped-up aerial dragster which, if some reports serve as a guide, could fly rings round a dragonfly? If it wanted the Earth vessel it could latch on to it in seconds and not spend a great deal of time curling the hairs of the drivers of the vehicles. The spectacle of cars, including police cars, chasing vessels with the implicit ability to achieve escape velocity from Earth itself has to be viewed as pure farce if we aren’t meant to accept these episodes under the proviso of dramatic licence.

Like chases, abduction is a staple item in action-adventure drama: the disparity of the frequency of abductions in drama compared to real life is again striking. The essence of all drama is conflict; for conflict to take place one requires a pretext to bring antagonists together. Ideally a moral dilemma must exist. Kidnapping sets up such a clear moral dilemma and at the same time inevitably brings the hero into interaction with the villain.

We know abduction was not a necessary feature of extraterrestrial contacts. Originally the novelty of the contact was enough to capture the interest of its audience. Problems arose in such contacts: the choice of the contactee and the aliens’ chary attitude to giving quality gifts commensurate with their benevolent talk. After a number of embarrassing incidents like the Adamski photos and Howard Menger’s recantation, the fate of contactees was declining audiences. The advent of abductions represented a fortuitous turn of dramaturgy. Abductions brought aliens and humans together, and then overlaid an element of conflict and power. It excused the lack of contact and gifts and, by diminishing their friendliness, permitted a larger measure of inscrutability in their acts.

Abduction is plainly unethical in the failure to obtain consents and, more significantly, in its flouting of the conventions of the host culture. It is at least problematic that a culture possessing the rationality and co-operativeness necessary to build the technology implicit in saucer sightings should engage in abduction. It is more probable, in my view, that it is a dramatic convention underlying the frequency of abduction among contemporary UFO contacts. Most of these abductions interestingly involve another dramaturgical gimmick – amnesia. Sometimes called the common cold of the soap opera, it is an extreme rarity in real life, but its dramatic possibilities are very seductive to TV writers. The victim is confronted with the mystery of a chunk missing from his life along with conflicts in the shifted relationship of the victim with his friends and enemies. The solution usually involves a climactic resolution of a traumatic character. There are also elements of sympathy and tension which can be played upon. Writers can hardly be faulted for returning again and again to this device.

In ufology likewise, amnesia is common. It is generally limited to a small period of missing time and is not associated with physical or emotional trauma. Rather it is considered an erasure of events from the mind by the abductors. What gives away the dramatic intent of this event is the recoverability of the memory. Without recoverability there would of course be no plot. Permanent erasure would seem to be a feat more fitting of a super-technology.

Explosions and crashes are the punctuation marks of adventure shows. Again there is an exaggerated frequency among UFO reports which seems to speak more to a shared function of entertainment rather than to an aspect of technological realities.

Immunity to weapons is an often seen gimmick in movie monsters and conveys a sense of alienness and power. It does the same in ufology and doubles to keep evidence from slipping into the possession of individuals on Earth.

Violating scientific sensibilities are a number of science fiction scams which have found their way into UFO lore: things like anti-gravity, personal levitation, invisibility, mind reading, force fields, matter interpenetration and time travel. No scientist could be faulted for disbelief in the anything goes quality to alien technology; some of these devices have been part of the stage magician’s bag of tricks for centuries. And as they did for such performers, these illusions produce the desired quality of awe when seen in UFO reports.

The force field is a more recent invention of SF writers – I know of no SF apologist who grants the slightest plausibility to the concept. The use of force fields is one of the strongest arguments that UFO reporters borrow from SF in constructing a dramatic vehicle for their observations.

Mind rays are equally suspect, given the complexity of the human brain. Their visibility speaks for their dramaturgical origin: light is unlikely to effect highly specific changes in brain function. The possibility of light being an incidental function of a programming radiation suggests energies more likely to fry a brain than modify it.

These examples of dramaturgical gimmickry are but the most distinctive examples of a whole pattern of behaviour displayed by the UFO phenomenon which can only be accepted under the shelter of dramatic licence. Realising ufology is shaped by such conventions, it can come as no surprise that there are dozens of parallels of these gimmicks in science fiction films incorporating themes of alien contact and invasion.

In saying this I do not imply that there is a conscious plagiarism. Most of the parallels arise simply by the necessities of dramatic licence. Exposure to cinematic aliens may set up an understanding of dramatic logic which is drawn on at a later date, but the role of that form of inspiration is probably not extensive.

If there is one case of parallelism which seems to involve plagiarism it would have to be the similarities between the messages of the alien in the notorious Plan Nine from Outer Space and the message of Valiant Thor of Venus as presented in the 1967 book Stranger at the Pentagon. I must say, however, I cannot believe anyone would have the chutzpah to consciously model their story on material from that monumentally bad film. It could be coincidence!

Science fiction and the UFO phenomenon are more directly linked by content rather than convention. Marjorie Hope Nicholson pointed out the link flying saucers had to the centuries-old tradition of cosmic voyages in her seminal history of that tradition, Voyages to the Moon. Considering her book came out in 1948, long before all the dramatic twists transpired in ufology, her assessment looks virtually clairvoyant.

