On Believing Roswell

Benson Saler, Charles A. Ziegler and Charles B. Moore. UFO Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.

This book is essentially a merging of three separate essays, with a concluding chapter and appendixes. The first, by Benson Sater, an anthropologist at Brandeis University explores the Roswell legend in terms of folklore. He argues that there is a misunderstanding about the nature of the Roswell narratives when they are perceived either as exposes or simple hoaxes.

Such stories are examples of modern folklore. He lists the various versions of the Roswell myth as presented by successive authors, and shows how they obey the model of the transmission of folklore as suggested by Barlett and others: fantastic elements are incorporated into the narrative and unacceptable features are removed, thus in the six versions presented here (it has grown since this essay was written) some features, once introduced, persist in all subsequent versions. Others which do not fit into preconceptions are quickly eliminated. The comparison between these narratives makes it very apparent that these are not the narratives of real historical events, though they have a historical core, in the finding of the balloon debris on Bill Brazel's field.

Saler calls the tellers of the sort of first person narratives that appear in the Roswell stories, 'traditors' and argues that people incorporate traditional folkloric motifs into what purport to the be first person narratives of actual events. Whether this is a conscious or unconscious process is unclear, but in many cases it is, I suspect, more likely that people unconsciously incorporate these motifs into their perceptions, memories and narratives.

The second psychosocial paper in this volume, is by another Braneis anthropologist, Charles Ziegler. This seeks to examine Roswell as a religious narrative, and is much less successful. While there are elements of ufology which have very clear religious overtones, the Roswell narrative lies well within the secular end of the spectrum, for it emphasises the mortality and vulnerability of the 'the other'. The aliens spaceships are vulnerable, they can crash, the occupants are mortal and their bodies reduced to just yet more carrion. Indeed this must be one of the main attractions of these stories.

Though the content of the Roswell stories is decidedly secular, belief in it can be held with religious intensity. The ufological true believers cannot imagine the Air Force saying anything which would convince them that the Roswell debris were not from an ET craft. These essays were written before the furore at MUFON, because Dennis Stacy had dared to print an article critical of the Roswell legend: the resulting complaints clearly expressing religious type arguments. The reaction was rather as if the Catholic Herald had featured advertisements for abortion clinics. (Of course, in fairness it must be said that just the same reaction would occur if Skeptical Inquirer ever published a pro-paranormal article - skepticism and rationalism can be just as passionately held religious beliefs as any other.)

The third essay, by meteorologist Charles Moore is a discussion of the Project Mogul balloon flights, demonstrating, I think, that the 4th June balloon flight produced the Roswell debris. Moore, in an appendix gives details of his involvement with the ufological community and their distortions of his statements. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 63, May 1998.

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