I am completely in favor of federal spending on UFO research, an outlay whose existence was revealed to surprisingly little paranoid excitement by The New York Times earlier this month. It is a sign of civilizational health to devote excess dollars to the scientific fringe, and to hope that bizarre secrets still await discovery even in our satellite-surveilled world. So good for Harry Reid and his little-green-men-obsessed billionaire pal for keeping the flame of weird curiosity alive.
But I also doubt that such research will ever prove that the strange lights and vessels filmed by human pilots actually belong to a starfaring species that’s come to our planet to study, experiment and eventually offer us a hand up or else ruthlessly invade. Other sapient species may indeed be out there, but the most parsimonious explanation for all the UFO encounters since Roswell is not that our nuclear testing or space program finally inspired the galaxy to come see what humanity is all about.
Rather, it’s that our alien encounters, whether real or imaginary, are the same kind of thing as the fairy encounters of the human past — part of an enduring phenomenon whose interpretations shift but whose essentials are consistent, featuring the same abductions and flying crafts and lights and tricks with crops and animals and time and space, the same shape-shifting humanoids and sexual experiments and dangerous gifts and mysterious intentions.
This was the argument of Jacques Vallée, a French-born scientist and a wonderful character in the annals of ufology, who wrote a wild book in the heady year of 1969 called “Passport to Magonia: From Folklore to Flying Saucers,” which The Times’ UFO-spending scoop gave me an excuse to read.
Vallée’s conclusion is basically the reverse of Erich von Däniken’s thesis in “Chariots of the Gods,” published to better sales the prior year. Where von Däniken argued that old myths and biblical tales alike contain evidence of ancient alien visitations (an idea picked up, most recently, by Ridley Scott’s “Alien” prequels), Vallée suggested that contemporary UFO narratives are of piece with stories about Northern European fairies and their worldwide kith and kin — and that it’s more reasonable to think that we’re reading our Space Age preoccupations into a persistent phenomenon that might be much weirder than a simple visitation from the stars.
This quasi-magical thesis made Vallée, as he put it, a “heretic among heretics” — the UFO believer who rejected the UFO community’s hope that their efforts could one day be incorporated into the normal sciences and lead us to some Spielbergian first contact. But his arguments for the basic continuity between folklore and flying saucers are quite compelling, and I suspect he’s correct about the commonality of these experiences …
… Which is not, of course, to say that they reflect the genuine existence of some fifth-dimensional fairyland, from whence morally ambiguous beings emerge to play tricks upon our race. Certainly for most sensible secular scientific-minded people, to say that our era’s close encounters are of the same type as encounters with the unseelie court of faerie is to say that they are all equally imaginary, proceeding from internalized fancies and hallucinatory substances and late-night wrong turns, plus some common evolved subconscious that fears shape-shifting tricksters in modern Nevada no less than in the mists around Ben Bulben.
But if this rationalist assumption seems natural these days, it is not necessarily permanent. The educated class of Victorian England went wild for fairies and spirits in the heyday of scientistic optimism, and both Vallée and von Däniken offered up their books amid the Age of Aquarius’ similar craze. (Just read Sally Quinn’s tales of murderous hexes in her recent memoir to recall how old-fashioned in their magical thinking the New Age’s devotees could become.)
Sometimes our own elite opinion seems to be shopping for a new religion: I have read books in the last year pitching versions of Buddhism, pantheism and paganism to the post-Christian educated set. For such shoppers, the striking overlap between UFOs and fairy stories might eventually become an advertisement for an updated spiritualist cosmology, not a strike against it — especially if woven together with multiverse and universe-as-simulation hypotheses that imply a kind of metaphysics of caprice.
Meanwhile those of us who remain Christian can be agnostic about all these strange stories, not reflexively dismissive, since Christianity does not require that all paranormal experiences be either divinely sent or demonic or imaginary.
Rather the Christian idea is that whatever capricious powers may exist, when the true God enters his creation, he does so honestly, straightforwardly, in a vulnerable and fully human form — and exposes himself publicly, whether in a crowded stable or on an execution hill. So the glamour of UFOs, like the glamour of faerie, is an understandable object of curiosity but a dangerous object for any kind of faith. The only kind of God worth trusting is the kind who does not play tricks.
Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Atlantic and a blogger for theatlantic.com.