Ever since I could remember, I wanted to be a conspiracy theorist.
And why wouldn’t I? The concept that there might be far more to the world and, hell, the universe I live in was and still is exciting. I grew up in a house full of imaginative skeptics; people who collected libraries of books documenting alien abductions, yetis, hauntings, political cover-ups, skinwalkers and everything else you could imagine. My childhood and adolescence was spent buried in Whitley Streiber, Tim Dinsdale, and Jon Ronson, and my first job was mere meters away from the biggest conspiracy theory in the country, Loch Ness.
But as I got older, I realized that conspiracy theories, and the subscription to them, isn’t something that’s discussed with passion in polite society — at least not without some kind of sheepish disclaimer attached. The majority of people don’t actively and wholeheartedly subscribe to certain conspiracy theories; hell, the name alone conjures up images of Joaquin Phoenix peering out beneath the brim of a tinfoil hat in Signs. Being a conspiracy theorist — like those who passionately defend earth against alien invaders — is a job or hobby that involves being told constantly that you’re wrong or crazy or both.
With little to no widely accepted proof, people dedicate their lives to convincing the rest of the world that they’re the ones who’ve got it wrong and that stories and creatures that many would dismiss as urban legend could have palpable consequences on our lives. In terms of lifestyle choices, it’s the path of most resistance. The question is: why do they do it?
“Not just a armchair researcher”
At the start of last year, there was a flurry of activity in the Bigfoot-hunting community. Rick Dyer, a used car salesman, announced that he had the motherlode. Dyer claimed that he had shot and killed Bigfoot in 2012, and was now planning to take its corpse on tour. And he was true to his word; Dyer went on tour with a body, which he claimed had been subject to a number of tests that had ascertained its authenticity as a new species. During the tour, Dyer pulled in an estimated $60,000 from the public, who he charged to view the body. But holes began to appear. He was reluctant about releasing the DNA results, and had previously been caught in a suspiciously similar Bigfoot hoax back in 2008. Towards the end of the tour, Dyer admitted that the creature he’d been parading across America with was a fake — a prop made by a specialist costume company. There was a brief flurry of interest in the media, and he was forgotten.
And that’s really the only thing you’ll hear about cryptids (creatures whose existence hasn’t yet been confirmed). The media is fascinated by debunking cases where hoaxers have convinced hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people that they’ve got undeniable proof of a new creature. But for many people, cryptids aren’t just a novelty, or a strange thought held onto by those with nothing better to do. For these people, they’re a maligned area of biology and science, an area of study that deserves as much meticulous research and patient effort as any other. With hundreds of anecdotal sightings and hotly debated evidence, I can understand why — there’s some part of me that thinks this can’t all be coincidence.
Eddie, from the Minnesota Bigfoot Research Team, agrees with me. As part of a no-kill group in North America, he and a bunch of enthusiastic researchers have focused their efforts on humanely and compassionately proving the existence of the animal through working with those who’ve encountered it. Their day-to-day work involves “ … talking with other like minded people who have had encounters, checking groups to see if anything is new in them. Also taking reports and interviewing people. Going to the location and meeting them there to help them go through what happened to them. Look at sites for buying new equipment … ” This is not just an idle hobby; this is a serious business.
For mainstream scientists, cryptozoology is generally dismissed as the work of a bunch of well-meaning but ultimately misguided organizations, while the media reflects them in sensationalist TV specials (like Finding Bigfoot, which offered a reward of 1o million dollars if a group could unequivocally prove the existence of the animal. No one claimed the cash prize.). There are dozens of Bigfoot research teams across North America, where Bigfoot is most often spotted, suggesting that this isn’t just the raving of some single-minded, very loud individuals. It’s for sure one of the most popular areas of cryptozoological study, and one that constantly seems to see itself as teetering on the edge of proving its point. But what would change if they actually found Bigfoot?
“Maybe equal energy and focus from all members … more ways to get funding for investigations,” explains Eddie. “I think the impact would be huge if presented right way.”
I ask him what it would take to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Bigfoot exists, and he admits that, despite the group’s well-reasoned no-kill policy, “Unfortunately, a body for analysis to take samples of and have DNA. Then, like, the National Geographic channel to have a press conference with the findings and body on display for the whole world to see.”
“There is loads of evidence out there if you start to look into it and are not just a armchair researcher sitting behind a computer and being objective,” Eddie tells me. “Depending on the skepticism and the degree of it, I answer questions leaving [people] able to be more open-minded about the subject.”
Sitting behind my computer, attempting to be objective, I can’t help but feel a little fraudulent.
“I don’t sugar coat anything”
Frank Khoury is a skeptic. That’s how he describes himself on his website; also to be found there are “Are you an abductee?” tests, a guide to surgically remove alien implants, and an in-depth, four-part account of Frank’s personal encounter with what he believes to be aliens in 1997.
The story starts with him and his then-girlfriend viewing strange lights in California shortly after the passage of the Hale-Bopp comet. After a period of investigation, they had an argument that resulted in her walking away towards some nearby woods. According to Frank, she then vanished. While following her, Frank claims to have encountered strange carvings and impossible trees before he found his girlfriend, disorientated, in the middle of the forest. In the weeks that followed, they filmed footage all across America before his girlfriend suddenly left and filed an injunction against Frank.
Frank puts this sudden change of heart down to whatever happened to her in the forest. He has also shared screenshots on his website, which, according to him, come from footage she had taken unbeknownst to him during their travels. They appear to depict small objects travelling through the sky at great speed while his girlfriend, Franks writes, chants and slurs in the background of the video.
