• Standing at Ground Zero for UFO Believers

    A Scientist Studies Our Need to Believe in Aliens

    “You need to wear the blindfold.”

    Tyler’s voice was calm but firm. His southern accent took a bit of the hard edge off the statement, but James and I got the message. It was time to put on our blindfolds. This was one of the conditions to which we had agreed. We were to wear a blindfold for the last 40 minutes of the car ride, so we wouldn’t be able to see where we were or how we arrived. I had come to call the destination, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “the sacred place.” It was not Area 51, I was told. But it was a place in New Mexico under a no-fly zone, and it was supposedly a location where one could find artifacts of an extraterrestrial aerial craft that had crashed in 1947. As a professor of religious studies, this was outside my usual research territory, but not by much. The study of religion can get pretty weird.

    I called this the sacred place because it marked the location where it is believed that nonhuman intelligence revealed itself to humans. In my field the word that describes this kind of event is hierophany. A hierophany is a manifestation of the sacred. It occurs when a nonhuman intelligent being descends from the sky to the ground or otherwise reveals itself. The burning bush that Moses witnessed on Mt. Sinai, as recorded in the Bible, is a classic example of a hierophany. Locations like Roswell, New Mexico, function as sacred places, or sites of hierophanies, to millions of people who believe in extraterrestrials. It is a destination that also happens to be teeming with kitschy shops where tourists and pilgrims can purchase UFO memorabilia. There is a museum that is dedicated to the topic of UFOs, restaurants serve UFO-themed food, and the town hosts an annual four-day UFO festival.

    A carnival-like atmosphere is common to many sacred pilgrimage sites. A similar atmosphere can be found in the town of Lourdes, France. In 1858, according to Catholics, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a young girl, Bernadette, and a spring of water miraculously flowed from the ground. Today millions of people journey to the spring at Lourdes to buy water, statues, and other sacred memorabilia. One can purchase Virgin Mary-themed food and drinks, as well as books and pamphlets describing the events of the miracle. Where hierophanies appear, consumerism often follows.

    To be clear, to suggest that the location to which we were headed in New Mexico functioned as the site of a hierophany is an interpretation. It is my interpretation. The site held no sacred value for me, although this has changed. My intention was to document how this site in New Mexico functioned as a sacred site for others, particularly the two scientists with whom I was traveling.

    My research partner was James Master, one of the world’s leading scientists and a professor at a major research university. For him, our destination was a place where a nonhuman aerial craft had potentially landed. If artifacts could be found, he believed he could show this had truly happened. Tyler, our host, shared his belief. Tyler believed that this was one of the most significant locations in the history of humanity, and he explained that only a handful of people had been there. I was more interested in observing how James and Tyler, two of the most intelligent and successful people I had ever met, understood the event and the artifacts than in whether the artifacts were, in fact, of nonhuman origin. At this point in the story, that was my position. For Tyler and James, this was a momentous occasion that was also, perhaps ironically, marked by the appearance of a giant, gleaming rainbow in the sky, as I pointed out to my distracted partners.

    “Wow!” Tyler said as he glimpsed the rainbow. He looked over at me suspiciously, as if I had somehow conjured it.

    James and I fitted the blindfolds over our eyes, an awkward moment for all three of us, or so I thought. Later I learned (because he showed me the pictures) that Tyler had photographed me and James in our blindfolds. He started the car, and we jolted forward. I was riding in the front passenger seat, and as Tyler drove we all rocked to and fro, back and forth, over what had to be a gravel road.

    We drove for 40 minutes and joked about various things, none of which had to do with the reason for our journey. I was nervous, mostly because I couldn’t see where I was going. But I was also nervous because I could feel the expectation in the air. James was dying to get his hands on any potential artifacts—the alleged pieces of crashed craft—to study them, and Tyler was almost giddy that he was bringing two people to the site who might help shed light on what he believed was advanced technology that could potentially help humans in significant ways, through either bio- or aerial technologies. I had made it clear that I wasn’t going there to ascertain the truth of the event. I was going there to document the belief in extraterrestrial intelligence and the alleged artifacts.

    Tyler had told James and me to wear sturdy leather boots to protect our legs from rattlesnakes. The weather would be extreme—the sun would be hot and we might get sunburned, yet the wind chill required us to wear winter jackets. When we arrived at our destination and took off the blindfolds, I looked around and laughed at our appearance. James and I looked ridiculous in puffy jackets, tall leather boots, and cowboy hats. Tyler, though, was dressed stylishly in a jean jacket and short boots. He explained that his body temperature was naturally very warm.

