"I got the feeling he was interested in all of us. ... He looked sad and without love. ...In space there is no love and down here there is."
John Mack and I were at the Ariel School, a small elementary school outside Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, listening to Elsa (not her real name) describe her encounter last September 16  with an "alien" being. In all, sixty children, ages six through twelve, reported seeing one large and several smaller spaceships land - hover, really - over the scrubby bushland adjoining their playground.
The twelve children we interviewed over the course of two days all described the same event with a steady consistency of detail. In addition to the spaceships, the children had seen two "strange beings," one sitting on one of the spaceships and the other running back and forth in the grass, "bouncing as if he were on the moon, but not quite so much."
The beings were described as black with long heads, "eyes as big as rugby balls," with thin arms and legs. The event took place during the children's morning recess while teachers were in a staff meeting. Many of the younger children were very scared and cried. "At first I thought it was a gardener," one fourth-grader told us. "Then I realized it was an alien."
The event lasted about fifteen minutes, the children said, before the spaceships faded from view. But even in their state of fear, many of the children reported also being curious and fascinated by the strange beings they saw, whose eyes in particular commanded an intense attention. Elsa told us that she thought the beings wanted to tell us something about our future, about how "the world is going to end, maybe because we don't look after our planet or the air." She said she felt horrible inside when she got home that day. "Like all the trees will go down and there will be no air. People will be dying. Those thoughts came from the man - the man's eyes."
Isabelle, a composed and articulate ten-year-old, echoed Elsa's feelings. "He was just staring. He was scary. We were trying not to look at him 'cause he was scary. My eyes and feelings went with him." What came through her "conscience" as she looked at the being was, "We are doing harm to the Earth."
The Ariel School sighting is one of the most significant in recent UFO history. It is the first time such a large group of people have reported witnessing the simultaneous appearance of spaceships and alien beings. After receiving a call in September from a BBC reporter telling us that a flight of strange objects and ships had glided across Zimbabwean skies for two nights prior to September 16 culminating in the dramatic sighting at the Ariel School, we decided to investigate firsthand.
International Abduction Project
For the past two years [1993/1994] the International Abduction Project, a component of the Program for Extraordinary Experience Research (PEER), has been researching cross-cultural and international reports of UFO sightings and alien abduction experiences. One of the central research questions related to the abduction investigation is whether the phenomenon is occurring abroad in a similar fashion; if so, what aspects of the experience remain uniform and unchanged from culture to culture, and what part of the experience, or interpretation of it, is affected by cultural factors.
In addition to project members traveling to Brazil and Africa and speaking with Native Americans in the United States and Canada, the project has sponsored research in Japan, Scandinavia, and Chile, and is in communication with "experiencers" in Europe, Iran, China, Australia, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. We have compared the abduction experience of shamanic journeying and possession. We have explored myths related to sky beings, and to other worlds and dimensions. What has emerged has often surprised us.
People in countries around the world are experiencing alien abductions that seem, in many cases, very similar to the accounts reported in the United States; yet the abductions remain distinct in the way people's cultural background frame their experience. In Brazil, for instance, which is rife with traditions of spirit and ancestor communication and mediumship, "ET visitations" are more valued than ancestor spirit visits because of the ETs' association with high-tech space travel, reflecting the cultural preoccupation of Brazil's development-minded psyche. This often results in colorful variations. In one Brazilian home we visited, a mother who had traditionally ruled the roost through her communications with the family's ancestor spirits felt her power threatened when her son began to communicate with [reported] aliens.
Native Americans we have spoken with say the current activities of the "star-people" point out an imbalance between Earth, humanity, and the cosmos. One Hopi elder in Arizona prophesied, like so many abductees, the end of the world as we know it. "There will be a great purge," he said.
Abduction Experiences Challenge the Nature of Reality
Many aspects of abduction experiences are becoming familiar: dizzying lights appearing through a windshield or a bedroom window, and small gray beings with massive, pupil-less eyes that terrify and compel; quelling paralysis as the experiencer's body is floated through air, walls, and doors of spaceships; operations which are sometimes healing, often experimental. Some abductees report participation in the creation of a new species of crossbred alien/humans, percolating in rows of artificial wombs lining the walls of the crafts like aquariums. Others describe new worlds of knowledge teeming with apocalyptic visions and cryptic symbology and silent telepathic warnings.
Abduction stories have raised a rash of issues as to how literally they should be interpreted, and how abductees should be helped therapeutically. The controversy roused by this phenomenon is reminiscent of other scientific struggles that have surrounded anomalous experiences historically. Evans Wentz, an anthropologist who studied fairies in the Celtic tradition, wrestled with defining his inquiries in a scientific context. "These mysteries have long fascinated scientists who, while wanting to remain true to their essentially Newtonian tradition, cannot, in the spirit of curiosity, ignore the mysteries."
William James, the Harvard social psychologist, also pondered these issues. In his essay, "What Psychical Research Has Accomplished," published in the 1890's, he wrote, "The ideal of every science is that of a closed and completed system of truth. … Phenomena unclassifiable within a system are therefore paradoxical absurdities and must be held untrue."
Undetaking what is essentially cross-cultural consciousness research raises special difficulties, including the defining of subjectivity and objectivity, of "real" versus mythic at amplified levels. Our Western difficulty in integrating the fruits of our dreams and visions - our experiences while in altered states - into a shared, communal reality severely influences and limits the way we frame our questions of inquiry and our assumptions as we conduct this research.
To open ourselves to the significance of abduction experiences for individuals, we must become tolerant of the overwhelming variety of communications and visitations the human beings experience with entities and beings that are, as they have been described, "not of this world." It is only in opening to this richer context that we can begin to interpret the meaning of abduction experiences here and abroad.
The "White Bushman," Laurens Van der Post, said, "People always laughed at the Bushman stories and said they had no meaning. And I suddenly realized they only had no meaning because we had lost the key and the code. We had lost the meaning of the stories."
How do we decipher the strange and unfamiliar tales of experiencers? Abduction stories from around the world contain paradoxes: some abductees are raped and sometimes tortured with painful procedures; some are healed, educated, cared for; others experience all of the above. Abduction taunts us with possibilities - some terrifying, some tatalizing. How do we decipher the information and stories we hear? How does one live in closer proximity to that "world beyond the veil"? A glimpse of the alien "other" invites one to betray earthly assumptions, a suspension of belief that is part of the pleasure of anthropological fieldwork. It is by finding and occupying what anthropologists call "limbic" space that one can free oneself to perceive anew, investing in a reinvented vision of life and reality.
Dr. John Mack and Dominique Callimanopulos research on African and other cross-cultural abduction experiences appears in Passport to the Cosmos. Dominique studied anthropology at Wesleyan University and has worked as a researcher, writer, translator, and editor in the areas of human rights, cross-cultural studies, and psychology.
Originally published in CenterPiece magazine, Spring/Summer 1995, p. 10-11. Copyright © PEER | Program for Extraordinary Experience Research