EXPLORING THE OUTER EDGES OF SOCIETY AND MIND

Project Blue Book and the Priming of Paranormal Belief – On the effects of history and its re-presentation

Posted in > ANALYSIS by David on January 2, 2019

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“I was the arch enemy of those ‘flying saucer groups and enthusiasts’ who very dearly wanted UFOs to be interplanetary. My own knowledge of those groups came almost entirely from what I heard from Blue Book personnel: they were all ‘crackpots and visionaries.’ My transformation was gradual but by the late sixties it was complete. Today I would not spend one further moment on the subject of UFOs if I didn’t seriously feel that the UFO phenomenon is real and that efforts to investigate and understand it, and eventually to solve it, could have a profound effect — perhaps even be the springboard to mankind’s outlook on the universe.”

J. Allen Hynek, The Hynek UFO Report, p. 26 (Dell Publishing Company, 1977

We’ll get to the UFOs in a second, first bear with me as I reminisce…

Back in college I had an early morning multi-cultural musicology class that was always met with a very sleepy mind. One day the professor was discussing Irish music and asked if anyone had ever been to Ireland. Half asleep I heard the question and my memory glitched – instead of referencing the physical reality that I’d never left the country, for some reason my head was filled with imagery from a childhood and adolescence spent reading everything I could get my hands on about medieval history – including Irish history. In that brief moment, with my cognitive mind drifting dreamily, my arm shot up and the professor called on me to talk about my experience.

I was shocked awake by the request and sat there somewhat stunned. She repeated her request and asked if I had in fact been to Ireland. With my mind clear I had to admit that no, I’d never been out of the country. It was a rather embarrassing moment – thankfully the rest of the class actually was asleep or so bored they weren’t even listening so there wasn’t much repercussion. However, that experience provided me with incredible insight into just how easy it is for memory, imagination and behavior to blur into a strange and seamless whole.

Since my area of study was and is cognitive philosophy this turned out as a useful bit of personal experience and it’s become even more useful as my current focus hones in on how popular belief is mediated by technology. Surprising enough it’s even come into play in anticipating History’s upcoming Project Blue Book series!

Just take a look at this:

“Set against the backdrop of the Cold War and rising Atomic Era, each episode will draw from the actual Project Blue Book case files, blending UFO theories with authentic historical events from one of the most mysterious eras in United States history.”(1)

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August 3, 1965 — Santa Ana, California (Photos: Project Blue Book files, National Archives) (2)

That’s from History’s About page for the series. Seems like an innocuous marketing statement when you read it and I’m sure most people will pass it over without much thought beyond perhaps excitement or critical disgust at the fictional element implied. The thing is, this simple sentence actual lays out a complex form of ‘social technology’ and the implications of this are impressive, especially in the context of a catalytic topic like UFOs.

In her paper The Fairy Tale is True: Social Technologies of the Religious Supernatural in Film and New Media, Dr. Diana Walsh Pasulka, chair of religion and philosophy at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington, outlines a fascinating aspect of how our memories interact with media. This paper provides a framework that makes this brief promotional sentence come alive in surprising ways.

When faced with a media product like Project Blue Book, our conscious minds might react with a response that is neutral, excited or dismissive, (yes, there are more options, but let’s keep it simple for this thought experiment) however as Pasulka illustrates in her work the conscious mind might not be where we should be looking,  “it is in relation to the unconscious self that cinematic social technology must be reconsidered. The early suspicions articulated by cinema theorists about cinematic deception are correct on many levels. Current research in cognitive science reveals that even as spectators are consciously aware that they are watching a movie, unconsciously they are not. Unconsciously, they are making memories that they  will fuse with memories from their own lives, and they will have a difficult time separating history from its re-presentation and from fictionalized versions of historical events. This process is exaggerated when a spectator is immersed in virtual environments.”(3)  When we look at History’s promo blurb in this light we see that there is something incredibly powerful happening here with a television series that’s about to hit a channel that launched Ancient Aliens into a continuing run which has lasted close to a decade.

