Communion & UFO Epistemology
Communion has haunted me over 30 years.
In 1987, Whitley Strieber published his now (in)famous account of alien abduction in which he was kidnapped from his bedroom and brought to an alien ship, where he underwent several cryptic experiments. The book was an instant sensation. It sold over 2 million copies, hit #1 on The New York Times Best Seller list, and arguably made Strieber the most prominent abductee in UFO discourse. I was only a few years old when the book came out, but I still remember seeing it featured on every news segment, evening show, and magazine cover for weeks on end. And that cover. Ted Seth Jacob’s portrait of “the visitors” is one of the most recognizable images of aliens in contemporary pop culture. The enormous black eyes. The tan, mantis-shaped face. Thin lips curled into a slight smile like some uncanny Mona Lisa. That image is burned into my brain—when I think of aliens, when I think of man’s encounter with the paranormal, I see Communion.
So it was with some pent-up trepidation that I finally read Strieber’s memoir last week. It turned out to be an invigorating read, though not for the reasons I had expected. Indeed, it wasn’t the alien encounter that engrossed me but rather how Strieber’s wrestled with the epistemological mystery that is the paranormal. This is a wrestling that I believe resides at the core of my research as well as Paracultures more broadly.
Most readers of Communion are obviously fascinated by the book’s UFO and alien content. The key event of the book transpires on December 26, 1985, when several aliens entered Strieber’s rural home, brought him into the woods, and transported him aboard their ship. There he undergoes a battery of invasive tests. The abduction sends Strieber into a tailspin. He later undergoes hypnosis and realizes that he has actually been abducted several times throughout his life, revealing a decades-long relationship with the so-called visitors. These encounters were all buried in his unconscious, though, suggesting that the alien experience itself is partly phenomenological and partly ontological. It’s weird, gripping stuff.
That said, what intrigues me now is not the particularities of the alien encounter so much as Strieber’s subsequent reaction to it, specifically the epistemological struggle he faces in reconciling himself with a truth that cannot be a truth. One of the reasons Communion captured so much mainstream attention is that Strieber isn’t a believer of UFOs. From the outset, he explains he is not an alien conspiracy theorist: “I did not believe in UFOs at all before this happened. And I would have laughed in the face of anybody who claimed contact. Period” (49). Most modern readers are skeptical of UFO abductions because they are so strange—so outside the realm of logical, rational experience—as to be nonsensical. Strieber belongs to this group. But then he is abducted himself. He remembers the entire episode with great accuracy, and it turns out his experiences actually align with those of other UFO abductees. This leads to an epistemological reckoning: how can Strieber possibly reconcile the fact that he experienced an event that modern science says could not have happened?
For me, Strieber’s question is central to the objective of Paracultures. How can we as academics intellectually approach the paranormal, supernatural, and the occult—the very stuff modern science says is impossible? How do we rigorously examine unexplainable phenomena without falling into the typical binaries of believer and skeptic? The former will accept anything uncritically. Too often, the latter is foreclosed to anything too radical or unorthodox. Both positions are ultimately problematic.
Jeffrey Kripal articulates one possible path in The Super Natural. Drawing from William James’s notion of radical empiricism (among other thinkers), Kripal argues the super natural is a critical approach that explores human experience of all varieties without prejudice. Judgement can come later, but the experience of the individual ought to be heard. The super natural is important to my own thinking because it articulates a critical path between skepticism and belief, a third space where unnatural phenomena can be discussed in term of theory, history, philosophy, and culture. Alien abductions, ghost sightings, and telepathic dreams constitute a broad swath of contemporary mass culture, but you’d hardly know it if looking at existing academic conversations. This literary and scientific history, as well as its epistemological import, remains woefully unexplored. Paracultures is important because we need a forum to interrogate the paranormal not just as metaphors for something else or things to explain away but actual experiences and phenomena worth digging into. Our task is not to scoff at spectral tales but to actually listen to them and consider what they mean. Many of the subjects I have studied defy belief, and I don’t know if they actually happened, but they are definitely culturally relevant and fascinating to boot.
My approach to the paranormal is indebted to people like Streiber, who co-wrote The Super Natural with Kripal. Communion is the starting point for his epistemological journey, and I believe his struggles and insights can help us all these years later. In Communion, Strieber writes, “Even if visitor experiences are an essentially mental phenomenon, to laugh at them or dismiss them as some known form of abnormal behavior when they obviously are not is in effect to be silent before the presence of the new. Science should bring its best efforts to this, which means good studies that proceed from open and skillfully drawn hypotheses” (50). Strieber contends that as critics, we should try to understand heterodox experiences via rigorous scholarship and scientific pathways. A crucial first step is moving beyond the gut-reflex skepticism endemic to Western technoscience. Strieber is saying we need to listen to others’ stories. We need to learn. Only by opening ourselves to the utterly strange can we confront the intricacies of phenomenological and ontological experience. Strieber ends his memoir with a lovely passage: “We need to give ourselves to our experience, without knowing what it is, trusting that our understanding will grow as we proceed. To participate truly in this experience, we must marry the unknown” (285). As scholars, we must be open to unusual phenomena. We don’t necessarily have to believe them, but that radical openness—to communion, to impossibility, to rational incommensurability—is a vital first step for fully engaging with our strange world.
At any rate, I don’t look at the alien portrait of Communion and feel afraid anymore. The alien no longer evokes fear. It inspires possibility.
Strieber, Whitley. Communion. Avon Books, 1987.