    After we had recovered from the trip and sipped some water, Tyler configured two metal detectors and showed us a map of where the craft had landed. He said that, when the crash occurred in 1947, the government had taken the craft, hidden it away in a secret place, and disguised the area with tin cans and debris to prevent others from finding any remaining artifacts. In fact, looking around, the area was covered over with tons of tin cans. The cans were rusty and most of them had disintegrated into a powdery rubble that resembled compost. He further explained that our metal detectors were special and had been configured to identify the artifacts. He paused and surveyed the area. It was a beautiful day with few clouds. The wind whistled past us, and all was silent except for its sound. We stood and looked around. There were tumbleweeds, rocks, and the rust-colored cans strewn as far as I could see. The landscape was eerie yet beautiful. I was drawn to one place in particular, as it looked familiar to me. It was a small mesa. Tyler noticed that I had looked in that direction several times.

    Tyler believed that this was one of the most significant locations in the history of humanity, and he explained that only a handful of people had been there.

    “Do you recognize that area?”

    “What?” I wasn’t sure where he was going with the question. He knew I’d never been there.

    “This scene was probably recreated in the first episode of the last season of The X-Files,” he said.

    James and I stood there looking at him, incredulous.

    “Yes,” he continued. “Someone from their production team had either been here or knew someone who had. It makes me wonder if they had an insider on their team.”

    What was already a weird occasion just got weirder. I let Tyler’s statement sink in slowly. He had just said that the supposed site of a real extraterrestrial craft crash landing, where I currently stood, was featured in the opening episode of the last season of The X-Files. I silently scoffed. His statement sounded more ridiculous than James and I looked at that moment. I looked at the mesa again. It did look like the scene from the television show.

    It took a moment as my thoughts sped through several different steps and scenarios in an attempt to process Tyler’s statement. It was data, and I felt that I shouldn’t reject it outright. It was then that I felt the click of realization. This was not so surprising after all. Of course this place was mythologized in one of the most popular television shows in history. Of course it would be taken up, interpreted, and spun, and then projected to millions, perhaps even billions, of people through the various screens of television, film, computer, and phone. It was only now that I felt the momentousness of the occasion. My belief in the objective truth of this site didn’t matter. It had already become true for millions of people, through media. Tyler and James were right. This place was a big deal. I was standing on ground zero of the new religion.


    I’d put off meeting Tyler even though acquaintances had told me that he wanted to meet me. He was what I call a “meta-experiencer.” When I started my research in January 2012, I thought that the people I would interview and learn about would be experiencers, people who believed they either saw unidentified aerial phenomena or had contact, in some way, with their inhabitants. I quickly learned that experiencers attracted people other than just those like me who were interested in learning about their experiences and beliefs. They also attracted scientists. The scientists were interested in what the experiencers saw and how they saw it, and often applied this information to their own work. I coined the term “meta-experiencers” to describe this group of scientists. I cautiously observed them, noting that most were reticent to admit they believed in the reality of UFOs, but they readily scooped data from the primary experiencers. Tyler was one such person, an employee in the space industry.

    I was suspicious of Tyler because he was different from most of the other meta-experiencers. For one thing, he was very wealthy. I’d heard that he traveled in a private jet. He drove an expensive sports car. He was rumored to be an MMA, or mixed martial arts, fighter, and to have competed in several publicized fights. Yet it wasn’t his wealth or his hobbies that caused me to be suspicious. It was his affiliations. There were other rumors that he had worked for several government agencies. I avoided him because of these rumors. I knew from previous scholars’ work that when one scratched the surface of the topic of UFO events, eventually one would find that governments were also interested in the topic, and one might cross paths with agents. The thought of government agents wanting to meet me was disturbing, mostly because of what I’d seen on television, which, granted, was based on stereotypes. I was happy, however, to carry on a correspondence over email, but even that was different from the typical email correspondence.

    My first communication from Tyler that was not part of an email thread directed to several recipients was a text message. It was the longest text message I had ever received, full of information about how he came to study the phenomenon. He sent videos of where he worked in New Mexico, Florida, and other places. He also sent videos of his conversations with friends. These were very odd. His friends never looked at the camera, and they spoke as if they were unaware that they were being filmed. I quickly surmised that, in fact, they did not know. Tyler was outfitted with various types of cameras hidden in his clothes, disguised, and strategically placed on his body, and was recording everything. I knew that if and when I finally did meet him, he would be videotaping me too. That, among other things, was a deterrent.

    Yet, Tyler’s personal history was compelling. Through our correspondence I learned that since the age of 18 he had worked for the U.S. space program, first as an intern and then as an engineer for the space shuttle program. He worked on almost every space shuttle that was ever launched, and he spoke about each as if it were a living thing. He described how each shuttle had its own personality, its own noises and sounds. Tyler’s passion was launching rockets and shuttles and for anything that had to do with space exploration. He sent me videos of his conversations with several astronauts, just casual conversations.

