As we learned from the many revelations about the Pentagon’s UFO research initiative, the company contracted to conduct much of the program’s research, Bigelow Advanced Aerospace Space Studies, adopted the position advocated by paranormal researcher Hal Puthoff that flying saucers are intimately connected to poltergeists and may actively create poltergeists as they pop in and out of reality. Puthoff is a former employee of BAASS owner Robert Bigelow’s previous paranormal research organization and current VP of To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science, and he was a paid consultant on the Pentagon research program, where he helped to direct it toward bonkers investigations of poltergeists and super-secret paranormal propulsion systems.
I thought it was worth discussing a bit more the origins of this odd belief that alien spaceships and ghosts share a secret occult connection. This story reaches back to the 1970s, when Puthoff was just beginning his quest to convince the U.S. government to pay him to investigate psychics and ghosts. He was operating out of a small office when a young UFO enthusiast named Jacques Vallée moved in to the suite below, and the two became fast friends, bonding over their shared interest in the outré and the occult, and their shared conviction that UFOs had an ethereal aspect beyond the material.
Vallée was a member of the Los Angeles UFO scene, which at the time included J. Allen Hynek, the former scientific consultant for the Air Force’s Project Blue Book and a regular on the UFO party circuit in those years. On November 22, 1970, Vallée discussed poltergeists and UFOs with Hynek, whom he referred to as “Allen,” and he recorded the conversation in his diary:
Allen worries about the dual nature of UFO sightings: sometimes they are physical and the next moment they are as evanescent as spirit manifestations.
What is interesting about this anecdote is that it occurred two years before Vallée met Puthoff. The origins of the poltergeist claim seem to bubble up from J. Allen Hynek’s efforts to impose an explanation on the inexplicable. Because he assumed that the “UFO phenomenon” was, at heart, singular, he developed a sense of cognitive dissonance in regard to the fact that the stories witnesses told about UFOs more closely resembled fairy tales about supernatural entities than scientific accounts of physical craft. Consequently, Vallée likened the ethereal aspects of UFOs to paranormal phenomena—equally dubious, but reported just as widely.
If we were to trust Vallée’s own account, he invented the poltergeist-UFO connection as a hypothetical to attempt to impose a unified explanation on inconsistent UFO reports. Vallée further reported that within weeks of meeting Hal Puthoff in 1972, he had already begun discussing paranormal UFOs and Hynek with Puthoff, who was uniquely interested in such things because of his deep involvement both with the paranormal—he was testing Uri Geller with the blessing of the U.S. government—and his high-level Scientology training, which by most accounts was highly influential on his thinking.
While Hynek was at first dubious about paranormal UFOs, he gradually came to believe that this was an avenue worth exploring. The first crack in the façade occurred in his 1972 book The UFO Experience, which only referred obliquely to the idea since the work was intended to make ufology seem serious and respectable to a mainstream audience. In passing, Hynek noted that since UFOs have “physical” effects on the environment, they cannot be immaterial hallucinations or even psychic projections—“unless,” he said in an aside, “we deal here with a form of the poltergeist phenomenon.” He did not mean it as a joke.
It was only a passing reference in an otherwise nuts and bolts book, but over a remarkably short time, Hynek’s interest in poltergeist UFOs would grow tremendously.
At the June 1974 Canadian Conference on Psychokinesis, Hynek gave a speech on the UFO phenomenon in which he highlighted their supernatural and paranormal aspects. He basically endorsed the idea that UFOs are not nuts and bolts spacecraft but something more supernatural, and ghostly:
If now we look at the factors which constitute strangeness we find elements which strongly suggest a linkage, or at least a parallelism with poltergeist phenomena and with phenomena in general, rather than with actual solid items of nuts and bolts hardware. This is one of the reasons why I cannot accept the obvious explanation of UFOs as visitors from outer space, despite the fact that as an astronomer I can agree with most of my colleagues that the chances of extraterrestrial life existing are enormous. […] The phenomena I have described seem to have a visionary or hallucinatory quality, and so to have something in common with mental phenomena in parapsychology and with certain types of religious experience (c.f. Vallee, 1974). But there are also similarities with poltergeist happenings, particularly electrical phenomena. […] A feature of some UFO sightings which suggests a kinship to those poltergeist cases in which the principal person suffers from conversion hysteria (c.f. Owen, 1964, 1971a), is the occurrence of various ailments such as temporary blindness or paralysis or skin rashes.
