Seeing Things

Nigel Watson

Talking Pictures alias






About Us


UFOs are never seen in a cultural vacuum. The very terminology we use helps dictate what is seen and/or reported. In the past we had chariots of fire, will o' the wisps, phantom airships, foo fighters and ghost rockets as some of the main frames of reference for interpreting weird things in the sky. Indeed, the very frame of reference can help cause people to see these things in the sky, or make them report sightings they would never otherwise have thought twice about.

A good example of this kind of thinking is displayed in Brian Burden's article The Andreasson Affair and The Time Machine; Was H. G. Wells an Unwitting Contactee? (1) Recently, but not altogether surprisingly, Whitley Strieber notes that his fear of abduction by spacemen in the mid-1950s predated any possibility of his having come across such ideas in the media available to him at that time. (2) This blatantly ignores the vast range of science fiction magazines and films then on release in the USA. A brief look at Martin Kottmeyer's article Entirely Unpredisposed (3) notes the 1953 vintage Invaders from Mars and the 1954 Killers from Space. Other films of that period featuring flying saucers and aliens are The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing (1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and War of the Worlds (1954), to name but a few! (4)

As usual, Peter Rogerson, many years before anyone else, was able to put this matter into a better perspective. He noted that in the first few years of the creation of the UFO myth as we know it today, it was:

'...nurtured, not primarily by the absurd UFO cults, but by the professional myth-makers, the comics, films, science fiction writers, even advertisers. The first great contactee came not from the Californian saucerites of happy memory, but from Hollywood; in the form of the allegorical science-fiction drama The Day the Earth Stood Still.' (5
Where did Hollywood get the template for such ideas? Step forward John Keel. He asserts in his typically overstated manner that Ray Palmer's publication of the Shaver stories in the magazine Amazing Stories in the 1940s supplied the foundation of the UFO myth. (6) Amazing Stories might have exerted a powerful influence, though other factors, such as the Fortean Society and general social conditions, could well have sustained ufology as a subject without Shaver. Indeed, Keel ignores the fact that other countries which did not have such a high exposure to Amazing Stories (if any at all) rapidly took an interest in flying saucers.

Bertrand Meheust has pointed out that much earlier science fiction contains stories very similar to those related by the UFO witnesses, contactees and abductees of today. He notes a 1920s French story of an abduction that parallels a 1970s real Brazilian abduction. (7)

A quick look through my book collection reveals a story written as long ago as 1757. It tells of Israel Jobson who is in a deep state of despair on top of Penyghent Hill, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. His prayers are answered by a cloud of mist that covers the mountain:

'...and an Ethereal Chariot descended with a Messenger from the Regions of Bliss. No Language can describe the Port and Glory of an Angel. He commanded me to Erect a small Pile of Stones as a Monument of Antiquity, and ascend the Chariot; I gladly obey'd...' (8)
The chariot takes him to the Moon, where he meets members of the local population who are made of metal. On Mars he sees the sexless inhabitants who are there to glorify the vision of the Creator. He sees the splendours of Jupiter and Saturn, goes beyond the solar system, and nearly reaches the gates of paradise when he is quickly sent back to Earth. It is easy to compare this with the writings of contactees who also report such splendid journeys accompanied with quasi-scientific descriptions of the heavenly bodies and theological discussions with angelic guides.

Many SF-type stories from the distant past, or visionary experiences predating 1947, are littered with religious reflections and interpretations. (9) Since the nineteenth century, what we have now come to call science fiction has been overtly secular in outlook, and the same applied to ufology. Yet the writings and ideas in both areas still attempt to address the fundamental issues of why are we here , what is the meaning of life that are usually not very far from, and conditioned by, religious viewpoints. The difference is often only in the use of terminology rather than in a fundamentally different and secular outlook on the world and our universe. (10) With the publication of Whitley Strieber's Transformation we can see the secular trappings of ufology being stripped away to reveal more clearly than ever the religious yearnings of abductees and contactees.

Ufologists have noticed that the phantom airships seen in the USA in 1896-7 and in the USA, Europe and New Zealand during the early years of the twentieth century can be compared with the airships described in the fiction of the period. The question is did the reports inspire the fiction or did the fiction inspire the reports? This question is asked by Iain Johnstone (11). He puts forward the idea that the phantom airship/scareship panics were caused by the secret experiments of inventors who had created aerial vehicles. Looking at mountains of this material a simple cause-and-effect model cannot be advocated. As ufologists we have tended to look at the phantom airship reports in isolation or, when other factors have been considered, they are used as evidence for the ufonauts' (or aeronauts') master plan.

