Of all the big names in UFOlogy in the late 20th Century, Jacques Vallée might be the most interesting. A physicist and computer scientist by training, he believed that there was some form of physical reality behind UFOs, but was reluctant to jump to the conclusion that they were necessarily nuts-and-bolts spacecraft from other worlds. In the late 1960s, his classic Passport To Magonia aired his personal theory that if there was any truth to stories of extraterrestrial visitors at all, they seemed more consistent with visits from other dimensions than from distant space – and that the phenomenon had direct parallels with folkloric encounters with angels, fairies and similar.
1979’s Messengers of Deception came about after Vallée decided to turn his attention from the witnessed aerial phenomena themselves to the people who claim to have witnessed them – and, in particular, those who insist they have met the occupants of interplanetary craft. His initial reason for doing so was a hypothesis that UFOs are a real physical phenomenon which has psychological or neurological effects on witnesses, and so by looking to said witnesses it might be possible to find evidence of this.
Personally, I think Vallée is misguided in this approach since he is overly attached to the assumption that UFOs (or the fairy boats to Magonia or whatever) have a physical reality to them which causes a neurological effect, when it could be equally true that there is some neurological phenomenon at work (in those cases which are not mere fabrication) which gives rise to sightings of strange vehicles and encounters with the inhabitants thereof.
However, Messengers of Deception is not a usual UFO book, and the investigations Vallée undertakes in the course of it are far from useless. For by turning his attention to the community of contactees and the sects that form around them, Vallée was perturbed to discover a number of recurring elements within the subculture – a certain authoritarianism, an embrace of the irrational and rejection of scientific consensus, a playing-down of the inventiveness and accomplishments of humanity in favour of submission to a higher power, and perhaps most disturbingly, a range of connections to reclusive occult traditions and extremist politics. Was there reason to think that contactees had an agenda above and beyond beatifically conveying the best wishes of benevolent Space Brothers?
Messengers of Deception was a little ahead of its time. In the late 1970s, the general reaction to UFOs and speculations about the motives of their inhabitants tended towards the optimistic. In airing his disquiet about this – and the way UFO cults of the era seemed all too ready to surrender responsibility and let an alien higher power (or the contactees speaking for them) act for them – Vallée was swimming against the current, but was also foreshadow the more paranoid 1980s-1990s era of UFOlogy and its pop cultural footprint that would reach its apogee with The X-Files. It’s notable that, Betty and Barney Hill’s 1960s experience aside, 1979 was still an era when “contactees” – folk who, along the lines of George Adamski (generally considered the first contactee), claimed to have had benevolent, friendly conversations – very much set the paradigm. Within less than a decade, the contactees would be largely brushed aside as the scene was flooded with abductees with much more harrowing stories of alien encounters to tell.
Yet what Vallée is interested in here is less questions like “did these contactees really meet aliens or encounter UFOs?” and more “what is the social effect of these contactees and their teachings and groups?”, and he makes a strong case that despite talking peace and universal understanding the contactees seem to have worryingly authoritarian and autocratic visions for society. They often espoused a strange sort of elitism, with disturbing parallels between the idea of an enlightened race from the stars and more terrestrial ideas of master races.
A particularly creepy moment comes early in the book, in which Vallée gives an account of a public lecture given by the followers of The Two – AKA Bo and Beep, AKA Ti and Do, AKA Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite. This group would attain infamy decades later when they achieved their final forms on the evolutionary level beyond human which Vallée documents then preaching here. This apotheosis transformed them from the living adherents of Applewhite (Nettles having died in 1985) into a neatly arranged set of black-clad corpses, poisoned vodka-and-apple-juice remaining in their bodies, bags tied over the heads, purple sheets placed over their bodies. The evolutionary advantages of such a form are beyond me… but the Heaven’s Gate crew were convinced they knew what they were doing, and seemed just as convinced back in that mid-1970s meeting when Vallée encountered them.
In retrospect, Vallée was pointing out an entire Soviet parade’s worth of red flags with respect to Heaven’s Gate; they were saying some really alarming stuff even then. In particular, at the time the group members seemed convinced that Bo and Peep were going to die at some point in the next few months and then rise from the dead three days later, like Christ. It’s hard not to draw parallels between this miracle – which, so far as anyone knows, never happened – and Jim Jones’ penchant for faking assassination attempts on himself.
If there’s a weakness of Vallée’s investigation of links between contactees and fringe political and occult groups, it’s that he tends to assume that any group using similar symbolism to make a similar point must necessarily be connected, if only by the manipulators he comes to believe have latched onto the UFO phenomenon and hijacked it for political ends. For instance, after running into the Order of Melchizedek in Paris and some of its splinter groups, he starts talking like any group prominently using Melchizedek in its imagery must have an organisational connection, when we’re talking about a Bible character who’s right there available for anyone to hang ancient aliens-type ideas on.
Whilst Vallée’s concern that there is an organised group doing all of this seems overly paranoid, there’s a lot of evidence presented here (and much more that Vallée doesn’t touch on) for the idea that, regardless of whether or not UFOs are real, there’s a bunch of people with fringe spiritual and/or political beliefs who have latched onto the phenomenon in order to push their personal agendas, and as such contactees may merit a bit more scrutiny and suspicion rather than being treated as harmless kooks.
For instance, take George Adamski, generally held to be the first of the contactee movement. Prior to his contactee shenanigans, he was a very keen Theosophist – and of course, the idea of spiritually evolved super-races populating the wider universe fits into Theosophy rather nicely. The concept of “Nordic” aliens – closely resembling the Nazi alien ideal – was widely promulgated by Adamski and would pop up in various forms over the years; some fringes of the UFO conspiracy theorist movement, including but not limited to David Icke, posit a galactic war between the benevolent Nordics and the malevolent Reptoids. In this context, suspicions of far-right groups latching onto the “Reptoid” concept as a cypher for “the Jewish conspiracy” become all the more credible.
And of course, after Vallée would come Strieber. Though some abductees present their experiences in unequivocally horrified terms, Whitley Strieber is one of a class of abductees who have, in essence, set themselves up as the inheritors of the contactee experience in suggesting that the motives of their molesters are basically benign and are about teaching important lessons to humanity. Much of the apocalyptic information Strieber ascribes to the aliens in Communion is remarkably reminiscent of the trends Vallée identifies in contactee rhetoric here. Just as Adamski had his roots in Theosophy, Strieber had a well-established background in Gurdjieff’s mystical philosophy prior to his abduction experiences.
This is not to say that there is some hidden directorate of occult fascists giving marching orders to contactees or abductees (directly or via mind control), however. It seems more likely to me that UFOs and other Fortean phenomena, by their nature, are the sort of thing which mystics and occultists tend to find interesting – and when such phenomena become a pop culture craze, the opportunity to promulgate a philosophy which might otherwise find a sad and drab reception is probably overwhelmingly tempting.
Whilst Vallée’s specific conclusions do not seem 100% sound, Messengers of Deception does at least provide a persuasive argument, written in Vallée’s amusing style, that a) sociological study of the effects of the UFO craze on the populace is no waste of time and b) the motives of contactee gurus may not be all that benign. Heaven’s Gate proved him comprehensively correct on that front.