I’d like to start today by briefly noting that there is a new interview with longtime fringe figure John Anthony West, 82, in New Dawn magazine. In it, West goes through his usual litany of fringe claims and his worship of occultist R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz and self-actualization mystic George Gurdjieff, but what is interesting is that both he and the interviewer all but concede that their interest in the ancient past and esoteric wisdom has less to do with finding the truth about prehistoric and early historic belief systems and more to do with their conviction that “Darwinism” is wrong, that capitalists and scientists are stripping life of its spiritual meaning, and that the wealthy elite are making life difficult for the underclass, who might otherwise benefit from esoteric visions of some vanished utopia. “You watch the Scorpions of Wall Street raping our lives and these disgusting billionaires absolutely destroying the planet. That’s the sort of thing you have to keep on top of, it seems to me.” West said that he is “contemptuous” of Western civilization and thus searches for a past (or, as we might say, invents a past) where a more congenial belief system gives his life spiritual meaning. Thus, West imagines that his discoveries will explode materialist paradigm and therefore transform Western civilization through a massive esoteric Renaissance.
But enough of that. Let’s talk about something a little more down to earth: UFOs.
Last night I watched the 1979 version of the documentary UFOs: It Has Begun, hosted by Rod Serling. I had never seen this particular UFO documentary, and it was noteworthy for featuring on-camera presentations and narration from a young Jacques Vallée, then 39, who comes across even more credulous on camera than he does in print. To be honest, this was the first time I had ever seen the now-75-year-old as anything other than an old man. For the most part the film is your standard 1970s UFO documentary, which isn’t saying much, but it has a few points worth mentioning beyond its ragtag mixture of ancient astronauts, UFO sightings, cattle mutilations, etc.
I was quickly clear to me that the footage of Serling, who died in 1975, was shot not long after the cancellation of Night Gallery in 1973. I later learned Serling’s part was filmed in early 1974, around the same time he recorded the voice overs for the ancient astronaut films In Search of Ancient Astronauts and The Outer Space Connection. Serling stands on a stage draped in black cyc, and he presents information alongside props and dramatically lit images. It is a close reflection of the setup of Serling’s Night Gallery hosting, and it forms a strong visual connection between UFOs: It Has Begun and Night Gallery.
Serling was a late addition, however. The bulk of the film was shot in 1972 and 1973 at the request of the Republican Party, the Air Force, and/or the Department of Defense (depending on the source you consult), which in 1971 asked filmmaker Robert Emenegger to produce a UFO documentary based on credible U.S. government sources. There are many versions of the story, most with contradictory details. One of the most common is that Emenegger was the fraternity brother of Nixon chief of staff H. R. Haldeman and that the Committee to Re-Elect the President had asked him to make a scientific documentary to make Nixon look strong on science for the upcoming 1972 reelection campaign. Allegedly, Republicans associated with the Nixon administration promised Emenegger authentic footage of the landing of an alien spacecraft at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in 1964. We have only the word of Emenegger to support this. Emenegger does not appear in the index to the Nixon Library holdings of the CREEP files.
When the footage never materialized (allegedly because the Air Force feared Watergate had made it too risky to show), Emenegger replaced it with painted illustrations and broadcast what he had as UFOs: Past, Present, and Future in 1974, with Serling as host. (The real scandal here would be that a Nixon campaign movie was airing covertly on U.S. television as a science documentary, if the claims were in fact true.) The film did not claim that a UFO landed at Holloman Air Force Base, only, as Serling said, that one could have done so, and Emenegger did not begin to claim that the hypothetical incident from the film was in fact true until many years later when he started telling varying versions of the above story, sometimes attributing the origins of the film to Nixon, sometimes to the Air Force. Over time, his claims became more outlandish, involving dead alien bodies and vast conspiracies. One might think that if this were derived from official campaign acts or by government request that Emenegger would have kept some record of it, or that there would be an indication in government of Nixon campaign records. It is the genius of conspiracy: Absence of proof is its own proof!
For the 1976 TV movie version, which aired after Serling’s death, longtime Serling friend Burgess Meredith and José Ferrer, provided additional narration for new segments. This lends the documentary a round-robin patchwork quality that sets it apart from its more coherent predecessors, but it also makes the film seem quite strange. This strangeness was compounded by the film’s re-edit for a 1979 re-release. Jacques Vallée was enlisted to add about 30 minutes of new narration and to bring the film up to date with cattle mutilations and genital-rectal amputation that Serling did not live to see and, I like to think, would have found a bit distasteful for a family film. Vallée also adds UFO sightings up to 1979 to the film. He is filmed as the anti-Serling, standing on a white-dressed stage, the learned angel to Serling’s Mephistopheles.
Most of the documentary is of very little interest to me, but I was particularly taken by the opening minutes, in which Serling presents Vallée’s version of the ancient astronaut theory, using examples taken from Passport to Magonia and Anatomy of a Phenomenon, books Vallée wrote in his 20s.
It is clear that no one—not the government, or Rod Serling, or anyone else involved in this film—checked any of the facts at all before declaring that aliens and humans have long been interacting. The best example of this is when Serling repeats a claim made by Vallée, who was citing discussion in the 1670 Rosicrucian novel Comte de Gabalis. Serling tells us that there were “tyrants of the air” in the time of Charlemagne and that the Emperor ordered that “anyone reporting such aerial objects was to be put to death.” This is a badly misunderstood paraphrase of the Comte de Gabalis, which reads: “The Emperors believed it as well; and this ridiculous chimera went so far that the wise Charlemagne, and after him Louis the Débonnaire, imposed grievous penalties upon all these supposed Tyrants of the Air” (Comte de Gabalis, Discourse V, sec. 127-128). The actually writ of Charlemagne, which I and I alone apparently bothered to actually dig out of Charlemagne’s edicts, is nothing like the fringe claims. In the Admonitio generalis, Cap. 65, of March 23, 789, the Emperor decreed:
Again we have in the law of the Lord the command: do not practice soothsaying or divination [Lev. 19:26]; and in Deuteronomy: there shall not be found among you any that uses divination, or an observer of dreams and omens; and also: let no one among you be a wizard, nor an enchanter, nor a consulter with familiar spirits [18:10-11]. Therefore, we enjoin that there shall be neither prognosticators and spell-casters, nor weather-magicians or amulet-binders, and that wherever they are found they either be reformed or condemned. Again, with regard to the trees, rocks, or springs where some fools make lights [i.e. hold pagan ceremonies] or conduct other observances, we command that wherever it is found this most wicked custom, detestable to God, be removed and destroyed. (my trans.)
The “Tyrants of the Air” are the weather-magicians of the above law, for the Abbé Nicolas-Pierre-Henri de Montfaucon de Villars, the author of the Comte de Gabalis, read the text as referring to the weather-wizards of St. Agobard’s Contra Insulsam Vulgi Opinionem de Grandine et Tonitruis, Cap. 2, from 815 CE, where the weather-wizards call forth ships from Magonia, which fly through the sky and pummel crops with blocks of ice. In other words, it was an explanation of hail. Weather-magic was an ancient practice, widespread in Greco-Roman antiquity, exempted from anti-witchcraft laws by Justinian, but increasingly seen as anti-Christian, for God alone controls the weather.
From all of this, you can see how Charlemagne’s command that weather-wizards be “reformed or condemned” became, at one step remove, Villars’s “grievous penalties [on the] Tyrants of the Air,” and from there, at two steps remove, Serling’s death penalty on UFO witnesses!
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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