In August of 1998, to celebrate my thirteenth birthday, my parents bought a TV for my bedroom. It was a used color TV from the mid ‘80s, complete with fake woodgrain sides and a first-generation remote control, and it was a conduit for a cultural awakening. I considered it my solemn duty to stay up until two in the morning so I could watch reruns of Keeping Up Appearances and M*A*S*H. I continued that ritual for three weeks straight, until the night my dad burst into my room in the middle of an episode of Mama’s Family, and whispered, “Come quick, there’s a UFO outside!”
As far as I was concerned, this was entirely plausible. First, Dad said he’d seen an unusual formation of lights moving erratically and soundlessly in the night sky; what little air traffic we got from our small local airport consisted entirely of private planes and commercial helicopters, and pretty much stopped after sundown. Second, we lived in the kind of place that you’d expect UFO sightings to happen: on a five-acre stretch of hillside about ten miles from the nearest town, in between a horse pasture, a cherry orchard, and a quarry. Third, we were right by the town of McMinnville, Oregon, home to the Trent UFO Sighting of 1950, and, consequently, the second-largest annual UFO Festival in the country, after Roswell’s, of course. And finally, I was a newly-minted teenager with an overactive imagination who’d been exposed to a few too many alien abduction stories.
So Dad and I scrambled outside in our pajamas (Mom had elected to stay in bed), with binoculars and camera at the ready. And sure enough, there was a triangular formation of lights off to the southeast. Except that it wasn’t moving erratically. Or all that soundlessly; we could just barely hear the distant but familiar hum of rotor blades. We looked at it through the binoculars and saw nothing more than a large cargo helicopter that was flying unusually low and unusually late at night.
“Well, I guess it wasn’t a UFO,” Dad said. An awkward pause. “Sorry to get you out here for nothing.”
In typical adolescent fashion, I muttered something about not caring that much, trying to project casual indifference. But truthfully, in those few moments, I’d experienced about as wide a range of emotions as I ever had (especially as my first kiss was still some months away): discovery, disappointment, and embarrassment, all because I still believed that yes, there really could be something unexplained out there.
Before I got my own bedroom set, my parents would only let me watch TV with them until 9 p.m. On most weeknights, we’d watch Seinfeld together; on Fridays, we’d watch Unsolved Mysteries.
It’s probably hard to imagine now, but in 1990, about sixteen million people tuned in every week to watch Robert Stack stalk around the screen in a trench coat and talk about murders, ghosts, demons, and aliens. (Here’s a representative example.) For contrast, nowadays a basic cable show about paranormal investigators is considered a surprise hit when it gets only two million viewers, and the major networks won’t even touch anything that takes the occult seriously.
And the show took it quite seriously. Stories about crop circles were presented alongside ones about true crime. Clairvoyants appeared with con men; ghosts with gold miners.
More so than Stack’s gravelly narration, the Gothic backdrops, or even the melodramatic re-enactments, this implied equivalence between reality and the paranormal kept me glued to the screen while the show was on — and thinking about it long after. The show paraded an endless supply of witnesses, experts, and authorities that wore down at my sense of skepticism over the show’s decade-long run on NBC. It was easy to attribute the Nazca Lines and pictographs of Ancient Astronauts to the crazy beliefs of prehistoric people, and to ignore the hokey animated flying saucers as low-budget sexing-up of an unreliable story. But what about the respectable Joe and Jane Six-Packs who claimed, for instance, that they were abducted and tortured in the wilderness of Pennsylvania, or that they suffered debilitating radiation exposure at the hands of a UFO? What about the footage of lights doing mysterious things in the skies over major cities? And what about the real-live physicists and NASA analysts — armed with tape-fed supercomputers and image enhancement software! [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2lPrgHT0y4] — who could make something as farfetched as the Face on Mars seem legitimate? Who was I to argue against all this?
For years, watching Unsolved Mysteries was the last real activity I did before bed on Friday nights. And so, while I was brushing my teeth or taking a shower, I’d actually replay the segments from the show — at least, all the ones that weren’t true crime stories — in my head. Aliens populated more than a few of my dreams, and lurked around the edges of my consciousness as I was falling asleep, too: I’d often startle awake when a twig would snap outside or the headlights of a passing car would shine into my room in the middle of the night, thinking that by the time I opened my eyes I’d find a pair of blob-headed humanoids standing over me.
In time, aliens became a waking interest of mine, too. During summer vacations, I would make my way through the occult section at the local library; to this day, I can still remember the standard taxonomy of aliens, from Greys and reptilians to Men in Black and energy beings. My bedroom bookshelf featured not just pristine editions of Robinson Crusoe and The Giver but also books like My Teacher is an Alien and A Wrinkle in Time that were full of extraterrestrials. And yes, I have to admit it, I faithfully watched the last few seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. (And played the collectible card game, and built starship models…)
But by 1998, I’d glutted myself on all things alien-related, and I was ready to move on. Incidentally, so was Unsolved Mysteries: Robert Stack now shared hosting duties on Unsolved Mysteries with the telegenic Virginia Madsen, and the show now focused more on crime than the paranormal anyway. I quickly got into the habit of drowning out what little dread and fascination that alien abduction stories still inspired with the glut of mediocre syndicated sitcoms that aired after 11 p.m. — goodbye E.T., hello Al Bundy.
Dad’s fake UFO sighting was the last, failed test of my extraterrestrial interest. Of course I was disappointed that we weren’t going to make some kind of first contact, but even more so I was disappointed that I’d let myself believe that it was, in fact, a possibility. My sense of skepticism had been battered into submission by culture and circumstance, but it was time to worry about grownup things like girls, grades, and cars and give my hyperactive, hypersensitive imagination a rest. I got back in bed and resolved never to get spooked by things that go bump in the night again.
Faith is all-or-nothing proposition. As Don Draper put it, “You already know about Jesus; either he lives in your heart, or doesn’t.” And allowing your faith to lapse is not nearly the same thing as disavowing it altogether, whether you believe in God or nature spirits or the existence of extraterrestrial invaders; it can come back at any time, as if you’ve never stopped believing at all.
In August of 2002, the movie Signs came out, and about a dozen of my high school friends and I went to watch it in theaters. It was a sort of valedictory gathering for us: the next morning, I’d be off to my parents’ new place in Ohio before starting college on the East Coast. I felt like I was on the cusp of true, bittersweet adulthood, about to experience not just the highs of starting a new life in college, but also the lows of leaving a past one behind.
For all its faults, the movie unearthed the neuroses that had lain dormant for four years. It’s true that there were plenty of jump-scares, when weird humanoid arms appeared out of nowhere along with a jolt of orchestral noise. But I also saw some of my worst fears — isolation, powerlessness, abduction by malevolent aliens — writ large across the face of Mel Gibson and his family. Even the corny, nonsensical ending didn’t change the fact that I was starting to feel my preteen anxieties start to creep back into my psyche.
If culture conjured up my old psychological demons, then circumstance made them stick around. It just so happened that my parents’ new place was a one-story house in the middle of a cornfield in a nondescript Midwestern town — the kind of place where you might find crop circles and the occasional terrifying alien on the roof. And once again, I found myself bolting upright whenever I heard a little too much rustling outside, or when a car’s headlights shone into my room. UFOs became just as plausible a fear as if I was twelve, all over again. Real adulthood, it seemed, was still a ways away.
Photo by Heather Durdil