As The X-Files returns with a brand new series, Stylist meets the real-life Dana Scully and attempts a spot of UFO-hunting for ourselves…
Words: Nell Frizzell
I am sitting in the middle of a muddy field near my home in east London at dawn, wrapped in a scarf, a pair of leggings under my jeans, holding a telescope in one hand and a thermos of tea in the other, hoping to spot a UFO. Or meet ET. Or, after half a bum-numbing hour, I’ll settle for a glimpse of a slightly suspicious plane navigation light. I’m here because, until 20 February, it is possible to see the alignment of five planets: Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter, in the morning sky – a phenomenon which hasn’t occurred since 2005. It’s a big deal for anyone interested in stargazing and it’s also likely, as with all major astronomical events, to kickstart a glut of sightings of unexplained phenomena. And that’s what I’m hoping to do: see a UFO. Or even better, meet a real life alien. “People have been entranced by looking at Venus, thinking it’s a UFO,” says Britain’s answer to Dana Scully, Heather Dixon of the British UFO Research Association (BUFORA). “People have already reported feeling that it’s trying to contact them, or that it’s moving.”
With the hype surrounding the new X-Files series, the discovery of water on Mars, the fuss over a suspicious shape spotted in a photo of Earth taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Scott Kelly – it turned out to be a piece of equipment attached to the ISS – UFO hunting is experiencing a renaissance. Recent YouGov research has revealed that more than half of British people (52%) believe in extra-terrestrial life and even physicist Stephen Hawking has described the search for extra-terrestrial life as, “the most exciting quest in 21st century science”.
When Nasa’s Curiosity rover started sending back images from Mars last year, believers in the extra-terrestrial went into overdrive claiming sightings of a rock that showed the face of God; a tiny woman; the remains of crashed flying crafts and an object that looked like a two-foot mouse. Their theories gained such traction they prompted Nasa scientist Ashwin Vasavada to address them saying, “There is no group that would be [happier] to see such a thing than the 500 scientists around the world who work on this Curiosity rover. So far, we haven’t seen anything that is so obvious that it would be similar to what these claims are.”
In the UK, we have had an explosion of unexplained mysteries since 2013. This is thanks largely to the Ministry of Defence releasing the now defunct UFO desk’s collection relating to curious sightings by the British public. Nearly five million pages of information on 6,000 observations have been viewed by three million visitors to the National Archives online. Reports include a number from Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk, described as ‘Britain’s Roswell’, providing detailed descriptions of sightings of a hovering light, burnt trees and a possible craft that were alleged to have been hushed up by the authorities. Many admissions remain unsolved while more prosaic reports, like the Shropshire soldiers who described, “lots of multi-coloured dots and… a cube- shaped object which then flattens” that turned out to simply be a clutch of Chinese lanterns, have been easily explained.
At the heart of the research and debate about UFOs in Britain is Dixon. Now the investigations co-ordinator and head of national investigations committee at BUFORA, which describes itself as ‘a non-cultist and scientifically evaluative organisation’. It is Dixon’s job to interview those who have reported supernatural events, record their experiences and attempt to explain them. She also trains people who want to become supernatural investigators in how to correctly identify objects seen in the sky.
Her interest in space exploration was triggered by her father, an aeronautical engineer who worked on Nasa’s space programme during the Sixties. It has taken Dixon over 20 years to become one of Britain’s most respected UFO investigators and she remains the only woman on the committee. “I’ve always been interested in things that lie outside the framework of what we know or understand,” she says.
Like The X-Files’ sceptical FBI agent Scully, Dixon looks on UFO sightings with curiosity but also a healthy dose of scientific and psychological analysis. She is no spooky thrill-seeker. “Just because we can’t identify something at this time doesn’t mean it will remain unidentified,” she says. With better technology, a better understanding of the human brain and more military disclosures, argues Dixon, more of these unidentified sightings will come to be understood.
