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Monday, 15 October 2012

Review – ‘UFOs: Conspiracy Road Trip’

This evening brought to an end Andrew Maxwell’s entertaining three-part conspiracy road trip series tackling one of the most popular and enduring themes with conspiracy theorists: UFOs. Whereas in the first episode on the 7/7 bombings he was able to change the minds of all but one of the five conspiracy theorists, in this episode the ratio ultimately turned out to be reversed. As in previous programmes, each of the five – billed as “British UFO experts” – possessed their own personal reason for believing the things that they did, and each told a story that was quite unique.

Brigitte’s Story: Another Day in LA
The first to divulge the reason for her belief in UFOs being extraterrestrial craft was Brigitte, a likeable mother of three from Devon who some 19 years ago had been working in Los Angeles. Whilst there, she recounted how one day she had been at the wheel of her car approaching at a busy interchange near to the Holiday Inn, when a 45-foot metallic silver hard solid object glided over the back boot of the car in front of her, flying past the Holiday Inn and “ploughing through the tops of trees”. She says that she was “transfixed”, with her hands prised to the steering wheel, her eyes watering and her whole body feeling physically sick. Even some of her fellow UFO believers appeared to be sceptical of her account, for how could an object of such a size pass over such a busy area and be seen by nobody else? Her response was to ask “What if everyone else was transfixed, just as I was?”

At this point in the programme, Brigitte stated that she had had her first encounter with aliens at the age of seven, when they had visited her at home and that since then they had kept coming back for her. However, it was left to near the close of the programme for it to be revealed that moments after her LA UFO sighting, she felt as if she had been sucked through her steering wheel, through the dashboard and the engine, then finding herself in a field before some aliens, who tried to offer her an alien child. She even agreed to participate in a lie-detector test to verify her story, but Maxwell rather humanely decided to intervene and put a stop to it going ahead.

Brigitte’s story led to a visit to speak to the “world-renowned astronomer” Seth Shostak who works for SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Shostak pointed out that current scientific extrapolations suggest that there are circa a trillion planets in our galaxy alone, and the idea that our planet alone hosts life is thus vanishingly small; the galaxy is probably teeming with life, but we have yet to see it. He quizzed Brigitte on her LA sighting and asked why she thought what she had seen was an extraterrestrial craft and whether she had any evidence – such as a photograph – or whether there had been any corroborating reports (there had not). He pointed out that academics were not working on alien visitations for the straightforward reason that the evidence was so lacking and so poor, that it was not worth investigating.

Another member of the group – Darren – made the peculiar claim that there are parts of space that the Hubble Space Telescope will not point at, under order of NASA and the military, for that is where the aliens are located. Shostak, of course, did not subscribe to such an outlandish conspiracy theory, but Darren remained unconvinced, thinking that Shostak’s body language was suspicious. Later, Shostak noted whilst speaking to Maxwell that some found conspiracy theory “to be very empowering” as it seemingly put them above scientists and the scientific establishment.

All five of the UFO believers subscribed to the belief in a joint NASA/US Government conspiracy to hold back information about extraterrestrial visitors, with one of them going so far as to claim that aliens probably controlled the World.

Ben’s Belief: Created by Aliens
The youngest of the bunch – 25-year-old Ben from Durham –claimed that he and his girlfriend saw an orb outside his bedroom window that split into six pieces (although later in the programme he seemed to contradict himself by referring to a different number). For some reason, this had led him to subscribe to a creation theory in which humans – rather like in Ridley Scott’s recent flawed release Prometheus – had been created by extraterrestrials, in their image: “Who’s to say that God wasn’t a living, breathing extraterrestrial?”

Maxwell’s attempt to persuade Ben to look afresh at his beliefs involved a visit to Flagstaff, Arizona where he was introduced to leading evolutionary biologist P.Z. Myers, who noted how remarkable it was that most accounts of aliens described creatures bearing an incredible likeness to “infantilised human beings”. He pointed out how although it was probable that there was life elsewhere in the galaxy, it would be a remarkable coincidence if such beings were to resemble humans so closely, for many of our “features are contingent – historical accidents”; why should aliens not have eyes on the sides of their heads or noses on top of them? Ben seemed to be swayed to some extent by Myers’s argument.

