Close Encounters of the Nope Kind

Since Nope is out this month, and I am stoked to see it, I thought I would touch upon alien encounters for an episode. It isn’t typically a topic that resonates with me, but I won’t be a spoilsport as there is a lot of lore to dig down into. I’m going to structure the show around J. Allen Hynek’s classifications, something most people will be at least vaguely aware of thanks to movies like ‘The Fourth Kind’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. The Close Encounters, or CE’s, 1 through 4, make an escalating scale of potentially extra terrestrial encounters. Hynek is an interesting case unto himself, being an astronomer roped in to the US Air Force’s investigation of UFO stories initially as a sceptic, who as he began to sort and categorise the stories became a believer. Allow me to take you on a journey describing each of the four levels of Close Encounter, with a story matched up with each… SECTION BREAK – The First Kind: An Unsupported Sighting The First Kind of Close Encounter refers to a sighting with no other evidence to back it up. This makes up the majority of Unidentified Flying Object reports submitted around the world, usually in a “Huh, what was that?” capacity. These sightings can be explained in almost their entirety, usually pretty easily too. Even once you eliminate the easy misunderstandings of what would go on to be identified flying objects, the world is full of weird stuff waiting to happen in an alarming fashion. Mirages, bizarre reflections, swamp gas going off. Rogue weather balloons aren’t a cliché dismissal, they’re a cliché culprit. Any given hobbyist can chuck one of them up without warning and confuse the heck out of nearby drunks. The trick is, while the easily dismissed cases account for 95% of reported sightings, you then have the 5% left over that get filed away as Close Encounters of the First Kind. It’s 1948. In the early hours of the morning in the skies over Alabama, an Eastern Air Lines Douglas DC-3 passenger plane was flying at around 5,000 feet. It was a clear night but for a small scattering of clouds, well lit by a gibbous moon. The chief pilot Clarence Chiles points out a red glow ahead of them to his co-pilot John Whitted, remarking “Look, here comes a new Army Jet”. The strange object they mistook for an experimental plane fell back to almost immediately pull in beside them. In the report they submitted afterwards this object was claimed to be a wingless cylinder around 100 feet long and 25 feet in diameter. Two rows of windows lined the torpedo shaped object that had an intensely bright light emanating from within, supposed to be “as brilliant as a magnesium flare”. Both pilots swore to the object lingering for a good 10 to 15 seconds so they could get a good look at it, before intense flames blasted from the rear of the object and it shot upwards into the night sky and clear out of sight. Only one passenger, a C.L. McKelvie, claims to have noticed anything at this time. Not seeing any strange object, but noticing a bright flash of light outside the window that matches the timeline reported by the pilots. Now, this caused a panic among the top brass of the USAF. This was the third credible report of an unidentified flying object that year, and the panic had nothing to do with aliens. They were panicking these were Russian test flights over the United States! The Gorman Dogfight and the Mantell UFO Incident earlier in 1948 were curiousities, but the Chiles-Whitted Sighting was up close observation made by reliable witnesses. Worse yet for the military investigators, the course the pilots described would have taken the craft over Robins Air Force Base and a crew chief reported seeing a bright flash of light about that time which pretty much confirmed the sighting. This was one of the reports that lead from Project Sign, an initial military fact finding mission, to the formation of Project Blue Book. It remains to this day one of the most controversial in the history of UFO sightings as it was first dismissed as an illusion caused by temperature inversions, then the official record was altered to write it off as a meteor. This sparked a lot of internal debate within the military given that it was so bizarre trying to explain it as natural felt like an absurd stretch. Across the years the fact that exact details varied across the two witnesses has been used to try and discredit the sighting, but anyone with any experience in eyewitness accounts can tell you that it is identical accounts that are suspicious. Matching stories show collusion and rehearsal, varied stories suggest individual impressions of the same event. The Chiles-Whitted Sighting has held up across the decades as one of the unexplainable UFO encounters. Project Blue Book ran from Spring of 1952 until the end of 1969 with two objectives: Scientifically analyse reports of UFO sightings, and determine if these unidentified flying objects were a threat to national security. 