As the author of the twentieth century’s most influential and intimate description of an abduction event, Communion (1987), Whitley Strieber shared with his readers his visions of alien spectral figures that seemed at once physical and not physical, at once a thing and a thought, at once sexual and spiritual, at once traumatic and ecstatic. To this book, I bring the practices of the professional study of religion to the table to explain what historians have written about these paradoxical things and how we might make sense of them without surrendering our critical faculties and understandable skepticism.
I first met Whitley in a Walmart in western Pennsylvania. Well, okay, it wasn’t really Whitley. It was one of his books, which I saw near the checkout counter. It was probably 1995 or so, so it was most likely one of his nonfiction books reflecting back on the Communion phenomenon. At this point, I had no real interest in the book, in the subject of alien abductions, or in the broader UFO phenomenon. That all changed around 2009 or so when I picked up Communion at the recommendation of a number of colleagues who learned that I was working on a book on the paranormal and popular culture. Communion is the book that recounts Whitley’s experience of what he calls “the visitors” during the Christmas holidays of 1985.
What struck me about the book were the various ways that Whitley engaged my own discipline in order to make sense of his traumatic openings and bizarre visions. Basically, he read his own abduction experiences by comparing them to similar accounts in the broader history of religions. Out of existential necessity and the transcendent traumas of his own immediate experience, he was implicitly and intuitively practicing the comparative study of religion.
I decided to look and listen. I reminded myself that, as a historian of religions interested in comparative mystical literature, especially of the erotic sort, I had some responsibility to do exactly this. After all, if Communion is not a piece of modern erotic mystical literature, then I do not know what it is.
It also seemed obvious to me that, whatever the ultimate nature of Whitley’s experiences, one thing was certain: these types of extreme events lie at the neurological, psychological, perhaps even electromagnetic origins of many basic religious beliefs that are distributed around the world and have become the building blocks of the religions themselves for millennia. If one is interested in how religions develop, then one should be keenly interested in exactly these sorts of extreme experiences, wherever one finds them.
If we cannot make some sense of this man’s honest description of his traumatic, transcendent experiences, then we have no business trying to understand his spiritual ancestors in the historical record.
I found them in Whitley. Gradually, over the last five years. I have come to consider him and Communion as litmus tests for my field. I have decided that if we, as scholars of religion, cannot take this text seriously, if we cannot interpret it in some satisfying fashion, if we cannot make some sense of this man’s honest description of his traumatic, transcendent experiences, then we have no business trying to understand his spiritual ancestors in the historical record.
History is not what we think it is. Certainly, its meanings change as we engage it differently. Piffle of the past—odd things in the historical record that make no sense to us because of our convictions about how the world works. Until, of course, those convictions pass and the piffle of the past appear as the unrecognized codes of some future knowledge.
Back to the piffle. I think most readers are probably like me when they hear about the couple who witnessed an old (dead) friend show up in perfectly good form—a “solid ghost…entirely solid and real.” I have never seen a ghost, much less a resurrected women. For that matter, I think most readers are like me again when they hear almost any UFO story. I have never seen a UFO of any kind. When it comes to these sorts of things, I am a veritable genius of nonexperience. I am an amazing spiritual dud.
So why do I believe Whitley? Why listen to this professional storyteller tell us more stories? I have numerous profession reasons to listen. But these are more than just reasons, they are methods or practices, that is, they are highly developed “tools” with which to make some sense of otherwise impossible things. If you know where to find these tools (in the professional study of religion) and take the trouble to learn how to use them well, you can build the most astonishing things. Like a new world.
The first and most important of all the practices in the study of religion we simply call comparison. This is a deceptive word, mostly because it is so familiar and seems so common. Consequently, we always underestimate the power of what this mental technology can do. We can also underestimate the sheer havoc and embarrassing mistakes this tool can create, if it is not handled expertly and used well. Everything depends on your comparative practice: what you compare with what to conclude what.
If we collect enough seemingly “anecdotal” or “anomalous” experiences from different times and places and place them together on a flat and fair comparative table, we can quickly see that they are actually common occurrences in the species. They are part of our world. They are “natural,” as we say, even if each of them is also rare with respect to any particular individual, and all of them are “super,” that is, beyond how we presently understand how this natural world works. But we can only begin to perceive and understand these super natural things through a careful comparative practice. Otherwise, they are more or less invisible. Otherwise, they seem coincidental, accidental, meaningless.
There is another tool or practice that I want to focus on. It is a very simple and effective way to make the impossible possible. As with comparison, historians and humanists have given this practice a technical name. They call it historical contextualization, or, more simple, history. Here I want to historically contextualize Whitley’s abduction experience. I want to place it in a larger history.
