Too often I tend to criticize Nick Redfern for all the things he gets wrong, but today I’d like to praise him for an article in Mysterious Universe that offers a thoughtful, though incomplete and probably incorrect, analysis of how popular culture influences claims about extraterrestrials. You will recall that one of my articles looked at the ways that particular episodes of the Outer Limits and the Twilight Zone exactly paralleled the claims Barney Hill made about his alien abductors under hypnosis a few days after those episodes aired. Redfern suggests that something similar happened with the Men in Black phenomenon. I give him credit for trying, though I think he went beyond the evidence in citing a specific source from what was probably a more generalized influence.
The image of the Men in Black, or MIB in UFO parlance, has changed over the course of the years. The stereotypical MIB looking like a Secret Service agent is a later development. The earliest Man in Black wore a long black cloak and a hat like the Shadow. This version of the MIB was proposed by Albert Bender, credited as the inventor of the MIB. His story of encounters with the villainous entities appeared first in Gray Barker’s They Knew Too Much about Flying Saucers (1956), a book that Barker would later admit he had written for cash without much concern for its factual accuracy. Bender, who investigated UFOs through his self-founded International Flying Saucers Bureau and its Space Review publication, claimed that before he could reveal the truth about the flying saucer cover up, three MIBs intimidated him into dissolving his organization. Bender would go on to give his own account in a 1962 book.
According to Redfern, Bender was a fan of horror and science fiction, and Barker strongly suspected that the MIB story was the product of Bender’s Gothic imagination. In retrospect, that should have been obvious from the first. In They Knew Too Much, Barker introduces Bender in the same breath as the so-called Shaver Mystery, about a spacefaring underground civilization, from Amazing Stories, the pulp magazine, but presented as real. Even while giving play to the imagined conspiracy to suppress the Shaver mystery, Barker hinted that he thought the whole thing was in their heads, fed by sci-fi: “If I were a psychologist, I would probably write a book also about organized science fiction fandom…” Barker came into contact with Bender thanks to the letters column of a science fiction pulp.
Redfern proposes that the imagery of the MIB was drawn from the 1949 Hammer Studios production The Man in Black, in which a cloaked fellow in a black hat serves as a Crypt Keeper-style narrator for a story of an attempt to gaslight an heiress in order to deprive her of her inheritance from her father, who died in a yoga accident. (Yes, a yoga accident.) Redfern finds a parallel between the men in black cloaks and hats to the movie poster of The Man in Black, released in the UK in January of 1950. He compares the image to an undated portrait that Bender made of a MIB.
It should be noted that this imagery is identical to a piece of artwork that Bender himself created and which hung on the wall of his attic-based abode in the early 1950s. The hat is exactly the same, as is the cloak. And, it’s important to note that we don’t often hear of the MIB wearing cloaks. Yet, Bender’s artistic rendition of a MIB was cloaked – just like the one in The Man in Black.
The trouble is that the earliest account makes no mention of cloaks, and hats were a standard part of men’s attire in the 1950s. Barker describes the MIB as wearing “black suits” and they showed “credentials.” Bender’s portrait doesn’t seem to clearly show a cloak, either. Redfern wasn’t able to prove that the film played in Connecticut sometime between 1950 and 1956, but he places great emphasis on the title, Man in Black. It isn’t clear, though, that Bender thought of the three men as “men in black” as much as men who were wearing black.
Nor is there anything special about the movie title. Stanley J. Weyman wrote a novel called The Man in Black in 1894, which was reprinted in 1949. “The Man in Black” was a popular name for the Devil, and so appeared in several studies of witchcraft, and presumably pulp stories based thereon. (Lovecraft, for example, referred to Nyarlathotep as the Black Man of New England witches.) Anyway, the name could be found in dozens of sources. As I alluded to above, the cloaked black figure was not unique to the movie but could be found with The Shadow, not to mention various images from Universal’s catalog of horror movies and other crime films. Heck, even the Looney Tunes featured more than one creeper with the same outfit, such as the villainous Bluebeard, who appeared in the 1949 Porky Pig Merrie Melodies short “Bye-Bye, Bluebeard.” More to the point, Hollywood often depicted gangsters and villains in black suits. William Faulkner once explained that he gave a character a black suit to be “symbolical of evil.” It would seem likely that a similar is subconscious symbolism manifested in the case of the MIB.
I can’t entirely discount Redfern’s hypothesis—and I give him credit for trying to find a source of influence—but I must mark this one as “case not proved.” The 1956 account provides nothing that would support Redfern’s view, and the picture he claims shows a cloak clearly has lapels visible, indicating that Bender was attempting, however crudely, to draw a standard suit coat and a regular old 1950s fedora. So, while Redfern is likely correct that Bender had exaggerated or concocted a terrifying encounter with black-suited fellows he took for government agents, I do not believe that an obscure movie is the source unless we can somehow prove he watched it.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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