Essay/Stories & Literature

Seeing and believing

UFO sightings are down. Ghosts are in decline. Are we more discerning now, or just afraid to trust anything?

Stuart Walton

A sense of wonder: toy packaging from the 1950s. Photo by Getty

Stuart Walton

wrote Out Of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication: A Natural History of Human Emotions and the forthcoming In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling. He also writes on food.

2,800 words

Edited by Ed Lake

Republish - Licence Only

One late evening in the early summer of 1981, lying sleepless in my student bedsit at the top of a house in the Fallowfield district of Manchester, I became aware of a pattern of bright flashing lights on the wall. All I could see through the curtainless window on the opposite side of the room was a strip of rather cloudy night sky. The vivid flashing was coming from within, or perhaps behind, a bank of cloud. As I continued to watch, an object materialised from within the cloud, advancing until it stood in plain view in the night sky.

It was a strikingly large craft of some kind, flattish but with rounded edges, like an old-fashioned bedwarmer, or perhaps a huge English muffin. It was sparkling-silver and covered all over with a regular pattern of flashing white lights. After hovering for a few seconds, it began to move across the sky, and as it reached the right-hand frame of my window, I leant over the side of the bed to keep it in view. At a certain point it ceased its progress and, at the same sedate pace, retraced its route back to its starting-point. There it lingered for a few more seconds, before retreating into the cloud-bank until its evanescent flashing had entirely dissolved from view. Only then did I collapse out of bed and start frantically pulling on clothes. I rushed on foot to my girlfriend’s place to gibber out an account of the incident.

Convention demands the following declaration: I had not been drinking or taking drugs, I hadn’t dozed off and reawoken, and I wasn’t in a general state of agitation. It was a perfectly normal evening: I had gone to bed and was waiting to fall asleep. Nothing remotely similar has ever happened to me before or since. If everybody is entitled to at least one experience of the paranormal or unexplained, this was mine. For the three to four minutes that the whole episode lasted, it filled me with a mixture of trepidation and thrill, with an intimation that there might after all be another reality beyond the everyday one.

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The classic mise-en-scène for a UFO sighting was a remote, deserted location — country roads or woodland at night, or outside a ranch in New Mexico. A large spaceship hovering above Manchester should have been seen by tens of thousands of people. It wasn’t much after midnight, so there would still have been plenty of traffic on the streets. I followed the local news and talked to everybody I knew about it, but apparently only I had seen it, from my bedsit room in Fallowfield. Years later, when the archive of reported sightings processed by the now defunct UFO desk at the Ministry of Defence went online, I searched through the lists for 1981. There was nothing that resembled my sighting, and nothing at all in the whole of the UK for the month in question, or the months before and after it.

The spectacular fulfilled its purpose in shoring up devotion, transporting the soul, training the inner vision on higher things

There are no UFOs, and there never were. That, at least, is the official story, and it commands acceptance. There was something reassuring in the notion that the Ministry of Defence took them seriously enough to monitor reports, and perhaps even a trace of disappointment that virtually none of those alleged sightings was left unexplained when the desk closed in 2009. They were all night-flying aircraft, weather balloons, comets, car headlights seen at unusual angles through trees and mist, often by people who had been drinking, or who were half-asleep, or of whom it could be said, in the judicial discourse, that the balance of their minds was disturbed. Some of the famous photographs are of Frisbees. Whatever I saw in Manchester was there in front of me — there remains no doubt in my mind about that, even after 32 years — but I have never worked out what it was.

UFO sightings reached their spate roughly within a decade of the release of Steven Spielberg’s spellbinding film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). One good reason to believe there were never any UFOS is that nobody sees them any more. Once, the skies were refulgent with alien craft; now they are back to their primordial emptiness, returning only static to the radio telescopes, and offering the occasional meteor shower to the wondering eye.

It isn’t only flying saucers that have receded into history. They are being followed, more gradually to be sure, by a decline in sightings of ghosts, recordings of poltergeists, claims of psychokinesis and the rest, as is regularly attested by organisations such as the Society for Psychical Research in London and the UK-wide research group Para.Science. Many of those with a vested interest in the supernatural industry naturally resist this contention, but there is far less credulity among the public for tales of the extraordinary than there was even a generation ago. The standard explanation attributes this to growing scepticism. But, as is only fitting for the paranormal, it might be that there are more mysterious forces at work.

In The Society of the Spectacle (1967), the foundational text of Parisian situationism, the French Marxist theorist Guy Debord argued that consumer culture had acquired the dimensions of an alternative reality: it had replaced the dull, grey world with its own, phantasmatic iridescence. It didn’t matter whether or not everybody genuinely could buy a part of the universal plenty. What mattered was the mythology, the illusion of bountiful possibility and limitless choice, wrapped up in a spectacularity borrowed from the film and television industries.

