Today - For Oct. 9, 1998
By Billy Cox
Fla. - Of all the images jamming the expressway to the millennium, few have matched the
macabre impact of those from Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., in March 1997:
dead "true believers," close-cropped hair, matching black outfits and sneakers,
overdosing on phenobarbital after posting Web site farewells. Their goal: To rendezvous
with an alleged unidentified flying object streaking toward Earth behind comet Hale-Bopp.
of the Heaven's Gate UFO suicide cult began to dribble out of the San Diego suburb, few
were as troubled as Whitley Strieber. On the eve of his lecture during the Space Coast UFO
Conference in Cocoa Beach, the author still wonders whether the tragedy could've been
extremely upset, I took it very personally," Strieber recalls from his home in San
Antonio. "I thought, `If only I had worked harder. If only I had communicated better,
maybe these people would've been in a better place, and they would've realized the belief
system they had evolved was a total fantasy."
The irony is
that, almost single-handedly, Strieber helped elevate the level of discourse on space
aliens into the pop mainstream.
1987, a man who had enjoyed considerable success as a futurist/horror novelist became a
best seller on The New York Times' nonfiction list for a first-person account of what he
claimed were his ongoing alien abductions. Battered by skeptics and embraced by believers,
Strieber's Communion - and its cover art of a bug-headed alien with huge black eyes -
sprouted legs to emerge as an archetypical symbol.
become something that we've been getting used to," he said. "You even find it on
bluejeans now. We have demystified and disempowered those great black staring eyes, and we
have absorbed them into our culture. If this involves alien contact, and if a process of
acclimatization is going on, then my main job seems to have been to communicate that face,
more than anything else I've done."
a keynote speaker in the three-day UFO Conference beginning today at the Cocoa Beach
Hilton. Sponsored by a Gulf Breeze organization called Project Awareness, the conference
offers a mixed bag for the alternative crowd. In addition to veteran UFO researchers
Stanton Friedman and Bob Oechsler, the fare includes lectures on remote viewing (Skip
Atwater), Mars anomalies (Vince DiPietro), Egyptian mysteries (Zecharia Sitchin),
after-death communication (Judy Guggenheim) and channeling (Mary Jo McCabe).
come a long way since Communion hit the bookstands.
most recently for megabucks in "The X-Files" and "Independence Day,"
UFOs have attained a momentum that was supposed to have been quashed in 1969, when the Air
Force dismissed the phenomenon in Project Blue Book.
In June 1992
- as a result of so many abduction reports cropping up in therapy sessions - an Abduction
Study Conference convened at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, scientists,
theologians, historians, folklorists and medical professionals compared notes and gleaned
insights. In July 1997, about 50,000 people converged on Roswell, N.M., for the 50th
anniversary of an alleged flying saucer crash. In March, assisted in part by a report
financed by philanthropist millionaire Laurance Rockefeller, the Journal of Scientific
Exploration called for a renewed official study of UFOs.
momentum has spilled over to cyberspace. Log onto the Internet and you can find countless
UFO conspiracy sites.
psychologist Duncan Bowen is an interested bystander who hosts a weekly talk show on WMEL
radio called "UFO Live." In the years since Communion, Bowen has converted to
the possibilities raised by Strieber.
believe the phenomenon is real," said Bowen, who'll moderate a NASA forum at the
conference this afternoon. "But obviously, it's hard to pinpoint, because I think it
involves a reality we don't understand yet."
government position of official indifference on UFOs, weird, fleeting images in the sky
continue to be scarfed up by cameras and camcorders, which gives conference speakers
plenty to talk about. Secret government investigations, coverups, the weight of evidence -
for three days, ufologists will make their case in a court of public opinion.
One of the
conference organizers, Vicki Lyons, first got involved in 1987. She had just finished
reading Communion when she saw a local television report of UFO sightings in her own back
yard - just across Pensacola Bay, in Gulf Breeze. It was the first of a number of
sightings that would establish the sleepy Panhandle community as one of the nation's UFO
hot spots. Scores of eyewitnesses eventually would see, photograph or videotape strange
red lights over the Gulf of Mexico waters.
As the Gulf
Breeze UFO "flap" reached its zenith in the early '90s, Lyons and fellow
skywatchers Pat and Buddy Crumbley of Mobile, Ala., formed Project Awareness to get the
word out. But after staging more than a dozen conferences, Lyons says answer to the riddle
thing we've learned is, there aren't many answers, just more questions," Lyons said.