It's true that he didn’t outright endorse the idea wholesale, masking it under the name of “kinship,” but there is no mistaking what he meant. Subsequent to this passage, he went on to throw cold water on the common skeptical explanations of poltergeists because for these spiritualized UFOs to be real, ghosts must also exist. Therefore, the poltergeist had to be defended in order to rescue flying saucers from the failure of the physical evidence to prove their reality.
The next year, Hynek and Vallée teamed up to publish Edge of Reality, and it included a conversation the two had about the nature of UFOs. Hynek described his changing belief that UFOs were actually psychical in nature. He talked about whether flying saucers were really a “psychic projection” and if UFOs were “manifesting on the psychic plane,” though he confessed that he did not know for sure and only paranormal research into psychics like Uri Geller—by which he meant Hal Puthoff’s increasingly bizarre psychic research for the Stanford Research Institute and the U.S. government—could solve the problem by proving whether psychical powers were real and therefore available to UFO pilots.
Should those psychic claims be true, it opens up another can of worms. Then the problem essentially is solved; that explains why UFOs can make right angle turns, that explains why they can be dematerialized, why sometimes they are picked up on radar and sometimes not and why they are not detected by our infrared equipment. All that. But that’s dangerous territory to tread. […] All right, why do poltergeists move something and yet don’t appear on radar? Do they, the poltergeists, have that physical reality? And yet they have physical effects. In other words, we have a phenomenon here that undoubtedly has physical effects but also has the attributes of the psychic world.
He returned to the idea of poltergeists more than once as the two men discussed wild hypotheses about UFOs that both admitted were of very low probability.
As you can see, Hynek had come to believe in ghosts—and not just hypothetically—and had come to see the explanation of UFOs as psychic projections as perhaps the best answer to a conundrum he couldn’t quite solve, though he declined to speculate on who exactly projected them. But Hynek realized that publicly endorsing this idea would alienate him from the public, so his discussions of it tended to be in private conversations or in the back pages of books the mainstream media would never read, creating the impression, which lasted until the end of his life, that he hunted nuts and bolts metal discs and not silvery ghosts.
The most interesting thing about their conversation, though, was Vallée’s prediction for UFOs by the year 2000. He suggested that there were a number of scenarios—that aliens land and take over, that we contact aliens on another planet, that the aliens go away forever, or the most depressing one:
Things keep happening as they have for twenty-five years, and we keep publishing more books about it Blum & Blum publish more books about it, Von Däniken publishes more books, and nothing else happens. Every two or three years there’s a flap somewhere. There’s no visible effect on society, there is no direct threat, there is no mass landing; that’s one scenario. And we can talk about the consequences of that, what that could mean. Certainly, some theories about it would have to change. Right?
And yet that scenario came to pass, and Vallée never did change his theories.
Anyway, Hal Puthoff picked up this idea of poltergeists and UFOs from Vallée and Hynek, and that is important because Puthoff worked with the U.S. government on psychical research projects, including remote viewing and the Geller farce. Puthoff, under government contract, had come to believe that Geller’s paranormal powers could interfere with scientific testing, a claim James Randi later exposed as a fantasy. More crucially, Puthoff suspected Geller was telling the truth that UFOs were either attracted to his psychic powers or were caused by them. He even instructed Vallée to monitor the skies over their offices for UFOs when Geller was present. Vallée claimed in his diary to have remained conflicted about Geller’s assertions, at times calling them absurd, even though his friendship with Puthoff prevented him from outright admitting that Puthoff had been deceived by a fraud.
