September 08, 1986 12:00 PM

In June 1947 Kenneth Arnold, a businessman-pilot flying near Mount Rainier in Washington, saw nine disk-shaped objects flipping around the summit. Upon landing he told his story, and at his next stop found several reporters waiting. Arnold had trouble describing the mystery objects, but one of the newsmen concocted a term that America would not quickly forget. The next day a headline trumpeted the arrival of “flying saucers.”

The ensuing three decades were abundant with flying saucer sightings and endless speculation about where the crafts came from. The public’s attention eventually wandered from the charismatic “contactees” who claimed to have communed with the saucers’ crews, but was quickly recaptured by ebullient pulp-magazine reports on the aliens. After 1973 the number of sightings dropped dramatically, but more than half the respondents in a 1978 Gallup poll said they still believed in the saucers. Two thousand sightings were reported to one UFO monitoring group last year alone.

In 1977 Douglas Curran, a Canadian photographer, set off on a seven-year, 125,000-mile odyssey around North America, visiting the truest of those true believers, those for whom belief has become faith. His book about them, entitled In Advance of the Landing: Folk Concepts of Outer Space (Abbeville, $16.95) has been acclaimed by such 20th-century pulse-takers as William S. Burroughs and Tom Wolfe, who came to know such people while researching The Right Stuff. Curran, 34, who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, discussed his adventures with Senior Writer David Van Biema. “Parts of my trip were pure lunacy,” says the photographer, who does not share his subjects’ beliefs. “But America is lunacy. Life is lunacy, if you get a chance at it. They were true Christians, in their own way. They didn’t require that I believe—only that I listen.”

How many people have organized their lives around a belief in flying saucers?

There are several thousand in the U.S. They are white, mostly Protestant, urban or suburban. There are more of them in California and the South, although I’ve found some in Michigan and Canada. They are people with cars, with jobs—not hermits, not people struggling for the basics of life. Before coming to flying saucers, many of them dabbled in spiritualism or some other sort of mysticism. One of the most interesting things about most of them is their normality.

Can their belief in spacemen really be called normal?

It might seem more familiar to you than you expect. These people’s beliefs are more an extrapolation of Christian faith than a renunciation of it. They all use the Bible, and most are fundamentalists in that they believe it literally. But they put it in a broader context: Christ is usually seen as an early representative of visitors from space who have continued to stay in contact with humans.

In order to help us, as Christ did?

Usually. Most of these groups see Earth as a place of low consciousness, or a place of exile for the souls of those who were antisocial in a previous lifetime. These groups work toward the day when they will graduate back into interplanetary life. The reason the space beings make contact with us, these people believe, is that the beings are concerned about something we are doing that poses a danger either to us or the entire universe.

Such as?

Traditionally the concern has been about nuclear weapons. In the late ’40s there was a very high anxiety level about the danger of atomic attack. Into this charged atmosphere came a phenomenon no one could figure out, the flying saucer sightings. The world was looking for answers, and the first “contactees” provided one, confirming our own fears about the bomb and nuclear testing. Since then several groups have adapted in response to world events. In the early ’70s the space people began warning about pollution as well as the bomb, and after the 1977 energy crisis, the non-internal combustion nature of their spacecraft engines became more pronounced. The literature for one group promised that the aliens would bring about “transreceiver power,” which would provide “free unrestricted energy to every family.”

That sounds like good old American populism.

There’s a lot about this that is peculiarly American. For Americans, the future is an ever-expanding, ever-better venue holding great promise, and traditionally that promise is realized through technology. In England, aliens would probably have to be well-read to establish their superiority. Here, it’s “Their technology is superior to ours, ergo they are wiser than us.” Some believers have developed very complex equipment that they say was inspired by the space people. The Aetherius Society in Hollywood has a vast collection of “radionics” gear, ranging from a floating Plexiglas pyramid “energy radiator” to the “spiritual battery,” which is charged through prayer and used to avert potential catastrophes, such as California’s falling into the sea. A young man in Michigan has developed so much electronics expertise in creating his UFO detecting station that the local utility uses him as a trouble-shooter. That blend of technical know-how and faith—the dream and the pragmatism together—is uniquely American.

What is the most indelible memory of your journey?

Maybe the Unarius Conclave of Light. The Unarians were founded in 1954 by Ruth and Ernest L. Norman and have headquarters in El Cajon, Calif. They believe that Earth is constantly observed by the Space Brothers of the Intergalactic Confederation, and that if we on Earth raise our consciousness enough, we may be allowed to become the 33rd member of the confederation.

What was the conclave like?

It was held in the Town and Country Convention Center in San Diego. It began with a fanfare and Ravel’s Bolero on tape, as a man in a white-and-purple toga ushered in a procession of maidens strewing rose petals, a “wise man” carrying the “book of life,” and finally Ruth Norman. Since her husband’s death in 1971, Ruth has realized her identity as the Archangel Uriel, the “cosmic generator” and chief contact with the space brothers. Uriel is now 86. She was brought in on a palanquin carried by “Nubian slaves” with gilded beach thongs. Everyone was dressed in costumes from their past lives on their respective planets. They were wearing gold-and-silver lame tunics, emerald sequined turbans and pillbox hats. There were about 400 of them. It was high mass and a day at the Colosseum wrapped into one.

What was the most touching moment you experienced?

Perhaps with Ed Kelcheski, at the hangar of the Bluebird flying saucer on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Bluebird was a “Venusian-type” saucer built by a group calling itself the Advanced Scientific Development Project. The Bluebird was supposed to fly by harnessing the latent energy of the “lines of force,” which this group believes are the building blocks of the universe. It was expected to use their energy to power a magnetic field, causing the skirt of the saucer to rotate, creating a “hydrodynamic lift” and allowing the Bluebird to fly off to heaven. As the saucer rose from Earth the skies would be darkened by the convergence of friendly flying saucers, and those of us left on the ground would recognize the ills of our ways, fall on our knees and operate by the Universal Law thereafter.

That didn’t happen?

The Bluebird was never finished. Ed Kelcheski took me to the hangar, which filled with light as he opened it, and began walking among piles of scrap and debris. In the middle was the frame of the Bluebird, but it was empty; there had been problems connecting the “free energy motor.” Then tears came to his eyes, and he muttered, “It hurts to see this, you know. There were so many dreams tied up in this.” He’s dead now, died in 1981.

You don’t agree that Earth has been visited—and is being visited—by extraterrestrials. Why did you take the time to get to know these people?

I may not share their belief, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad thing. Everyone has anxieties, and everyone has to find ways to cope. As ways go, this is a lot less harmful than four-wheel-driving through nature preserves or becoming a nation of warmongers. The people who have been active in Unarius, who have been involved in the idea of the space brothers coming in and raising Earth’s consciousness, have all told me it has had a positive effect on their lives. It’s brought them a kind of sureness and confidence. And there’s another thing that appeals to me. These people are rooted right in the mainstream of American life, in the midst of all the supposed sameness, temporariness and superficiality of today’s existence, and with this great weight of reality we have on us. They exhibit this incredible texture of belief and imagination and yearning. I think that’s great. I think it’s terrific that we haven’t, as a culture, lost the ability to dream.

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