Review: Surviving Death (Series)

Netflix’s Surviving Death, a docuseries adapting the nonfiction book by Leslie Kean, presents a variety of accounts of the afterlife that will not convince skeptics but are sure to provide a genuine perspective on the varied ways in which people look for answers and assurance when facing death and the loss of loved ones.

I’ve not read Ms. Kean’s book, although her UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record is essential reading on the contemporary UFO phenomenon, not to mention her reporting on the subject. If nothing else, this new series makes me want to read what she actually wrote on the pursuit of evidence of consciousness after death, and I can only imagine it would be similarly informative. Ms. Kean does appear quite a bit throughout the series, offering her perspective on various phenomena–especially on the subject of mediums, for some reason.

Each episode of the series covers a different phenomenon: near-death experiences, a two-parter on mediums, alleged signs from the dead, ghosts and end-of-life visions, and reincarnation. While everyone might react differently based on their own biases, my own worldview made the stories about near-death experiences, end-of-life visions, and reincarnation most palatable. Even though the first two categories have many alternative explanations, they’re still interesting phenomena; conversely, the really good and verifiable examples of alleged reincarnation are very compelling, and the alternative explanations about as extraordinary as the idea of reincarnation itself. Even if you reject the (admittedly difficult to reconcile and impossible to prove) paranormal components, the universality of certain themes and narratives across generations and cultures is fascinating in and of itself. At its core, parapsychological studies of these types of stories read to me as a sort of anthropology, just focused on a type of folklore taken as true. So even if you reject them as true accounts of an afterlife out of hand, you’re still left with true accounts of belief and lived experiences that are remarkable even under the most normal of explanations.

Having two episodes devoted to mediums was hard, though. The show repeatedly acknowledges, through some of its interviewed subjects, that spiritualism and mediumship have long histories of fraud. And yet. And yet, two episodes are spent on what can only be read as an attempt to convince us that some level of mediumship must be legitimate. Nothing changed my mind, although I was rather fond of the man who went from medium to medium, attempting to communicate with his dad, celebrating the sessions that were eerily accurate and emotionally on-point, yet even then noting how they could be faked or otherwise staged. For someone to continue to engage with mediums with an open mind, yet never shutting out his critical thinking, well–that’s a man after my own heart. But most of our time is spent with a succession of mediums and true believers. They even have a physical medium, someone who claims to be able to produce physical forms of spirits through the use of ectoplasm. In 2021, a documentary is giving serious space to a woman who claims to use ectoplasm! Oh, sure, all those other physical mediums were frauds or at least highly suspect, but this one’s different? This one who leads seminars to train others to be mediums? Wild! Don’t get me wrong–if you were on the fence, or susceptible to believing in mediumship, this might push you over the edge with some of the more compelling readings, but there’s nothing here that proves mediums are real or that counteracts the obvious non-mystic explanations for all their stunts.

The episode on signs from the dead was fascinating because it really showed how desperately people look for comfort and reassurance when they lose someone. I felt for them. This episode was especially hard on my wife, because it’s basically a nearly hour-long presentation of people’s very raw grief. While it was not compelling evidence for taking signs seriously, it was a nice reminder that if you can take comfort from a perceived sign, there’s no harm in doing so, and a lot of people, even otherwise non-spiritual and rational people, can find comfort in this. In other words, it was just a very human story.

Finally, the episode on end-of-life visions also had a segment on ghosts and ghost hunters. The woman-of-color ghost hunter the series follows is more interesting than the jackass white bros we normally see; rather than pretending to be scientific (and they never are), she actually seemed almost like a shaman, someone who felt that her hobby was sacred work. She was still over-fond of tech gadgets that don’t ever detect or react in exactly the ways the ghost hunters think they do, but it was still a more sentimental and reflective segment than I was expecting given the usual ghost hunters on TV. The proposed “evidence” is all the same, though, and very non-conclusive.

While the episode quality varies, I did stay engaged throughout, even if scoffing at the people onscreen (which was rarer than I might have expected). It was compelling television, with a refreshingly human focus that showed the value in the experiences for the living, regardless of what those experiences actually said about the dead. As an intimate look at how humans respond to death and attempt to adjust to loss in the modern era, I would highly recommend this show.

Review: Prey (2017)

Having now finished the main story with one of several endings for Prey, I can say that this was a great game experience. However, despite the opportunity for many additional runs through its story, to explore different powers or to pursue completionist ambitions or to make different moral choices, I do not think I will be back to the game any time soon, if ever. Once was enough, and it was a great treat.

