Alien Culture

They came from around the country and, overall, they were disappointingly ordinary-looking. No silver suits, no alien costumes, no spaceship replicas as there had been in Roswell, N.M., for celebrations commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first reported sightings of UFOs. The few hundred people who gathered in Grand Rapids recently for the 28th annual Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) Symposium looked about as exciting and as wigged-out as mashed potatoes or vanilla pudding. Those two bland food comparisons are deliberate. Except for the five African Americans I saw there, it appears that aliens are not particularly interested in people of color, and vice versa. The symposium location, at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, also raises suspicions about the origins of Amway magnates Richard DeVos and Jay Van Andel, but I don't feel up to opening that X-file of worms. Aliens may have been invading pop culture lately, but this symposium presented a more serious analysis. According to its mission statement, Michigan MUFON is dedicated to the scientific study and analysis of unidentified flying objects, and disseminating that information to the public in a responsible manner. And responsible they looked. If anything distinguished this group from, say, the annual gathering of aluminum siding manufacturers or wholesale furniture dealers, I couldn't see it. I could feel a difference, though. Everyone was nice. I mean, really nice. The cloying, almost nauseating kind of nice where people say "Peace" as an ending to conversations. Until I identified myself as a member of the press. With one sentence I had turned into the enemy, a skeptic. "We'll just put your name and your state on your badge, for your own sake," said one of the conference directors ominously as he ushered me through registration. I wanted to tell him that, yes, I am a journalist, but I have an open mind. Out of all the stars and planets in space, it's pretty egotistical of us earthlings to think we're the only ones who managed to evolve out of the ooze. I wanted to believe, truly I did. The truth had to be out there somewhere. I just needed to be shown. And, I have to admit, John Carpenter's talk on "Encounters: Now and Then" raised some intriguing points. Carpenter had more than 100 examples from literature, art, religion and cave drawings, some of which dated back to A.D. 300. He pointed out the similarities between descriptions of current alien encounters and the images of fairies, goblins and sprites in folklore. Big heads and eyes, no hair, thin bodies and limbs -- is this a 1997 alien sighting or a 1597 Germanic folktale about something that lives in the forest? Paintings and illustrations of goblins throughout history bear an uncanny resemblance to drawings by modern-day abductees. And what about all those ascensions into heaven described in the Bible? People lifted up to the sky in a beam of light; all that's missing is a craft hovering above. He made no claims one way or the other. He "merely wanted to raise the question," something I could cogitate on and appreciate. But folktales and the Bible don't touch the five themes of alien abductions, which symposium presenter Dan Wright categorized as sex and reproduction, a mission for the abductee, some sort of connection or familiarity with the aliens, U.S. government involvement in the abductions, and warnings of geophysical changes to the Earth. According to Wright, aliens using humans for sex and to reproduce was the most frequent theme in the 254 cases he studied. I remain skeptical. If aliens are experiencing that much sexual dysfunction, why would they want to breed with humans? We can't communicate telepathically, we don't travel to other galaxies well and we're a pretty fractious bunch. All reports indicate that aliens are technologically light-years ahead of us. Wouldn't they just clone themselves and be done with it? At the Abductee Art Project, I found out just how deep people's beliefs can run. Being carted off by thin, gray beings sounds fanciful enough on paper, but actually coming face to face with an alleged abductee was something I couldn't have previously imagined. When the curator of the exhibit starting telling another browser how several of the watercolors portrayed his true parents -- who were 7-foot Nordic-looking beings from an unpronounceable distant planet -- I was speechless. As the man described how he had felt his father's heartbeat through his skin and space suit, I looked at him. He was as blazingly normal as everyone else at the conference. On another wall, the same man had posted an MRI image of his brain, which showed a foreign body in his brain stem. He had circled it and labeled it "Implant?" An attached index card described how his doctor didn't know what it was, and couldn't remove it because the operation would kill the man. The doctor was also reported to have said that he didn't understand how the insertion of the object hadn't killed the man and soon after dropped him as a patient. I stood in the gallery with my mouth figuratively hanging open. This man obviously believed his parents were from another galaxy. I didn't want to call him a liar and couldn't think of anything to ask him that wouldn't sound patronizing or snotty. So I asked myself what "X-Files" Agent Scully would do in this situation. She'd probably call Agent Mulder and let him ask the questions sensitively and calmly, which meant I was out of luck. So I simply eavesdropped on his story and studied his not-too-well-done sketches: believe me, abduction does not seem to enhance artistic ability. All in all, the MUFON symposium was much like any professional association gathering -- a few staunchly dedicated, humorless practitioners and a lot of folks with a more laid-back approach. The information available didn't particularly sway my beliefs, but then again, the last time I attended a national meeting of agricultural economists, I wasn't compelled to keep better track of my finances, either. If aliens do come to abduct me, I might finally be convinced.

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