Historians are expert in insisting on the “historical context” of every human experience, idea, value or expression. What they mean by this is that every human experience takes place in a very particular historical context and so is profoundly shaped by that place and time. Think about who you are. You are who you are because of where and when you were born, who your parents were and how they raised you, what language or languages you speak, and so on. Change any of these variables and you be a different self, a different person.
A truly robust historical perspective here does not relativize or dismiss. Sometimes it ends up confirming the anomalous experience as part of a much larger pattern or context.
But here is the funny thing. Such historical and contextual insights are helpful enough, but, if applied systematically, they can easily backfire on the conventional historian and the dogmatic debunker. Sometimes, after all, what initially looks anomalous or “without a context” turns out, on closer historical inspection to be neither. A truly robust historical perspective here does not relativize or dismiss. Sometimes it ends up confirming the anomalous experience as part of a much larger pattern or context.
The first major “UFO flap” in the United States was the airship mystery of 1896-97, during which hundreds of sightings of craft flying over major U.S. cities, often with spotlights or “lanterns” no less, were reported in the newspapers from California to New York. According to Whitley, an airship floated over San Antonio in May 1897 and must have flown over Strieber’s great-grandmother’s house. The nature of these sightings remains controversial and ambiguous, and many of them were no doubt hoaxes or misreported, but one thing is clear: they were widely reported, and these reports are part of the historical record and so a part of the larger historical context of the later sightings.
Another major wave of sightings occurred about a decade later, in 1909-10, this time centered in the Hudson Valley region. On July 26, 1909, the Newburgh Daily Journal ran this headline.“ ‘Air ship ’ is seen again from Washington Heights: she was swooping: too dark, it is said, to discern outlines of the ‘ship. ’” And here is what The Sun of New York City reported a few days later, on August 1: “A mysterious airship which flies only at night is causing considerable excitement and keeping the people of Orange county residing between Goshen and Newburgh up nights in their efforts to get a look t it.” And here is my favorite piece, under the headline “Human Volcano erupts,” from the Goshen Democrat four days later, on August 5:
Otto Pushman, Newburgh’s champion cusser, had been sent to jail for thirty days for using sulfurous language. During the nocturnal hours of Tuesday he was discovered on Grand Street looking for that dingblasted airship that the Newburgh papers tell about and cursing fervently at the blankety-blank moon.
As this piece reveals and as author Linda Zimmerman emphasizes through an analysis of other newspaper pieces from the same year, one can see “all the elements of denials, ridiculous excuses, hoaxers, and belittled witnesses already in place, more than 100 years ago!” Zimmerman has written two books tracing the UFO phenomenon in the Hudson Valley region from 1909 to the present. What she finds is a dizzying array of phenomena not unlike those we find later in the century: “airships” and later “spaceships” in the sky ranging from baseball size glowing balls to huge floating Vs (including her own sighting); an immense circular metallic craft with circular lights and symbols that hovered just above the heads of a mother and her twelve-year-old son close enough to hit with a rock; two early abduction reports (from 1929 and 1937) involving things like time standing still, floating humanoids in “diving suits,” and a sense of being in two worlds at once.
And it was the 1980s that saw the strongest spike in reports of sightings and up-close encounters in the Hudson valley. The Northwestern University astronomer and air force scientific consultant J. Allen Hynek, the researcher Philip J. Imbrogno, and the journalist Bob Pratt dedicated an entire volume to this subject, with a later edition (after Hynek’s death) claiming some 7,046 reported cases in the Hudson Valley from 1982 to 1995.
After two books on the Hudson Valley material, Zimmerman’s conclusion seems reasonable enough: the Hudson Valley region is a UFO hotspot. And it was here that Whitley Strieber had his own abduction experiences over the Christmas holidays of 1985, right smack in the middle of the most active decade of the twentieth century, during a spike in that same decade of the twentieth century, and after at least seventy-seven years of similar encounters in the same area that included not one or two reported sightings, but thousands.
Such cultural and geographical contexts do not explain these experiences or offer us any definitive answers. I am certain that the reports are not all of the same quality or reliability, and some of them were simply mocking. Accordingly, I do not wish to take a particular position on these records, much less on this or that individual sighting. We simply have not done the hard historical, textual, ethnographic, and scientific work that would warrant or authorize any such definitive position. As a culture, we have barely begun such a project. But, taken as a whole, such historical materials certainly dispel any notion that Strieber must be a kook, or that his honest descriptions and dramatic sufferings can somehow be brushed aside as lacking any meaningful content, as anecdotal or anomalous. They were in historical and contextual fact nothing of the sort.
That is one big reason I continue to listen to Whitley Strieber.
Jeffrey J. Kripal holds the J. Newton Razor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University. He is the author of Comparing Religions (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014); Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011); Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010); Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago, 2007); The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion (Chicago, 2007); Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago, 2001); and Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (Chicago, 1995).
This piece is an excerpted adapted from The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained, co-authored by Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey J. Kripal, reprinted here with permission from Penguin Random House.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.