One of the main reasons that I would not be interested in a replay is that the game forces you to replay a lot already, in the sense that you are constantly backtracking and re-exploring areas you’ve been to before. At many points in the game, levels you’ve cleared are restocked with enemies, too, which I suppose helps to alleviate the grind of wandering across a barren area just to try a previously locked door with a new keycard or ability, but it does start to feel a little tedious at times.

This complaint is really my only major one with the game. I loved the setting, the story, and many of the characters. Above all else, I definitely loved the action-RPG-lite FPS gameplay. I loved experimenting with different abilities, upgrading special powers as the situation warranted and scarce Neuromods allowed. I found I preferred human, rather than alien/ESP powers, with a focus on stealth, hacking and engineering my way around problems, always prepared to shoot my way out of a situation at the end. Limited resources meant that I couldn’t ever depend on going in guns blazing, and many later-game enemies would have clobbered me if I’d relied on that approach. In fact, the final third of the game changed the type of enemy primarily faced, moving from the psychokinetic, shape-shifting Typhon alien types to largely robotic opponents with high-powered lasers, requiring a tweak to how I devoted my resources. Some might find the constant scavenging and need to formulate new tools out of scraps at special stations to be tedious, but it kept the tension high throughout the game and made me reflective about how to use my resources–there were many times where I had few mineral resources and had to make a close call between generating extra 9mm bullets, some shells for my shotgun, or a medkit.

Most of the game time is spent navigating large but enclosed, multi-story levels that represent sections of a colossal space station. Every level has a different environmental story to tell, as the station gradually expanded from a Soviet operation to a joint US-Soviet research facility to a chief technological base for an extravagantly wealthy private company. There are stark research labs and elaborate crew quarters with bold pop art. There’s a bridge with computer stations and displays you’d expect to see in a NASA mission control room. Whiteboards and posters and notes and letters and books and children’s art fill out the corners of the station, as is the nature of these sorts of games, I suppose. I rather enjoyed accessing more and more of the diverse environments and uncovering secrets, especially related to the events that led to the release of the Typhon and the demise of so many of the crew of Talos I. Coupled with fantastic level design and set dressing, the sound design and score kept me in the moment, maintaining a sense of tension and dread even when I became more powerful and wasn’t so concerned about a sudden Mimic jump scare.

The above details should sound familiar, for they are definitely in the vein of a particular type of game, the System Shock-alike. Given that I happen to love these sorts of games, like BioShock and Deus Ex, it should come as no surprise that this scratched an itch for me. But it also clearly pulled from classic sci-fi movies like Alien/Aliens (the parasitic nature and unstoppable drive of the alien force and the retro-futuristic design) and Total Recall (the questions regarding what is real versus simulated and the permanence/plasticity of identity when remembered life experiences are removed from the equation or otherwise altered), as well as from the niche interests of paranormal enthusiasts with subjects like ESP and covered-up astronaut contact with alien life. All the more reason for me to like it.

The plot operates on a familiar framework but offers a lot more than what the basic narrative might at first suggest. (It should be noted that it is not connected to the original Prey in any way except for name, although I never played the older title, so it made no difference to me.) A silent, amnesiac protagonist has to fight off killer aliens while exploring the confines of their environment. In this case, the game opens with protagonist Morgan Yu finding out that their current existence is nothing more than a repeated simulation, and Morgan enters into freedom just as the outside world goes to hell. They’re onboard a nearly derelict space station, in the immediate aftermath of an infestation of alien creatures with a complex ecology and life cycle, collectively known as the Typhon. The basic Typhon is a Mimic (pulled straight from D&D), an inky black, dog-sized starfish of a creature that can easily morph into any other shape its size or smaller. Mimics, like xenomorph face-huggers, want nothing more than to shove an appendage down the throat of the nearest human to replicate–but rather than releasing a rapidly gestating embryo like the classic sci-fi predator, they steal away life force (and, we later learn, consciousness) to metabolize enough matter and energy to split into fully-formed quadruplets. (This idea of recycling, reusing, metabolizing, and transforming is a major theme in the game.) There are many other types of Typhons, including the myriad forms of Phantoms, which are birthed from the corpses of humans killed by other means. Much of the game involves attempting to stop the spread of the infestation, which in turn involves learning quite a bit more about the history of the space station, its inhabitants, and the Typhon that had been contained within it.

