The Time When I Started Believing in UFOs: Reflections on Reading Intimate Alien by David Halperin


I’m a serious scholar of church and state. I’m in the middle of writing my doctoral dissertation on the topic of how evangelical Christian beliefs influence attitudes about climate change and climate policy. The investigation in my dissertation derives from my deep interest in the relationships between religious beliefs (or, more broadly, metaphysics) and political philosophy and theory.

I’m also fascinated by and deeply interested in the UFO phenomena and the various bodies of literature related to and derivative of that phenomena.

For a long time, it would’ve been assumed that these two interests–one a respectable academic pursuit with deep roots in the Western tradition, the other a pseudoscientific distraction attractive to yokels and suckers–are incompatible. When I’ve tried to push back against this common but false assumption, I’ve often been met with a laughed, “You’re weird and that’s the reason I like you.” Or some variation of something similar. Thankfully, David J. Halperin, an emeritus religious studies professor from UNC-Chapel Hill, has published Intimate Alien with an academic press. To all my detractors, I say: Serious scholars can be UFO aficionados, I have proof! That proof is someone other than me.

Halperin, of course, is not the first serious academic to write seriously about UFOs. The best known such scientist is Jacques Vallée, who does not go unnoticed in Intimate Alien. What makes Halperin’s work distinguishable from other scholarly treatments of the subject of UFOs is his very personal, intimate even, treatment of the subject. He begins the book by recalling his own childhood fascination with flying saucers, his intense dedication as a teenage UFOlogist, and his leadership in the New Jersey Association on Aerial Phenomena (NJAAP), to include his brief role as publisher of the NJAAP Bulletin. All of this came to a fairly sudden end when Halperin’s mother died after battling a nearly life-long struggle with illness. Using insights from Jungian psychology, as well as his own expertise as a scholar of religion, Halperin connects his experiences as a young UFO believer to those of being a young boy watching his mother die.

This framing of the UFO phenomena, as a manifestation of modern myth-making brought on, variously, by questions of death and existential angst in a modern age where humans have invented technology capable of destroying its creators, is what forms the backbone of Halperin’s analysis. It also makes the book as much a work of memoir as it is a work of cultural history and analysis. It is this mixture of memoir and analysis that, I think, makes the book resonate with me so much on a personal level.

Like Halperin, I discovered the UFO phenomena at a particularly difficult point in my life, when I was forced to deal with several anxieties related to my own place and purpose in this world. Also like Halperin, these anxieties involved issues related to family and loss. Unlike Halperin, my issues with loss did not involve death–at least not in the biological sense–but what, at the time, seemed like the inevitable death of my family through divorce.

I stumbled across the UFO topic, not so much by accident, but by a strange sequence of events. Because my wife and I were separated and I, through no choice of my own, was living by myself in a small, one-bedroom apartment with my children with me on a set schedule, I was often bored, lonely, and sad. I filled my downtime as best I could: I went to the gym, I read voraciously, and I wrote for hours each day. But there still remained a need to get outside, both my apartment and my own head. The Thursday before Labor Day weekend, 2012, I saw–randomly–a Facebook post advertising the Exeter UFO Festival, which commemorates the abduction experience of Barney and Betty Hill (which Halperin covers in Intimate Alien).

On what seemed like a whim, I called in sick to work that Saturday and went to the festival. I say, “on what seemed like a whim,” because that’s how I remember it, but I still have my journals from that time. I have not read them in many years, but after reading Intimate Alien and in reflecting before writing this, I pulled out the journal that I took to Exeter. The day I was at the festival was September 1, 2012. What caught my eye in these journals was mentions of ETs and UFOs prior to that day. It wasn’t obsessive or constant, but enough to be noticeable.

The night before I went to the Exeter UFO Festival, I wrote two sci-fi scenes in my journal. The first was from what appears to be a story where Florida (my home state) declared itself an independent republic after some sort of world government abolished all national identity. Florida was helped by a private company headed by an entrepreneurial genius who mined the moon. Florida and the moon became the repositories of culture. The second scene tells of a civilization on a distant planet that, for unexplained reasons, lost all of its history and had to invent new language and mythology to explain its existence and culture.

Adopting Halperin’s psychoanalytic method, I can see in these brief pieces of fiction someone struggling with issues of identity and purpose. In the remainder of that night’s writing, I reflect on what it would be like to write about UFOs and other weird phenomena as a sort of journalist, documenting what the elite and powerful know and try to hide from the public. I wrote about these phenomena’s relation to the American space program (I was born just a few miles from the Kennedy Space Center). Was I searching for some clue to who I was by looking at where I’d been?

That night, I also wrote this:

This weekend, there’s a festival in New Hampshire–not far from where I live now–that celebrates the abduction of someone by a UFO, how macabre. Why should that be a cause for celebration?

Those poor people! Obviously, the UFOs were interested in them. I wonder why?

Are they interested in me?