As Ron Miller notes in his excellent article Jules Verne and the Great Airship Scare the descriptions of phantom airships are very similar to the real and fictional aerial inventions of the period. He sums up the situation by stating that all the phantom airship sightings in America during 1896 to 1897:

'...could be either imaginative interpretations of anomalous and amorphous phenomena, simple bandwaggoning", or even outright hoaxes. In other words, nothing that we haven't seen taking place in so many modern UFO reports. Those of a century ago are different only in using 19th century visual references.' (12)
Certainly there was never any lack of visual stimuli that might help create a suitable template for observations of phantom airships or aircraft. Special air exhibitions and fairs featured balloons, kites, airships, plus models, plans and illustrations of even greater types of air vessels. Images of aircraft were just as much a part of nineteenth-century popular culture as images of rockets and spacecraft were in the 1950s. The achievement of the Wright brothers in 1903 and the continuing airship work by Zeppelin, showed that aircraft would make major contributions to civilian and military enterprises.

Newspapers, magazines, comics, cartoons and plays featured real and fictional aircraft. A new source of influence, particularly on the working classes, was the cinema. British filmmakers in 1909 borrowed heavily from the popular invasion-scare sub-genre. The image of the airship or aeroplane - especially since both types of aircraft were being constructed and refined with far greater vigour abroad - was a powerful and highly photogenic expression of foreign intrusion - though other wonderful technological weapons were often used alongside or instead of aircraft, such as armoured trains, submarines, battleships, etc.

Many of the films had to include a love interest . In the case of Walter R Booth's film The Airship Destroyer, a young inventor is rejected by his girlfriend's parents. The destruction of his romantic aspirations is paralleled by the destruction of English aeroplanes and railway lines by an enemy airship. Attacked physically and psychologically, the inventor uses a remote-controlled aerial torpedo to destroy the airship and in consequence gain favour with his girlfriend's parents. They don't make narrative closures like that any more!

In Percy Stow's film The Invaders two lovers are finally saved by the Territorial Army. The story begins when soldiers disguised as passengers on a ship land on our shores. They bring with them an artillery gun hidden in a crate (perhaps they should have been going to Iraq?). Once they unpack the gun they shell Dora's home on a hill. The tranquillity of English domestic life is shattered by this untimely and obviously unwanted intrusion into their little home. Dora's lover is blasted and knocked unconscious by the weapon's onslaught. Fortunately Dora sends a note by pigeon to the Army that in the nick of time saves them from the foreign hordes.

The army that lands on English soil in Invasion: The Possibilities produced by Charles Urban is repelled by an armoured train, demonstrating that English ingenuity and invention is always ready to save our darkest days.

Leon Stormont's treatment of an invasion in England Invaded was more unusual because it included fictional and factual film segments as well as live action, songs and recitation. It opened at London's Coliseum Theatre on 22 February 1909 and went on tour later in the year.

The technology of the cinema brought to its audience images of how other forms of technology could have a dramatic influence on their lives and the future. The overwhelming message of the invasion films was that if we are not vigilant the foreign enemy will infiltrate our cosy insulated land and disrupt everything. Certainly this was a great concern of the ruling classes who had to contend with the suffragettes and trade unions who aspired to greater political power within Britain, and the empire-building aspirations of Germany which could expand only by taking over the lands ruled by other European powers.

The interest in airships caused by the scareship panic in the early part of 1913 brought about the production of a play called Sealed Orders. This was presented at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London from 11 September 1913. Cecil Raleigh and Henry Hamilton's play has more twists than a political manifesto. It involves a man who is friendly with a foreign diplomat. They blackmail an admiral's wife to obtain some important sealed orders. The man gets the orders and takes his daughter to a waiting airship. The plan is to use the airship to deliver the orders to the man's foreign contacts. The scheme is foiled when the spy finds that the pilot of the airship is an old adversary. They fight and fall to their deaths. The daughter is rescued by the Royal Navy, and the orders are saved.

The play got mixed reviews, but the life-size airship suspended over the stage was nothing less than impressive. After the declaration of World War I the play was revived, and the foreign diplomat was clearly identified as the German ambassador.

Another play, An Englishman's Home, was staged at Wyndham's Theatre, London in January 1909. It was made into a film in 1914 and released shortly after the outbreak of war. The Guy Du Maurier story involves a Territorial soldier who seeks the hand of Joan Brown. Her father doesn't like her suitor. It is only when the Germans invade and shoot his son in front of him, that he is pleased to have the aid of the Territorials. In May 1939 the play was revived at the Prince's Theatre. One reviewer claimed it was ...the sort of story that depends for its success on the audience's mind being full of fear and doubt and dark imaginings about sinister foreign enemies. (13)

The fiction of the pre-World War I period certainly exploited and encouraged public worries. William le Queux made a career out of scaremongering. His book The Invasion of 1910, published in 1906, was made into a film titled If England Were Invaded in 1913 and was not released until after the outbreak of war. In this the Germans, who are coyly called the Nordeners, pose as holidaymakers at a seaside resort. Their devious plans are thwarted by a Post Office girl and a lieutenant on holiday.