The complexity of the space station and the Typhon, and the alternative history of the larger world, make for a very interesting background narrative that kept my attention throughout. However, the actual beats of the story are fairly conventional. You start off very under-powered, and even the little Mimics, who will eventually become at best a nuisance, are terrifying threats. The horror of the initial events of the story gives way to mystery regarding the alien threat, and that transition in tone comes with an increase in powers. You meet more and more powerful enemies over the game, but you gain in power at a roughly equivalent rate. You explore sections of the space station and unlock secrets. You (optionally) help other survivors and decide whether to blow the station up to completely wipe out the infestation, incapacitate all the Typhon so that the research can start again, or simply bail out whenever in an escape pod. The end stages of the game send in a “rescue” team actually meant to wipe everyone out, an overused plot point in action games and movies.

The game remained challenging, but never unfair. I played on Normal difficulty without any of the optional game modes like limited oxygen or the accumulation of trauma, so I imagine the higher levels of difficulty could be especially brutal. Either way, the game allows for saving at any point, and so I saved early and often. This encouraged experimentation in exploration and combat, since I knew I could quickly load back to a save moments before if something went south.

Your silent protagonist, Morgan Yu (who can be male or female, the first choice you make), is a brilliant engineer and scientist, but they start out with irreversible amnesia, and a variety of prerecorded videos and AIs and contemporary human compatriots all attempt to persuade Morgan about who he or she really is. The silence of this protagonist feels more a deliberate choice than a matter of convenience; you are Yu (yeah, the name emphasizes that, huh?), and you are defining who that is, from a blank slate. The silence means that intention is always through player expression; as the game goes on, there are moments where it is clear that the people around Morgan struggle to understand who he was and who he is now. The unknowable nature of intention behind action is an underlying theme as much as is the nature of identity or consciousness.

The side stories of perished and surviving crew were often more intriguing than the game’s primary objectives. I became quite fond of characters like Dr. Dayo Igwe, the brilliant neuroscientist with the tragic past who is ostracized by his colleagues because of his parapsychological interests; Chief Sarah Elazar, the tough-as-nails security director and war veteran with a strong ethical core and protective spirit; Mikhaila Ilyushin, the head engineer who hid her degenerative condition to get a top spot on Talos I to try to uncover the truth about her father; or Danielle Sho, the IT administrator who put aside her past rivalry with Morgan to aide them in ending the Typhon threat, even as she waited out her own death. That last character arc is rather problematic, honestly. I really liked Sho a lot, and learning about her tensions with Morgan and her romantic relationship with researcher and tabletop game master Abigail Foy was one of the most engaging backstories I explored. I was rooting for Sho and Foy, so [BIG SPOILERS] I was incredibly frustrated to discover that Foy had been killed, not by Typhon, but by a deranged serial killer, and Sho was doomed to die, stuck outside of the station and out of oxygen, helping Yu in her final moments and asking them to avenge Foy’s death. I mean, yeah, I hunted down that psychotic killer–even if you didn’t uncover or care about Sho and Foy’s relationship, he tries to kill you and taunts you through the remainder of the game–but I could have done without yet another example of burying your gays. (On that subject, I recognize that a lot of people die or are already dead in the game, and it has a wide range of people from various backgrounds, but to so conspicuously have a lesbian relationship documented in the backstory and to have it so that you can only witness their tragic deaths, when you can help most other survivors make it out, seems like a clear enough example of the trope).

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Smaller character moments mattered too. I liked learning about the crew members engaged in assassin games with their manufactured foam dart crossbows, and when I discovered one crew member from that gang was still alive, I went out of my way to ensure her survival. I was deeply saddened to find one after another of the tabletop gaming group (playing a board game that is a clear, goofy reference to Arkane Studios’ original release, Arx Fatalis) were dead. There was a lot of tragedy. There was some levity. There were a lot of uncovered intimate and banal moments that made everyone seem so real. It was never unexpected but often disheartening to discover a deceased crew member you’d come to know through their digital correspondence and leftover artifacts from life. It was so gratifying to be able to help someone make it to safety.

I mentioned the tabletop game, but there are a lot of cute little references tucked away in Prey. While not an allusion to a specific source (as far as I can tell), one of my favorite texts were the excerpts from the abysmally bad Starbender books, which are clear parodies of mid-twentieth-century pulp space opera stories. Little things like this made the game feel more grounded, even as they further cemented the developer team’s love for the genre in which they were working.