Journal Entry, August 30, 2012

After a couple more paragraphs, the writing for August 30, 2012 ends. The next thing I wrote, under the heading “9/1/12” is this:

I’m in Exeter, NH, and I’ve walked in on the tail end of a lecture on some type of U.F.O lecture [sic]. A powerpoint with a crop formation photo is up on the screen–the speaker is English–and a question just prompted the idea that the human race is a science project, “Let’s give them an ‘A’”…applause.

Journal Entry, September 1, 2012

A few paragraphs down, after notes about various lectures:

Even if all of this stuff is bunk, it’s very cool and good–Very 1st Amendment.

Journal Entry, September 1, 2012

A few other snippets:

There are ETs on Earth, now!

Call me a snob, or a sucker, but when someone with a PhD after their name takes these things seriously, I’m tempted to take it seriously, too.

Colonel Sanders just sat next to me. He’s wearing khaki shorts, button down shirt, and deck shoes with ankle socks.

I’ll say this: I’m surprised at the mix of people who come to this sort of thing. Most of the young people (35 and younger) are obviously geek types, many of the middle-agers are either yokels or hippies, and the senior crowd cannot be stereotyped–they may be here out of boredom.

Samples from Journal Entry, September 1, 2012

The one snippet that captures my main takeaway from the day is this:

Just finished a lecture that was focused on government secrecy and cover up. Very compelling. Insofar as the UFO question highlights the closed, undemocratic nature of the modern American government, I like it. Of course the government knows things about all of this that it’s not sharing with voters and taxpayers.

Journal Entry, September 1, 2012

Finally, the next day, I wrote this:

The government secrecy aspect of UFO research is very interesting, of course, because of my interest in politics. But I’m also very interested in the religious implications. What if extra-terrestrials are real? What does that mean for religion? Specifically, what does that mean for Christian theology?

Journal Entry, September 2, 2012

When people ask me how I came to study and write about the things I do, they find it humorous that my answer is: “Well, it all started with a UFO convention in New Hampshire.” Of course, it didn’t actually start there. It started with a precocious kid who found books to be–more often than not–better company than most people, whose parents didn’t exactly know what to do with a kid that wasn’t exactly like all the other kids. This was carried forward into the period when I was separated from my wife, worried that I wasn’t like all the other men whose idea of a good time was a football game and a beer, and that this made me somehow undesirable.

In the end, I think Halperin’s analysis is correct in that the UFO mythology allows us to inject into it our deepest anxieties and insecurities. For him, it was the death of his mother. For Barney and Betty Hill, it was the trauma and injustice of racism. For those connected to the Roswell story, it was the dangers of the Cold War and nuclear armament. For me, it was the insecurity of being my authentic self, making those closest to me alien with undecipherable motives or feelings.

Thankfully, I’ve moved beyond this aspect of my relationship with UFOs. My wife and I successfully kept our family together. I’ve worked out what I believe to be a philosophically rigorous understanding of Christianity. And, I’m content to pursue my passions in terms of scholarship and writing without fear of how anyone else feels about it. But that does not end my relationship with the UFO question. It still remains that, for me, one of the most important aspects, really the most important aspect of the UFO phenomena is the secrecy. And, by extension, and just as important, are the ways that elite elements try to use the UFO question to manipulate people’s beliefs.

On July 16, 2012, nearly two months before going to the Exeter UFO Festival, I wrote in my journal as part of a writing-prompt exercise. The questions and responses are below:

Q: What are you passionate about?

A: “Liberty in a philosophical sense. It’s not just about the national anthem, voting booths, and veterans. Really, it’s not about any of those things at all. It’s about internal liberty–true self actualization–the feeling, knowledge that I am a free agent in a world that demands conformity.”

Q: What gives you energy and motivates you?

A: “I am most driven to write when I see others’ liberty taken or impeded. A lot of it has to do with government. A local farmer who can’t sell his produce at an open market due to the F.D.A. A teenager who can’t read a great book because it’s been banned. A parent who can’t educate or teach their children like they want because of government coercion.”

Q: Do you have a personal cause or agenda that defines you?

A: “Liberty, anarchism, free thought, and free speech. People should think more and understand civilization.”

Excerpt from Journal Entry, July 16, 2012

Like my observations on the Exeter UFO Festival, I hadn’t read these words in many years. These ones, perhaps, not since I wrote them over ten years ago. What strikes me now is how consistent my past self is with my present self. If you ask me today what passion or concern drives my research and writing, it is still the cause of liberty, especially intellectual liberty. And this cause is inextricably tied to issues of religion, philosophy, and metaphysics, as is the issue of UFOs.

In the mid-twentieth century, when David Halperin first became interested in UFOs, people were discouraged from pursuing questions related to the phenomena. My gut instinct is that this was the case largely because, particularly at the beginning of the Cold War, the U.S. government didn’t want people asking certain questions, especially questions that might expose the degree to which secretive agencies had come to influence and direct government operations, both domestically and internationally. This is especially true given the kinds of networks and tactics with which these agencies operated–as detailed in works such as Whitney Webb’s.

