Back in the 1960s, David Halperin was a teenage “UFOlogist.” Later he became a professor of religious studies—his specialty, religious traditions of heavenly ascent and otherworldly journeys. From 1976 through 2000, he taught Jewish history in the Religious Studies Department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He’s published five books and numerous articles on Jewish mysticism and messianism and a novel, Journal of a UFO Investigator, published in 2011 by Viking Press…more
“There are no such things as flying saucers. … If you believe [that,] … you need have no fear of being frightened by this story. Read it on a stormy night, or in the middle of a graveyard if you wish. Your equanimity will not be challenged.”—Gray Barker, They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers (1956)
I never tried reading Gray Barker’s book in a graveyard. I don’t remember if it was stormy the night I opened the first chapter. I was in what must have been one of the safest places on earth, my bedroom in the snug little suburban house where I lived with my mother and father. Before I’d read a dozen pages, I was so scared I wanted to hide under the bed. The year was 1960. I was twelve going on thirteen.It’s an old conundrum: we absolutely do not enjoy being frightened, yet relish the literature and cinema of horror. Why? And why did I read They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers to its end, with shivery fascination? Why did I afterwards declare myself a “flying saucer investigator,” the mission of my adolescent life to unravel the mystery of what Gray Barker called “the elusive disks”?
The book claimed to be non-fiction, and although I had no way of knowing this at age twelve, that claim was basically true. The people described in it were real. Their experiences had at least some foundation in reality. In September 1952, seven West Virginians did encounter the “Flatwoods monster” with which the book began, a ghastly giant with a glowing red face that landed with a luminous sphere on a hilltop and scared them half out of their wits. (“It looked worse than Frankenstein,” one of them said afterward. “As long as I live I’ll wish I had never seen it.”) A year or so later, a Connecticut flying saucer researcher named Albert Bender did receive an unwelcome visit from three men in black suits, terrorizing him into silence about the awful truth he’d discovered.
At least that was what Bender said. Barker saw no reason to doubt him. He looked too scared to be making it up. There are explanations. The luminous sphere in West Virginia could have been a meteor, the “monster” a barn owl flying at the seven people out of the darkness and pushing their strained nerves over the edge. The “three men in black” could have been government agents who got the idea Bender’s amateurish “International Flying Saucer Bureau” was a Communist front organization—an absurd notion, but this was the McCarthy era—and paid him a visit to make sure he shut it down. It would be years before I would hear any of these explanations. Years, though not so many, would pass before I would read about the events from other perspectives than Barker’s and know that, yes, however they were to be accounted for, they did happen. Yet I believed.
I believed at once, with the force of revelation, Barker’s stories and all they implied. They frightened me but I believed. To dismiss them as fantastic crap—which most people would have done instantly—would have dissolved my fears. But I believed, and in retrospect I can admit that I wanted to believe.
A question akin to, why do we turn to fictional horror to soothe ourselves amid a scary reality?
Now I need to tell a secret. “Secret” in that I myself didn’t know it at age twelve going on thirteen. Although of course, really and truly I did know it.
Our bright, snug little house wasn’t so safe after all. Death, as Jeremiah says (9:21), was come up into our windows. Its fingerprints were smeared all over our lives.
My mother was dying slowly, of a heart condition that had begun with her rheumatic fever as a girl. She’d spent most of her life dying. Yes, I know that’s true of us all. But for her it was agonizingly, visibly true. “Visibly,” that is, for those who had eyes to see. Which I didn’t at age twelve, or even age sixteen when the last scene of her last act played itself out while I was chasing the flying saucers.
Which I was smart to do. Perseus knew it well. Look your Medusa in the face and you’ll be turned to stone. Fight her in a mirror, you have a chance of winning. (But of course my mother had no chance of winning.)
Gray Barker had given me a mirror—which scared the sh-t out of me, but also energized me, gave me hope. (Philosophical question: are false hopes better than no hope at all? I think they are.) Passionately I threw myself into “UFOlogy,” and the rest of my life, as I can now see, has been a long process of coming to terms with the UFO (a.k.a. Death; but that’s an oversimplification) and what it’s meant to me.
Gray Barker wrote of a secret too terrible to be revealed. He spoke of the forces that keep that secret hidden, make it impossible even to imagine. In cryptic, symbolic language he wrote the truth. It was a truth I knew but never dared to face.
No wonder I believed him.
I never met Gray Barker; he died in 1984. He died of AIDS. Gray Barker was a gay man in 1950s West Virginia, closeted with a secret that’s no longer “terrible” because our culture has matured enough to allow it not to be terrible. The three men in black, with their threats and warnings, were his daily companions. No wonder he wrote of them with such fearful conviction.
“Deep calleth unto deep,” says the Bible (Psalm 42:7), and like so much else in the Bible—like so much in They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers—this is absolutely true. Gray Barker’s deep unconscious called out to me through the pages of his book. My deep unconscious answered. My life has been what it’s been because of that.(Bibliographical note: The explanation of the “Flatwoods monster” as a barn owl was proposed by Joe Nickell in Skeptical Inquirer Volume 24.6, November/December 2000. The explanation of Bender’s “three men in black” as overzealous Communist-hunters is based on Michael Swords, International UFO Reporter Volume 17.6, November/December 1992. No biography of Gray Barker has been written. Bob Wilkinson’s brilliant 2009 documentary Shades of Gray conveys the enigma of the man better than any book ever could.)
Back in the 1960s, David Halperin was a teenage “UFOlogist.” Later he became a professor of religious studies—his specialty, religious traditions of heavenly ascent and otherworldly journeys. From 1976 through 2000, he taught Jewish history in the Religious Studies Department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He’s published five books and numerous articles on Jewish mysticism and messianism and a novel, Journal of a UFO Investigator, published in 2011 by Viking Press and translated into Spanish, Italian, and German. He blogs biweekly on UFOs, religion, and related subjects at www.davidhalperin.net, while working on a second novel and a non-fiction book, Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife Rose.
Book credits:The Merkabah in Rabbinic Literature (American Oriental Society, 1980), The Faces of the Chariot: Early Jewish Responses to Ezekiel’s Vision (J.C.B. Mohr, 1988), Seeking Ezekiel: Text and Psychology (Penn State Press, 1993), Abraham Miguel Cardozo: Selected Writings (Paulist Press, Classics of Western Spirituality, 2001), Sabbatai Zevi: Testimonies to a Fallen Messiah (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2007), Journal of a UFO Investigator: A Novel (Viking Press, 2011).