"The Myth is the Mystery":Reflections on Annie Jacobsen's Area 51

by David Halperin


Why, folklorist Thomas Bullard has asked, are UFOs in this country “at once so popular and so despised?”  It’s a good question; the hubbub over Annie Jacobsen’s best-selling Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base is the latest demonstration of how good it is.  “Oh, I’ve got to read that book,” a waitress said when she saw me with Area 51, and from our conversation it became clear that it was the Area 51 of UFO legend, not the real Area 51 of Cold-War dread (to which most of Jacobsen’s book is devoted) that had drawn her interest.  UFOs, a.k.a. “flying saucers,” have zoomed around our cultural skies for more than sixty years.  They’ve survived innumerable debunkings, their fascination undimmed.  Evidently they’re saying something, communicating something, that needs to be heard.  What?

This is the real “UFO mystery.”  It’s a cultural, a psychological, even a religious mystery, the sort of thing a religious studies professor like myself might well take an interest in.  I can’t claim personal immunity from the subject.  Back in the 1960s I myself was a teenage “UFOlogist.”  I believed fervently in UFOs, though not necessarily (at least at first) that they came from outer space.  I thought solving their mystery to be the greatest and most important challenge facing the human race.  Even after I’d transferred my interest to more academically respectable subjects—like ancient religious traditions of heavenly ascent—my discarded UFO beliefs continued to haunt me, as a mythological system I’d once been inside and whose pull on my emotions I’ve never stopped feeling.

And why not call UFOs a myth, or even a mythology?  Not using the term to mean “bunk” or “hooey,” but in the positive Jungian sense of a message or messenger from some collective “us” that’s greater than our individual selves.  Why not honor UFO mythology, as we do Greek mythology, as a religious phenomenon?  Why not explore the profounder meanings embedded in its narratives, without expecting to find physical remains, say, of the mirror Perseus used to cut off Medusa’s head?

No sooner do I say this than I hear a skeptical voice whispering in my ear.  Can I really compare Roswell to Delphi, the modern UFO myths to those of the ancient Greeks?  Greek mythology was the consensus mythology of one of the great creative cultures of history.  In our culture, UFO mythology seems doomed to the fringe.  There it perdures, without being able to gain common assent or even serious interest.

Sure, newspaper cartoons that play on the Roswell crash can count on readers’ understanding the allusion.  A book like Jacobsen’s, that offers a stunning new explanation of what really happened at Roswell, will climb in the best-seller charts.  The canonical image of the “UFO alien”—light-bulb shaped head, enormous almond eyes—turns up each year amid the Hallowe’en menagerie of goblins and witches and vampires, the only newcomer to that august, archaic gallery of the grotesque and horrific.  But the mainstream response is a laugh, then a yawn.  The same UFOs, that will not be banished from the dark edges of our cultural awareness, show no capacity to relocate themselves toward the center.  Like Hallowe’en ghosts they knock on our doors, then vanish to the hinterlands whence they came.  Popular yet despised—Bullard, in his meticulous scholarly study of UFOs as the stuff of human legend (The Myth and Mystery of UFOs ), got that exactly right.  And like him we must ask: why?

Not, what are the UFOs?  Not, where do they come from?  But: what do they mean?



The UFO era dawned on June 24, 1947.  This was when a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold spotted nine mysterious objects flying over the Cascade Mountains of Washington, and described their motion as that of “saucers skipping over water.”  The press converted this to “flying saucers”; the phrase stuck.  Arnold’s sighting triggered others, and the first of this nation’s flying saucer “flaps” was under way.

For the next several days, flying saucers were front-page news in the New York Times.  This seems odd nowadays.  It shouldn’t.  World War II was less than two years in the past, the Cold War just begun.  Nazi scientists, such as the infamous Wernher von Braun, had found new lives and new respectability doing for this country’s military arsenal what they’d once done for the Fuehrer’s.  They’d been brought here, spoils of war, by the equally infamous “Operation Paperclip.”  The Soviets had done the same, and no one knew what the scientists they’d carried off had been working on as the war ended.  Mysterious flying objects over American airspace were serious business.

Only later, when it became clear that the flying disks weren’t secret Soviet devices—or ours, for that matter—did the interplanetary-spaceship hypothesis come to the fore.  UFOs thereby entered the realm of science fiction; scientific and other elite opinion branded them nonsense, not worth anybody’s time or attention.  And so they remain to this day.

Or did it become clear they weren’t Soviet?  Not according to one of Annie Jacobsen’s informants.  This person, an unnamed engineer for the EG&G company (Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Greer, Inc.), claimed inside knowledge of a disk that crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, supposedly inscribed with block letters in the Cyrillic alphabet.