12,618 reports in total were gathered in this 17 year period, most of which were given official resolutions dismissing them as having plausible terrestrial explanations. Only “most” is not the same as “all”… SECTION BREAK – The Second Kind: Sightings With Evidence CE2 is pretty similar to CE1, as it all boils down to people spotting something and not knowing what it is. The U in UFO stands for Unidentified, after all, not Definitely A Flying Saucer full of Little Green Men. The Second Kind can be photographic evidence, although that can be incredibly vague, yet also covers less exciting but more solid evidence such as radar readings and weird radiation levels being detected at alleged landing sites. I’ve mentioned a “flying saucer”, which is a concept ridiculed for the most part now but it was a Close Encounter of the Second Kind that helped cement that image as an iconic one. The McMinnville UFO photographs, or simply the Trent UFO photos, remain some of the most famous and widely publicised images of a UFO. On the evening of May the 11th 1950, Evelyn Trent was out feeding her rabbits. An otherwise unassuming evening, she did her rounds and strolled back to her farmhouse unhurried. Something caught her eye, though, and she turned to watch a metal disk she claimed was slowly flying towards the Trent farm. She just watched it for a moment, bemused at the weird sight, before calling out to her husband Paul, yelling at him to grab their camera and come outside. Coming outside with a small wind up Kodak camera, he gets two pictures of the strange object before it shifted to an incredible speed vanishing to the West. As a part of the investigation that followed, Paul’s father also went on the record as having seen it before the apparent flying saucer disappeared. The Trent’s were worried about coming forwards as they thought they had captured footage of a secret military craft, but once they came forwards the McMinnville UFO photographs were immediately controversial and remain so to this day. Expert analysis in 1975 by an optical physicist for the U.S. Navy insisted that this was a genuine photograph capturing a 3D object in the environment. This comes with the caveat that Bruce Maccabee who carried this study out is an avowed ufologist, and could be expected to want to prove that a lynchpin piece of evidence for the movement is real. Yet the debunkers also agree the photos capture a physical object, they just wildly disagree as to what it is. A popular, and persistent across the years, explanation is that this was an object suspended from powerlines to get the desired effect. Specifically that it was a popular style of circular side-view mirror at the time that a whole load of Ford vehicles had been using for years running up to the pictures being taken. It doesn’t help that across the years people have had a lot of fun Frisbee-ing things like hubcaps and snapping photos of them claiming to capture UFOs, a low tech but sometimes effective prank. But back at the time the Trent farmers did not seem to follow the behaviour expected of a hoaxer. After taking the photos, they did not race to get them developed as there was still some reel left, so it wasn’t until they filled the camera up with mother’s day photos that they finally took it in. They didn’t appear interested in gaming fame or notoriety from their photographs, anyone interviewing them in either a press or official capacity say the couple seem honest and well intentioned, and they never asked for money when the images were reproduced. The Trent’s are sadly no longer with us. Evelyn passed in 1997, and Paul the year after. They both insisted their whole lives the pictures they had taken were of a genuine strange object spotted in the skies above them, and ufologists argue to this day that the McMinnville UFO photographs are credible evidence that the truth is indeed out there. Their legacy more than lives on, the two snaps Paul got on his Kodak remain some of the most publicised photos ever of the phenomenon, iconically driving the idea of flying saucers into pop culture discourse. Such is the ongoing interest in these images, there’s an annual UFO Festival in McMinnville that is second in size and popularity only to the Roswell, New Mexico version. AD BREAK Hello everyone, before we move on to the weirder half of the episode, I would like to take a moment to share a word from another show: The Spooks, Creeps, & Assorted Devilry Podcast. While my show is more of the lecture format focusing on folklore; The Spooks, Creeps, & Assorted Devilry Podcast is a round table discussion that covers a wide variety of topics. If that sounds like something you may be interested in, definitely give it a go as a great crew runs the show over there! SECTION BREAK – The Third Kind: Direct Encounters With Aliens Now, here’s the one that has the strongest pop culture osmosis thanks to Stephen