Experience Anomalies

By Jerome Clark

[Note: This is an edited entry from the third edition of Jerome Clark’s The UFO Encyclopedia: The Phenomenon from the Beginning (Omnigraphics, 2018), reprinted with permission.]

Cover of The UFO Encyclopedia: The Phenomenon from the Beginning, by Jerome Clark (Omnigraphics, 2018)

Human beings in all times and places have reported extraordinary phenomena, typically labeled (either descriptively or dismissively) as “supernatural.” Though reports of UFO-like experiences go back at least several centuries, claimed encounters with supernatural entities seem intrinsic to human life and history. They are not unique to the pre-Enlightenment past; they continue to the present and will surely be noted in experience and testimony in the future. While such narratives are often the butt of ridicule and treated by many as a social taboo, they are remarkable persistent.

What do they have to do with UFOs? This question entered ufologists’ discussion in the late 1960s. It saw the first serious book-length treatment in Jacques Vallée’s Passport to Magonia (1969), which argues that, far from being extraterrestrial spacecraft, UFOs are but the contemporary manifestation of a venerable tradition of otherworldly beings variously defined, prominently in worldwide lore concerning fairies and related entities. Drawing on the classic folklore scholarship of the Rev. Robert Kirk, Edwin S. Hartland, and W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Vallée saw parallels between people’s stories of their interactions with fairies—such testimony exists in abundance in allegedly first-hand accounts—and others’ alleged encounters with UFO-related humanoids. Vallée believes these to be real experiences, only in misleading guises. The phenomena shape themselves to a culture’s experience of the Otherworld—fairies and gods in some societies, sophisticated technological devices and space-suited aliens in others. Vallée’s insistence that ufology’s till-then-popular extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) had now been shown to be naïve and provincial sparked decades of debate within the field, especially after the arrival of the flamboyant author and polemicist John A. Keel whose prolific contributions, first in England’s Flying Saucer Review, then in much-read books such as The Mothman Prophecies (1975), took the idea in a darker direction. To Keel, supernatural intelligences, among them those thought to be UFO occupants, are in fact demonic, shape-shifting “ultraterrestrials” who share the earth with us but on a slightly different level of the etheric realm. The ultraterrestrials manipulate and terrorize human beings. Keel was even more hostile to the ETH and its advocates than Vallée.

After being driven into retreat in the 1970s and much of the 1980s, the ETH underwent something of a revival as a number of ufologists paid renewed attention to hard-evidence cases and suggested that these kinds of cases, responsible for ufology’s rise in the first place, were more plausibly assigned to technological causes than to paranormal ones. Meantime, for some the abduction phenomenon and crash/retrieval allegations such as the Roswell incident seemed to imply the activities of extrasolar intelligences.

Unexplained or Inexplicable?

In a 2008 lecture in Boulder, Colorado, to the Society for Scientific Exploration, on the occasion of my having received the Tim Dinsdale Award for scholarship in anomalies studies, I wondered if the debate arises out of a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues in question. In later books, essays, and reviews, I elaborated on what I believe to be the confusions engendered by the failure to discern the difference between “event anomalies,” as I call them, and “experience anomalies.”

In my view, the former are merely unexplained, while the latter are effectively inexplicable. Event anomalies, while surprising and unusual, demand concentrated scientific focus to be properly understood and documented. They can be incorporated into either current knowledge or future knowledge that grows organically from it. In that sense the ETH, whatever its ultimate resolution, is consistent with perfectly respectable mainstream astronomical consensus concerning the likelihood that the Milky Way hosts billions of earthlike planets, a great many of which may harbor intelligent life. In other words, the ETH is a researchable question, providing a body of evidence (in the form of physical traces, instrumented trackings, multiple and independent witnesses) whose salience can be determined in laboratories, in the field, and by authorities trained in the relevant disciplines.

There is reason to conclude that UFOs as they have been conceived since 1947 are an objective phenomenon perceived apart from relatively recent concepts of flying saucers. For example, this report, from an upstate New York newspaper (Gouverneur Free Press, December 7, 1887), by a man who saw something that could have been reported in our own time:

“Perhaps I might interest some of your readers, if I should tell them of a strange phenomenon I saw at sunset Oct. 24th. I was sitting at a window, looking towards the east, watching the clouds as they rolled up from the west, giving us a clear sunset. At the south the forest sparkled and glistened, as if clad in what looked to me like sparkling silver; I began to look around for the cause; and coming from the north, was—what? I can only describe it like this: About midway between the heavens and earth, and coming at a rapid rate, was what looked like round silver balls, reminding me of silver coin of all denominations, bright and sparkling, tumbling and rushing through the air going towards the east, and finally disappearing beyond the lower stratus of clouds. Two winds were prevailing at the time. The upper stratus of clouds going towards the east, the lower towards the west, and this bushel of sparkling balls, below the lower clouds, towards the east also. This grand phenomenon was visible about 4 minutes, and was seen by several persons here in town. Can any one tell me from my description, what it was, and the cause of it? The day had been dark and gloomy. G.”

