Reviews / February 27, 2017
Not many books have actually changed my life, but The Uninvited is one of them. Somehow, it coalesced the long-accumulating supernatural- and UFO-related ephemera I had been cramming into my eyes and ears at every opportunity and weaponized it against me, burning into the pulp of my 10-year-old brain a series of images frightening enough to disturb me profoundly for many years afterwards.
Inhabiting as it did the overlap of the paperback pulp horrors of James Herbert’s The Rats (1974) and the felt-tip esotericism of The Unexplained—whose weekly editions he was proudly compiling—The Uninvited immediately presented itself as ideal reading for my dad, and, as soon as the book had left the commute between bedside table and toilet that formed his reading cycle, I appropriated it for myself. The front cover threatened that the book was true but that “You’ll wish it wasn’t,” while the back cover revealed that The Uninvited was set in Wales. My infrequent visits to the maternal homeland were already experiences near enough to alien abduction for my liking: vast, unearthly spiders ranged the uneven walls, bizarre foodstuffs were consumed with alacrity, and the native language was a terrifying catarrhic rasp. I’d been to farmhouses like the one featured in the bad-trip-Andrew-Wyeth cover art—they were worrying enough without radioactive spacemen pursuing you through their gloomy rooms. (One inexplicable detail about the cover art still troubles me: for years, I’d presumed that the top right bedroom window was blue because my mum had distractedly colored it in while she chatted on the phone, as she was wont to do to anything left lying around, but now I know that the same blue window exists on all copies, like some kind of coded, extraterrestrial message.)
My own testing experiences of Cymru (where The Uninvited takes place), however, were insignificant compared to the ordeal faced by the Coombs clan, a bluff, no-nonsense family of Welsh farmers who unwittingly became part of the West Wales UFO flap of 1977 when their farm, Ripperstone (situated in the vaguely defined and ludicrously named “Welsh Triangle”), became the epicenter for an increasingly frightening series of events, which author Clive Harold—a journalist who had befriended the family—transforms into memorably damaging set pieces. Disembodied hands floating through the air, radiation burns, pets driven mad by contact with unearthly beings, threatening Men in Black-types driving silent, silver space cars, entire herds of cows teleported back and forth, and the pièce de résistance—which made it practically impossible for me, well into my thirties, to sit near a downstairs window after dark without going into a state of near panic—the brazen appearance of a spacesuit-clad alien outside the family’s living room window as they sat watching the telly. Never was the violation of the British hearth by the outside world rendered more absurdly or more unnervingly. In many ways, The Uninvited reads like a ghost story uncluttered by the dusty Edwardian rules of good manners normally governing such stuff.
The contrast between the surreal pointlessness of the episodes that afflict the Coombs family and the grey mundanities of British life in the 1970s only makes the whole more terrifying, and the agenda of the family’s visitors seems to be, quite simply, to drive them insane. The writing is effective (despite the simple country folk’s incongruous habit of speaking in bursts of erudite exposition), and the book reveals the thirst for horror and shock that lies beneath much of UFO literature. There was even an abridged version of the (already fairly short) “true story,” presumably to satisfy those eager to access its traumas without wasting time on character development or descriptions of farming life.
Despite the third act suggestion that the extraterrestrial forces might be trying to warn the Coombs of some forthcoming catastrophe, and despite the knowledge that, years later, a local businessman admitted to having pranked several locals while clad in a silver suit borrowed from an oil refinery, revisiting The Uninvited still makes me uneasy. Reading it again reminds me that, given the right stimulation, an overactive imagination can drive one half-mad with fear, which is probably what happened to the Coombs family, and certainly what happened to me at age ten.
There’s a peculiar little coda to the story, too. When Prince Charles made a royal visit to the offices of The Big Issue (a British magazine sold by the homeless to allow them a small income) in 1997, he was greeted by a penniless Clive Harold, who, before writing about the Coombs family, had been a reporter for right-wing British tabloid The Sun, as well as a schoolmate of the Prince of Wales at the exclusive Hill House prep school.
UFO-Dynamics: Psychiatric and Psychic Aspects of the UFO Syndrome
By Berthold Erich Schwartz, M.D.