A shop situated on a highway well known for its UFO associations was visited. Unsurprisingly, it contained a great deal of alien-themed tat, and seemed to be doing a reasonable enough trade.

Scott’s Nightmare: Alien Invasion
Next up as the focus of attention was Scott, a 32-year-old telecoms engineer from Swindon. Married with two children Scott had some very unusual beliefs that did not seem to be having a healthy influence upon his personal life. He believes that he has been attacked by aliens in his own home, starting with “a mind attack – breaking down his brain” which was followed by a physical attack. They got closer and closer but he states that he managed to break free. The sort of bedroom scenario he described, appeared to be akin to a nightmarish lucid dreaming state that in former times often gave rise to the concepts of incubi and succubi.

This incident had unfortunately precipitated his belief that Earth is being subjected to an alien invasion, which he has been preparing to combat for over a year. His preparations include the gathering of supplies of tinned food and ready meals and an axe for self-defence. His main fear that had arisen was that of “alien mind control” which had led to him making a tinfoil hat to help protect his brain: “a simple force-shield”. We saw his wife applying this to his head and him then donning a woolly hat before appearing in public. One of the things that he most enjoyed about his trip to the USA was the opportunity to practise shooting aliens (well, cardboard cut-outs of them) with a sub-machinegun and a handgun. Maxwell asked if he could not concentrate on something other than aliens and arming himself to protect his family from them. Thankfully, by the end of the programme Scott had at least agreed to drop this harmful alien obsession, which must be both good news and a relief for his wife and young children.

Darren’s Obsession: Animal Mutilation
Next came Darren, a 33-year-old “hard-boiled UFO investigator” from Shrewsbury who investigates crop circles, animal mutilations and alien abductions (se seemed to have a particularly unappealing obsession with the mutilations, about which he gathers “lots of information” in his capacity of head of a UFO group). He believes that the military works with aliens on a biotech lab in the country and that he has been targeted by aliens, by a laser-beam to be precise (and you can’t get much more precise than a laser) in a field. He says that he felt like he’d been electrocuted.

Maxwell’s tactic to try and convince Darren that such beliefs were perhaps less than rational was to introduce him to “a seasoned UFO investigator” named Chris O’Brien whose theories were even more outlandish. However, both men shared a special interest in animal mutilations, and O’Brien led the group to the type of farmland where such attacks are alleged to take place. He possessed a range of strange theories, including collaboration between the UN or some other international organisation and aliens in targeting animals and removing specific organs, claiming that this had something to do with cancer research. Alternatively, he attributed it to an “ancient predatory presence” consisting of “interdimensional beings” that could move into our world and remove animal organs and other parts for their own specific uses, which he claimed could include cookery. Rather than make Darren re-evaluate the oddity of his own beliefs, he instead thought that there could be some credibility in O’Brien’s tales.

Frankie’s Vision
The last of the five – a full-time mum from Logan named Frankie – told Maxwell of her experience out of earshot of the others. She said that nine years ago she “had a mind-bending experience” in her kitchen listening to Kylie and that the back of her spine lit up with energy and that a back part of her brain that she’d never used before switched on. She had a vision of a spaceship city, and realised in an instant that aliens and humans co-exist in different realities. Although she did not wish to meet him, psychologist Michael Shermer publisher of the Skeptic Magazine, was invited onto the coach. He stated: “we investigate all sorts of pseudo-scientific baloney”. Frankie described him as “a two-bit hustler” and was only willing to give him five minutes as she thought that his position was “bullshit”.

Despite Frankie’s negative preconceptions, Shermer’s visit was well received, and his description of “anomalous psychological experiences” had everyone listening. He noted that they were often brought on by sleep deprivation, and gave one example of a phenomenon common to climbers on K2, who often sense that there’s another climber on the rope when there’s not actually anybody there. Shermer asked: “Are there aliens out there? Can they come here? Most scientists think that life is teeming in the galaxy. We are very irrational, emotional beings who misinterpret things all the time.” The mind can play strange tricks on people, and nobody is immune. What does differ however, is the manner in which individuals choose to interpret unusual experiences and psychological phenomena, with some, not unnaturally, wishing to externalise these internal glitches as it were, rather than admit to themselves that their experience has been a product of their internal world.

