UFO sightings have a strange and specific place at the intersection of real life and science fiction. Whatever explains them, sightings of unidentified flying objects are inarguably real and surprisingly common. According to recent Gallup polls, 41% of Americans believe that “some UFOs have been alien spacecraft visiting Earth from other planets or galaxies,” and 16% say they have personally witnessed an unidentified flying object.
In science fiction, the UFO sighting is usually a prelude to further significant developments. There’s the First Contact story (as in the excellent 2016 movie Arrival), the UFO Abduction story (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and of course the inevitable Alien Invasion story (Independence Day, The War of the Worlds, and many more). Such narratives leave little room for ambiguity about the UFOs’ true nature. They’re aliens, and they’re here.
When considering UFO sightings as a matter of actual public record, however, things get a bit blurrier. Most sightings can be easily explained away — weather balloon, atmospheric event, pareidolia (seeing a meaningful image in a random pattern). These events go way back. Depending on how you define it, the first bona fide UFO sighting could have been in Washington state in 1947, Bavaria in 1561, or the Roman province of Galatia circa 74 B.C.
If it seems like UFO sightings are being taken more seriously as of late, that’s because they are. In 2017, the New York Times began publishing a series of reports concerning unidentified aircraft sightings by U.S. military personnel. When the Times got interested, so did a lot of others. A cascade of revelations followed, concluding with an official Pentagon report to Congress in June 2021. The report was largely inconclusive, and it suggested replacing the term UFO with a new and broader acronym – unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAP.
Still, despite the official bafflement, some lifelong observers have some interesting ideas about what’s going on with these sightings.
David Halperin has studied UFO phenomena since the 1960s, but he’s not your typical ufologist. A longtime professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Halperin has spent much of his career making the case that UFO sightings are a kind of modern mythology — a collective psychological experience that can tell us a lot about where we are as a culture.
“A UFO encounter is a bona fide religious experience — something that comes from within the culture we share as a species.David Halperin, author of Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO
In 2020, Halperin published Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO, which examines the long history of UFO sightings through the lens of social science.
“A UFO encounter — insofar as it’s not just a simple misinterpretation of some unusually bright star or planet — is a bona fide religious experience,” Halperin says. “By that, I mean something that comes from within the culture we share as a species.” Alone or in a group, a sighting can have the flavor of a miracle or, in the secular mode, that moment of awe when you stand before a sunset or a great work of art.
Famed psychologist Carl Jung articulated this idea — of UFOs as a kind of collective psychological phenomena — even earlier in Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky. Published in 1959, the book argues that interest in UFOs tends to peak when we humans are most worried about our future. It’s a kind of involuntary spasm of the collective unconscious, triggered by perceived existential threats to our civilization.
In Jung’s time, the concern was the Cold War and potential nuclear annihilation. These days, Halperin suspects the cause is acute anxiety around ecological collapse. We’ve started to confront the deadly seriousness of climate change in recent years, and we’re worried. Halperin says UFOs, too, are part of our reaction to spiritual mysteries — what Jungians call the numinous. “It’s our culture’s way of obliquely dealing with the unknowable — death, God, the afterlife,” Halperin says. “It’s this fear that all of our lives are eventually going to be invaded by something alien that we have no control over.”
Halperin says this approach to UFO sightings can be useful to several “soft science” disciplines — psychology, anthropology, sociology. After decades at the far margins of legitimate scholarship, the concept has gotten more traction in recent years.
More and more academics are “taking a very serious interest,” Halperin says. “I used to get some rather nasty pushback with any kind of UFO talk.”
In March, Halperin submitted a paper to the Archives of the Impossible academic conference at Rice University in Houston. The conference is part of an ongoing effort to catalog research materials on taboo and marginalized topics in scholarship.
Halperin’s paper restates his core argument that UFO sightings aren’t really about UFOs; they’re about human beings. Whether UFOs are “real” is ultimately less interesting than the fact that we keep seeing them, over and over and over. And like science fiction, the UFO sighting can be useful as a mirror for looking at ourselves.
As for the recent change in official government lingo, from UFO to UAP, Halperin is not a fan. It happened back in the 1960s too, Halperin says, when UFO replaced the older “flying saucer” designation.
“I think the agenda … is to set aside all the cultural baggage that it’s accumulated,” he says. “But for me, the cultural baggage is the core phenomenon.”