Stolen plans and papers featured prominently in England's Menace and Wake Up!, both released after the declaration of war in August 1914. In the first, directed by Harold Shore, a daughter of a lord discovers discarded wireless messages carelessly left by a foreign spy. One of them reports that an enemy fleet is sailing towards England. She immediately dashes to 10 Downing Street, whereupon the Prime Minister mobilises the army and navy. Using a radio and the enemy's secret code he orders their fleet to return. War is averted due to the quick-witted action of the young woman. In Wake Up! the Secretary of State for War is all for compromise and playing golf. When war does come his daughter helps recover the plans for the defence of the eastern coastline from the hands of the enemy.

From this brief survey we can see that even poorly read members of the working class would be aware of the threat of Germany and would, through film shows, posters, cartoons, etc., be aware of the appearance of aeroplanes and airships. Perhaps one reason why so many of the phantom airship sightings during the British 1909 and 1913 scares were made in cities was the greater exposure of the urban public to the cinema. Though it should be added that most airship reports detailed in the newspapers were made by middle-class male witnesses - the visions of workers and women were not given so much attention, or were briefly mentioned to back up the prime witnesses' sightings.

Having established that most members of the public were familiar with the image of the airship or aeroplane, especially in the context of warfare, it is worth looking at how such images might have played an important part in creating and/or maintaining airship scares.

The best example is provided by the 1909 New Zealand airship scare. The sighting that created the most interest took place at noon on 23 July 1909. It was reported in this manner:

'There is not the slightest doubt that the airship was seen at Kelso yesterday at noon. I have eyewitnesses to prove this. It is cigar or boat" shaped, and is pointed at each end. Those who saw it had no idea of the probable height it could be above them. It did not appear to be very long in build, but was very broad. The children who saw it say that it had a pontoon-shaped part above the boat and a short pole or mast in the centre. It blew over and past the school ground, turned round, and went back the way it came. It was flying very easily, and had no trouble in turning. It came from the direction of the Blue Mountains and over the wooded hill above Kelso, and started to make back direct to the mountains again. It was seen by at least five persons, and their statements are all in accord.' (14)
This prompted many more people to report seeing airships in the sky, for example:
'On Tuesday (27 July), about 10 o'clock in the forenoon, Mr Allan Mitchell, son of Mr J R Mitchell...and Mr Alex Riach, while working on Lambourne, near the mouth of the Pomahaka River, saw high in the air, apparently over Messrs Begg Bros. at Pukepito, a large boat-shaped structure floating in the air. They stopped and watched it to make sure they were not being deceived. It appeared to be coming straight towards them, and they expected it to come over their heads in the direction of the Blue Mountains. It dipped up and down in the air with an easy motion and they could see it easily and had a good view of it, the distance away being about two miles and a half, and pretty high in the air. Their first impressions as to shape were confirmed. It was distinctly boat-shaped, and they could see on the top of it what appeared to be a long pole. It continued with a dipping and ascending motion towards them for some time, and then swerved to the west and crossed the river and headed across by Whitelea and disappeared in the direction of the sea at a fairly fast rate of speed. The broadside view disclosed the same large boat-like appearance, with a mast on top...By its movements it appeared to be under control in some way...It will be seen that this corresponds almost exactly with what was seen at Kelso...' (15)

Two dredgehands at 5.00 a.m. on 30 July also saw a similar airship. From their location, just north of Gore, they saw a narrow, boat-shaped craft. It carried a light at both ends and inside the craft they could see two figures. After circling the district for several minutes it went away in the direction of Otakarama. (16)

Another sighting that had a striking similarity with the Kelso report occurred at 3.00 a.m. on 2 August:

'Mr Thomas Robertson, a baker in the employ of Mr Irvine, saw plainly a large boat-shaped body passing over the north end of Oamaru, a short distance this side of Sumpter's Hill... He also saw silhouetted against the brightness beyond, what he took to be two figures in the structure. These, however, he says, may have been parts of the airship, but to him they appeared to be men.' (17)
This evidence might suggest that there was a real airship flying over New Zealand at that time. The eyewitnesses agree that the thing was boat-shaped, carried two pilots and had a mast-like structure on top of it. The problem with such an idea is that when a reporter finally went to see the original witnesses to the Kelso manifestation their story was different. They had not seen a mast-like structure or two pilots. The children, and one adult, who saw the craft were asked to make drawings of what they saw. The resulting illustrations look nothing like boat-shaped aerial vehicles. Apparently the original Kelso report was made by a local correspondent who had half-guessed what the children had seen. In some quarters it was felt that the children's drawings had been influenced by what an airship should look like from a recent copy of the Windsor Magazine. Elsewhere it was noted that a children's comic called Chums had featured an airship story titled The Peril of the Motherland.