    I wondered how they would feel knowing that I, a stranger to them, was watching them have lunch with their friend Tyler while I was sitting in my office at work. I found it amusing, and fascinating. Tyler’s circle of colleagues consisted of generals, scientists, and astronauts. He had another set of colleagues—surgeons and venture capitalists—and he began to share more of his life in this sector. I was confused by his breadth of knowledge and skills; on the one hand, he was an aeronautical engineer, and on the other hand, he was a biomedical entrepreneur. He was a wealthy rocket scientist. It all just didn’t seem to add up. One day I asked him to explain the connections between his diverse fields of expertise.

    Through a combination of videos, text messages, and emails, Tyler explained that part of his mission was to translate the information he learned from space exploration into biomedical technologies. One video featured the CEO of one of Tyler’s companies in Tampa praising him. In one scene, the CEO stood in front of a promotional video for a biomedical project. The video featured a photo of Tyler in a blue flight uniform, wearing aviator sunglasses, posed in front of a giant rocket. Tyler worked with venture capitalists and with surgeons and medical researchers to implement his visions. He explained that he owns more than forty patents, and that he mostly works from home, on his deck, in the sun.

    “I get paid to think. And to match up experts who can implement my vision.”

    I asked him why he was interested in carrying on a correspondence with me, a scholar of religion. He said, “I have mentors in the space program. One of them, who is now retired, explained that the next discovery in my field is going to come from your field. I am at the limit of understanding what I can from a materialist perspective. My mentor explained that mysticism, religion, and consciousness is where I need to go to learn what’s next. That the mind-machine interface is the next frontier.”

    Tyler’s career had been going full speed ahead until the death of one of his mentors and friends, the brilliant astronaut Judith Resnik, who was killed when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. He recalled this disaster and its effect on him in a video he sent to me while he was on business in Cape Canaveral. In the video, he was standing on concrete slabs at the Air Force base. He was there to pay his respects to the Challenger’s crew, and to his friend Judy.

    “I am at the limit of understanding what I can from a materialist perspective. My mentor explained that mysticism, religion, and consciousness is where I need to go to learn what’s next. That the mind-machine interface is the next frontier.”

    “This is the burial ground of the Challenger. Pretty sad, huh? The shuttle is buried here, in chunks of concrete.”

    I hadn’t known that this was the ultimate destination of the Challenger. Tyler went on to explain more about that day.

    “Her last hug showed me that on some level she must have known. Anyway, for us on the ground, we were looking up as it launched. We were all excited as this mission had received so much publicity, and the president was watching it too. On that day, we all huddled in a group and stared at the capsule as she left Earth. She soared higher and higher, and we squinted to keep her in focus. Then, well . . . yeah. We saw the explosion. I instantly felt a shock of pain in my stomach. I knew immediately what happened. Everyone else was in denial. They refused to see it. I don’t blame them. Those were our friends. I saw the sparks and the debris start to fall. I could feel my heart and my spirit—they just died. No feeling left, just a gaping hole. I left the group and went down and looked out at the ocean. My spirit and soul called out to my friend Judy. ‘I’m sorry.’ That is what I wanted to say to her. I watched the wisps of debris floating into the ocean, and I knew I was never going to be the same.”

    Tyler’s voice, now strained and broken, trailed off in the video, but he was still filming. I could still see the concrete chunks. I watched the video in silence. Tyler was still recording, but he couldn’t speak. I sat and watched quietly. I can still picture myself, sitting in my office chair, watching. I will not forget that day. Until then, I had been mostly amused by Tyler. This video put an end to that feeling. His sad story revealed itself to me, at that moment, in its greatness, its largeness. Tyler’s story was bigger than Tyler. It was also part of American history. Yet, Tyler’s part in this history would never be known. Was Tyler obsessed with recording videos because his story was erased, and had to be erased? I didn’t know. Probably. The video marked a turning point in my estimation of who Tyler was and what he had contributed, and was contributing, to a history that, ironically, was unknown.

    Later he spoke to me about the aftermath of the Challenger disaster.

    “Like a lot of astronauts and people in the program, I dedicated my life to the program and its success. That means that I didn’t have a personal life. It took its toll. Right after the Challenger accident my wife wanted a divorce. That, and the loss of my friend Judy, put me over the edge. I developed heart palpitations that landed me in the hospital for a few days, but things all went better with some medication that I took for a few months . . . but it was a rough time. I was very depressed and struggling through life and had no idea of anything about the phenomenon. In fact, I was a pure skeptic and didn’t believe in anything in that realm.”


    From American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology by D. W. Pasulka. Copyright © 2019 by D. W. Pasulka and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

    D.W. Pasulka
    D.W. Pasulka
    D.W. Pasulka is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion. She is the author and co-editor of numerous books and essays, the most recent of which are Believing in Bits: New Media and the Supernatural, co-edited with Simone Natalie and forthcoming from Oxford University Press, and Posthumanism: the Future of Homo Sapiens, co-edited with Michael Bess (2018).

    More Story
    Don't You Dare Call Me a Beatnik Compared with the shack in Beverly Glen, our residence in San Francisco, at 707 Scott Street, appeared to be a mansion....
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.