Spielberg! A Close Encounter of the Third Kind was the category reserved for reports of direct contact between humans and aliens. It’s a category which gets pretty damn weird, and is mostly the target of ridicule. This is where you get things like the idea of “Nordic Aliens”, claims made by author George Adamski that other planets in the solar system are inhabited by humanlike aliens with long blond hair and tanned skin. Although as Adamski would add to the otherwise mundane description of an alien visitor called Orthon: “his trousers were not like mine”, so that solves that question of whether or not they are aliens. There’s a whole rabbithole to go down here surrounding New Age spirituality, messages of living in peace, everyone yelling at the true believers that the accounts are dumb since even back then the science of how uninhabitable other worlds in the solar system was pretty settled, Atlantis comes into this at some point because OF COURSE it does, and the idea of unpacking the whole thing feels like punching down. So overview over, let’s have fun with a cryptid that overlaps with a Close Encounter of the Third Kind instead. The Flatwoods Monster. Also known as the Phantom of Flatwoods, the Braxton County Monster, or simply as Braxie. One September night in 1952 a bright object was spotted crossing the sky, which was only the start of the story… Local children spotted the fast moving light in the sky, and were pretty sure it came down to Earth. Specifically, they think it landed over on the property of local farmer G. Bailey Fisher. The kids ran to the home of a Kathleen May, told her what they had seen and where they thought it landed. Two more children got added to the growing wander-off-into-the-woods-at-night party, plus a West Virginia National Guardsman called Eugene Lemon. The group of 7 gather a single flashlight, and wander off in search of adventure. So far, so the start of a horror movie were the victims have conveniently assembled themselves for the monster to come. As I research more and more stories like this, I feel bad for all the times I said a movie doing exactly this was unrealistic. People really are like this when weird things crash land in the woods! Things started to get stange as the hapless band got closer to the Fisher farm. Everyone claims to have wandered into a pungent smelling mist that made them feel nauseous, and as they crested the top of a hill to look down at the farm there was a dull pulsing red light ahead of them. Lemon point’s their only flashlight in the direction of that light, and then they see It. A tall, maybe ten foot tall, man-like figure with a blood red face. A large “hood-like shape” was a part of this towering height framing “a head that resembled the ace of spades”. Small claw-like hands emerged from clothing-like folds, it’s clothing or strange body being either black or dark green. It turns eyes that glow with a greenish/orange light to face the group before making a hissing sound and gliding across the ground towards the two adults and five children. Eugene Lemon promptly drops their only flashlight with a scream, and they all run away. The local Sheriff and a Deputy also investigated the farm, following reports of what may have been a crashed aircraft due to the light in the sky. They didn’t have a Close Encounter themselves, and say there was no sign of any nauseating mist, but they did find some unusual skid marks in a field at the Fisher farm as well as what they call an “odd, gummy deposit”. The Phantom of Flatwoods became famous and to this day is embraced by the local community. The town of Sutton now has the Flatwoods Monster Museum, and there are multiple public chairs designed to resemble the creature as a part of the local tourist attractions based on their strange visitor. Braxie aside, who I will hear no harsh words against, CE3’s have always had a weird reputation even among dedicated ufologists (which is saying something). Associated with bizarre stories, or religious cults, it used to be the final of three categories and generally got ignored. Only a new category was eventually added to cover a disturbing branch of reports which continued to grow, that are as far away from friendly aliens spreading messages of peace as you can get. SECTION BREAK – The Fourth Kind: They Take You Away Oh, this is the unfun one that scares people the most… This is a report of someone being taken. Frequently also being experimented on. It’s comforting to turn to debunking discourse about night terrors and repressed memories here, because the alternative is horrific. The events of alien abduction are a modern myth pretty much everyone is familiar with. Those who have accounts of being taken are utterly convinced they were stolen away and experimented on. Some stories of potential alien abduction end with people vanishing never to be seen again. November, 1953, radar operators identify an unusual object over Lake