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It's Woodstock for the UFO crowd. That's what fans call the annual event just north of Palm Springs. I'm to give a keynote talk and workshop at a convention called Contact in the Desert. So, off we go to the Mojave in the summer heat.
For people interested in mysterious sightings, abductions, and paranormal investigations, the gathering is a homecoming. Thousands of people create a temporary city on hundreds of acres at the Joshua Tree Conference Center. New Age seekers pitch colorful tents next to truck drivers in old campers. This is a homespun event held together by the hopes and dreams of the people who gather.
Attendees come with big questions. How did we get here? What is life all about? They have made the trek to have their reality confirmed.
I'm here because of a television program called Ancient Aliens. I'm contributing producer of the documentary series, and a commentator on topics like early cultures, mythologies, and the psychological implications of sightings.
It has been awhile, but back in the day I certainly headed off to my share of spiritual retreats with great enthusiasm. As the UFO event convenes, the fervor is familiar. It feels a bit like being at an old time gospel meeting.
It's significant that the gathering happens in the desert. There is a long tradition of mystical seekers finding barren landscapes. In the early days of the church, monasteries and convents were established in harsh areas of Egypt. Cloistered hermits wanted to find solitude and deeper spiritual connections. Great contemplative writings have come from those who sought wisdom in the wasteland.
This time, the celestial theme is extraterrestrial visitation. The whole UFO movement is a very strong folk uprising. It has the power of a rebellion. These are straightforward people who are not going to accept what authorities say. They are convinced secrets are being kept. I, personally, have doubts about a vast government conspiracy withholding vital information from the public. For one thing, I just don't have that kind of deep respect for those in charge. It is hard for me to imagine our bumbling officials doing anything that well.
To indulge in a little word-play, I am probably the only alienist at the conference. (Alienist is a vintage term for psychologist). From my observations, the conference was not a gathering of people with mental disorders. There were a few lost souls out there, but no more than in any neighborhood. These are practical-minded folks who happen to believe there have been visitors from beyond our world.
The conference connects many seemingly unrelated themes. There are discussions of crop circles, paranormal activities, past life regression, and psychic healing. Connections are found, or imagined, between disparate mysteries.
Some would call all this a new religious movement. Not the enthusiasts themselves, who can feel discounted if anyone suggests this is a cult. They claim there is evidence. Alien visitations could be proven, if the scientists weren't so constrained by political correctness. There are overarching theories that provide answers to life's mysteries.
Being in such a gathering is a glimpse into the universal yearning for meaning. We can all learn something about our own longings by noticing what people find transcendent. Joseph Campbell advised his students to study other people's mythology, before trying to understand their own. Sometimes, we are too close to our belief systems to get a clear idea how they work and what they do for us. By looking at what other seekers find meaningful, we might see more clearly how our own beliefs function.
The UFO movement has all the symbolism of myth and ritual. One of the main features of mythology is that it is believed by some people, and not by others. My focus is not so much on the reported events as what the stories mean to the fans. UFO tales are mirrors in which we can glimpse the inner life.
The conference is a crash course in UFO lore. In the panel discussions, there seems to be relatively little interest in spacecraft. So-called nuts-and-bolts theories have lost some ground to other views. Some experiencers think they are connecting with inter-dimensional visitors. Other speakers suggest time travel might be involved, or a portal to a parallel reality. What is seen might not be touchable. Critics suggest the reports are fake, maybe hallucinations, or vivid lucid dreams, perhaps involving sleep paralysis. These dismissive notions offend those who take the accounts as factual.
Chief among the reports are abduction stories, about people disappearing for a while. The accounts remind me of tales from mythology and folklore. In American history there was the popular genre of memoirs about being kidnapped by Native Americans. People would vanish and come back with melodramatic tales of being with strange tribes. Before those adventures, there were legendary abductions in the Sahara, India and China. Usually, the stories were about exotic people in mysterious cultures.
Even earlier, there were accounts of fairies stealing children. The fairies may have represented life or death. They were ghostly, from the other world, beyond the veil. Maybe they couldn't have children, so they would take our little ones. In ancient lore, people were abductions by the gods. Some people visited with angels, or Hades would reach up and pull Persephone down into his realm. UFO kidnappings seem to be part of a long history of weird tales in which people would be spirited away. The disappeared sometimes come back with fabulous tales of dancing, strange rituals and other wonders.
With regard to UFO reports and other topics explored at the retreat, I want to divide the question before going any further. On the one hand, there are the stories of sightings and abductions. These accounts are the evidence. I don't want to discuss the specifics of that data here. I don't know much about astrophysics, and will leave that analysis to others.
My focus is on the psychological dimensions. Our reactions to otherworldly mysteries have a life of their own. Whatever the witnesses may have seen, UFO encounters change the lives of the experiencers. It may be the most meaningful thing that has happened in their lives. The reports also have implications for those who hear the stories. If Earth is being visited, our sense of consensual reality shifts.
Flying saucers, and other such wonders, hold transcendent projections. They represent a hopeful craving. It is significant that these stories refer to events in the sky. The new visitors from above don't arrive in chariots like angels, but they might still symbolize connection to a higher consciousness. In traditional language they are ambassadors from heaven. Tales of sightings excite people in the way a visitation from a God would have stirred our ancient ancestors.
Tales of alien visitation imply an imagined reconciliation of religion and science. UFO encounters are described real-life events, but the tales have the quality of science fiction stories.
In sci-fi there is a bridging of the solid facts of technology with the speculative dimensions of the imagination. A key aspect of any UFO report is the advanced knowledge that would be required to develop the means of transport. An event that is outside consensual reality, a visitation from beyond, comes by way of superior technology. For fans, UFO stories are factual history, for others, the tales could still be taken as inspiring fiction. Perhaps they really are part of the emerging mythology of our time.
As we head home from Joshua Tree, I am still remembering the evangelical retreats of my youth. There was a time when going to church camp stirred high expectations of inspiration and renewal. Energetic preaching bound us together. We were reinforced in our faith. Something like that happens for the devout UFO followers in these desert gatherings.
The word retreat has an interesting ambiguity. It's just getting away for some restoration of energy. And also implies defeat. Perhaps we hear the call to attend one of these events when we are feeling discouraged. Sometimes we need to withdraw from the battle, to regain our energies and reorganize our forces.
In a way, the setting of the event fit the themes. It was another world. Anne noticed all the desert flora and fauna. In the evening, the glorious sunset plays with the colors of the landscape. The black-tailed jackrabbits come out. The roadrunners scurry on their way. Tiny hopping wonders called kangaroo rats bounce along. The stars begin to come out with the possibility of visitation. We leave the parallel universe and head for Santa Barbara where there may be fewer sightings of UFOs, but the weather is likely to be cooler.