Debord was not the first to remark on this. When the social theorists of the Frankfurt School arrived in New York during their wartime exile in the 1930s, they found the giant billboard ads for toothpaste even more-nerve jangling than they had expected. Here was a culture entirely mortgaged to the secular spectacular. In previous centuries, what was visually remarkable stood for the other-worldly, the spiritual. The baroque façades and soaring spires of cathedrals, the carmines and cobalts of stained-glass windows with the sun streaming through them, devotional processions and carnival parades, gargoyles, misericords, miraculous relics — all attested that there was an intangible reality beyond the physical one, a reality that could at most be suggestively delineated in extraordinary sights. By the time of the European Enlightenment, the sublimity of nature, together with its representation in the bravura period of landscape painting, achieved the same effects.

To be sure, there was always an impulse against these manifestations of visual culture. The very fact that they can be seen, and that in some cases they bear the traces of human artifice, tells against their association with the other-worldly. Arthur Schopenhauer at his most biliously saturnine would have none of it. To those who would counter the argument that the world is a dungheap of suffering with the pabulum that there are at least beautiful sights to see in nature, he scoffed: ‘Is the world, then, a peep-show?’ And yet, the spectacular did in fact fulfil its purpose in shoring up devotion, transporting the soul, training the inner vision on higher things.

My great-grandmother, a stranger to television, waved her handkerchief as the Queen’s carriage passed by on the small screen

Where people were convinced that they had seen the other world impinging on material reality, or were persuaded that others had, the connection between what one could see and what one might believe grew deeper. Materialisations of the Blessed Virgin at Lourdes in France, at Knock in Ireland, and at Fátima in Portugal, suggested that the visions of the first Christians — those who not only saw but spoke to, ate with and touched their risen Lord — were still available for anyone with eyes to see. Similarly, the bodying forth of Roman centurions, headless noblemen, wailing women and whey-faced children, not to mention the ectoplasmic effusions at seances, bore fugitive witness to another dimension beyond the temporal one, a realm to which we were all evidently journeying. We knew this because, for a second or two, in the dead of night, in solitude, every now and then, the odd one of us could see it.

The audience members who fled from their seats before the oncoming train at one of the Lumière brothers’ first cinema screenings in 1896 might look, in retrospect, as though they were fleeing in vain from the inexorable onslaught of the spectacular age. That they accepted the evidence of their own eyes turned out to be matter for derision. What motion pictures achieved was a simulacrum of reality, but one in which the world we were watching was unable to see us — an exact reversal of the centuries-long disposition of the sacred and secular realms. As late as 1953, when my family gathered to watch the coronation of Elizabeth II on the BBC, my great-grandmother, a stranger to television, waved her handkerchief as the Queen’s carriage passed by on the small screen.

If the growing spectacularisation of media culture began to undermine belief in the spirit world, the widespread dissemination of video technology hastened its decline. Filming is now within the grasp of everybody with a smartphone. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) beadily observes the nothing that is all that seems to happen on deserted night-time streets. Video cameras used to be reserved for the signal events of a life (weddings, anniversaries, birthdays), but now scarcely anything is beneath the attention of YouTube. In the heyday of ghost stories, the elusive grail was a photograph or moving film of some spectral emanation. There should no longer be any technical obstacle to providing this, and yet all we see is the odd whitish blur that could as easily be a mark on the screen.

W hat these countervailing powers have brought about in postmodern society is the wrong kind of scepticism. A large element of rationalist doubt certainly accompanies the decline of interest in the paranormal, driven primarily by these cultural and, latterly, technological factors. Yet underlying that doubt itself is the growing incredulity with which people evaluate anything. Supermarket discounts appear to offer wines at half-price; products for smearing on your face purport to make you look younger — these are the all-too-evident mendacities. The homilies of party politicians at election time sound like the exclamatory drivel of PR companies. And the way this stuff has permeated culture as a whole has bred a widespread incurious scepticism. We now extend the same degree of undifferentiating refusal even to those phenomena that, while hard to credit, deserve to be heeded. Climate change might be the most obvious current instance but, at its most noxious, scepticism results in an unwillingness to believe in others’ suffering. The attitude of wholesale rejection, by which one might stand a chance of becoming impervious to fraud, is thus bought at the ever greater risk of nihilism.

