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:

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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

Confirming Craddock – Contemporary Anomaly Research Through the Veil of Victorian Spirits

Posted in > BLACK CADILLAC REVIEW by David on December 5, 2010

ghost-illustrationGrowing up I was fascinated with folklore, especially ghost stories. A trip to the library wasn’t complete without picking up some antiquated accounts of the unknown. As I’ve grown into a more mature understanding of my youthful interests I’ve come to discover that the books I really enjoyed usually came out of the Spiritualist tradition or were in some ways associated with the more esoteric end of Masonry, Theosophy, the Golden Dawn or the Psychical Research Society (and in so many cases the lines between these groups was, and is, rather blurry.)

It’s interesting to see that many of the books on “folklore” and “mythology” coming out of the 19th century were produced antecedent to the more practical implications of the work. The Psychical Research Society utilized past accounts to buttress their contemporary research, and so many of the historical works produced during this period were actually just case studies couched in the form of popular research.

W.B. Yeats’ accounts of Irish fairy lore were fascinating, it took me years to realize that his research into folklore and myth were actually supportive to his esoteric practice. Things like that tend to be glossed over in the mainstream understanding of established authors whose actual intentions hold some embarrassment for the staid authorities of culture.

41Fl7Yv+MiL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Vere Chappell has published a biography of the Theosophist and Spiritualist Ida Craddock giving an even deeper view of this process (For a more detailed review of the book itself see Freeman Presson’s literary review blog). Red Wheel/Weiser was kind enough to send over a review copy and the experience of reading it has attended a series of personal revelations on the nature of reality and cultural transmission.

Most of my readings from Vere’s biography of Ida Craddock have taken place on the train to and from Chicago on trips to attend an alchemy lecture by Dennis Hauck, president of the International Alchemy Guild, and to attend a local conversational salon of like minded folks interested in some of the odder antecedents of culture. This fortuitous correlation has given me a contemporary view of the ideas that Ida addresses in her writings, and also a picture of how ideas about topics such as Spiritualism transmute, shedding and acquiring cultural bias, retaining their core value despite what seems to be great gaps in time.

One of the issues addressed in Ida’s writing is the subjective understanding of anomalous experiences. In her case this was focused on a relationship with a spirit or thought form that she considered her husband; to be more direct she experienced a physical relationship with a disembodied entity she believed was the spirit of a past acquaintance. By physical relationship I mean she felt that she was sexually active with a ghost.

To be absolutely honest as I read this account I was a bit put off by her direct assertions. They violated my credulity, and exploring her thoughts lead to conjectures on what value this kind of story might have to various groups or agendas keeping me from fully embracing the narrative; I was searching for the hook.

This is where the circumstances of my reading become important, and why I mention them. After an hour on the train and another hour on the subway (or EL as we call it in Chicago) attending to Ida’s account I found myself faced with the same questions while joining the company of people involved in the contemporary exploration of anomalous events.

ida-craddock-33a4703a-b233-454c-86f0-3de5d2a3a84-resize-750It’s one thing to conjecture about the influences and intentions of a Victorian Spiritualist, but it’s another to have the same phenomenon addressed, face to face, by contemporary peers. To a skeptical mind it’s even more odd to realize that there are correspondences between the accounts and also to realize that the contemporary researchers are not involved or knowledgeable about the esoteric influences that attended Ida’s understanding of her experience.

There is still the lingering doubt that the contemporary researchers might be subtly influenced by such esoteric ideas simply through the culture of their investigations. This becomes less suspect when the accounts are from the perspective of those experiencing them, from the people that the contemporary researchers encounter rather than from the researcher’s own conjectures.

It’s still possible to say that the idea has so perniciously infected society that it reaches even the mainstream understanding, but the farther the influence stretches, whether anomalous or not, it still becomes an object worthy of study, perhaps even more so.

If everyone is being honest there is a clear line of experience stretching from the 19th century (and much farther as the 19th century researchers were reflecting on much older accounts) up to this very day. If there is a difference in the interpretation it’s the sobriety with which these anomalies are addressed. Ida’s account is firmly protected by very sober and rational safeguards. To her such experiences become negative, not due to the anomaly itself, but rather to the subjective understanding of the individual.

What some might discount as Victorian prudery becomes invaluable advice to the modern researcher into anomalous activity. Disordered lives, addiction, mal-intention, sexual impropriety, each of these play a part in the contemporary narrative of negative anomalous events. To Ida this is self-evident, if one is not prepared to live an orderly life in society, one is certainly not prepared for the experiences that come with contacting the “borderland”.

From Ida’s work Heavenly Bridgegrooms:

“In the case of Spiritualist mediums, professional or amateur, where the phenomena assume some show of regularity, and are claimed by the medium to come entirely from the world beyond the grave, one always has to be on one’s guard against the subtle interpolation among otherwise truthful matter of fantastic or misleading statements made apparently by the communicating spirits themselves. Occultists in all ages have invariably assumed such statements to be the work of “lying spirits”. But it is noticeable that a medium of correct life and clearness of intellectual conception is less troubled by such lying spirits than is the medium of halting intellect or morals. This of itself should indicate to the thoughtful student of occult phenomena that the medium, and not the spirits, may be to blame when lying communications are made. Just as in Astronomy it is now found that the apparent movements of the sun and fixed stars are due almost entirely to our own planet’s motion through space, so, I think, when we explore the heavens of occultism we shall eventually realize that erratic psychical phenomena are due to our own shifting relation to the beings who produce phenomena. Not until people got rid of the Ptolemaic theory that the Earth was a permanent unmovable fixture in the heavens did they learn that the bewildering cycles and epicycles of the sun and fixed stars were caused by the movements of their own planet thorough space; and not until we get rid of what I may call the Ptolemaic theory of occultism, that the psychic is the one permanent, immovable factor in the apparently shifting phenomena about him, will we ever get at the true scientific laws of occultism that our own vibrations–or our own moral and intellectual ups and downs–are almost entirely responsible for the erraticness of Borderland communications. To blame Borderland intelligences for “lying” is as if in the proverbial London fog at noonday one should blame the sun for not shining. The sun is shining right along; but it is the smoke from one’s neighbors which returns upon one to shield the sun from one’s view.”

According to contemporary accounts, and Ida’s understanding, the crossing of boundaries requires great energy, and this can either be supported by self control and focus, or by the energy expended due to chaotic living. The neutrality of the experience separates it from the orthodox understanding of the sacred. It’s inconsequential to the contact whether this energy is positive or negative, these factors only come into play on the subjective experience that follows such contact.

Whatever the cause of such experiences, the continuity between what Ida recounts in her writings and what the current coterie of investigators encounter in their field of study shows that uncritical exploration can lead to disastrous results.

I would recommend that everyone interested in anomalous activity, whether skeptic or believer, take a deeper look at their intentions and purpose. Whether it’s psychosis, skepticism or revelation that leads us towards the ‘borderland’, Ida’s rational and cogent advice is invaluable.

My account may seem pedantic, so let’s allow Roky Erickson, who has experienced the extremes of positive and negative synchronicity, explain it with a bit more passion…