There’s one last thing I want to discuss: the ending. The game came out in 2017, and enough time has passed that anyone who’s retained some interest in it but hasn’t yet played it has probably had the ending spoiled. I had by the time I got around to the game. I don’t think it changed how I played it. On the one hand, it made me better appreciate some elements of the game, but on the other hand, I sort of regretted coming into the surprise twist with prior knowledge. That said, if you haven’t played and want to come to the game fresh, I’d encourage you to stop reading this now.

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Prey offers two separate endings to the game, each with multiple outcomes. The first ending concerns how you resolve the Typhon infestation on the station: fleeing from it (which apparently ends the game early, if you follow the escape pod route), destroying it, or disabling it to continue the research. I went the route of destroying the station and all the Typhon aboard it; I found the research to be unethical, especially regarding its human test subjects, many of whom were political prisoners, and I wanted to ensure that the Typhon couldn’t get to Earth. Even picking the destruction option has some branching paths. Do you just let everyone die? Do you find a way to get the survivors off the station? Do you make it off yourself, and how? I was glad to join my fellow survivors on the shuttle back to Earth, the explosion of Talos I erupting in our wake. Morgan finally speaks in the present, not just in a recording, ominously remarking, “I keep having this dream.” Then the credits rolled.

And after the credits, Morgan awakens in a containment chamber, monitored by his brother Alex and four Operators, the robotic assistants prevalent throughout the game. It turns out that “Morgan” is in fact a Typhon–apparently a Phantom, infused with elements of Morgan’s genetic code and consciousness. This Morgan-Phantom was in a simulation, a reconstruction of the final hours of Talos I. The Operators possess the personalities of Igwe, Alazar, Ilyushin, and Sho. They pass judgment on the choices you made in the game. In my ending, they noted the empathy Morgan had displayed, coupled with an apparently retributive drive. As I’d passed their test, Morgan’s brother offers the Phantom an option: now that this Morgan understands and empathizes with humans, they can work together to stop the Typhon, which have now spread over much of the Earth. The final choice: kill them all or join with them. I joined, and the Phantom extended its hand in cooperation, somehow adjusting its shadowy appearance to take on a human look.

I really liked the two endings, and I liked that both were affected by player choice throughout the game and at the end. I liked the reveal about the true nature of Morgan. It emphasized the inherent limits of a video game in its ability to simulate reality. It explained the occasional weird glitch. It clarified how suddenly certain plot-relevant items would appear on a desk after I’d taken a particular step. It put in context the bizarre and brief dream sequences that interjected key moments of the game. It twisted expectations; the whole time, you thought you were defining who Morgan really was, when in reality you were never Morgan at all. And so Morgan breaks free from one simulation only to find that they were in another all along.

This final, post-credits ending also offers many intriguing questions. What actually happened on Talos I? Presumably the Typhon invasion of Earth started with the breach depicted in the game. What went wrong? Did Morgan fail to activate the nullwave device or to blow up the station? Did Typhon get aboard the shuttle? Perhaps some of the Typhon made it out on another shuttle? (There was a side quest where a shuttle, out of contact with Talos I, was approaching Earth, having departed only 30 minutes before everyone became aware of the outbreak and before they knew how to scan for Mimics; I blew it up, but maybe the “real” Morgan didn’t.) Did Morgan stay aboard the station? Did they evacuate? Is Morgan alive now, or did they die? Did anyone other than Alex survive? I can know for certain that at least part of the simulation did not match reality (and also highlighted how it was a simulation). I saved Alex, locking him unconscious in his safe room. He appeared later on the bridge of the station, intent on stopping me from blowing it up, and was killed by January, the Operator who had been pushing me to destroy the station. I blew up January in retribution and commenced the reactor overload. But at the very least, Alex must never have been on the bridge. Morgan must have killed January earlier. Or perhaps Morgan helped Alex to use the nullwave device, and there was a later infestation outbreak. Or perhaps everything happened more or less as I played it, but Alex was never on the bridge. He must have gotten off somehow, perhaps in his executive escape pod. What happened to Igwe, Alazar, Ilyushin, and Sho? If things happened as depicted, then at the very least Sho is dead. There was no way to save her, regardless of player choice. Their Operators at the end seemed somewhat surprised that I found a way to save everyone, so maybe that’s not the most likely outcome for the real Morgan. Did Igwe, Alazar, and Ilyushin perish as well? An Operator can be programmed with the voice and personality of a real person, and at that point, that person certainly wouldn’t need to be alive. Perhaps, though, some or all of them are alive, using Operators so that Alex alone was risking himself in the presence of the Phantom. Of course, while these are questions that are very interesting to me, the use of the Operators also meant that the same assets could be used in this final scene, regardless of whether Morgan saved the others. Still, it’s a fun way to challenge the idea that there is or even can be a single, concrete version of events. All pathways are possible, and none may be real even within the game world.

