I just finished Thomas Bullard’s book, The Myth and Mystery of UFOs, by scholar-folklorist Thomas Bullard (University of Kansas Press, 2010). Rather than write my own review, I found the work summarized nicely in this review over at Magonia review of books blog. I’ll just add a few thoughts below on this important work.
Bullard’s book is not light reading. It is an academic work. In my view, as an academic, it’s a wonderful volume. Bullard has detailed chapters, with the expected documentation in mainly academic sources, on all the major motifs of UFO studies: descriptions of alien craft, the aliens themselves, abduction narratives, and alien mission and homeworlds. In each case, Bullard painstakingly details how virtually all the UFO anecdotal evidence can be found in ancient, medieval, and early modern tales across the globe. Importantly, the vast majority of these correlations have nothing to do with other planets, inter-planetary travel, or extraterrestrials. That is, though the correlations are overwhelmingly present, it is only in the contemporary era that narratives about abduction and “otherworldly visitation” conforms to anything we would recognize as high technology. His point in this effort is to raise question of how any of the UFO phenomena could in reality be about visitors from space given the vast arrays of correlations. Good question.
Bullard’s (for the most part) explanation is the psycho-social approach. This is not a view that says a culture produces these episodes or encounters and their descriptions. Rather, it is the encounter with the anomalous that produces the descriptions — and the descriptions are far more likely to not be about genuine aliens from space than other deep-seated thoughts, fear, beliefs, yearnings, etc. The reason the overlaps are so high, reasons Bullard, is that experiences are parsed in such a way that new mythologies are constructed that serve the same fucntion or outlet as older ones.† The garb changes because we are living in a different era, our lives defined by technology and the “final frontier” of space.
Bullard doesn’t take a dogmatic stance on this, though. He simply feels it has high explanatory value, but not complete explanatory power. He leaves room for truly anomalous events that might include genuine extraterrestrial contact, and outlines in some details how such experiences might be winnowed from the those experiences for which the psycho-social explanation can best account.
I would encourage anyone interested in UFOs to read this book, and to keep it as a handy reference for its coverage and source material. In particular, those for whom the UFO subject goes beyond the nuts and bolts (questions of physics and reverse engineering which a priori assume that most UFOs are physical craft of non-human origin) will be well served by Bullard’s focus on how the UFO subject molds and produces religious experience and worldview.