Rainbow Books, 1983 (Revised Edition 1988)
As the field of ufology entered the 1980s, it had a growing corpus of evidence to analyze. Over the previous 35 years, people had been seeing UFOs, watching their effects on the world around them, and even (or so they claimed) been taken aboard them to encounter the crafts’ entities. Researchers and writers of all stripes had taken pen in hand or made documentaries about the phenomenon. And quite a few experts from various scientific fields, including Jacques Vallée, Stanton Friedman, and J. Allen Hynek, had spent a decade or more accumulating evidence, conducting interviews, and otherwise monitoring the flood of post-World War II UFO sightings.
By the early 1980s, aeronautical experts and folklorists dominated ufology. Sometimes these approaches were even combined in a single person, most notably scientist Vallée’s groundbreaking 1969 study linking UFOs to faerie folklore, Passport to Magonia. Few psychiatric professionals had taken a hard look at the UFO phenomenon, with the very notable exception of Carl Jung’s psycho-social study of ufology’s early years, culminating in his 1959 Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. Recall, this was before the vogue for hypnosis-recovered memories and testimony that reached its zenith in the mid-’80s due to the influence of Budd Hopkins (Missing Time: A Documented Study of UFO Abductions, 1981) and Whitley Strieber (Communion, 1987), or even the more measured medical-folkloric approach led by Harvard Medical School professor John E. Mack (Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens, 1994). So, in 1983, when New Jersey psychiatrist Berthold E. Schwarz assembled evidence from dozens of UFO cases in his UFO-Dynamics: Psychiatric and Psychic Aspects of the UFO Syndrome, there was an opening for a serious, scholarly look at the phenomenon.
Schwarz had spent much of the late 1960s and 1970s researching and writing about parapsychological phenomena as it intersected with mundane psychology in areas like parent-child telepathy and ghost hauntings. Of course, during this time, there was very little cognitive dissonance for mainstream scientists who seriously examined paranormal phenomena. While this writing and research was going on, Schwarz was visiting UFO experiencers up and down the Northeast United States, interviewing them, reviewing their concrete evidence, and coming to professional, psychiatrically-aware conclusions about their experiences. Throughout UFO-Dynamics, Schwarz is conscious and aware of the void in responsible, professional research of the UFO phenomenon by trained psychiatrists and the role his book may play in setting standards in this area. In his introduction, he defines the field of “ufodynamics,” an interdisciplinary corollary to ufology, as that which affects the perceptions, minds, and selves of human beings:
Many of the cases in this book will show how UFOs are frightfully complex and that whatever their physical parameters, which admittedly deserve intensive study, the ufodynamics — the psychiatric-psychic—aspects are no less attractive and in need of attention. Hopefully these combined approaches might awaken wider interests that will lead to practical discoveries toward the eventual understanding not only of UFOs and psychic phenomena, but also as to how these interrelated forces might be operative in the causation or healing of various diseases.
(Remember this bit about “the causation or healing of various diseases” for later.)
UFO-Dynamics is a monster of a book: the revised 1988 edition is 540-plus pages of text. In it, Schwarz does not make an attempt to be encyclopedic. Rather, he lays out the investigations he’s been personally involved with, detailing the interviews and evidence he’s collected. Schwarz presents over a dozen distinct UFO encounter cases in UFO-Dynamics, each chapter containing one investigation or two or more that are thematically linked. Each chapter is extensively annotated with full citations providing supporting documentation and links to support for theories ventured. In these ways, Schwarz’s methodology is professionally sound. He lets witness accounts speak for themselves, for the most part, with a minimum of interpretation during the transcripts of interviews, reserving his analysis for dedicated sections or chapters. Schwarz analyzes the medical and psychiatric history of the subjects of these case studies in an effort to understand the full psychological landscape of each UFO encounter. When appropriate, these interviews and case studies are supplemented with witness sketches, maps, tables, and other supporting material to make the case more concrete for the reader.