I don’t know if you can have an effective sequel to a game that offers so many endings and such an open-ended interpretation of the final state of the world. I guess The Elder Scrolls continues to rise to that challenge, but normally by offering games in different parts of the world and sometimes with convoluted explanations for how every ending did and did not happen simultaneously, a level of mysticism appropriate for a fantasy setting but not for a more grounded sci-fi story. I think I’d be disappointed if a sequel boxed in a “canon” interpretation. But I could see other games set within the lore of this game, perhaps set during a past or contemporary outbreak, or perhaps set on an overrun Earth, following a member of a resistance group. I suppose that Arkane Studios did explore a contemporary adventure within this setting in its rogue-like Prey: Mooncrash DLC. Maybe I’ll give that a try, but I’m not typically a big fan of rogue-likes; then again, the inherent uncertainty of the reality of events, as reinforced by the basic story structure of the expansion and the nature of the game type, is intriguing and fits well with the themes of the base game. Regardless, I want more because I had such a blast with this game, its setting, story, characters, and themes. What a great experience–I’d highly recommend it, if you can tolerate a game that starts with an initial survival horror vibe.

Final thought: I really, really enjoy an endgame stats summary. Thanks for that, Arkane Studios. And, you know, for everything else about this game.

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Just a little ESP

The book I’m primarily reading right now is Phenomena by Annie Jacobsen (who also wrote Area 51, which I found to be well-researched and quite interesting though too much space was devoted to a rather bizarre Roswell theory), and the game I’m primarily playing is the 2017 version of Prey developed by Arkane Studios. Naturally, paranormal phenomena and ESP are on my mind a lot at the moment.

I’ve always really enjoyed reading books and articles or watching shows and movies that involve the paranormal, whether fiction or nonfiction or that in-between spot of heavily produced, heavily spun “documentary” that follows real people and real events while offering very little truth–like your typical ghost investigator show. Like Mulder, I want to believe, but since my teen years I’ve become quite the skeptic, far more a Scully (although as seen recently on this site, some think I’m ignorantly bullheaded about my skepticism, so they might see me as more of a Doggett). Still, while I take it all with a grain of salt, I’ve never stopped casually exploring the subject. Not a hobby or a passion, just a casual interest. I like when I find sources that also seem to love the collection of subjects that fall into the general category of “paranormal” but approach it with skepticism, like Jacobsen or the ever-delightful folks behind The Spooktator (which I am quite far behind on at this point).

All that said, it’s kind of funny that my attention is currently focused on ESP. I’ve never been that interested in this particular topic. I’ve never looked that closely; the most intriguing claims of lab results never seem that remarkable to me, even if I were to accept them outright. But I don’t know enough about the subject to really have that strong of an opinion. I do know that I have no time or patience for mediums and the like that grew out of the spiritualism movement; so many have been proven charlatans, and even those who genuinely believe what they are doing can’t offer anything all that convincing to me.

Set all that aside, though. The big reason that I don’t really care about ESP one way or the other is that it’s one of those things that doesn’t seem to make much of a big impact on the world. Let’s say that people can exhibit extrasensory perception, and that this means that they can sometimes correctly identify what someone else is thinking. What does this mean? Not a whole lot. It doesn’t seem like a very consistent or reliable ability. The over-the-top telekinetic powers of movies or games are obviously not realistic. So what if you can sometimes correctly intuit the symbol on a card at a rate that is slightly higher than expected for someone purely guessing? It doesn’t reshape how anyone thinks about the world. And I imagine that we’d eventually be able to come up with a theory for how ESP operates, if it were seriously documented, and I’m not sure that theory would require a radical reconception of our understanding of the natural world.

In contrast, what if extraterrestrial life not only existed, but it had evolved into intelligent, technologically advanced cultures that surreptitiously visited and monitored Earth? That could require a radical new understanding of our place in the universe and of our own limitations as humans. Perhaps an anthropocentric view of the world just couldn’t be preserved any further. Perhaps, to understand how the aliens could travel such vast distances and maneuver and hide their craft in such unique ways, we would see dramatic shifts in physics. It seems like a big deal, in a way that correctly predicting card faces isn’t.

