Guest Blog by Author David Halperin
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?