Since early childhood, David J. Halperin has been interested in—or maybe obsessed with—stories about UFO sightings and alien abductions. But Halperin doesn’t match the typical pop-culture depiction of the crazy flying-saucer guy. A retired professor of religious studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, he’s a respected scholar with several decades of published work in his field. He doesn’t even own a tinfoil hat.
In 2018, Halperin fictionalized his personal story of family trauma and cosmic awe in Journal of a UFO Investigator. Set in 1966, the novel tells the story of teenager Danny Shapiro, a brainy kid caring for his terminally ill mother while exploring the nascent world of ufology.
Now, he’s back on the bookshelves with Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO (Stanford University Press). A nonfiction exploration of UFO sightings as mythical and psychological phenomena, it’s a mid-air collision of rigorous academic writing, vivid storytelling, historical detail, and some delightfully strange conjecture.
Halperin’s basic premise is that, while UFOs aren’t real, UFO sightings inarguably are, and that’s worth studying. Sinking into a worn armchair at Market Street Coffeehouse in Chapel Hill, Halperin spoke with the INDY—before his March 24 release reading at Flyleaf Books was postponed over coronavirus concerns—about aliens and elections, religious visions, and a naked John Lennon. By the end of the interview, he’d gathered several eavesdroppers who weren’t even bothering to pretend otherwise.
INDY: UFO research is clearly such a personal issue for you. Why is that?
DAVID J. HALPERIN: It’s bound up with the dilemma I found myself in as a teenager, watching my mother slowly die in a way that was unacknowledged. The UFOs gave me a means of grappling with that. The images have haunted me all my life. Even when I was not admitting that I was a ufologist—like when I was applying for jobs in academia—the subjects that I was drawn to were connected to the themes of ufology: the idea of heavenly ascension and otherworldly journeys.
The idea you advance in the book, this psychological or spiritual reading of UFO phenomena—how far back does that go?
It goes back, first, to Carl Jung in the late 1950s. He published a book—the translation from German is Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. I don’t think that anyone, before Jung, was able to see UFOs as a myth. Jung was saying: “Wow, we’ve got this new myth here in the midst of us. We need to explore what it means for us all.”
The second would be Jacques Vallée, in his book Passport to Magonia. Remember the French scientist in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? He was modeled after Vallée. He was the first to really see that UFOs are the culture’s encounters with a realm that’s beyond us. The numinous. It’s a favorite word of the Jungians.
There’s an interesting line of thought in the book that those who retell the story of a UFO sighting—even those who mock and ridicule the stories—are all part of the sighting.
Right, the UFO believer and the UFO debunker are both part of the phenomenon. Everyone who engages with the idea of UFOs is, in one way or another, expressing unconscious thoughts, fears, and hopes.
Have you heard the John Lennon story? In the summer of 1974, Lennon’s companion May Pang had just finished showering, and John was walking around the apartment naked. John calls to her, “Come look at this.” They go out on the balcony and see this disc-shaped object pass overhead. They take repeated photographs, which turn out to show nothing.
In later years, almost every time Lennon or Pang are asked about this, they mention that they were naked as if that’s a crucial part of the story. And I think that it is. When is the last time that a naked human couple was confronted by a numinous presence? You see where I’m going?
“And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” Genesis 3:8. What I see in that story is something—and I’ll use the Jungian word—powerfully archetypal. I think for them, it was a completely unconscious reenactment of the Eden story.
When you were still teaching, did you get any pushback, any people saying that these UFO ideas are just too kooky for academic scholarship?
Yeah, I did get some nasty pushback. In the fall of 1995, I gave a paper on UFO abductions and heavenly ascensions. It was a big success. The next year, I submitted the paper to The Journal of the American Academy of Religion. I got a rejection, and the evaluator said, “I assume this paper is a joke. And if it’s serious, then the author should be prosecuted for criminal malpractice.”
Now, as a good Freudian-slash-Jungian, I would say that this suggests I was onto something. I had hit a nerve. He responded with such persecutory violence. There’s a definite phenomenon of people who are fanatically hostile to these ideas.
Did you see the New York Times series on UFO sightings from Navy planes?
Yes! You know, The New York Times has been consistently scornful about UFOs until December 2017, then there was this abrupt about-face.
What do you think is behind that?
This is just a wild guess, but I suspect it has to do with the 2016 election.
Now, I admit that I’m biased, but if we’re willing to suppose that what UFOs represent is the alienness of death, then it makes sense that UFOs should start appearing again when the collective death of the whole species becomes a real possibility: global warming.
I think up until the election of Trump, people thought, well, at least we have a handhold on this. At least the governments of the world are working together. With Trump’s election, all that was thrown into doubt. I think it was New York magazine that ran a very sympathetic article on UFOs that said every generation gets the UFO myth that it deserves. Ours is Donald Trump versus E.T. I would present evidence for that, but I don’t have any [laughs].
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How did Halperin ever earn a phD? is last answer to the NYT article is absurd…what a kook. Yeah, navy pilots knew 15 years ago that a Trump like character might get elected who is going to kill us all via global warming, and then suddenly the NYT comes to this realization and prints the story because people feel ‘alienated’ because of all this climate change hyperbole.
Do you really want a clown like this ‘educating’ your kids…don’t reward him by buying this piece of rubbish posing as a book.
Politics or science?
Neither, just convoluted thoughts.
Your entire character is surmised in this short read, you are definately not someone I would like to converse with much less read. Why would anyone want to commit to memory anything you have to say? None of your words carry any weight nor a modicum of value.
Warning: you sir, “listening to yourself” will turn you into a pariah, eventually driving yourself mad.
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