I attempted to confirm some of his story with prominent figures mentioned throughout. While they couldn’t remember Frank by name, they didn’t claim his contact with them was impossible.
Since his encounter, he’s taken on the mantle of UFO investigator, and has set up a website that covers everything from alleged aliens encountered by NASA astronauts to photographs from Roswell, 1947. According to a ticker at the bottom of the page, the site as had nearly seven million views since 2008. The guestbook is packed with submissions from other people keen to have their own extraterrestrial encounters verified by a bonafide expert; some of the entries are only a matter of days old.
I emailed Frank in the early days of planning this article; some part of me was desperate to talk with someone who believed they’d had a genuine alien encounter. Studying or hunting for cryptids is one thing. Actually having an encounter with a creature or entity that directly affects one’s life is something else. It struck me, while I was in contact with the sasquatch hunters, that they were able to detach themselves somewhat from their work. It’s not that they weren’t totally passionate and entrenched in their area of study, but they didn’t have to spend a large portion of their lives trying to convince their friends and family that something utterly unbelievable had happened to them, something that was the very reason that major events in their lives had taken place.
During my research, it became clear that attempts to create a global community of people who’d had ET encounters hadn’t been totally successful. Many recount the loneliness, the isolation, the confusion that followed contact, because alien encounters aren’t taken seriously in polite society (whether they should be is another question entirely). Alien contact groups, at least the ones I came across, aren’t primarily there to provide support for those who’ve been affected by perceived contact, but rather to collect evidence, verify contact, and prove a point. Frank was one of many who had a perceived alien contact, and spent the rest of his life trying to rebuild and find answers for what he and many others have experienced.
Frank writes to me in an email that I receive in the very early hours of a bitter December morning: “It changed my life forever. I quit my job managing car dealerships for 20 years and traveled 24/7/365 for 12 years straight. In 2002, my life savings were all but gone, so I decided to design websites for hotels, motels and inns, although I had no idea how to design websites. I taught myself as much as I could and faked the rest.”
“When I first became a UFO Investigator in late 1997, it was not by choice. During a six week period, we filmed strange objects almost daily, spanning six western states. In September 1997, my entire world was turned upside down. In November 1997, I made a decision to find answers and became a UFO Investigator … Despite the initial insults and criticism, I bought all of the UFO related iron-on patches and lettering I could find and everywhere I went, I stood out in every crowd. To my surprise, the insults got quiet and people started approaching me and telling me about their own experiences that they had never talked about before.”
Frank, who describes himself as the biggest skeptic he’s ever known, prides himself on his alternative approach to UFO investigation. “Unlike most people in the so-called UFO Community, I present cases that I’ve personally investigated, like the Alien Autopsy Video, with my findings, then let people decide for themselves. I don’t sugar coat anything, nor do I ever try to convince someone that it’s real just because I believe it is.”
And there’s no doubt that Frank truly believes that aliens are real. When I ask him what he thinks would prove to the wider world that UFOs and ET contact are real, I receive his longest reply yet: “Nothing more can be done. There is way more hard evidence available right now than we need to prove that UFOs and non-human beings visit our planet regularly. One out of hundreds of credible cases comes to mind. The Betty and Barney Hill incident. Under regressive hypnosis, Betty recalled in complete detail a three dimensional star map that was shown to her by a tall grey alien. After professionally recreating the map, it did not match up with anything in our skies. The case was dismissed and forgotten for almost 20 years, when a young journalist took interest in the case and quickly discovered that Betty’s star map matched up perfectly with a star system named Zeta Riticuli. Years earlier, it did not match anything, because no telescope on Earth could see that far into space. If this is not conclusive evidence or proof, then please tell me what is.”
(It’s worth noting that the Betty and Barney Hill incident, which took place in 1961, is a key piece of evidence both for and against the existence of alien abductions. Aside from the star map Frank describes, there were implications that the couple had been influenced by a contemporary science-fiction show called The Outer Limits. It was broadcast 12 days before the couple’s testimony, and featured an episode with aliens that bore a striking resemblance to the ones the couple described under hypnosis. You can read more about the fascinating case and it’s implications here).
I had one more question for Frank: was it important that wider society accepts and starts believing in UFOs and alien contact? The response was definitive. “It’s extremely important. I’d say that at the current rate of social and environmental deterioration on Earth, ETs are the only hope left for Earth’s survival.”
In the course of writing this article — which took a grueling month, hours of research, cancelled interviews, and speaking to fascinating people — something started to make sense to me. For the people involved in this kind of research, simply proving a point isn’t the main aim. There’s more to their involvement than smugly proving that they were right all along. However bizarre their intentions and actions seem to most, there is a compassionate undercurrent to their work. They want to support people who’ve encountered things that would have them defined as crazy by their friends and family, and that’s pretty fascinating. Is that the reason they do it? Possibly. But their work to help legitimize the experiences of people who’ve been through the out-of-the-ordinary is something that most of us just won’t accept, despite the fact that these kinds of encounters can have far-reaching and profound effects on the lives of those afflicted.
Now, I’m not sure whether I believe in any of this any more than I did when I started writing this article, but what I do believe is that the people who are convinced that these events have happened to them can find themselves dominated by isolation and confusion. If listening a little closer to their experiences helps alleviate that, I can’t really find much to argue with there.
This essay is nominated for the Flounce Non Fiction Writer’s Award 2015. Reader feedback in the comments section will be taken into consideration by the judges. Contest Rules.