What the correspondent describes is what might be called the core UFO phenomenon, recorded in countless sighting reports worldwide: structured, apparently metallic, able to move rapidly and perform remarkable maneuvers. In later decades such phenomena would manifest in ground traces, radar/visuals, vehicle stoppages, and other indications of an extraordinary technology.

Within two decades after the seminal Kenneth Arnold sighting in June 1947, however, some UFO reports had evolved into claims scarcely recognizable to first-generation ufologists. While persons alleging fantastic personal experiences often seemed no less sane and sincere than other witnesses, their stories appeared to call the ETH into question while offering little in the way of validation except vivid testimony. Yet no evidence that mental illness or other psychological abnormality underlies such experiences has been convincingly demonstrated.

I contend that “anomalies of the deepest strangeness” force us to reject binary (either–or) thinking and to embrace the notion of liminality, in which it is possible to enter a realm “between the daylight of science and reason and the dark night of dreams and superstition.” An encounter with an anomaly does not mean that the “anomaly lives on in the world after it has briefly occupied your vision and scared the hell out of you. We may experience unbelievable things, but paradoxically, all that may signify is that they can be experienced.” Such experiences are to be found in perception, memory, testimony, more rarely in inconclusive alleged physical evidence. What separates experience anomalies from dreams and hallucinations as ordinarily understood is that they are often shared by more than a single person at a time.

In their way of transcending boundaries so complacently presumed to exist that we may never have given them thought, extraordinary phenomena of a wide range of characteristics (fairies, monsters, divine messengers, abducting aliens) are both “here” and “there,” both imagined and real, false and true. Someone’s hoax or innocent fiction can be someone else’s vivid encounter, so intense that it is indistinguishable from something in event-level reality. The tendency of witnesses, sympathetic investigators, and skeptical critics to take the report at its most literal has driven centuries of debate premised on two irreconcilable extremes of interpretation: (1) extraordinary entities live in the world and are observable and (2) they don’t and aren’t.

Experience anomalies exist, perhaps, in a kind of parasitic relationship with unusual known phenomena as well as strange, generally rejected anomalies such as UFOs. Sociologist James McClenon, for example, wrote in his 1984 book Deviant Science: The Case of Parapsychology: “An effect that occurred during an electrical storm would be termed ‘ball lightning.’ Other cases with the exact same appearance but occurring in other circumstances would be called UFOs, psychic lights, or will-o’-the-wisps.”

Examining a series of related stories from Texas during the 1897 wave of airship sightings, I noted the confusing nexus of hoaxes and sincere but no less fantastic testimony. Experience anomalies are indifferent to our narrow notion of truth narratives. They support false ones just as readily. One person’s lie or idle speculation can be another’s lived reality, albeit a temporary and illusory one.”

As early as 1969 Vallée recognized a connection between the experience of fairies and the experience of UFO occupants. The experiences, however, are not identical. Each category has its distinct characteristics. At the same time each occupies a cultural space in which otherworldly entities can be seen, encountered, or interacted with. To those who deem the notion of otherworldly beings objectionable (except as hypothetical life forms, as in the speculations of astrobiologists who place them in solar systems too distant from the earth for human beings to have to worry about being too close to them), such beings provide fodder for folklorists and ridicule for those foolish souls who think they are something beyond that.

The first great scholar of Scottish fairy traditions, the Rev. Robert Kirk (1644–1692), drew on the testimony of his parishioners and other local people in his book The Secret Commonwealth. He believed the fairy realm to be real and mostly invisible—we would call it a parallel universe—and that it overlies the conventional landscape. It can be entered or exited from caves, hills, mountains, and other natural features in which fairies conduct their affairs. When human beings encounter them, it is usually in the twilight or at dawn—perfect metaphors, one might note, of liminal (threshold) space.

Antiquarians, later called folklorists, first assumed fairy beliefs were relics of a disappearing (or disappeared) superstitious past but would learn not only that the tradition hung on tenaciously but that direct experience of it sustained that tradition. Only Kirk and, in the early 20th century, Walter Evans-Wentz (1878–1965) would own up to a conviction that fairies actually exist in some form. Most collectors of fairytales (virtually synonymous with fantasy or mendacity) treated first-person testimony with the same skeptical distance as the hoary legends they recorded. They simply wrote it down and let it go, as if it were too transparently fanciful to merit discussion or explanation.

In the current century, amid a revival of scholarly interest in fairylore, commentators have adopted something of a more open-ended or ironic view: “It should be possible to believe one’s informants without believing their explanations,” in one formulation by Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan in Scottish Fairy Belief (2001). In another by Pollyanna Jones in Magical Folk (2018): “Fairies may or may not dwell in Worcestershire, but there is no question that people still see them.” Once accepted literally or dismissed entirely, fairy encounters have now become experience anomalies.

As I pointed out in my 2018 paper: “Nothing in current knowledge explains how this happens. I simply point to a process, a way of grasping how fantastic things at once happen and do not. . . . Things that can’t be can be if we don’t insist on them as events. They’re pseudo-events, the fantastically imagined briefly taking residence among us before fading away to reshape itself elsewhere in forms appropriate to time, place, culture.”