We are left to wonder if the Kelso story was deliberately used by local pranksters or hoaxers to fabricate their own stories, or if they actually witnessed something ambiguous in the sky that was easily seen in the terms previously described in the newspaper. Or, as in the case of the Kelso story itself, it was easy for reporters to put flesh on the bones of a sighting report.

What makes the whole Kelso affair even more intriguing is that in 1966 the Otago Daily Times tracked down the original witnesses. They make the waters even more murky. Agnes Falconer, who had been prominently featured in the 1909 accounts and had one of her drawings of the airship reproduced in several newspapers, now said she hadn't seen anything. Plus, she said, "I'm very positive I didn't draw anything. I can remember the reporter coming to school, but I wasn't in the class he interviewed... There were a lot of rumours. It created a big stir at the time, but whether there was anything in it, I really don't know."

None of the other witnesses were willing to say the whole incident was a hoax; on the other hand, none of them gave much credence to the sightings. George McDuff, who saw an airship over Kelso on 24 July 1909, said, "The children had been reading certain magazine articles (describing an airship) and daydreaming. I put it down largely to that."

Are phantom airships, UFOs and the like all daydreams trying to become reality? Does fiction and/or our thoughts about, combined with social circumstances, produce the very things in the sky we expect to see? I don't think there are such things as flying saucers but we have had to invent them - they are eloquent expressions of our inarticulate wonder and angst at our tinkerings with nature.

Notes and References

1. Burden, Brian; The Andreasson Affair" and The Time Machine": Was H. G. Wells an Unwitting Contactee?, Awareness, Vol. 9, No. 3, 5-7.

2. Strieber, W.; Transformation: The Breakthrough, Arrow, 1989, p. 101..

3. Kottmeyer, Martin; Entirely Unpredisposed , Magonia, No. 35, January 1990.

4. A more comprehensive review of SF films with such themes is included in: Watson, Nigel, The Day Flying Saucers Invaded the Cinema, in UFOs 1947-1987, Fortean Tomes, 1987, pp. 333-337.

5. Rogerson, Peter; The Mythology of UFO Events and Interpretations, MUFOB, Vol. 5, No. 3, Summer 1972, pp. 19-23.

6. Keel, John; The Man Who Invented Flying Saucers, Fortean Times, No. 41, pp. 52-57.

7. Meheust's book Science Fiction et Soucoupes Volantes is reviewed in Evans, Hilary; The Actor's Dog, Common Ground, No. 7,  pp. 25-27.

8. Wilson, Mark; The History of Israel Jobson, the Wandering Jew , quoted in Frank, Joseph (ed.); The Doomed Astronaut, Winthrop Publishers, Mass., USA, 1972, pp. 81-89.

9. See for example the reported experience of Charles Woodward recorded in Watson, Nigel; Green Monsters, Folklore Frontiers, No. 9, 1989. Jimmy Goddard notes further parallels between this case and Christian imagery in the following issue of Folklore Frontiers.

10. This kind of religious connection is put more forcefully by John Paul Oswald (in a commentary privately circulated in May 1990) who asserts that we must acknowledge the reality of God, that Jesus is our teacher and saviour, and that in harmonious unity with them: We have the UFO-Aliens in their role as the operative agents of Christ's installment for overt control. In other words the UFO-Aliens are paving the way for the Second Coming predicted in the Book of Revelations. This isn't a new idea amongst UFO contactees, but with the ending of the century we can surely expect much more of this thinking within mainstream ufology.

11. Johnstone, Iain; The Aeronauts of Victoriana, UFO Brigantia, No. 25, March-April 1987, pp. 18-23.

12. Miller, Ron; Jules Verne and the Great Airship Scare, International UFO Reporter, Vol. 12, No. 3, May-June 1987.

13. Manchester Guardian, 23 May, 1939.

14. Otago Daily Times, Dunedin, 26 July 1909.

15. Otago Daily Times, 31 July 1909.

16. The Dominion, 31 July 1909.

17. The North Otago Times, 4 August 1909.
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