The idea of the extraterrestrial and its creative exploration is central to both SF and UFOs. The dreams of abductees can trace their ancestry through a lineage composed of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Emanuel Swedenborg and Jonathan Swift, originating in the dreams of Kepler’s Somnium. Kepler’s trip to the moon opened this universe of imagination and it was well explored by the time Adamski hitched a ride to the pastoral land of the moon.

Bertrand M‚heust has written an extensive study of the parallels between ufology and pre-saucer SF, which he finds presages many of the accoutrements of contemporary ufology: electromagnetic effects, animal reactions, soil traces, light rays, and amnesia. Entities and craft in early SF display the same magical abilities as contemporary UFO entities. He includes over a dozen illustrations of saucers pre-dating the modern era by decades which are true to the present version down to extended rims, conning towers and portholes.

This last is a particularly enticing conundrum. Every collection of SF illustrations includes examples of saucers drawn before they turned up in real skies. When one first sees these prefigurements the identity admits no ambiguity. You don’t think This could be a flying saucer , you think This is a flying saucer . One can offer numerous explanations for this identity. Perhaps SF artists had saucer encounters before 1947. Perhaps the drawings lodged in peoples’ memories and after 1947 the images became overlaid in IFO misidentifications. Perhaps SF artists are symbolic. Perhaps there are deep psychological resonances in the shape, favouring its appearance in extraterrestrial contexts. Perhaps aliens designed their craft from the illustrations. Then, too, it could be happenstance.

I believe the resemblance is chance. SF illustrators were partial to rockets in most drawings, in deference to scientific extrapolations of their time, but they by no means limited themselves to a tiny repertoire of possibilities. They exercised their creativity to explore a wide range of novel forms which might be utilised for space travel. From the collections of SF drawings I have to hand I find craft in all these forms: spheres, hemispheres, ellipses, eggs, cones, squares, cylinders, triangles, Saturn-shapes, doughnuts, dumb-bells, hearts, teardrops, boomerangs, fish and other elementary shapes.

There were, naturally enough, marvellously convoluted, arty structures beyond simple description, and non-vessels like sky-cycles, and a floating half-shell furnished only with cushions! The flying saucer forms but one fairly bland variation in that diversity of shapes. there is an inevitability to the saucer appearance given its fairly simple construction by adding a centre cabin to a disc.

The argument works as well in the opposite direction. While there is a partiality to the disc there is an abundant diversity of shapes to be found in UFO reports. I have found all the following described or drawn in the UFO literature: spheres, hemispheres, ellipses, eggs, cones, cylinders, squares, triangles, Saturn-shapes, doughnuts dumb-bells, teardrops (beginning to sound familiar?) and so on and so forth. The saucer parallel just cannot be seen as amazing in the face of all these other similarities. Some like a UFO/SF parallel between a teardrop vessel having a Saturn ring encircling it in an identical relationship are far more amazing. It is only when the forms become more intricate or daring that one encounters difficulties in finding parallels between the two genres.

One can consider the creativity shown in saucer forms by considering all the accessories available on UFOs. The rival the Detroit auto industry in all the options, including in both cases: fins, portholes, picture windows, bubble sun-roofs, all-over chrome, textured surfaces, customised paint jobs, racing stripes, decals, exhaust work, antennae, grills, kerb feelers, big-screen TV and a myriad of light arrays.

As regards the casting of the role of the ufonaut, a similar display of creative diversity has been found. Alvin Lawson wrote a paper which strongly demonstrated this point. He found UFO aliens could be grouped broadly into six categories: human, humanoid, animal, robotic, apparitional, and forms possessing exotic deformities (improper numbers of limbs, misproportion of bodily parts). Lawson goes on to show the imaginary beings of various fictional cosmologies display an identical range of forms. Each of the six types has members in Greek myth, Christian myth, fairy lore, Alice’s Wonderland, Shakesperian drama, science fiction and even cereal-box art!

Two of the few people who have tried to show a lack of creativity exists in ufology are Frederick Malmstrom and Richard Coffman. To do this they constructed an imaginary alien on a unipedal anatomy. They then opined that aliens would more likely be based on exotic physiologies than on the frequent human and humanoid forms. It constitutes an anthropocentric bias. Valid to a point, the point falters in berating the uncreativeness of UFO reporters. Unipeds have been reported on at least four occasions – Pascagoula; C.A.V. of Peru; Harrah, Washington of 19 January 1977; Paciencia, Brazil on 30 September 1977. It also fails to recognise the presence of virtually unclassifiable creatures like Betty Andreasson’s tree-frog-like biped bearing eyes on the tips of stalks worn on its non-head, or the jelly-bag creatures doing a witches’ dance around a shimmering saucer in a Swedish encounter from 1958. There can be no justification in trying to slight the creativity of the phenomenon’s imaginativeness.