Area 51
Having failed to make much if any headway in challenging the beliefs of his five UFO conspiracy theorists, Maxwell took them to what must be the UFO conspiracists’ favourite location: Area 51. Before doing so however, they visited John Lear who had worked at the military facility over a long period for the CIA. He, it turned out, had one of the strangest tales of the evening, claiming that the two Roswell crashes in 1947 left behind them two live aliens and three dead. One remained alive whilst he was there and resided in “a big half sphere”. However, the aliens are not allowed to give us an overt message, and have been around for billions of years. This in itself was odd enough, but Lear was to make even wilder claims such as: the Earth is 11 billion years old, whereas the Moon is 20 billion years old and was fabricated in the middle of Jupiter. He also pointed at a picture of the barren surface of the Moon and claimed to be able to see a city, an aeroplane and trees, and that at least 1.5 billion people lived on its surface! There was of course nothing in the picture other than craters, shadows and dust, but that is not what this old man could see. Ben was shocked by this, but, oddly, the others were not.

The group next headed to Area 51 itself and foolishly, given that it is a top-secret military base, strayed past the checkpoint and were promptly made to lie on the ground at gunpoint until the local sheriff was able to extricate them from their situation. It seems to me that the only mystery about Area 51 is why anyone would think that there should be some extraterrestrial cover-up, for it is a top-secret military base where the U2, stealth bomber and who knows what else has been tested. Indeed, the Las Vegas author Annie Jacobson who is an expert on Area 51 has interviewed 74 men who lived and worked on the base and not one mentioned an alien or alien life-forms. For her, the UFO myth seems to fit with the CIA’s deliberated policy of information and disinformation, with stories of UFOs providing a convenient cover for top-secret spy planes (this was also a common tactic in the Soviet Union). She claims to have come across a lot of information that the CIA deliberately uses UFOs as convenient cover, and this explanation strikes me as eminently logical.

However, Jacobson had one last peculiar twist to add to her explanation: one source had claimed that Stalin had sent a saucer-shaped craft to the US in 1947 piggy-backing on a larger aircraft, that it had crashed in the Arizona Desert and had subsequently been held in Area 51. It was claimed that its crew were “non-consenting airmen who had been surgically altered to look like Martians.” Surgically mutilated Russians flying a top-secret Soviet saucer? Stalin may have been a scheming sadist who cared little for human life, but this story sounds like a piece of contemporary military folk myth.

Andrew Maxwell proved to be an affable host and presenter throughout this programme and its two predecessors, and it left me wishing to see his earlier documentary on 9/11 which I missed at the time of its screening. That in this last episode he enjoyed scant success in getting the programme’s participants to reconsider their views illustrates how powerful some conspiracy theories are, and how they can be employed as a framework that some find personally meaningful in making sense of the world. It is just unfortunate, however, that subscribing to some conspiracy theories can have negative implications for some of us, as Scott’s wife and children discovered.

Brigitte's LA UFO


  1. This was the first of the 'Conspiracy' series that I sat through, but the moment Scott put on his tin-foil hat I thought I was watching a comedy! I just burst out laughing when his wife wrapped it around his head, was this guy seriously doing this on national TV?

    My thoughts are of his wife and kids and the ridicule they are no doubt having to endure after the programme was aired. I'm surprised a man would do that to his family.

    Overall, for me at least, the show lacked substance. It was like they found five people with wacky ideas/visions/beliefs and paraded them around without actually showing any real or tangible evidence to either support or dismiss their claims.

    I do think Brigitte should have gone ahead with the polygraph test, at least if she passed it would have provided some 'proof' to the viewer, instead we are left thinking 'was she telling the truth?'

    I'm not a fan of the BBC, but I wonder had the show been made by another channel/production company, would it have been better?

    1. Admittedly, I was rather concerned about how the children of the various participants might get a lot of stick at school over the weird beliefs of their parents. Now I know where the term “tinfoil hat” comes from! As for polygraph tests, they are deeply flawed, for people of a naturally nervous disposition might appear that they’re lying when they’re telling the truth. Moreover, if someone is convinced that they are telling the truth, the fact of a reading indicating this self-belief does not demonstrate the reality or otherwise of the experience being recounted by the person being tested, for it could be the product of hallucination or delusion. Thus, if Brigitte had gone ahead with the test, a result ostensibly indicating that she “had told the truth” would not convince me of the veracity of her report for a number of very obvious reasons.


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