Of course we’ve all heard of the Roswell crash.  Those of us who’ve visited the Roswell UFO Museum have probably heard, played through an old-fashioned Philco-style radio, a recording of a radio news broadcast from the first week of July 1947, announcing that one of the newly famous flying saucers had been recovered and brought to the Roswell Army Air Field.  The spokesmen who issued this pronouncement promptly backtracked.  The “saucer,” they said, was nothing but an ordinary weather balloon.  The revised story smelled of cover-up; and so it was.  But covering up what?

Here’s Jacobsen’s version:  Bodies were found alongside the crashed disk.  “These were not aliens. … They were human guinea pigs.  Unusually petite for pilots, they appeared to be children … grotesquely deformed … [with] unusually large heads and abnormally shaped oversize eyes.”  Much like the Roswell story we all know, but with a twist.  These child-pilots were surgical creations of the fiendish Josef Mengele of Auschwitz, done to order at war’s end for Joseph Stalin.  Their purpose?  To be sent into American airspace, in German-designed flying disks, with the intention that they would land, be mistaken for Martians, and create a repeat of the “War of the Worlds” panic of 1938.

This wildly implausible tale is “but a thread,” as Jacobsen says, in the wider story of Area 51.  A unique “thread”; and though she tries hard, she never quite manages to weave it in with the rest.  Area 51 of the Nevada Test and Training Range appears through most of her book as a stage for the deadly arms race between the US and the Soviet Union, testing ground for devices like the U-2 spy plane, the F-117 stealth bomber—all developed in conditions of deepest secrecy, sharing the site with nuclear tests so toxic, so terrifying, that one’s hair practically stands on end to read about them.  There are crashes aplenty, harrowing ones, all involving aircraft ordinary or experimental.  What has Roswell to do with any of this?

On the surface, just this: the remains of the Roswell disk and its passengers are supposed to have been brought to Area 51, where they were spotted in the 1980s by a distinctly impeachable witness named Bob Lazar.  But the disk seems to have had no connection with anything done subsequently at the site, and this is what makes Jacobsen’s story unbelievable.  The Russians in 1947 were in possession of a flying disk capable of penetrating our airspace and zooming around our Southwest—and this device left no trace in the subsequent history of the arms race?  No hint of it came to light after the Soviet Union’s collapse?

(And let’s add that the notion of starting a “War of the Worlds” panic, with human children doctored up to look like aliens, is absurd.  The “War of the Worlds” Martians created panic, not because they were alien or weird-looking, but because they set about trashing New Jersey immediately upon crawling out of their spaceships, and no one was able to stop them.)

Roswell is both mystery and myth, to use Bullard’s terminology, and the mystery has been pretty well cleared up.  Strange debris did fall from the sky onto a ranch north of the town of Roswell, early in July 1947.  There’s no reason to doubt this debris was the remnants of a balloon train used for a top-secret espionage project called “Project Mogul.”  The authorities at Roswell Army Air Field, never having seen anything like it and having no idea what it might be, issued an over-enthusiastic proclamation they’d found the remains of a flying saucer.  (In the 1947 context, as UFO historian Curtis Peebles reminds us, a “flying saucer” wasn’t necessarily expected to look inter-galactic—just peculiar.)  No doubt they soon received a stern reminder, from someone higher up, that the source of the debris was top secret and that calling the press’s attention to it hadn’t been the most brilliant idea.  Voila: the Roswell cover-up.  “An ordinary weather balloon.”

Bob Lazar, by Claire Childs

But the myth …   The nucleus of it can be traced to a Roswell mortician named Glenn Dennis, who “remembered” sometime after the fact that in the first week of July 1947 he’d received a phone call from Roswell Army Air Field.  What were the smallest hermetically sealed coffins, the caller asked, that the funeral home had available?

Why do you ask? Dennis inquired.  Has there been an accident?

Oh, no reason, just asking, just asking …

And with that “recollection” of Dennis’s, Roswell ceased to be a banal mystery of fallen debris, and took the first step toward becoming what it is today: a profound and gripping myth of mortal divinity.



Mortician as mythmaker?  Odd figure, it would seem, for the role.  Yet it’s a link that recurs in the Roswell saga, or more exactly, in the story of how that saga took shape.

According to Jacobsen, it was a Japanese American mortician named Norio Hayakawa who, in early 1990, heard Bob Lazar talk on a Las Vegas radio station about what he’d allegedly seen in Area 51.  Through his contacts with the Japanese media, Hayakawa went on to give Lazar’s tale international currency.  Shall we, generalizing from Dennis and Hayakawa, suppose that the role of morticians in the development of the Roswell myth points to some essential link between that myth and death?

It’s a leap.  But let’s take it, just to see what happens.

After all, the death of celestial beings—whose heavenly origins, whose fantastic powers of flight would mark them as gods in traditionally religious cultures—is the crux of the Roswell story, the pivot of its fascination.  It’s no doubt the feature that’s made Roswell the archetypal, emblematic UFO story, the best-known of them all.