What kind of case studies does Schwarz present? It’s indeed a smorgasbord of UFO encounters: pure sightings in the sky, landings with associated crop circles, telepathic interfaces with craft occupants, telekinetic “poltergeist”-like movements of objects in homes, mysterious episodes of paralysis, even episodes as extreme as repeated lifelong UFO contact. The Men in Black make an appearance, as do the recurring ufological trope of uncanny humans who seem “remote controlled.” Tangible evidence takes the form of photos and motion picture film. Schwarz’s approach—as can be seen by his selection of cases and willingness to integrate cryptozoology, hauntings, traditional psi abilities such as telepathy and telekinesis—is ecumenical and willing to admit all paranormal happenings as having a common source; this was a fairly common approach in the 1970s, as can be seen in works like John Keel’s The Eighth Tower (1975).
Two of the cases that Schwarz lingers on in UFO-Dynamics are the Betty and Barney Hill abduction episode (which took place in 1961), and the Stella Lansing films (which she began recording in 1967). The prominence of both cases is due to their uniqueness: Betty and Barney Hill were the first widely known “abductees” in the world of ufology, and Stella Lansing took a still-unmatched number of still and motion pictures of the UFOs she encountered. The Hills’ repute in the world of ufology is well-attested and I won’t repeat it here. The couple had reportedly “recovered” their abduction memories with the help of hypnosis sessions with a Dr. Benjamin Simon, and the initial account of their experience was published in 1966’s The Interrupted Journey by John G. Fuller. By the time Schwarz traveled to meet Betty Hill in New Hampshire in 1976 (Barney had passed away in 1969), she was much engaged with the ufological community. Schwarz was dealing now with interviews about experiences over a decade old, firmly ensconced and repeated among ufologists for almost as long, and as such maintains an analytical outlook on Betty Hill’s experiences both in 1961 and since. He finds the same threads of overall non-UFO paranormal activity and synchronicity that he had seen in other cases. Likewise, with the enormous amount of film evidence and encounter experiences presented to Schwarz by Stella Lansing, Schwarz concedes that it is impossible that the preponderance of evidence was solely a hoax, and believes there is something about Lansing herself that’s causing all these strange film effects and UFO encounters. In both cases, Schwarz’s ufodynamics prove that it is the “specialness” of the UFO experiencer that is at the center of the experience. Schwarz never turns this assertion into an indictment of the witnesses as delusional or hoaxers, however; his conclusion is that these people are receptive to some power that allows them to perceive paranormal phenomena.
It’s intriguing to consider Schwarz’s holistic investigations in the terms of his ufodynamics. Schwarz admits more than the then-prevailing “extraterrestrial craft visitations” theory in his work. As we’ve seen, his own framework invites psychic and even personal spiritual explanations of UFO encounters. But why is this his approach, as opposed to a purely physical or even a Jungian or Valléean psychosocial explanation? When you reread the introduction to UFO-Dynamics after having observed his methods, you begin to understand where Schwarz’s own personal experiences and “case history” have influenced his theoretical framework:
In the midst of my early UFO studies, my physician father had died. Then exactly one year to the day of my father’s death, my mother succumbed to a highly malignant brain tumor. These tragedies were compounded by my twelve-year-old daughter’s developing juvenile diabetes mellitus…. Despite the dubious advantages of being a physician myself, I was almost as helpless as anyone else in these situations. However, because of the gravity of their illnesses I paid particular heed to accounts of alleged UFO-mediated medical benefits, such as healing from cancer…
While it may seem obvious to the modern reader that Schwarz’s vain hope in the metaphysical power of UFOs is not much different from the peculiar pathologies of his contactee case studies, it takes quite a bit of courage for Schwarz to explicitly admit that he is just as much a miracle seeker as the believers he studies. Schwarz’s therapeutic and research praxis is surely compromised by this faith, but it also allows him to see things and find patterns that a neutral observer might not. Like many of the paranormal researchers of the 1970s, a deeply held desire for something larger than the materialist paradigm led him to listen to and find patterns within a larger community in need of healing and understanding. The Betty Hills and Stella Lansings of the world, if nothing else, needed a physician’s eager, non-judgmental approach. Professional issues of countertransference or feeding delusions aside, Schwarz’s relationship with his interviewees is far less exploitative than other ufologists of the era; for that, he should be recognized.