Today is Independence Day, and what could be more American than to take a look at how a Frenchman convinced people across the United States that illegal aliens from outer space were threatening their supply of steak and cheese? Today, we’re going to take a look at how Jacques Vallée helped to invent the myth that flying saucers were mutilating cattle. It’s a sad, dumb story, and the short form is: He put it in a movie, so the public believed it because they saw it on screen.
Our story starts with Charles Fort, who wrote about cattle mutilations in the thirteenth chapter of part one of Lo! (1931), attributing attacks on sheep in Britain in the 1800s and early 1900s to an unknown species of vampire bat or some unknown type of dog, with an implication—never explicitly developed—that a werewolf was involved. The authorities of the time attributed the deaths to feral dogs, but not everyone agreed. Fort quoted from the Daily Mail in 1905, which had a police officer saying, “I have seen two of the carcasses, myself, and can say definitely that it is impossible for it to be the work of a dog. Dogs are not vampires, and do not suck the blood of a sheep, and leave the flesh almost untouched.” While we would immediately recognize the description as being the same type now (falsely) attributed to the Chupacabra, the Chupacabra myth did not yet exist, so the story was merely one more weird thing in Fort’s chronicle of half-understood weird things, with the specter of the werewolf hanging over what would become the legend of the Chupacabra.
John Keel resurrected the story of animal mutilations in 1966, and in September 1967, a horse named Lady was shot, killed, and partially de-fleshed. The story made the papers, and ufologists speculated that the killing of the horse had been the work of space aliens. The ufologists behind the claim were David R. Saunders and R. Roger Harkins in their 1969 book UFOs? Yes! Where the Condon Committee Went Wrong (1969). However, this was a minor anomaly in a field that was more interested in attributing cattle mutilations to the occult. Saunders, however, went on to work with J. Allen Hynek and Hynek’s CUFOS group throughout the 1970s, where he passed on the story of the cattle mutilations to Hynek, who rejected the idea that they were the work of flying saucers.
In 1975, at the request of Sen. Floyd K. Haskell, whose constituents complained about cattle deaths in Colorado, the Treasury Department started to look into mutilations, and in 1979 the FBI took over the probe, which determined that they were almost entirely the result of natural decomposition and normal predator and scavenger activity, with a few cases of intentional animal murder by unknown humans. However, the cattle mutilations came at a time when the mass hysteria of the great Satanism scare was ramping up, and the FBI’s report came only after the government had already issued an interim report falsely blaming Satanists for cattle killings.
Between these two major points in the history of cattle mutilation we find Jacques Vallée, who in the mid-1970s was deeply involved in ufology and familiar with all of the major works in the field, including both Keel’s book and Saunders’s and Harkins’s book. Vallée was at the time working closely with Hynek, with whom he had discussed cattle mutilations.
On September 27, 1975, Vallée met with UFO researchers J. Allen Hynek and Stanton Friedman, along with a few others, at the Hollywood home of ufologist Idabel Epperson. Members of this group had met frequently to discuss UFOs, the occult, science fiction, and parapsychology. On this occasion, Hynek brought up cattle mutilation and announced that the government had solved the problem. Vallée gives the results in his Forbidden Science:
The conversation moved on to the cattle mutilation episodes in the Midwest. Allen got up for one of his theatrical announcements, telling us, ‘It’s all been solved! Don Flickinger, who’s a Treasury agent with the ATF, says it was all done by a satanic cult. The people involved are known, under surveillance.”
Hynek had gotten advance information from the government investigation which had recently begun. Oddly enough, it was on this occasion that Vallée had begun to notice that his growing belief that Hal Puthoff was correct in attributing a deep reality to psychic phenomena and interdimensional beings had created a wedge with his fellow ufologists, who were still looking for metal spaceships. “My initiation into [Puthoff’s] psychic work has widened the gap between me and my colleagues in the UFO mainstream.”