Today, however, I think that an entirely different scenario exists. Rather than discourage investigation into UFOs, my gut instinct is that these same shadowy networks and the agencies they encompass are attempting to use the UFO phenomena to propagandize the public. For example, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Defense admitted that the UFO phenomena is real and that, despite claims to the contrary, it had been studying UFOs all along. It’s worth asking the questions: Why? and Why now?

One possible answer may be found in another book that I happened upon, right next to Intimate Alien, during my sauntering, undirected visit to the bookstore. That book is Sekret Machines: Gods, the first volume in Tom DeLonge’s Gods, Man & War. I have not yet read it, although I have listened to quite a bit of it via Scribd audiobooks. I am not at this point prepared to offer an analysis, but it is clear to me that this book, which DeLonge claims is informed by CIA, DOD, and political insiders, presents an explicitly religious interpretation of the UFO phenomena that is probably best described as a sophisticated rendering of Ancient Aliens.

The question raised in that case is: Why would the U.S. government, or more specifically, intelligence agencies prone to propagandizing the American public, want to push a particularly religious interpretation of the UFO phenomena?

There is one other application of Halperin’s approach that I think might be appropriate, at least in my case. That application is to see the UFOs (or, if you like, the aliens) as archetypal representations of government and its elite. In keeping with a particular Ancient Aliens spin consistent with DeLonge’s claims, among others, that propose the “slave species of the gods” narrative, this application puts the general population in a position of slavery relative to an alien governing elite that looks down on the average person and their quotidian concerns in such a way as to make it seem like they’re from another planet. Like the UFOs and their occupants, these elite get just close enough to keep the audience interested and just hopeful enough to believe that their visitations are well-intentioned, but shrouded in enough mystery that nobody is ever quite sure what’s really going on. But like the fantastic stories told by “ancient astronaut theorists” like Zecharia Sitchin and his modern disciple, Michael Tellinger, they aren’t really the gods they pretend to be or that everyone seems to believe. Instead, they’re just mortals in possession of technology and techniques that allow them to hold power over “lesser mortals” and to extract from those mortals the faith and the resources to continue their existence.

In some sense, Halperin suggests–although he does not outright say it–that the UFOs are real because people believe they’re real. The same thing could be said about the corrupt elite class. How is it that our institutions and the people who run them could be as corrupt and criminal as Whitney Webb describes? How could the revelations of the Twitter Files, released over the last few weeks, be true if all the other things we believe are also true: that things like the freedoms of speech, press, and religion matter and are inviolable? Part of the problem is the way we’ve allowed ourselves to merge institutional identities with the people inside the institutions. We’ve mythologized things enough, and then failed to live and think and act and teach consistently with that mythology that we–collectively–no longer understand the mythological language we invented to describe what used to be our most important fundamental beliefs. And so, as Halperin suggests, the phenomena and story shifts and adapts.

I think we’re living in a nation–and perhaps a planet–much like the one I wrote about in that brief sci-fi scene ten years ago. I don’t know or don’t remember what prompted that scene or what I was trying to say. But today, on the cusp of the New Year–2023–I’m saying that we’ve forgotten or discarded our myths, our ideas, and the justifications for our way of life. This is dangerous ground because it exposes those without a firm grounding to have new myths, new ideas, and new ways of life dictated to them. In the flying saucer mythos, this is the equivalent to the aliens landing on the White House lawn to announce that they’re our creators–our gods–that there really is no God and no meaning to our lives beyond our value to them–the “gods.”

On so many levels, I feel like the last two-plus years have been precisely that, except it isn’t flying saucers and extraterrestrials but bureaucrats and technocrats and criminals in public office.

“I lied to you about the origins of COVID, because I could.”

“I shut down your business, your school, your life, because I could.”

“I manipulated the information you had access to, lest you discover my lies, because I could.”

“I manipulated elections and public opinion, because I could.”

“I’m pushing economic and environmental policies that will harm you and your family, because I can.”

And why can they? Why do they?

Because people keep playing along–keep seeing only what they’re supposed to see. Like the English presenter at that first UFO lecture in Exeter, all those years ago, they’re pleased to know that they’re just parts of someone else’s experiment and, with applause, determine to give the experimenters an ‘A’.

I’m not having it.

It’s time to make the UFOs land, force its occupants out, and get to the bottom of what’s really going on. The people flying the ship are not skilled pilots. They are not better than you or me. They are not superior in any way–least of all ethically. They’re charlatans–no better than the most skilled UFO hoaxer. It’s time to yank them out of the clouds and bring them firmly back to earth.

References

DeLonge, Tom and Peter Levenda. 2016. Sekret Machines: Gods. Gods, Man & War, Volume I. Encinitas, CA: To The Stars.

Halperin, David J. 2020. Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

One response to “The Time When I Started Believing in UFOs: Reflections on Reading Intimate Alien by David Halperin”

  1. […] My reading of this book was prompted, in part, by my reflecting on what little I knew of it in the previous post. But going deeper, once I discovered the layers of connections between To The Stars and American […]

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