I can’t say I’ve ever seen a UFO or that I believe that aliens have visited Earth, but as a person who loves science and science fiction, I’d love to believe there’s something out there. That’s why I was so drawn to the book The Close Encounters Man: How One Man Made the World Believe in UFOs by Mark O’Connell (June 13, Dey Street Books). It presented a UFO framework that I could understand: rather than focusing on the sightings and proving or disproving various UFO events, O’Connell focuses instead on a man pivotal within UFO culture.
J. Allen Hynek was an Air Force investigator tasked with, basically, debunking UFO stories, and he did his job diligently. But over the course of his career, his outlook on UFOs transformed: he turned from a skeptic into a true believer. In this book, O’Connell delves into the man and what he discovered over the course of Hynek’s life that, finally, made him believe in UFOs. The author, Mark O’Connell, was kind enough to sit down with me to talk about his journey in writing the book and his own experiences with UFOs.
Unbound Worlds: Can you tell me about your personal history with UFOs?
Mark O’Connell: I’ve been drawn to the UFO phenomenon since I was a little boy. My mom was a librarian in the small town in Wisconsin where I grew up, and she would often take me with her when she worked. With all that time on my hands at the library, I gravitated to two bookshelves: the one with books about cars and the one with books about UFOs and the paranormal (ghosts, Bigfoot, poltergeists, the Bermuda Triangle, and all such mysterious happenings). I still don’t know why exactly, but I was both captivated and terrified by tales of UFOs and aliens.
UW: What made you want to write this book?
MOC: A few years ago I was doing research for my somewhat tongue-in-cheek UFO blog when I discovered that the UFO research archives of Dr. J. Allen Hynek’s Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) were housed not far from where I then lived in Chicago. I requested access to the late Dr. Hynek’s files and when I started digging deep into his career, I was amazed at the influence he has had on our world both as a UFO researcher and as an astronomer. His work has affected pop culture and modern science in quite remarkable ways, and I became determined to find out how his dual careers informed each other. I soon found that Northwestern University, where Hynek taught for many years, and the University of Chicago, where he went to school, also had phenomenal archival collections tracing Hynek’s fascinating scientific career, and both of these were also just a few miles from where I lived. It was obvious that a book was begging to be written, and the universe seemed to be inviting me to write it.
UW: UFOs are such a touchy subject. The second a person mentions them, there seems to be instinctual eye rolling from those unfamiliar with the history. But there are so many documented cases, and so many people have similar accounts of what they saw and what happened to them. Why do you think there’s such an automatic mistrust of UFOs in society today?
MOC: I have a unique take on this question, because as I was writing my book I was also working as a “Certified UFO Field Investigator” for the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), the world’s largest amateur UFO research organization, familiar to many from their mentions in numerous cable TV programs. I did this in large part as a way to learn firsthand what kinds of people and stories Dr. Hynek encountered in his work. What kind of person sees a UFO? What kind of person has the intestinal fortitude to “go public” with his or her experience, and why do they make that choice?
What I have found, over and over again, is that you must ignore the eye-rolling, because it’s very possible that the person doing the most eye-rolling is the one who has a secret UFO story that he or she has never shared with anyone (but would gladly share if they felt they wouldn’t be ridiculed). I have seen this in family members, I have seen it in friends, over and over again. Just a few weeks ago a friend who I consider pretty straight-laced heard me talking about UFOs and shyly admitted to me that he had had a UFO experience on a camping trip when he was a boy. He was visibly anxious and afraid as he told me his story, and I know for a fact that he never would have shared it with me if he hadn’t heard me mention the topic. So, what you see as “automatic distrust” I see as more of a social filter. There are many more people just dying to talk about a secret UFO experience than you can imagine!
UW: How did you approach writing this and making it relevant and interesting for those up to speed on UFO history but also those who know little about it? Or is it primarily aimed at a newer audience?
MOC: My goal was to write a book that would meet the expectations of UFO buffs while also being accessible to the UFO-curious and the UFO-skeptical. A big flaw I see in many UFO books is that the authors set out to “prove” one thing or another and then inevitably fail. I think this is because the writers are trying to prove things that can’t really be proven—Are UFOs a “nuts-and-bolts” physical phenomenon? Are they craft from another planet? Did a UFO crash outside Roswell in July, 1947? Does the government have secret contacts with aliens from space?
I didn’t set out to prove anything one way or another, and so I never had to worry about painting myself into a logical corner, or closing my book with a disappointing let-down. I think that, by recounting the history of UFOs through the eyes of Dr. Hynek, who was literally on the scene within hours or days of many of the most spectacular UFO incidents on record, and mirroring Hynek’s open-minded approach to these incidents, I give the reader a new way to experience the UFO phenomenon without feeling silly about it. I try not to persuade the reader one way or another, but to present the facts of the cases, Joe Friday-style, as they were reported by the witnesses, by the Air Force, and by Dr. Hynek, and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.
UW: Where are we on UFO sightings now? Are they still occurring regularly?
MOC: UFOs continue to be sighted, and reported, every day, all around the world, by people from all walks of life. Groups like MUFON, and the preponderance of UFO-themed TV shows, have provided people with a reason and a means to report unusual things they’ve seen. I know from my experience with MUFON that many people will see something on a cable TV show that resembles something they’ve seen, and that is enough to spur them to report their own experience. Many of these sightings, surprisingly, have taken place many years in the past; the witness has kept his or her experience a secret for years, sometimes decades, and then a simple TV show inspires them to finally talk about what happened to them. It’s really a universal, equal-opportunity phenomenon.
Having said all that, I must also say that the vast majority of UFO reports are, as they were in Hynek’s time, misidentifications of purely ordinary things in the sky (Chinese Lanterns are particularly popular these days) or out-and-out hoaxes. It was Hynek’s experience that about 80 percent of UFO reports, year-in and year-out, were explainable as hoaxes or misidentification of ordinary objects or natural atmospheric or astronomical phenomenon, but that the remaining 20 remained tantalizingly unexplained. Those were the cases he thought worthy of research, and, from my experience, that 80/20 split remains in force today.
UW: What’s one thing you want readers to know about your book?
MOC: It’s a UFO book that you don’t have to hide when other people are around.