Similarly, if ghosts are real, or if near-death experiences actually show glimpses of an afterlife, or if reincarnation accounts were verified beyond any doubt, then that would be proof of life after death. That would be a remarkable thing! We might never understand anything about what consciousness is like after death. But we would have an assurance that there is more than what happens in this life, and that we continue on somehow. I think this would be an amazing reassurance to the vast majority of people. In my experience, even religious people have moments of doubt, so even for those with an established faith, this could give peace of mind. It could also upturn some religious beliefs–what are Christians supposed to do if reincarnation was an undeniable reality? For that matter, for those who tend to focus on the material, provable nature of reality, how do you react to that? That there is something larger and perhaps unobservable or immeasurable that we will all some day experience but that can’t be objectively analyzed? If you’ve spent your life as a hardened atheist, what does this news mean to you? At the least, it would seem like more people would have to seriously concede the limits of what the scientific method can reveal about our world, even as those who are fervently religious might face another challenge to their literalist adherence to a particular faith tradition.

Even the capture and display of a cryptid could be more interesting, if only because you’ve presented an animal that might not really fit in with a particular ecology, or that might seem impossible to exist in a particular habitat without detection for so long. I like animals. A new, strange animal would just be cool. And it would be something that you could reach out and touch, so to speak.

So that’s why I’ve never been overly interested in ESP, psychic precognition or retrocognition, telepathy, psychokinetics, or anything else like that. Even if some of these things could be established as undeniably real, they would seem mere oddities to me, rather than signifiers of something world-shattering. That said, psionic powers in video games are another thing entirely. PreyBioshockMass Effect, and Deus Ex have all delighted me with the powers on display. And while the Force comes with its own mythology and fantasy science source, the central unseen power of the Star Wars universe has resulted in entertaining and intriguing abilities in movies, shows, games, books, comics, and more. These over-the-top powers, and their sci-fi explanations, certainly would leave more of an impression.

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Anyway, I’m sure I’ll post reviews of Phenomena and Prey on this site when I’m done with them. For what it’s worth, I’m enjoying them both rather a lot so far! And as a final thought, if you have any suggestions on books or documentaries that explore ESP with a skeptical bent (or that at least show something more restrained than breathless credulity), consider sending them my way. I wouldn’t mind taking a more serious look at the history of parapsychological study of this field.

More on UFOs

In my review of Leslie Kean’s UFOs, I mentioned that she relied heavily on a Belgian UFO wave photograph, which at the time was credible, though the photographer had since come out to say that it was a hoax. Fox News had a story in 2011 that reviewed the book, mentioned the hoax, and let Kean respond. Her reply, which I’m including below, was smart and reasoned, like the book:

It’s a disturbing development, and it shows how hard it is to authenticate a photograph. At the time the book was put together, everyone was relying on what we knew from the labs. As a reporter I’m going to take that information seriously, and [Major General] De Brouwer [(who investigated the phenomenon at the time)] certainly took it very seriously and now the guy comes out [confessing the hoax], so we’re stuck with a serious problem that’s still being investigated.

She went on to note that the hoax “doesn’t discount all the sightings that took place.”

I’m increasingly of the opinion that photographs will always only muddy the waters. In season 2, episode 1, of the ghost skeptic podcast The Spooktator, the speakers discuss how many skeptics demand photographic or video evidence of sightings, and yet no amount of photographic or video evidence would be convincing to everyone because basically anything could be a hoax after all (you can listen for yourself at around the 24:30 mark; I’d recommend the podcast as a whole because the speakers are quite clever, the subject matter is interesting, and the show is often quite funny). The point is not to say that we should blindly trust claims from eyewitnesses (eyewitness testimony is, after all, notoriously unreliable). Rather, perhaps we should just give up on the idea of using photographs as the most persuasive evidence when examining the subject of UFOs (or anything else that would normally be deemed paranormal or extraordinary). They are just a part of the larger body of evidence, which I think was Kean’s point. And for the most part, she didn’t emphasize photo evidence in the book itself, so she’s been fairly consistent on that point.

I suspect that even fixating on single case studies can be problematic because so much effort can be put into “explaining away” each element of a particular case (regardless of whether those explanations actually hold much water) that larger parallels across multiple sightings might be lost in the shuffle. Ufologists might be prone to losing sight of the trees for the forest, whereas skeptics lose sight of the forest for the trees. It’s partially a problem of the genre; True Believers try to sell such fantastic claims that so much of skeptical attention is spent responding to the obvious bullshit rather than the underlying 5% of sightings left unexplained on review by investigators. We’re still re-litigating the Roswell incident, after all.

