The Scareship Mystery

Nigel Watson (contributing editor). The Scareship Mystery: A Survey of Phantom Airship Scares 1909-1918, Domra Books, 2000.

At the turn of the 20th century visionaries began to dream that the new science of aeronautics would bring universal peace on the Earth by love or fear. Love because as people travelled more they would get to know each other as human beings and no longer as sinister foreigners; fear because the destructive power of aerial bombardment would render war unthinkable.

The popular reaction, however, as these studies show, was far less idealistic. As aviation moved from the being a promise to being a reality, the skies became ominous, filled with menaces. Mysterious enemy aircraft and airships were being seen everywhere. These outbreaks, the scareship panics, are the subject of The Scareship Mystery.


The publication history of this book might well be one of the longest and most tortuous on record, taking almost fifteen years to get into print, as publishers turned it down in favour of Heinz 57 varieties of new age nonsense. In it Nigel Watson, and his colleagues David Clarke, Granville Oldroyd, Mr X, Robert Bartholomew and Thomas “Eddie” Bullard examine these phantom airship epidemics from 1909 to 1918.

What emerges is the first complete portrait of the “scareship” or phantom airship waves yet produced, waves in which strange or ambiguous lights in the sky were reported as airships or aircraft often possessed of amazing powers. These waves began in 1909, with outbreaks in Britain, New Zealand and the United States. At first there was quite a distinction between the reportage in Britain and New Zealand, where the scareships were interpreted as German (or in New Zealand, also perhaps Japanese) spy planes, harbingers of wars to come, and in the US, where a more light-hearted, optimistic theme, the amazing inventions of one Wallace Tillinghast, prevailed. The wide Atlantic and hopes of neutrality managed to keep the sense of oppression at bay.

The airships returned in 1912-13, and as tension spilled out into war, they became merged into a general war panic within Britain, and spread through the English-speaking world, surfacing in English-language communities in South Africa (rumoured to come from the German territory of South West Africa, now Namibia) and Canada (where they were rumoured to have come from the United States. As the war progressed the scareships came to the United States; the Atlantic was no longer wide enough.

The actual division of labour in the book is as follows. Nigel Watson contributes the most papers, on the New Zealand invasion of 1909, the USA airship of 1909-10, two chapters on the 1912-13 British airship scare, the 1914 South African mystery plane scare, and scareships in the USA 1914-1918. David Clarke contributes the chapter on 1909 in Britain, Granville Oldroyd on 1914 airship rumours on Britain, Mr X on the wartime scares in Canada, while Robert Bartholomew and Eddie Bullard provide a sociological summary. All the articles are to a high standard, and I am sure would do professional historians proud.

The authors are, of course, ufologists and Forteans, and it is to an extent from that perspective that the book is written, (David Clarke’s revised paper in Fortean Studies 6 aims to be more general and to marry ufological and wider historical concerns), Nigel and his colleagues tracing the use of this material in ufological writing. At first only the most dramatic events, chiefly from 1909 survived. Mr Lethbridge, the Punch and Judy man, and his alleged landed airship and crew being the prime example, being featured in the books of Charles Fort and then reprinted in inaccurate forms in a variety of UFO books.

The first 'serious' look at the airship reports in Britain was by the psychologist and ufologist Carl Grove who produced a catalogue of airship reports in Flying Saucer Review. These were still treated as isolated anomalies, to an extent divorced from the background. Grove was a supporter of Aime Michel, and tended to interpret the airship reports as part of the process by which 'magonia' sought to manipulate human history. In Grove’s case, as with Michel, it was never quite clear whether this 'magonia' was meant to be a physical alien technology, or an alias for God.

Nigel and his co-workers eschew such interpretations, and opt by and large for psychosocial interpretations, most notably those of rumour theory and of moral and social panics; wherein all sorts of vague and ambiguous stimuli are perceived and remembered according to a template of the fears of the time. They point out that rumours of strange things seen in the sky, both menacing and promising, have a long history. They also note how many of the themes which are now commonplace in ufology; vague dream-like encounters, alleged men in black, ambiguous “physical evidence”, the reports of lights exhibiting “falling leaf motion” (autokinesis?), or bright stars and planets being perceived as lights or searchlights on dark objects, etc.

The idea behind the scareship mystery, the enemy in the sky, possessed of a superior technology mutated into the modern ETH/UFO legend in basically the years between 1947 and 1952. It must be remembered that the original flying saucer panic of 1947 was concerned less with Martians than with fears of superior Russian technology. Through the writings of people like Keyhoe this Russian threat became transformed into the Martian threat, and the Venusian promise. These ideas, however, did not spring up newly formed from Keyhoe’s breast; as far back as 1897 a small minority of people sought extraterrestrial (i.e. Martian) explanations for strange lights in the sky, and Nigel brings to our attention a correspondent in the Otago Daily Times (New Zealand) of 19 July 1909, who formulated perhaps the first space brothers theory, older and wiser Martians making peaceful visits in their atomic powered spaceships.

Reading through these reports and stories, one gets something of the sense of the unity of the deep imagination, whether expressed in dreams and visions, lies and hoaxes, lacunae in perception and memory, or in more conventional channels. These are excellent contributions to ufology and history alike and meet really high standards. Given the time that has elapsed since Scareships was first written, a second edition would be welcome shortly. Or perhaps Nigel and David could collaborate on a Timewatch TV documentary to get a wider audience?  -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson. This review first appeared in Magonia Supplement, July 2000
 

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