Gate incident wasn't exactly the best PR for ufology, either. "We don't need to
create a new religion," Strieber warned. "We have enough trouble as it is."
Heaven's Gate cult - led by Marshall Applewhite - made the parallel difficult to ignore.
Rushing into the vacuum of faith, Applewhite and his disciples methodically took their own
lives, leaving behind dreamy videotaped testimonials about the eternal bliss awaiting them
aboard the UFO.
are fringe elements in every group you can think of - politics, religion, you name
it," said Pat Crumbley. "After (Heaven's Gate) happened, I had a sister call me
up and say, `I have to ask you one question: Is that what you believe?' She didn't
understand that we haven't figured this thing out, that what we're doing is
growing numbers of people, the debates long have surpassed the "is-it- real?"
stage. They are now wrestling with meaning. One could even argue that discussions are
polarized along sectarian lines, with at least two academicians addressing the masses from
media pulpits: Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard psychiatry professor John Mack ventures the
UFO visitors are likely benign and instructive; Temple history professor David Jacobs'
books advance nightmare scenarios of trauma and violation.
It's all for
religion, it is all for sale - alien talismans, candles, self-help books for abductees,
videos, T-shirts, bumper stickers. The holy water concept has yet to be alienized, but for
$9.95, you can buy what Andent of Waukegan, Ill., advertises as "strange, glowing
earth from Roswell, N.M." UFOs shadow the rock music charts. The Foo Fighters
borrowed the name from glowing spheres tailing warplanes in World War II; Sheryl Crow
sings, "they may be angels."
cumulative effect has been an inescapable awareness of high strangeness, no matter which
side you're on. But, Strieber says, prodding society's institutions to give UFOs more
serious consideration is another matter.
Communion was published, Strieber was deluged with letters from people reporting similar
experiences. So he established the Communion Foundation to coordinate research efforts
among a number of scientific disciplines.
years, Strieber says researchers have recovered eight so-called implants, those small,
mysterious foreign objects abductees claim were inserted into various parts of their
One of them came from Strieber, which he discusses in his latest book, Confirmation.
your Xfiles. In Strieber's words: "I had an object in the outside part of my left
ear. I remember the incident; it was May 1994. Last year, since this implant stuff was
having success with other people, I decided to have it removed. It was a simple, in-office
surgery. The doctor opened it up. He found in there what he described as a little white
touched it with a scalpel and it moved away. He opened the incision up a little more and
touched it more aggressively and cut off a little edge of it. Whereupon the object moved
about an inch down into my earlobe. A full inch."
says the recovered fragment was a crystallization of collagen and calcium carbonate, both
of which are found in the body. But the process that crystallized it - and mobilized it -
remain a mystery.
conducted on implants usually is done in secret, by curious scientists at odds with their
administrations. Strieber also says there's more work to be done by analyzing abductees'
brain-wave activity, a technique called PET scanning. So far, half a dozen labs have
refused to get involved.
we live in a society where the scientific community
that could provide us with some focus in this area is
reluctant to do so," Strieber said. "And as science continues to stick its head in the sand, superstition just
grows and grows. The few studies that have
been done are much too thin to give us any
more than a directional idea of what might be going on.
I think there are people out there with phenomenally evolved belief systems that haven't
got a scintilla of proof behind them at all. I'm afraid that what we saw with Heaven's
Gate can happen again."
UFO Conference schedule
$10, special events $15, tickets available at the door at Cocoa Beach Hilton
Judy Guggenheim lecture, "After Death Communication" 1:30 p.m.: NASA forum 3:15 p.m.: Whitley Strieber
special event, Panel of Abductees 6:30 p.m.:
Skip Atwater, retired military intelligence
officer lecture 8:15 p.m.: Bob Oechsler lecture, "UFO
8:45 a.m.: Skip Atwater special event, "Out of Body
Experiences" 10:45 a.m.: Vincent DiPietro lecture, "Mars Investigation" 1:45 p.m.: Judy Guggenheim
special event, "Investigating Inner
Spiritual Wisdom" 3:45 p.m.: Zecharia Sitchen
lecture, "UFOs and Ancient Texts" 7 p.m.: Whitley
Strieber lecture 8:45 p.m.: Mary Jo McCabe special event, "Spirits' Interaction With Audience"
a.m.: Zecharia Sitchin special event, "Egypt" 10:45 a.m.: Mary Jo McCabe lecture, Visionary and
Spiritual Medium 1:15 p.m.: Stanton Friedman
lecture, "Cosmic Coverup: New Revelations"