BUFORA receives reports of over 400 UFO sightings a year (Dixon works on around 100 of these), the definition of which is a flying object for which no orthodox scientific explanation can be found. Members of the public can report UFO sightings via a form on their website and, according to Dixon, “probably 50-60% of our sighting reports include photographs and footage taken on phones”. This visual evidence is considered to be particularly powerful by UFO hunters and even when given a plausible explanation by Dixon many remain attached to more outlandish theories. “If people take a photograph of something they feel is not of this earth – that cannot be explained – it doesn’t
matter how definitively you can evaluate what they’ve seen; they will not take it on board,” says Dixon.
David Hodrien, the Birmingham UFO group chairman and lead investigator, reveals similar levels of passion among believers. “People report the same types of things again and again, both in terms of objects and contact experiences,” he says. “I’ve dealt with a number of cases where incredible things have been seen, right here over Birmingham. Whatever these things are, they’re not normal aircraft. When you speak to people, you just know they’re not making this up.”
Down to earth
Experiences reported range from the extraordinary (scorched earth, spaceships, abduction) to the mundane. Reading the BUFORA reports is a window into a wonderful, sometimes unsettling, extremely British world. In one case, a family driving to Milton Keynes had an unsettling experience with a mysterious fog that made them feel forgetful and disorientated. “When Mr B got out of the car, he found his coordination was awry, and had great difficulty in unscrewing his petrol cap and inserting the pump nozzle. Both adults were feeling peculiar and ‘knew’ something strange had happened to them…” The couple remained disturbed by what had happened and felt ‘like ghosts’ for several days afterwards. The report conjectures that a mysterious mist which interrupts witnesses’s perception of time may have occurred. Others contain much more down-to-earth and gloriously British sentences like, “I have personally investigated several strange cases from Durham, one of which occurred near Brancepeth on the A690.”
The actual investigation of a UFO sighting is less Mulder and Scully and more Miss Marple, according to Dixon. Witnesses are interviewed, ground marks and traces are examined, sightings are illustrated, angles of sight and altitude are established, weather data is researched and even the migratory habits of insects, birds and other animals are calculated.
In often referenced research by Project Blue Book, an investigation into UFOs by the United States Air Force that ended in 1969 found that between 95 and 98% of all UFO sightings are a simple case of misidentification, with a totally rational reason behind them. Like Scully, Dixon always looks for a scientific explanation: “I believe that there are mysteries,” she says. “But are they to do with something out there visiting us? I’ve never, ever seen any definitive proof of that. I’ve heard many anecdotal narratives, but never any definitive proof.”
So how does she explain UFO sightings? “It can be everything from military hardware like the B2 bombers in the Nineties and secretive military initiatives (so-called ‘black projects’) to drones, weather balloons and even ball lightning,” Dixon says. She worked on a case, many years ago, where a spooky sighting was revealed to be an incidence of ball lightning (a rare form of lightning that appears as a globe of light and can last for up to a minute) rolling up a staircase. “It was during a storm, and this man felt a strong sense of something outside his bedroom. When he opened the door he saw this ball of light, maybe football-sized, floating up the stairs of the house. It then popped, leaving a sulphuric smell.”
Scientists explain many sightings as being a result of ‘pareidolia’ – the psychological phenomenon whereby your brain tries to make sense of random images by recognising patterns, shapes and familiar objects. Dixon also points to the sleep-related hallucinations that many people experience as they fall asleep (hypnagogic) or wake up (hypnopompic) as a cause of convincing domestic sightings. These relatively common hallucinations are mainly visual but can involve sounds, tastes and smells and they can even seem to move around. “You may feel a presence, hear your name, see something on the other side of the room; it’s very powerful. These [hallucinatory] states can seem very, very real.”
Discovering what UFOs are is one thing but just as fascinating is asking why we want to believe in the unexplainable. UFO investigation is far more about psychology than it is astrophysics, argues Dixon. “We’re in this vast universe and so of course you question, is it possible that we’re alone? You’re looking at scientific disciplines like astronomy and physics, but the UFO subject also embraces psychology and neuroscience. The fairies and elves of yesterday have become the grey aliens of today. They are simply things that are unknown, to which we give meaning. People reach out there to try and understand who we are and why we are. We look to the stars, to space, to our galaxy, for meaning. I think that’s quite natural; it’s part of the human condition.”
