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The Ariel School UFO Encounter in Zimbabwe: “One of the Most Significant Events in UFO History”

Which side of the mass hysteria are you on? 

children standing on a school playground bathed in the blue light of a UFO
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  • Photo Credit: Netflix

Located some 14 miles south-east of Harare, Ariel School was a relatively expensive private school located in rural Zimbabwe.

Not necessarily the kind of place we would typically associate with the “most remarkable close encounter of the third kind of the 1990s.”

And yet, on a September morning in 1994, that’s exactly what happened—at least, according to some 62 students between the ages of six and twelve who claimed to see a UFO at the Ariel School.

What Happened at the Ariel School in Zimbabwe? 

Here's what they told the faculty at the school and later their parents: As they were gathered outside for their mid-morning break, they saw one or more silvery objects—most of the children called them “discs”—descend from the sky into a field of brush near the school.

Many of the children said that they saw creatures with big eyes dressed all in black exit these crafts and approach them and, according to some later interviews, the creatures communicated with them telepathically, sending them an environmental message about an impending catastrophe.

The children were also later asked to draw what they had seen. 

Almost immediately, the story made international headlines and invited the usual volley of responses, ranging from credulity and acceptance to skepticism and belligerence.

Some of them didn’t believe us,” one of the children told Dutch TV presenter Tineke de Nooji, not long after the sighting. 

Skeptics blamed the encounter on everything from mass hysteria to a simple hoax.

As part of the Skeptoid podcast, Brian Dunning pointed out that two days prior to the incident, there had been UFO sightings throughout southern Africa, which he attributed to the “re-entry of the Zenit-2 rocket from the Cosmos 2290 satellite launch,” a Russian military reconnaissance satellite that had gone up just a few weeks before the incident.

“The booster broke up into burning streaks as it moved silently across the sky, giving an impressive light show to millions of Africans.” 

The event even made its way into an article on mass hysteria in the Malawi Medical Journal, where author Demobly Kokota wrote that, 

“Virtually every single one of the 62 children iterated the exact same story with the same details and none of them had gone against his/her story. Many dismissed the 1994 incident as mass hysteria affecting the children. But when the children were found to not have much prior knowledge of UFOs or popular UFO perceptions, many other people believed that what the children witnessed could have been real.” 

How Did They Prove What Happened with the UFO at the Ariel School?

One of those people was Harvard professor of psychiatry John Mack. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Mack had already become interested in accounts of UFO phenomena when he was contacted by Tim Leach, the BBC’s Zimbabwe correspondent. 

I could handle war zones, but I could not handle this UFO thing,” Leach said. “It just didn’t make sense. And that’s when I had to call in extra help.”

A Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard professor seemed respectable enough help; especially one who was already sympathetic to the idea of UFO phenomena. 

Mack arrived in Zimbabwe in November and conducted interviews with the various children who claimed to have seen the alien craft. After conducting his interviews, Mack said that he believed them.

“The children we talked with clearly were talking about a phenomenon that occurred in physical reality. The stories were consistent and the way they talked about it left virtually no question in our minds that what happened was just about what they said happened.” 

Not everyone was convinced, however, and many skeptics pointed out flaws in Mack’s interviewing procedures, including that the interviews took place months after the initial incident, and that the children were interviewed in groups, allowing them to hear one another’s accounts.

Others have since also pointed out that previous interviews with the students sometimes provided contradictory information, including that the telepathic communication from the beings was something not mentioned in any previous interviews, and that Mack himself had an avowed environmental interest, which he could easily have coached the children to reiterate in their accounts of what the creatures said to them. 

What Are The Students Saying Decades Later?

The students themselves, however, remained steadfast in their claims, even years later.

As part of a 2022 documentary called Ariel Phenomenon, filmmaker Randall Nickerson interviewed many of the students from the Ariel School and, according to him, not one recanted their former stories.  

But while those students interviewed by Nickerson for his documentary may have stuck with their original accounts while speaking with him, the same isn’t true today.

In 2023, Netflix released a documentary series called Encounters, with an episode focused on the Ariel School phenomenon.

In it, Dallyn Vico, a former student at the Ariel School, claimed that he was the originator of the entire incident. He told his classmates that a “shiny rock” in the distance was a UFO, and expressed surprise at the “mass hysteria” which followed. 

Dallyn was actually one of the former students interviewed by Randall Nickerson for Ariel Phenomenon. That interview was conducted in 2008, and in it he said that he was “witness to an event that I cannot fully explain”—words that clearly contradict his statements in the recent Netflix documentary. 

So, did Dallyn Vico start a hoax and then spend the next few decades lying about it, or, as John Mack believed, did aliens really land at an out-of-the-way primary school near the capital of Zimbabwe with a message of environmental catastrophe?

Even with new evidence on both sides, the jury remains out on what has been called “one of the most significant events in UFO history.” 

What is undeniable is the chilling nature of some of the descriptions that the children offered in their interviews with Mack, or many years later as adults when discussing the events with Nickerson.

“It was running in slow motion diagonally down the field,” one student said, describing the figure in black that exited the ship.

“And then suddenly it would reappear in the corner where it started and do the same thing. And then it would reappear and do the same thing. And that was frightening—more frightening than seeing what these things actually were.”