If there is to be any caveat to the diversity of aliens it is the total absence of one category of imaginary beasts: ultra-gigantic creatures such as those of the magnitude of King Kong, Godzilla and all the walking skyscrapers traipsing around the Japanese landscape in monster movies. Science fiction has shown few qualms in using this form when ripping off H.G. Wells’s alien invasion plot. Stanislaw Lem colourfully described this pulp SF behaviour in these terms:

It practised a ruthless exploitation, ransacking, in its search for inspiration, history textbooks and the Linnean system alike, in order to provide lizards, cuttlefish with grasping arms, crabs, insects, and so forth with intelligence. When even that became threadbare and presently boring, the theme SF had run into the ground was in its teratological extremism taken over by the third-rate horror movie, which is perfectly bare of thoughtful content. [ About Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic" in Science Fiction Studies 31, November 1983]

The absence of ultra-gigantic aliens is one of the few hopeful signs of rationality in the general shape of the UFO phenomenon. Such ultra-gigantism has been applied to the ships on occasion but nothing like Voltaire’s Micromegas has yet to transpire on Earth. Unless there is a sociological factor repressing the reporting and acceptance of these reports, there absence is a curious problem for an imagination-based theatre paradigm. Though hardly a fatal objection to all that has been seen already, I feel they should exist. I urge any investigators who have been exposed to such cases to make them known.

The diversity of imagination and the use of dramatic licence seen in the form of the UFO phenomenon supports a view of it as theatre. Where does the witness fit in this view? Here we must turn to a question first asked by J. Allen Hynek in his book The UFO Experience. Can he possibly be acting this out? Could he be such a good actor? And if so to what end? Hynek claims to have mused over these questions many times without resolution.

It is my turn to tackle the question and I answer it in the affirmative. UFO reporters are acting. It is the descriptions of witness performance by Hynek himself which leads me to this view. He says the witnesses typically must grope for the language to convey the unspeakable qualities the UFO has manifested. This is so clearly a method of heightening awe and mystery that it hardly needs pointing out.

Another aspect of witness reports is that they are so often framed in an escalation of hypotheses formula. To Hynek this suggests a rational exploration of possibilities of what the UFO could be. But it can be considered a way of building dramatic tension toward the climactic realisation one is in the presence of a mystery.

Superlatives are liberally sprinkled among accounts to accent the excitement of the witness. Hynek says the phrase I never saw anything like this in my whole life recurs frequently in his interrogations. Verisimilitude is a traditional prerequisite of theatre. The display of sincerity and the artless attestations he didn’t or couldn’t make this all up – Scout’s Honour! – is no defence against this view.

I am not saying UFO reporters do not believe what they are telling us: what is being recognised is that interrogation necessitates a social performance in which the reporter seeks to convince an authority figure to validate his experience. Being a good actor simply means upholding the conventions of this situation. In this view I am following Erving Goffman and his work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, where he shows that we continually take on roles in our interactions with others and adopt accepted conventions in order to be taken seriously. In Goffman’s sense, most people are good actors.

The use of hypnotic regression can be viewed as an extension of the role-taking behaviour of witnesses and thus an appropriate instrument of the Theatre of the UFO. In Theodore Sarbin’s interpretation of hypnosis, subjects do not behave according to any kind of physiological or mentalistic model: they respond according to the preconceptions and expectations held by that individual. Change their expectations about what hypnosis is, and their behaviour changes. There is no universal pattern of response.

The introspective experience of hypnotic subjects is often indistinguishable from that of the actor. This is markedly true with respect to such features as the dissociated state of the actor from his normal personality, and his losing himself in a role to the exclusion of awareness of his surroundings. One can see the dramatic role of hypnosis most forcefully in hypnotic regression for the purpose of revealing past life experiences . Ian Watson, in his critique of this field notes these incarnations are typically relived with very considerable emotion . It necessitates the hypothesis of some extremely powerful and unconscious acting mechanism within the mind .

Watson powerfully argues these experiences lack evidentiality and their content at times derives from works of historical fiction. This is reinforced by Alvin Lawson’s experiments (see Magonia 10) where he placed subjects with no UFO experience into the role of a UFO reporter and got stories similar in most ways to subjects who had UFO experiences. Those with prior experience were a little more emotional (i.e. dramatic) than those without; this is fully in line with UFO reporters being of a more dramatic predisposition.

To what end is such acting directed? Applause. Approval. The figure of the interrogator is used to attest the truthfulness and sanity of the reporter. When the investigator decides not to do this, either because the performance is flawed or because the UFO is explicable, the reaction of the reporter is often disappointment and hostility. Bad reviews will do that. If curiosity and truth were the driving forces, satisfaction and praise for the investigator’s acumen would be more logical reactions.

Identity with the reporter is another end, and it is one supported by the perversities of the UFO phenomenon. All things are arrayed against him: he is besieged by the forces of chaos; his powers of action are stripped from him; locomotion, aggression and documentation all fail in the UFO’s presence; he is chased down by mindless geeks, for impenetrable reasons. And he faces it alone. Society refuses to understand him, he didn’t consent to it, he does not understand it. He can’t even prove it. And that, as they say . . .

That’s entertainment.

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