Anthropologists who’ve analyzed the story have noted the godlike qualities of the UFO pilots.  Normally, though, gods don’t fall dead or dying from the heavens.  They’re not usually frail and diminutive, weirdly like children with their outsized heads.  (Or, like weirdly deformed children—here’s the truth embedded in the story Jacobsen’s engineer told her.  It’s a psychological, not historical truth.)

Orpheus and Eurydice

My intuition tells me that death, and our human awareness of death, lies at the center of the whole ramified UFO mythology.  Roswell is just the place where the theme comes closest to the surface.  Consider: my death is an intimate part of me, bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.  It’s born with me at my birth; it accompanies me each day of my life.  Yet it’s also the most alien thing I can (not) imagine—that through which I cease to be I, cease to be anything at all.  How better to express this paradox, than with a myth of a stubborn and persistent alien presence in what we thought our familiar skies?

In approaching the truth at the heart of myth, the artist may step more surely than the scholar, the scientist.  The first major novelist to make use of UFOs in his fiction was Gore Vidal, in his 1954 novel Messiah .  This dystopian story, of a world swept by a sinister messianic cult, opens with actual UFO events from the early 1950s.  For Vidal the UFOs aren’t space visitors, any more than they’re atmospheric freaks.  Rather, they’re “omens, obsessive and ubiquitous,” heralding “a new mission … conceived out of the race’s need, the hour of its birth already determined by a conjunction of terrible new stars.”  And what is that “new mission,” the message carried by the cult that takes over Vidal’s late twentieth-century world?  That it is good to die.


Is it coincidence that UFOs emerged as a cultural phenomenon at the beginning of the Cold War, two years post-Alamogordo and Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  (Or, given the geographic locus of nuclear annihilation, that the secret knowledge of Area 51 was spread by a Japanese American?)  For the first time in human history, the collective death of the species—not death turned meaningful by an apocalyptic-religious framework, but simply death, blind and absolute—had become a realistic possibility.  And the UFOs put in their appearance.

Here lies the key to the real relationship between Roswell and Area 51.  Not the transfer of non-existent corpses from one place to the other.  Rather, the Roswell myth (like Perseus’s mirror) providing a reflection, distorted enough to be endurable, of the inner meaning of the Gorgon horrors at the Nevada Test Site: the hubris of child-man, fancying himself a god, crashing like Icarus to eternal and irrevocable death.



The treatment of UFOs in Vidal’s Messiah foreshadows the ideas set forth in a book that appeared four years after Vidal’s novel, and has haunted UFO discourse ever since.  This is Carl Jung’s Flying Saucers—A Modern Myth of Things Seen In the Skies (1958); and it hardly needs saying that, in calling UFOs a myth, the last thing Jung intended was disparagement.

It’s a matter of some controversy, in UFOlogical circles, what Jung really thought about UFOs.  There’s no question that for him their essential interest was as psychic projections, crucial to the understanding of our times and our souls.  But was that all?  The final chapter of Flying Saucers is ambiguous, and can be read either way.  Photographs of UFOs, and their occasional appearance on radar screens, troubled Jung.  “It boils down to nothing less than this: that either psychic projections throw back a radar echo, or else the appearance of real objects affords an opportunity for mythological projections.”  Which option did Jung prefer?  What are we to make of the peculiar story reported by Charles Lindbergh , of how he and the aged Jung quarreled fiercely over Jung’s stubborn—and, to Lindbergh, entirely irrational—insistence that UFOs are physically real?

David Halperin, photo by Anora McGaha

And where does the truth lie?  Is there a UFO mystery apart from the UFO myth, some nucleus of unexplained fact that leads away from the human soul into some cosmic enigma that’s barely imaginable?  This is the view, not of cranks or cultists but of highly intelligent and critical-minded observers, who’ve immersed themselves for decades in studying UFO reports and whose opinions I highly respect.  It’s the view expressed by Thomas Bullard, whose sober and learned Myth and Mystery of UFOs steers clear—perhaps to its advantage, perhaps not—of the kind of speculation I’ve allowed myself in this essay.

It is not my view.  For me, the myth is the mystery; and to the extent to which it’s susceptible to elucidation, dark and vital corners of the contemporary soul stand to be revealed.

No, I don’t believe psychic projections throw back radar echoes.  But I do believe, as Jung wrote more than fifty years ago, that the psychological problems of the UFO “involve just as fantastic possibilities or impossibilities as the approach from the physical side.”

To locate the mystery in inner rather than outer space is not to dismiss or trivialize it, but to acknowledge, and stand awestruck before, the immensity of its depth and power.

David Halperin is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his specialty Judaic studies.  His novel Journal of a UFO Investigator was published this year by Viking Press; it’s appeared also in Spanish, and Italian and German editions are forthcoming.  David blogs about UFOs, religion, and related subjects at www.davidhalperin.net.

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