Superior. A F-89C Scorpion jet is deployed from the nearby Kinross Air Force Base with two aboard: pilot First Lieutenant Felix Moncla and Second Lieutenant Robert L. Wilson as radar operator. Ground control tracked the jet as it moved to intercept the unusual object. The two radar “blips” merged on the monitoring equipment, ground control operators assuming one had moved above the other, and the USAF craft went silent. A single object moved away from the location, resuming its previous course. The other had vanished. Moncla and Wilson were officially recorded as Presumed Dead and never heard from again. The events over Lake Superior occurred before mainstream stories of abductions began to pile up, the earliest substantial recorded claim being that of Antonio Vilas-Boas in Brazil 4 years later, and this event was considered be a part of the new UFO encounter category: A Close Encounter of the Fourth Kind. Vila-Boas was a farmer who claims to have been abducted while ploughing a field at night to avoid the heat, and reported a wild encounter that included breeding experiments with an attractive female alien. But it was the first majorly publicised encounter in the United States which has done a lot to set the pop culture tone for abductions. The story of Barney and Betty Hill. September 19th, 1961. The Hills were driving back home through rural New Hampshire late at night, isolated from any potential help. Betty spots a light in the sky, first assuming it was a falling star, except that it soon became clear the light was moving erratically. She insisted Barney stop so they can get a proper look using some binoculars from their luggage. Betty was enthusiastic to try and observe a flying saucer, but Barney was insistent it must be a commercial airliner. Only it couldn’t be a plane, not the way it was moving. Moving TOWARDS them. What they had been observing, appears to have spotted them back, and it was starting to come towards them. The couple returned to their car and drove toward the narrow Franconia Notch road over the mountains. The Hills reported that they slowed their car down to watch the UFO as it got even closer to them, a large silent illuminated object bouncing back and forth about the sky. There came a point where the craft descended to right in front of their car, causing Barney to brake to a full stop. He got out of the car and walked towards what he would later say reminded him of a huge pancake. He could see humanoid figures looking out of windows down at him, and he felt a compulsion wash over him to stay right where he was and just keep looking. He could feel that these beings were “somehow not human”, and ran back to the car in a rising panic. He tells Betty “They’re going to capture us” and drives under the hovering craft trying to get away as fast as he can. Only now, the craft follows directly above them. Betty rolls down the window to look up at the lights above them, then the couple begin to hear beeping or buzzing sounds that cause the car to vibrate as well as a tingling sensation to run over their bodies. Both agree this resulted in their minds becoming dulled. A second round of buzzing and beeping returns them to a regular state of consciousness. When they get home, a four hour drive had taken them seven hours. They had lost a chunk of time. Their clothes and personal belongings were slightly damaged in ways they couldn’t recall happening, their watches had stopped. They had an irrational disgust of their belongings and didn’t want to bring them right into the house with them. They had trauma they couldn’t understand. This resurfaced in dreams for Betty. Dreams of being taken aboard the strange machine, separated from each other, and experimented on. Their full story is well documented, and heavily debated. There are books and movies that attempt to unpack the whole thing one way or the other, mostly sensationalising the experience. There’s a lot to worry about with their CE4. Being singled out when there’s no help nearby, your observation of something strange drawing its attention to you, the helplessness… Believe it literally happened or not, the story itself is skincrawling, and Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind are NOT welcome ones. SECTION BREAK I still wouldn’t say aliens and UFO stories are my cup of tea, but I did have fun digging down into the CE stages. I wouldn’t rule out coming back to play in this part of the modern folklore sandbox if people would like to hear more. We haven’t even touched upon something like the stories of the Men in Black yet, for example, who hopefully won’t be coming knocking after we release this as stories about them are far less whimsical than the movies would suggest. I remain excited to see Nope and Jordan Peel’s interpretation of a Fourth Kind Close Encounter! I wonder if I can book tickets yet? LukeLore is a Ghost Story Guys production. 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