A person’s belief system – their prejudices, experiences, mental and emotional health – is key to the way they witness and report unidentified interactions. These may range from a period of memory loss to sightings of ghosts and aliens. In a case from County Durham, two women out walking spotted an oval, see-through piece of equipment. When they moved closer their watches stopped and they were convinced they could see “two strange-looking small beings… the size of a large doll… with long white hair, large eyes and claw-like hands”. They ran away and their case remains unexplained.
Even a person’s gender can influence what they see – or think they see. “The paranormal is much more female-dominated,” says Dixon. “While the UFO area is much more male-dominated. The idea of a nuts-and-bolts craft visiting us is not so ethereal and therefore may appeal to more men.” At BUFORA, Dixon trains UFO investigators and says, “A woman’s perspective, her intuition, is very different to a man’s. If you’re visiting a witness, women will pick up on different cues or use of language, and get a different interpretation.”
We are not alone
There are as many reasons why people want to believe in unexplained phenomena as there are types of personality and human experience. Some of us, it seems, simply want to believe. Dixon herself had a spooky incident when, two years after losing her late father’s wedding ring, she found it on the passenger seat of her car. She can’t find any rational explanation and believes somehow her late father found a way to return it. But does she feel UFOs exist? “Do I believe in unidentified aerial phenomena? Yes, I do. Because until it’s identified, for the person who’s seen it, it remains unidentified. When people talk about UFOs they often mean spaceships and aliens, but actually a UFO is just that – an unidentified object in the sky.”
The reason she keeps investigating, says Dixon, is not just to test the boundaries of what we know and understand, but because of what these experiences reveal about humanity; because of the story they tell about ourselves. “I now believe that the pivotal, central thing to all of this is us,” she explains.
As I sit back, swaddled up, peering at the stars with my borrowed telescope, I remember Dixon’s words. The night sky is beautiful – a huge, white moon shines in the west, scored across by fuel trails glowing in the dark. Who needs mysteries, when there is all this? Then suddenly I feel a presence. The birds seem to fall quiet. There is a flash of white just to my left. Blood rushes through my ears. Two golden circles appear to hover above the ground. I count a beat, searching nervously for my torch. The golden circles are replaced by a flashing white diamond. It dances before my eyes. I finally grab my torch and swing it over to the source of this strange, terrifying light. Just in time to see the fluffy backside of a rabbit disappear into the undergrowth. It was a rabbit. I spent an hour in a field in the dead of night, with a telescope, just to get petrified out of my mind by a rabbit.
“I believe in UFOs”
As a physicist and scientific author, professor Brian Cox is an unlikely advocate of unexplained supernatural phenomena
I’ll put my cards on the table here: I believe in UFOs. That is to say, I believe there have been sightings of flying things in the sky that observers were unable to identify, some of which were objects. But I do not believe for a moment that these were spacecraft flown by aliens.
‘Are we alone in the universe?’ is a question that is not well posed for scientific purposes. The universe is too big for us to explore in its entirety, so there is no way of knowing for definite. Indeed if the universe is infinite in extent, we have our answer. No we are not alone. The laws of nature self-evidently allow life to exist, and no matter how improbable, life must have arisen an infinite number of times.
But I find it impossible to believe that we’ll ever explore the universe beyond our own galaxy. Our nearest neighbour is over 2 million light years away. As for visitors to Earth, advanced, space-faring civilisations are extremely rare. We are the first to emerge in the Milky Way and it took almost 4 billion years and the kind of biological and evolutionary accidents that happen on average in less than one in every 200 billion solar systems.
We are actively trying to find out whether there are other organisms in our solar system through programmes like the Mars rovers. Civilisations are very rare, and it is at least possible that we are alone in the Milky Way Galaxy.”