David Halperin, “Intimate Alien”: UFOs, aliens, and religion (book review)

Bron illustratie: Stanford University Press

(P.S. Below is the English translation of the Dutch review that was published yesterday.)

UFOs, unidentified flying objects – scientists usually ignore this subject. It is seen as the stuff of conspiracy thinkers, the mentally ill, or in short: the “UFO-crazies”. Nevertheless, in recent years books have been published that approach the subject in a serious manner. One of those books was published just last week by Stanford University Press. I am talking about Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO by the American religion scientist David J. Halperin, an expert in Judaism. Halperin taught at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and published books on Jewish mysticism and messianism. But he also has a keen interested in UFOs since his teens.

Different approaches

In “ufology” one can discern different approaches, which can briefly be split into two categories. There are people of the nuts and bolts approach. For them, UFOs are material vehicles of unknown yet perhaps alien origin. This is a branch of UFO research that deals with tangible evidence (photos, films, radar images, physical traces, etc.). The other category admittedly accepts that UFOs can have material effects, but UFOs are mainly seen as ‘psychosocial entities’: they have more to do with the psyche of the person who has perceived a UFO or who claims to have been kidnapped by strange beings than that they are actually about physical objects.

Halperin can be placed in the second category. During his teens, he was fascinated, no: obsessed with UFOs. Together with a school friend, he founded a UFO club and published a magazine. But as Halperin grew older, he slowly lost interest in UFOs and came to realize that the nuts and bolts approach may not be the right path to unravel the mystery of the UFO.

He now thinks that UFOs are hallucinations. Or put it more nuanced – because Halperin is definitely not a debunker – UFO experiences do indeed often have a material component that acts as a stimulus, but the real content of the UFO sighting or of the abduction experience is predominantly psychological in nature. According to Halperin, UFOs are therefore not vehicles that contain space-traveling aliens, but they are human phenomena. They say nothing about extraterrestrial life, but all about humans and their relationship to reality.

Jungian approach

Although he mentions Jacques Vallee as a predecessor, Halperin gradually emerges in the book as a fairly loyal follower of C.G. Jung, who was also fascinated by UFOs. Jung also emphasized the psychological character of UFOs (although he struggled with those UFO sightings in which material aspects also play a major role, such as traces of landing gear in the ground). Jung also stated that the psychological reality of UFOs was indeed different from physical reality, yet that psychic reality should in no way be considered inferior to physical reality. A UFO experience is therefore fully real for the person who experiences it.

Halperin goes so far as to follow Jung that he considers UFOs as a myth, defined as the emergence and unfolding of something from the shared unconscious, which may be the most profound and terrible of truths (230-231). Or as it is written above Halperin’s blog: UFOs are a myth. Myths are real. UFOs, according to Halperin, deal with ancient, deeply disguised layers of the human psyche that Jung called the “collective unconscious.” Hence, the right question to ask about the nature of UFOs is not what UFOs are and where they come from, but what they mean. What do UFO experiences have to say to the person they happen to?

However, Halperin’s view also differs from Jung’s. In his books – and also in his UFO book – Jung suggests that the collective unconscious sometimes, under extreme circumstances, can express itself in an objective, tangible form. A manifestation then takes place, something psychic and therefore subjective, which is expressed in the objective space. Synchronicities are examples of this. It also explains Jung’s great interest in parapsychology. Halperin does not seem to agree with all of this. UFO sightings do have an objective component, namely a material stimulus that gives rise to the UFO experience in the first place. But then the psyche takes over, so that the UFO experience is ultimately just a hallucination triggered by something from the outside.

That is where questions arise for me. Where does the collective unconscious come from? How did it originate? And how is it passed on? Through our DNA? While it may be true that a UFO experience has no objective content, Halperin acknowledges that the experience itself is completely real for the person who experiences such an experience. However, the same applies to psychotic patients who are in a delirium. Their experiences are also reality in such a way that they act on it (at the risk of their own or other people’s lives). How does a UFO experience differ from a psychosis? Halperin does not answer that.

Slavery past and condom UFOs

The book has a strongly personal character, which is what makes it a sympathetic read. It’s also about Halperin himself, about his own past fascination with UFOs. In a touching manner Halperin describes how his obsession with UFOs in his teens was a way to deal with his mother’s incurable illness and her eventual death. UFOs were a way for him to give meaning to a personal trauma, to deal with the frightening strangeness of death. As he slowly became aware of this, he gradually lost interest in UFOs. Halperin shows how in various UFO stories, such as those of Betty and Barney Hill and Whitley Strieber, UFOs and aliens are also about personal trauma and collective unconscious representations of death and suffering.