Vallée reported at the time that most mainstream ufologists did not want to investigate cattle mutilations because it was an “ugly subject.” He felt strongly, however, that the cattle deaths did not resemble occult sacrifices. The next year, this ruptured into an open rift when the Treasury agent assigned to mutilations, Donald Flickinger, issued a report (which he had apparently shared with Hynek but not Vallée) alleging Satanists were killing cattle. “Allen [Hynek] finds reassurance (sic) in the report because it places the burden for mutilations on a few hypothetical satanists, thus pushing the topic away from ufology,” Vallée wrote. Ufology did not want to be associated with mutilations, but Vallée had developed a fixation on the idea that cattle deaths were related to UFOs. He even badgered Anton La Vey, the famed Satanist, into admitting that Satanism had nothing to do with the mutilations. La Vey told Vallée that he thought the cattle mutilation reports were a way for the government to distract public attention from more serious social problems of the 1970s. He and La Vey, who were friends of a sort, had also discussed occultism, Jack Parsons, Aleister Crowley, ritual magic, science fiction, and Scientology—Hal Puthoff’s onetime religion. Parsons, you may know, practiced magic sex rites with Hubbard for a time in 1946 before Hubbard went on to found Scientology.
It’s probably worth wondering why all these people moved in the same circles. But never mind… That is a story for another day. It is the origin point for the idea of UFOs as interdimensional or demonic entities. Today, though, we are concerned with cattle mutilation.
When Vallée interviewed Flickinger in 1976, he learned that the animal mutilations were not as clean and perfect as reported, and he heard that those animals that seemed to have had organs removed had imperfect cuts, the work of a “human surgeon.” “No link to UFOs, either,” Vallée lamented, though I am unclear as to how he determined the surgical skill level of space aliens or interdimensional monsters. For his part, Hynek turned down the opportunity that year to investigate mutilations, and Vallée said it was because the dead animals “scared” him, with the implication that Hynek was afraid of the monsters that were killing cattle. More likely, Hynek found the subject unpleasant and irrelevant to UFOs. He instead joined Steven Spielberg as a consultant on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Upset that Hynek and other ufologists refused to take the subject seriously, or to look beyond Satanists and “witches” for an explanation, Vallée ended up convincing himself anew that UFOs were responsible. Vallée got into a fight about whether cattle mutilations should be mentioned in his book Messengers of Deception.
All of this occurred sub rosa to the broader UFO community and the public at large. It was an interesting, but entirely parochial set of events, inside baseball among high level UFO cultists. But Vallée made the UFO theory of cattle mutilation popular with the public in large measure because Rod Serling had died in 1975. Serling had narrated UFOs: Past, Present and Future in 1974, one in a series of UFO documentaries he had lent his voice to following the success of In Search of Ancient Astronauts in 1973. With Serling dead, the producers needed a new voice to update the film for a 1979 re-release designed to capitalize on Close Encounters and renewed interest in UFOs. They turned to Vallée, in part because he was suave and good on camera, and in part because he was rumored to have been the inspiration for the French ufologist in Close Encounters. Vallée reported what happened:
Jay Levey, Bob Emenegger and Alan Sandler have asked me to help them in the updating of “UFOs: Past, Present and Future,” to be re-issued under a new title: UFOs: It has begun. They wanted me to narrate the new footage, and were looking for unpublished data. I recommended adding a section about cattle mutilations.
By early 1979, Vallée had once again concluded that “Animal mutilations are real but probably unrelated to UFOS,” but nevertheless, he still pushed for the subject to be included in the film. On July 5, 1979, he saw a rough cut of the film:
At Sandler’s production offices Hynek and I reviewed segments of their new documentary UFOs: It has Begun. We will show the first accurate documentation of the cattle mutilation problem, a topic nobody has dared to touch until now.
Even though Vallée vacillated on the meaning of cattle mutilations and their origins, he was instrumental in delivering to the public the message that they were a part of the UFO phenomenon. And there they remain, despite the manifest lack of evidence for anything unearthly about them. This is a very long way around proving the observation I made back in 2013 that the various parts of the UFO myth have no natural connection to one another but have been artificially attached by ufologists in service of a myth, but it turns out that my observation was actually insight into the unnatural soldering that holds together the creaky UFO myth.
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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