To Debord’s generation, spectacle culture was responsible for weaving an ineluctable web of deceit around its clients, blinding them to the true nature of reality. In fact, the opposite has turned out to be the case. Notwithstanding its pervasiveness, there is virtually no one who doesn’t secretly know that he is being cheated. Nothing ever quite lives up to its billing. Grandiose claims framed in the hysterical superlative — ‘The most terrifying movie ever made!’, ‘The funniest novel I’ve read all year!’ — carry within them the seeds of their own refutations. So ingrained is this habit of disbelief that it comes to seem as though there is nothing that isn’t part of the scam.

True scepticism lies in the considered suspension of belief, the opposite of that state of mind in which, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested, we attend to tales of the otherwise incredible. The patron saint of this true scepticism is Thomas Didymus, or Doubting Thomas, who has erroneously come to be associated with weak-kneed faithlessness, but whose pathos consists precisely in his steadfast loyalty to his late teacher. It is this, after all, that prevents him from accepting what sound like fantastical stories of Jesus’s reappearance. When the resurrected Messiah informs him that it is blessed to believe without having seen, the moral applies to nobody present, as the other disciples have already declined to believe Mary Magdalene. The account is, of course, addressed to succeeding generations, but the salient point is that Thomas doesn’t stand condemned for his fidelity. Even so, the early councils of the Church would not be content with faith as mere obedience to divine precept and the exercise of goodwill to others. Instead, they insisted on a legalistic, faith-based version, in which a weekly statement of what one actually, literally believes is required of its participants. Thus did the Church hand the Enlightenment, and its current crop of science apostles, the free gift of an evidentiary case against itself.

The visible and the invisible, the material and the spiritual, the phenomenal and the noumenal are no longer the distinct realms they once were

In contrast to Thomas, contemporary scepticism takes the form of playing along with the racket because there seems to be no alternative, while privately knowing that it can’t deliver what it promises. In this cast of mind, somebody’s hyperventilating tale of a translucent wraith seen drifting about the stately home, or the disembodied footsteps that clatter up and down the stairs when everybody is tucked up in bed, is neither more nor less believable than the long-range weather forecast. The dignity of spooky stories was that, unlike obvious tissues of lies, they occasionally managed to cross the divide between the highly unlikely and the just barely credible. If they could never be proved, neither could they ever be disproved — except by pointing to the laws of physics, an alienating language spoken by experts who couldn’t conceal their contempt for ordinary gullibility. Now that so much of the culture of the spectacle evokes the same response, the laws of physics have no greater claim to finality than do poorly produced video-hoaxes on YouTube.

The visible and the invisible, the material and the spiritual, the phenomenal and the noumenal are no longer the distinct realms they once were. They have become mutually permeable to their mutual diminishment. We seem to see to the heart of things, to what Kant knew as the thing-in-itself, to a degree undreamed of at the high-water mark of pure reason in the 18th century. The cameras of natural history programming miss nothing, even at the cellular level, even in pitch dark, and yet everything looks like the video that it is. There are those who continue to believe the Moon landings were a hoax just because the film evidence looks so fake, and could so easily have been produced in a studio. By contrast, the notorious black-and-white alien autopsy footage from Roswell, New Mexico is an insultingly obvious fraud, as educated people reassured each other at the film’s emergence in 1995, having forgotten for a moment that the absurdity lay not in the cinematography but in the very idea of a humanoid space-creature.

Seeing and believing used to belong together only when they occurred in the mass. When individuals claimed to have seen something extraordinary — a man with two heads, the Niagara Falls, tombs in the desert crammed with gold — their testimony was a challenge to credulity until it was demonstrated to be true. René Descartes undertook ‘never to accept a thing as true until I knew it as such without a single doubt’. Doubt was the primary basis for the rationalism of the Enlightenment, so the first witness to the miraculous had to be seen to have seen. In the age of electronic mass media, when so much flashes around the world instantaneously, when video clips, in a telling usage, ‘go viral’, there should be no doubt about what is real and what isn’t. Yet the critical mass is no longer critical. There is an air of the semblance, of ‘facticity’, about what we are urged to look at. The very fact that it is shrieking for public attention tends to speak against it.

A couple of years ago, I saw a documentary about the UK’s dwindling UFO sightings. Various people who had reported them in the past were invited to relive their experiences, often going back to the very places where the incidents had taken place. Some of the interviewees were still as unshakeably convinced of the concrete reality of what they had seen as they were at the time, though the thrust of the programme was towards likely explanations, set against the general cultural fascination there once was in the idea of alien civilisations. One man had seen a mysterious object in the sky, some time (if memory serves) in the late 1980s. He had drawn a sketch of it soon after. Hearteningly enough, it was identical to mine.

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