It was in his government capacity that Puthoff began to insert himself into government UFO research, or what he claimed was government UFO research. He claimed in February 1973 that the military was covering up “true” flying saucers and that they had openly admitted this to him, though he refused to tell even his best friend, Vallée, who these “high-level contacts” were. In October of that year, Puthoff inflated the claim. Now he no longer heard secondhand about a program but was a consultant for a secret cabal in the government that worked secretly on UFO reports. “In fact they call me from time to time to find out what my psychics have to say on the subject, and to do remote viewing of certain places where they think there may be UFO bases.” He claimed that the military was so concerned that they contemplated going to Nixon to reveal the truth. He even took to making mysterious phone calls in front of Vallée that he claimed were to “David M.,” an official in charge of the UFO cover-up.
The gullible Vallée believed Puthoff when Puthoff told him that “David M.” would call him to read him in on the program. When David didn’t call, Puthoff told Vallée that the program had been suddenly disbanded (overnight!) “because of the current events.” And Vallée simply accepted the fantasy.
A month later, in November 1973, Puthoff had yet another new story—that he had identified the “number one man” in government in charge of UFO research, but, sadly, he was tasked with doing nothing but monitoring the alien presence and could be of no use. A few days later, Puthoff explained that a new man had replaced David M., now identified as a CIA agent, but the new guy refused to talk to Vallée because—he said—he didn’t want to have to lie to Vallée about the reality of UFOs.
And then he tried to sell Vallée the Brooklyn Bridge, which Vallée owns to this day.
Eventually it turned out that Puthoff’s actual contact was Christopher “Kit” Green, a senior CIA analyst who did a bit of work overseeing remote viewing and UFO reports for the agency because he worked in the Life Sciences Division. He estimated, he said in a 2008 interview, that his paranormal work accounted for less than 10% of his work, and almost none of it was classified. (The CIA also ran classified remote viewing experiments, with bizarre results—they had some paranormal true believers on staff.) Green told Vallée that his work on UFOs was basically a private interest, saying that his Life Sciences job was an “excuse” for reading up on space aliens, among other weird topics. (The CIA collected reams of ancient astronaut and UFO material from the popular press and Soviet sources, though almost certainly not because it was “true.”) Puthoff met Green in June 1972, and not long after began boasting about “secret” government contacts.
But the point is that Puthoff has a long history of inflating his own importance and making fantastical claims about government UFO research. The impression from accounts written of him at the time is that he wants to be seen as someone with secret knowledge, be it the revelations of Scientology, the reality of space aliens, or the existence of a psychical world. He has consistently cultivated relationships that would allow him to play the role of scientific mystagogue. By the end of the 1970s he parlayed that into close relationships with government agencies and testimony before Congress about psychic powers (though that is as impressive as scientists giving testimony about the Ancient Aliens TV show, which also really happened). Now as the vice president of To the Stars, he is milking his past involvement with government psychic research and his more recent attempt to worm back into government UFO work as a subcontractor for Robert Bigelow in order to continue to push beliefs about paranormal flying saucers that he developed in the 1970s from Vallée and Hynek. His greatest accomplishment was in convincing billionaire Robert Bigelow that flying saucers are related to ghosts and that both are real, through which expedient Puthoff’s fantasies ended up guiding the Pentagon UFO program established by Bigelow’s friend, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), another UFO believer. Eric Davis, a Bigelow employee, testified on Coast to Coast AM recently to the ongoing belief in UFO poltergeist connections among the To the Stars and Bigelow axis, thanks in no small measure to Puthoff.
The irony of all of this is that Vallée, who went on to become an official scientific consultant for Bigelow and to partner with To the Stars in the hunt for alien “metamaterials,” predicted all of this in 1975: “So there may well be an occult organization that uses the UFO phenomenon for its own ends, and it could reach into higher levels of the military or Intelligence community. My concern is that a conversion to the belief in Aliens may become a convenient lever for any group with strong ambition.” He just didn’t realize that he and his friends would actually be that group.
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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