Framing the Narrative

Ufology is so dominated by competing narratives, with adherents claiming access to a singular Truth. True Believers buy into it all–the government and/or an associated military-industrial complex is covering up the existence of extraterrestrial visitors to Earth and has taken advantage of alien technology. Skeptics, or debunkers really, believe that all UFOs can absolutely be explained by current technological or natural explanations; even those 5% of cases could be explained if we just cherry pick the facts enough and discount elements of the cases after the fact. Yes, there are some who really just want to answer the question of the 5%, but it does seem like the conversation is dominated by loony statements from True Believers and responses to those loony statements by skeptics. Yet there’s a growing number of variant theories resting somewhere in between.

My favorite proposal, for a while, was that the unexplained UFO cases largely represent secret military aircraft, and that a good deal of the extraterrestrial hypothesis theorizing and any supporting evidence (such that exists) are spurred on by deliberate military disinformation. This was most forcefully argued in the excellent documentary Mirage Men and its accompanying book by Mark Pilkington. For a while after reading and watching these twin productions, I felt thoroughly convinced that this accounted for the uenxplainable. But in retrospect, I recognize that I was in full-on “debunker” mode, looking for any easy and conventional explanation that could be inserted to explain away a mystery. It can’t be aliens, I reasoned, as though “unexplainable” automatically equaled “alien,” so perhaps anything truly unexplainable is just really high-tech military aircraft. Well, of course, secret aircraft are the answer in some cases, but not all. Plus, the US government would have had to have these advanced aircraft, which in some cases still exceed known aircraft capabilities especially in speed and maneuverability, since at least the late 1940’s. And for me to accept military disinformation as the main culprit, I had to willfully neglect facts I already knew–chiefly, US Air Force PR efforts to dismiss the UFO phenomenon with Project Blue Book, or the CIA’s Robertson Panel and encouragement to debunk the UFO phenomenon as well. Seriously, the CIA’s own website discusses the CIA’s involvement in the UFO phenomenon and notes that there had historically been a “continued emphasis on UFO reporting [that] might threaten ‘the orderly functioning’ of the government by clogging the channels of communication with irrelevant reports and by inducing ‘hysterical mass behavior’ harmful to constituted authority.”

I want to stress that I’m not discounting the existence of disinformation, whether through formal or informal channels. It is just obviously not a sprawling government conspiracy, and it does not account for all cases of UFO belief or all UFO sightings.

Interestingly, the CIA notes (in the same document I linked to earlier) that over half of all UFO reports in the late 1950s and the 1960s were accounted for by manned reconnaissance flights. So on the one hand, a disinformation campaign pointing to UFOs where there were none would have been useful to military intelligence agents attempting to keep the reconnaissance flight programs secret. On the other hand, I think it’s safe to say that if this explanation was actually accounted for, then we are still left with the final 5% that is not explained by conventional technology, natural explanations, or even secret aircraft programs.

The “manned reconnaissance flights” were related to U-2 and OXCART projects. The history of these programs is recounted by Annie Jacobsen in Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base. Jacobsen’s book is mostly well-researched and deals with fascinating secret history. But she stretches too far, spinning another sort of disinformation explanation for another element of ufology. She argues, based on one anonymous source, that the Roswell crash was actually a Soviet-operated, Nazi-designed flying saucer craft that contained genetically augmented human children as part of a high-level Soviet disinformation campaign. This story seems to me at least as outlandish as any story about aliens out there. But it checks a lot of boxes: it provides a “down-to-earth,” alternative explanation for (one particular) UFO; it offers bones to both True Believers and skeptics, weaving together narratives so that it’s potentially palatable to both; it leans heavily into military cover-ups and disinformation, tempting anyone who is inclined to distrust the government; and it seems to provide a real example for why the CIA would have been concerned about the Soviets faking a UFO invasion, beyond the merely speculative. Nonetheless, it just sounds like nonsense to me, and it’s a claim that lacks adequate support.