If we want to see what that means in terms of the culture all we have to do is look at the Chapman University Survey of American Fears – right here in a nice bar graph we have evidence that this level of media penetration into the culture has profound effects:

2018-Fear-Campaign-Paranormal-Bar-Graph-1-1600x1236
At the outset we can see that the two largest categories are related to the most successful popular media dealing with the ‘paranormal’ – ghost hunting shows and alternative history/ancient aliens – while this could be an indicator that the viewing public is simply very in tune with these areas, if we look at Chapman University’s analysis of the changes from 2016 to 2018 we see that the largest increases are in beliefs related to the idea that ‘Ancient, advanced civilizations, such as Atlantis, once existed‘ and ‘Aliens have visited Earth in the ancient past,’ both of these topics correlate rather well with the most popular show in this arena, Ancient Aliens:

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This little bit of data gives us a nice seed to begin working on a testable hypothesis regarding the effect that the Project Blue Book series will have on popular belief patterns, especially in the atmosphere created by all of the the other media that will be coming out and has come out recently in this area – the Rendelsham Forest documentary, Tom Delonge’s sci-fi series, Jeremy Corbell’s Extraordinary Beliefs series, and so on.

Now let’s be adventurous and add another element into the mix – that contemporary obscure object of desire for so many pundits – the Religious Nones.

Chapman University’s survey indicates that “paranormal beliefs have become the norm in the United States, if we examine how many such beliefs a person holds. Using the seven paranormal items included on the Chapman University Survey of American Fears Wave 5 (2018), we find that only about a fourth of Americans (24.1%) do not hold any of the seven beliefs. What this means is that more than ¾ of Americans believe in at least one paranormal phenomenon.” Statistics are a thorny tool to use, so we have to be careful in how much weight we give this, but indications are good that close to 75% of the U.S. population believes in at least one area covered by the survey.

If we look at data from the American Family Survey (5) the percentage of ‘Religious Nones,’ or those reporting no affiliation with an organized religion, is about 34-35%:

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That 35% is higher than the 24.1% of the population that the Chapman University study indicates hold no reported beliefs in the areas of paranormal belief that they surveyed. Evangelical and mainline protestant dismissal of supernaturalism means that some portion of that 24.1% reporting no belief probably includes individuals that would identify in the American Family Survey as religious.

So somewhere in this mix is a large portion of the population whose spiritual life rests on the paranormal with no mediation from an affiliation with any organized religious system – and with the growing trend of people stepping away from organized religion this indicates there is something very curious happening in the culture. This decentralized spirituality is being shepherded by direct experience, corporate and independent news organizations, entertainment and other cultural communication mechanisms.

When we consider the implications of Pasulka’s research on the mediated cultivation of supernatural belief, the blending of fact and fiction in products like Project Blue Book becomes a key area to keep an eye on. Carefully designed media products like this present experiential narratives and reframed historical imagery that embeds in the cultural memory and augments the reception of the historical record in the popular culture.

It also bears implications beyond just belief as it directly affects our perceptual reception of exceptional experiences themselves. As the novelist and experiencer Whitley Strieber has said:

“What we need to do now is make better sci-fi movies so that we can have better contact experiences.” (6)

And he should know – Communion: A True Story, his bestselling autobiographical account of the terrifying experiences that beset him in the mid-80’s, helped to break down the barrier of silence around these topics in the mainstream culture and initiate a healing process for thousands of individuals who were faced with experiences that they had no context for or support system to deal with.

Project-Blue-BookWhere will Project Blue Book fall into our quest to uncover the truth behind the UFO enigma?

Will it obscure or open these areas?

We won’t know for sure until it’s had a some time to cook in the culture. One thing we can be sure of is that our culture’s spiritual infrastructure is going through a massive shift and it’s probably a good idea to have all the tools at hand we can gather to try and understand what’s going on lest we loose our mooring through the misplaced enthusiasm of a hyper-connected commercial media in this precarious moment in human history.

(1) https://www.history.com/shows/project-blue-book/about
(2) http://www.archives.gov/research/military/air-force/ufos.html
(3) https://www.academia.edu/24878653/_The_Fairy_Tale_is_True_Social_Technologies_of_the_Religious_Supernatural_in_Film_and_New_Media
(4) https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2018/10/16/paranormal-america-2018/
(5) https://www.deseretnews.com/american-family-survey/2018
(6) https://scholarship.rice.edu/handle/1911/80216

For more on the merging of technological culture, contemporary belief and the UFO question, see Dr. Diana Walsh Pasulka’s American Cosmic – UFOs, Religion Technology (Oxford University Press, 2019) https://www.americancosmic.com

For another personal reflection on memory and exceptional experiences see Encountering the Super Natural – An Experiential Review: https://davidmetcalfe.wordpress.com/2018/02/19/encountering-the-super-natural%E2%80%8A-%E2%80%8Aan-experiential-review/

Special thanks to Dave Leech, former host of KZSU Stanford Radio’s Thermonuclear Bar, for drawing my attention to History’s Project Blue Book series About page. 

Images from the Project Blue Book series © History, 2018
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