Michael Grasso / May 28, 2020
Part of the “unprecedented” reality that humanity has been experiencing the past couple of months has been the way this pandemic has scrambled one’s normal cognitive pathways. Putting aside how badly my remotely-diagnosed COVID infection last month sent me into a deep spiral of brain fog, even since recovering from that misery I haven’t been able to concentrate on much. For a while, reading anything more complicated than a comic book was completely beyond me. And even as I’ve been slotting longer books back into my everyday routines, it’s been nearly impossible for me to write. Even when I find a topic that speaks to me, every single piece I’ve tried to start has withered on the vine. “Why bother?” I find myself asking myself. “Who cares?” Mental illness will steal a lot from you if you are unlucky enough to have it play a prominent role in your life: your time, your pride in your labor, your self-respect, even your friends and significant others. But what it seems to steal from me most often—even under “normal,” non-pandemic circumstances—is joy, the joy of discovering something amazing and getting to share that discovery with others. With existential anxiety stalking the human race along with this deadly virus, those simple pleasures of life have been so hard to find.
So when I was reminded last week of a link to an amazing archive of UFO organizations’ publications and zines hosted by the Archives For The Unexplained of Norrköping, Sweden, I was gifted with a brief afternoon of respite, a momentary return of long lost joy. When I’d first glimpsed the archive back in October of last year, I had a brief breeze through it. I was overwhelmed by the variety and relatively secure in the possibility that it would be there if I ever wanted to revisit it. This month, the archive was there for me when I needed it. I discovered over the course of that afternoon that this collection’s cockeyed series of hand-drawn flying saucer encounters and alien visitors, its poorly mocked-up layouts and headlines, its entirely sui generis outsider art vibe—all of it was medicine for the despair and crushing lack of a hope that was ailing me.
I think part of the profound impact of this archive is the way I found it, from an off-handed mention in a tweet that had made its way to me through academic folklore studies circles. But it’s often those accidental discoveries that have sent me down the most satisfying paths while I’ve been writing for Mutants. It’s how I discovered video of the uncanny Nebraska PBS performance by Entourage: after reading a Pitchfork review of a reissue of their albums. It’s how I discovered so many great Mutants exhibit subjects on the Internet Archive, and how I discovered yet another inspirational ufological archive, at textfiles.com. So yes, when I rediscovered this archive I dove in head-first, marveling at the dozens of countries these UFO zines came from, the impressive time period they represented (all the way from the 1950s to the 21st century), and the care that had been taken in assembling and scanning them. Since the original link had gone to a featureless web directory page, I never even bothered back in October to investigate fully who had collected and assembled this amazing archive. This time however, that was the first thing I wanted to find out.
As mentioned, this trove of treasure was preserved for posterity by the Archives of the Unexplained in Norrköping, Sweden. Formerly known as the Archives For UFO Research, the organization was founded in 1973 specifically to collect and preserve an archive and library of UFO sightings and ephemera for researchers. It is also connected to one of those very UFO research organizations whose magazines and periodicals I had fallen in love with last October. The AFU’s founders had broken away from a ufological group called UFO-Sweden over differences in “ideology” to found the AFU. By 1986, that rift was reconciled and UFO-Sweden and AFU agreed to a reciprocal agreement of support that would see AFU preserve UFO-Sweden’s archives full of materials from over a hundred local UFO-Sweden groups. But AFU preserves far more than materials from its native Sweden. UFO documentation from dozens of countries finds representation in both its material and online archives.
And that sort of local, bespoke interest in UFOs is precisely what makes AFU’s archive of magazines so special. I of course restricted myself to UFO zines produced during our usual Cold War period in preparing this piece, but you can find plenty of later material from the dawn of the home computer “desktop publishing” era of the ’90s and beyond. Needless to say, while they have their own charming aesthetic, I was won over by the hand-layout and manifold typewriter typefaces of the zines from the 1950s to 1980s. Some of the covers of these periodicals, especially the ones produced in the 1950s, display a strikingly professional sense of artistic composition on par with their bigger competitors of the early UFO era, such as Fate magazine. Of course, the AFU magazine archive is far too vast for me to give a review of every single periodical in there. But despite the startling diversity, both culturally and philosophically, on display, it’s the commonalities between all these organizations that pleased me the most. While the magazines themselves vary—from very simple typewritten and mimeographed/photocopied bulletins to quite professionally-produced full-color magazines—the common thread linking these publications is their passion and obsession for a subject that, one senses after reading a few of the articles and editorials within, has largely left them on the outside of the mainstream.
Because despite some of these publications representing the official organs of “national” UFO organizations like UFO-Sweden, the vast majority represent UFO aficionados on the state/provincial/county/city level. You may well wonder if there was enough content to keep a magazine like “Merseyside UFO Bulletin” or “UFO-Quebec” or the “Sri Lanka UFO Register” going for longer than a couple of issues, but even some of these smaller local publications went on for a decade or more! And in the archives of each, you get these magnificent glimpses of local culture, UFO or otherwise. I had a blast reviewing the archives of the two-page MUFON Massachusetts newsletter from the early 1980s, of course, a time and place where I myself was getting deeply into ufology as a little kid. Seeing the quotidian details of the Mass. MUFON group—their fundraising efforts, convention organizational efforts, meeting minutes, appearances on local Boston television (these were especially exciting for me, of course), and indeed the gradual maturity of their merrily amateurish newsletter layout skills—sent me back in time and made me feel like I was part of the team. On the flip side, you have more eerie dispatches from the past, such as the silent testament of the brief run of UFO Chile abruptly ending in May of 1969—poignant because we know what transpired a few short years thereafter.
These are mostly small clubs of like-minded individuals, all doing their best to keep track of local UFO happenings and dutifully preserving those records for posterity. And on the masthead of a majority of these zines, in all the languages of the world, there is a consistent clarion call: please make contact. Not a message to our alien visitors, mind you, but to the publishers and clubs of enthusiasts all over the world. Please reach out, please make a connection. Several of the publications in non-English-speaking nations produced separate English-language editions of their bulletins expressly for this purpose. And I think this aspect of the AFU archive is why it spoke to me so deeply and meaningfully in a time of quarantine and lockdown. Here is a global subculture, in the days before wide adoption of the internet, which ends up assembling and organizing itself in a modular, fractal, rhizomatic manner. Here, despite all odds and with very little in the way of resources either professional or financial, small groups banded together over a shared occult interest, one that likely exposed many of their members to mockery and derision. They not only found each other on the local level but produced collectively a massive, tangible archive that serves as a testament to a Cold War-era social phenomenon. It is an archive with real, profound historical value.
These magazines reached across the oceans and continents in a time when the only means of communication UFO enthusiasts had at their disposal were the national postal service and maybe some stolen Xerox machine time at the office. A sense of community, however dispersed and fragmentary, was what these ufologists really sought—the visitors in flying discs are almost incidental. One wonders if the lesson of the UFO craze is not its possible origins as an intel operation meant to distract citizens of the West from experimental machines of war, but instead perhaps its subsequent co-optation by ufologists into an exploration of the potential of global togetherness and understanding. It’s an historical example of a kind of virtual community spontaneously forming, triumphing over distance and very long odds, that really hits home at a time when we’re all lucky enough to have a global communications network at our disposal, and yet are still somehow feeling only tenuously connected to each other. In these wonderfully weird artifacts of the past, we gain a new perspective on community for our increasingly troubled present.