Kean discusses disinformation and potential conspiracy in her book, but it’s one chapter, and she stresses that at best any speculation as to an existing conspiracy is nothing more than speculation. She does not try to convince anyone that there is a government conspiracy to cover up anything, and she points out that if such a conspiracy exists, it likely involves a tiny group within the government that has excluded leadership from the loop. She favors the idea of a conspiracy of ignorance: the simplest and most rational explanation is not some broad cover-up, but a distinctly human effort by all involved to simply ignore an issue that cannot be explained. Efforts have been made to conventionally explain the phenomenon without success. The UFOs have not exhibited hostile intent, do not appear to be aircraft of foreign nations, and could not be stopped by our military anyway. Better to just ignore the issue than to admit that there is some rare phenomenon that is completely beyond our control or understanding (so far).

I think that Kean’s right about this. But I also think there’s room for Mirage Men‘s disinformation campaigns. If the UFO phenomenon exists, it could be advantageous to some to use it as a cover. It hardly makes it official government policy, or even something endorsed by leadership at any level. Just as there are many views out there about what UFOs are, there are likely many different approaches at the individual level by people within government and the military. No matter how much we try to smooth away any individuality into a wall of military procedure and governmental bureaucracy, we are still left with individual agents capable of holding radically different beliefs and making different decisions in sensitive situations.

Parallel Discussions

Much like Mirage Men was both a book and a documentary film, I think it’s hard to fully appreciate UFOs without also viewing I Know What I Saw, a 2009 documentary directed by James Fox. Kean references this film and other documentaries; she is listed as a producer of the film; and she actually appears in the film itself, investigating along with Fox. I Know What I Saw includes the conference that Kean mentions, in which several of the writers in UFOmet and presented talks about their experiences. It was interesting to actually see these men share their stories, and not just read it. The documentary also offered photos and video clips that, while hardly convincing evidence of anything, were not contained within the book (further evidence, I think, that Kean recognized the problems with photographic evidence and tried to avoid using that as primary support). I Know What I Saw also interviewed many regular citizens who had witnessed mass sightings. And it also included an interview with former astronaut Gordon Cooper–perhaps the wildest story I’ve heard from someone who seems so credible.

I think that I Know What I Saw tended to be even more credulous than UFOs (especially with its reliance on so many civilian accounts), but it’s definitely an overlapping endeavor with the book. The book reinforces the movie, and the movie reinforces the book. I would recommend reviewing both close to simultaneously (and skeptically, and critically, but willing to get past the ridiculous UFO TV distribution introduction).

What Should be Studied?

To the extent that ufology is a real field, it still seems way too broad, and it’s too easy to make anyone an expert. Even efforts to study reincarnation, near-death experiences, ghosts, and ESP have actual experts in parapsychology research groups! (Just one example would be the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, among many others.) There are certainly intelligent people involved in ufology, including a handful of scientists, but most professional attention has been dismissive. Consequently, a good deal of UFO researchers are just everyday people who decided that this was an area that they could be experts in.

Ufology gets too caught up in lore. Crazy lore, with sweeping government conspiracies and extensive alien abductions. For ufology to be credible, I think it needs to be studied by credible experts and limited to a study of UFOs (which, I think, is Kean’s argument). It needs to dispense with the lore and drop the True Believer aliens-are-among-us crap. And it should not be concerned with alien abduction stories (I’m not familiar with alien abduction stories that, even if accepted as genuine accounts by the experiencers, couldn’t be adequately explained by things like sleep paralysis or false memories and hypnotic suggestion or a mental illness, and–correct me if I’m wrong–there’s no associated physical evidence out there to suggest it’s not just in the mind). What I suspect is that even something like alien abduction could probably benefit from skeptical, expert investigation by medical researchers to help determine what is actually causing these alleged events; our understanding of something like sleep paralysis or the cause of false memories still seems to be developing, and it is possible that some alien abduction cases could be explained by a yet-unknown mental condition. But combining alien abduction stories with the UFO phenomenon, and further suggesting that alien abduction stories represent literal interaction with aliens (or even somehow provide any useful data at all outside of a neurological perspective), is just harmful toward taking the subject of UFOs in any way seriously.

While I had some qualms with Kean’s book, I do appreciate how she provided a succinct argument that reopened my eyes to an honest appraisal of an unexplained phenomenon. In a way, this is frustrating, though: I see the problem, I’d like to see research efforts address it, but I am not an expert in any useful area, and any involvement on my own would likely just get in the way. So it is a problem, like most problems in the world, that I am not in a position to help solve. I hope that many “ufologists” can eventually take the hint and get out of the space, and that legitimate experts with valuable qualifications can actually start paying attention.

I want to believe that ufology can become a legitimate field.


Top image allegedly of a UFO in the Belgian wave of sightings, from Wikipedia.