As interesting as I find the book, I personally think that Halperin’s main thesis is a leap too far. He explains the classic abduction case of Betty and Barney Hill as a “reenactment” of slavery. Betty was a white man, Barney a black man who still felt like an outsider in American society in the 1960s. Halperin shows that the physical torture Barney described in the spaceship matches the way slave traders dealt with slaves. According to Halperin, Barney was once again enslaved by the aliens, and so was Betty, even though as a white woman she remained cooler about it than Barney.

Another example of such a psychosocial explanation is Halperin’s description of the UFO flap in Belgium from the period of 1989-1990. Flying triangles were then observed throughout Belgium. Halperin explains that the Belgians experienced a kind of collective hallucination related to the processing of the then historical situation of NATO (which had its headquarters in Brussels) and the fall of the Berlin wall and thus the decline of communism .

A final example: four people in the 1970s see a UFO. A UFO researcher asks the foursome to draw a picture of the UFO separately. Three draw a floating flat disk, the fourth draws an elongated device with a spotlight on the nose. Someone who sees the drawing may notice that it looks very much like a condom tearing at the top, causing the semen to squirt out. And indeed, Halperin writes, two of the four were a couple. The girl was pregnant from the boy who saw the condom UFO. This was at a time when pregnancy outside of marriage was still a taboo in the US. Here too, the UFO expresses cloaked trauma.

I’m fully aware that these summaries do not do justice to the complexity and nuance of Halperin’s book. Halperin writes with warmth and understanding, he writes with mild humor and self-mockery, but does not ridicule UFOs anywhere in the book. Nor is he interested in reducing UFOs to delusions. Again, he believes that psychic reality is as real as the physical. The people who report UFOs and abduction are not mentally ill, they are ordinary people who live in the realization that something extraordinary has happened to them.

Religious phenomenon

Even though I have trouble with the psychosocial thesis that Halperin defends – on the one hand because the existence of a collective unconscious is just as unprovable as the thesis that UFOs are alien visitors, on the other hand because one can always find a psychological twist on UFO experiences so that psychologization hardly ever becomes falsifiable – I do think the book is more than worth reading. In fact, Halperin summarizes the entire UFO history of twentieth history. It is not about bizarre conspiracy theories related to reptiles or Nazis but he writes about the classic cases of the ‘men in black’, about ancient UFOs in the Bible, about the ‘Shaver mystery’ (Richard Shaver and Raymond Palmer, the men who contributed to the myth of the ‘hollow earth’) and about the Roswell crash, to which he also gives a psychosocial interpretation. The idea that UFOs must have a psychosocial explanation goes too far for me. But Halperin describes enough details to convincingly make a case that UFOs populate a dimension between the material and the spiritual, between the objective and the subjective, which explains why they’re so difficult to study.

A UFO sighting cannot be pigeonholed, it is always an amalgam of objective materiality and subjective mentality. To suggest a reenactment of slavery as a sufficient explanation for Betty and Barney Hills’ UFO experience is too short-sighted. But Halperin’s description of that case does give so many details that it does make me look at the case slightly differently.

For me, UFOs fall into the same category as God: I don’t know if they exist, but I can’t pull myself away from them either. Halperin’s book is one of the most exciting UFO books I’ve read in recent years, someone who really attempts to come up with new insights, even though I find it hard to accept them as all-encompassing theses. Halperin’s book had the same effect on me as reading Freud. Freud’s pansexuality is indigestible, but when you delve into his books, you suddenly start to look at reality differently and you realize that what he writes is not entirely nonsensical.

Halperin also draws UFOs and God together, because he believes that UFOs are basically about a religious phenomenon in the sense of: an experience of the numinous that arises – spontaneously, it would seem – from our internal worlds (243). UFOs are all about interactions with our shared unconscious, which if not “God” in the traditional sense is psychologically indistinguishable from It (243). The collective unconscious also plays a central role in religion, experiences with the numinous – with God – can also be explained by an appeal to the collective unconscious of people. Although as a biblical scholar Halperin considers himself as a friend of religion, his approach flirts with reductionist atheism, because he seems to reduce religion to a mere function of the psyche of man. And that is just too simple an explanation for me.

In short: a book with a rather weak central thesis overall, but also sympathetic, fascinating and frankly just an irresistible read.

Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO.
David J. Halperin.
Stanford University Press, 2020. Hardcover. 292 pp.
ISBN 9781503607088.