The Roswellian Syndrome: How Some UFO Myths Develop

By Joe Nickell and James McGaha via CSI | csicop.org

An analysis of four classic flying-saucer incidents reveals how debunking can send a mundane case underground, where it is transformed by mythologizing processes, then reemerges—like a virulent strain of a virus—as a vast conspiracy tale. Defined by the Roswell Incident (1947), this syndrome is repeated at Flatwoods (1952), Kecksburg (1965), and Rendlesham Forest (1980).

Near the very beginning of the modern UFO craze, in the summer of 1947, a crashed “flying disc” was reported to have been recovered near Roswell, New Mexico. However, it was soon identified as simply a weather balloon, whereupon the sensational story seemed to fade away. Actually, it went underground; after subsequent decades, it resurfaced as an incredible tale of extraterrestrial invasion and the government’s attempt to cover up the awful truth. The media capitalized on “the Roswell incident,” and conspiracy theorists, persons with confabulated memories, outright hoaxers, and others climbed aboard the bandwagon.

We identify this process—a UFO incident’s occurring, being debunked, going underground, beginning the mythmaking processes, and reemerging as a conspiracy tale with ongoing mythologizing and media hype—as the Roswellian Syndrome. In the sections that follow, we describe the process as it occurred at Roswell and then demonstrate how the same syndrome developed from certain other famous UFO incidents: at Flatwoods, West Virginia (1952); Kecksburg, Pennsylvania (1965); and Rendlesham Forest (outside the Woodbridge NATO base) in England (1980). Between us, we have actually been on-site to investigate three of the four cases (Joe Nickell at Roswell and Flatwoods, and James McGaha—a former military pilot—at Rendlesham).

Roswell (1947)

Here is how the prototype of the Ros­wel­lian Syndrome began and developed:

Incident. On July 8, 1947, an eager but relatively inexperienced public information officer at Roswell Army Airfield issued a press release claiming a “flying disc” had been recovered from its crash site on an area ranch (Berlitz and Moore 1980; Korff 1997). The next day’s Roswell Daily Record told how rancher “Mac” Brazel described (in a reporter’s words) “a large area of bright wreckage” consisting of tinfoil, rubber strips, sticks, and other lightweight materials.

Debunking. Soon after these initial reports, the mysterious object was identified as a weather balloon. Although there appears to have been no attempt to deceive, the best evidence now indicates that the device was really a balloon array (the sticks and foiled paper being components of dangling box-kite–like radar reflectors) that had gone missing in flight from Project Mogul. Mogul represented an attempt to use the airborne devices’ instruments to monitor sonic emissions from Soviet nuclear tests. Joe Nickell has spoken about this with former Mogul Project scientist Charles B. Moore, who identified the wreckage from photographs as consistent with a lost Flight 4 Mogul array. (See also Thomas 1995; Saler et al. 1997; U.S. Air Force 1997.)

Submergence. With the report that the “flying disc” was only a balloon-borne device, the Roswell news story ended almost as abruptly as it had begun. However, the event would linger on in the fading and recreative memories of some of those involved, while in Roswell rumor and speculation continued to simmer just below the surface with UFO reports a part of the culture at large. In time, conspiracy-minded UFOlogists would arrive, asking leading questions and helping to spin a tale of crashed flying saucers and a government cover-up.

Mythologizing. This is the most complex part of the syndrome, beginning when the story goes underground and continuing after it reemerges, developing into an elaborate myth. It involves many factors, including exaggeration, faulty memory, folklore, and deliberate hoaxing.

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2 responses

  1. […] The Roswellian Syndrome: How Some UFO Myths Develop (illuminutti.com) […]

  2. […] The Roswellian Syndrome: How Some UFO Myths Develop (illuminutti.com) […]

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