By Jim Hanas
NOVEMBER 10, 1997: Eddie Middleton seems like a reasonable guy. He's 53, mild-mannered, and an adjunct professor of philosophy and ethics at Shelby State Community College and State Tech.
And over lunch at the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium (his idea), he tells me about the time he saw a flying saucer. In 1977, during a meteor shower, he caught a glimpse of a football-shaped object in the night sky through binoculars, just for a few seconds, before it disappeared. Friends scoffed and offered explanations after the fact, but Middleton insists that it was a bona fide sighting. "You know what you saw," he says.
Apparently, whether or not we're alone in the universe, Middleton isn't. Memphis' U.F.O discussion group that meets at Borders Books the first Thursday of every month has lately grown to 50 members, and local enthusiasts have their own radio talk show, Night Search, hosted by Middleton, on WREC-AM 600 (7 p.m. Sundays). Middleton is also the director of Contact Quest, a local organization that hosts occasional lectures on subjects ranging from extraterrestrials to the paranormal, and which this weekend will host Contact '97, a three-day "U.F.O Awareness Conference," the largest ever held in Memphis.
Aliens are certainly all the rage. The X-Files is spawning rip-offs left and right, and alien invasion/infestation hasn't been this well-represented at the box office in decades. At times, it's difficult to tell which way the influence runs, whether the fascination has fed the media or the other way around.
"I've watched only three or four X-Files episodes," says Middleton when I suggest that it is indeed the other way around. "The way they do it, it doesn't capture my interest that much. There's something phony about it."
The more we talk about the conference and the latest in E.T. theory, the more I get the same feeling.
There might be aliens, and maybe they even drop in from time to time. But the rising popularity of "ufology" seems to be more than that, as the mere possibility of alien contact becomes a depository for every stripe of pseudo-science, New Age spirituality, and political conspiracy theory. Far from focusing their attentions on the in-principal resolvable issue of whether or not they walk among us, the conference guests boast interests and expertise on subjects both metaphysical and religious, which is to say, unprovable.
According to the conference's program, one speaker's "experiences as an abductee/contactee may offer new insight into age-old questions on the subject of reincarnation." Another "has amassed the world's largest collection of 'Black Helicopter' photographs." Yet another allegedly "predicted the World Trade Center explosion a full two weeks before the event." One speaker, I'm told, travels with a bodyguard for fear of retribution from "them."
And "they" is what this is really all about. As omnipotent as they are ill-defined, they are the built-in rebuttal, the unanswerable answer to every objection. If we don't see pictures from Hubble of alien cruisers, it's because they don't want us to. And if a natural, non-alien explanation is offered of a phenomenon, well, that's just what they'd want you to think, isn't it? The eloquence and attractiveness of conspiracy theories are to be admired as they neatly explain whatever you've got, reliably converting a lack of evidence into evidence itself.
"All that serious ufologists ask is that people be willing to investigate with an open mind," he says. "Because it's a fact that large numbers of people are reporting these experiences."
But at the end of the day, it seems a pretty clunky idea that a conspiracy could be so insidious, as Middleton suggests, that it includes plans to expose the populace to aliens through movies so that a real alien, live on TV, won't cause hysteria. After all, the C.I.A. (almost always fingered as in with "them") couldn't even keep Iran-Contra under wraps or prevent the Pentagon Papers from being published.
In other words, such theories seem closer to religion than to science or even politics. In reality, conspiracies are hatched and discovered all the time, whether they be political or economic, and when they're revealed, it turns out that the would-be shadow government bungles things just like the rest of us. By contrast, the omnipotence of the conspiratorial "they" seems almost comforting, and reptilian aliens that visit secretly and evade detection become like God himself made scaly-flesh.
That such power and control exists anywhere is an exciting prospect, much more exciting than the prospect of a world run by fallible humans acting with imperfect knowledge and resolve. Resisting the former might be heroic, while living in the latter is sometimes -- well -- boring, as black helicopters turn out to be nothing but Channel 5 reporting on a lack of parking spaces downtown.
"You can kind of understand why people don't want to believe it, too," says Middleton of the conspiratorial, alien-infested world. "Because it is kind of disturbing, if it's real. . . the fact that maybe we're not even the top of the food chain. That's kind of scary."
Almost as scary as the fact that maybe we are.
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