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Unusual Circumstances: Unidentified Flying Objects

Exploring the weird world of UFOs in real life and fiction.

unusual circumstances

Is it just me or is everyone talking about UFOs lately? Well, that, and JFK, but let’s save that for another column. 

By now we’ve all heard the widely reported tale of Navy pilot Ryan Graves’ years-long, almost daily sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects over restricted airspace. While the story has been reported elsewhere previously, most notably in early 2019 by The New York Times, his recent appearance on 60 Minutes certainly lit a match under the story and fanned the flames... resulting in the Pentagon finally admitting knowledge of and research into UFOs and the United States Congress requesting an official report on the matter.

Related: 13 Fascinating UFO Books for Believers and Skeptics Alike

State departments firmly deny the sightings are related to any sort of extraterrestrial activity or otherworldly intelligent life, and we here at Unusual Circumstances can’t begin to pretend that we know what is behind this recent spate of UFO press (conspiracy? foreign governments?? CIA??!), but since we fall firmly in the “I want to believe” category we’d be remiss not to provide you with some recs to scratch that alien itch.

Now, if your algorithm is anything like mine, you’ve been aggressively advertised Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind, the 2020 documentary release from director Michael Mazzola, who previously brought us the 2017 UFO documentary Unacknowledged. And if you’re anything like me, you didn’t read the film description before pressing play and just assumed it was another installment in the Close Encounters of the Third Kind universe, a personal favorite. 

If you haven’t seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I don’t know what you think you’re doing reading little articles online, please log off and watch it ASAP (and think of me when you get to the mashed potatoes scene). Now let’s say you are like me, it will take you a little while to recognize that the Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind’s narrator is indeed Jeremy Piven, of Entourage fame. Then, you will realize that you are not watching Richard Dreyfuss, but in fact noted ufologist, Dr. Steven M. Greer, discussing his alien visitation Disclosure Project, which seeks disclosure of classified UFO documents and research. 

Related: 21 Terrifying UFO and Alien Encounters

The film also explores the governmental and pop-cultural framing of extraterrestrial life as potentially violent, threatening, or colonizing forces as opposed to advanced, benign, and enlightened beings, and proposes communication with unearthly civilizations through meditation and enlightenment practices. About halfway through the documentary, I turned to my partner and said, “I am all in on what this guy is saying.”  He laughed heartily, thinking that I was joking, so take this recommendation with a grain of salt if you tend to be a bit of a skeptic. 

close encounters of the fifth kind
  • camera-icon
  • Still from Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind.

    Photo Credit: 1091 Pictures

If you’re interested in further exploring the alien-threat-versus-spiritual-protector dichotomy with a little more Hollywood pizazz, may I suggest a double feature: James Cameron’s 1989 underwater alien film, The Abyss, and M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 rural alien invasion film, Signs

The Abyss is one of Cameron’s earlier movies (think post-Terminator action/pre-Titanic love story) and it’s chock full of what he does best: solid special effects (extra credit for their pre-90s sophistication), stellar politics, and an earnestness missed in much of blockbuster cinema. The drama begins when an American submarine sinks, and a rough and tumble oil rig workers pair with a team of Navy Seals and a scientific researcher (who happens to be the rig captain’s ex-wife) to beat the Soviet Union forces to recover the vessel. Those crafty Soviets, an impending hurricane, and a SEAL team member’s pressure-induced madness threaten their mission, but luckily, an unexpected and otherworldly benevolent creature comes to their rescue.

Related: The Godfather of Bizarre

Signs is an M. Night Shyamalan classic filled with all the appropriate twists and turns, and even if you’ve already seen it in the past, I suggest a rewatch. I was not yet out of high school during my original viewing and completely missed the incredibly obvious post 9/11 “foreign invasion” subplot the first time around. It's fun to see how good of an actor young Joaquin Phoenix was, how bad of an actor Mel Gibson was (sorry, not sorry!), and, of course, a cameo from the man, M. Night Shyamalan, himself.  If you’ve never seen Signs, you’re in for a sci-fi thriller treat.

A former pastor is living with his two children and younger brother on a remote, rural Pennsylvania farm since leaving the church after the death of his wife from a tragic car crash. The family starts hearing strange noises and experiencing unusual phenomena in the cornfields behind their home before eventually hearing reports of an alien invasion on the news. Watching it during the pandemic made me reflect on individual and collective responses to national emergencies, and while it feels clear Shyamalan was reflecting on the social panic following 9/11, it really resonates with what we've all been experiencing.

My last UFO-related pick is the autobiography of artist and ufologist, Budd Hopkins, Art, Life and UFOs: A Memoir, published in 2009 by Anomalist Books. The book covers his life growing up as a child suffering from polio, his contentious relationship with his bigoted father, his years of study that eventually led him into New York’s red hot Abstract Expressionist art scene, and, yes!, his personal experience with UFOs and his decades of research on alien abductions. 

I found this memoir fascinating because it goes beyond the usual straightforward UFO research book that occasionally mentions the life of the author only in their connection to said UFOs, and because I, too, am an artist, I loved hearing his journey into the middle of a foundational art community and all the gossip that goes along with it. If you’re looking for something a little more straightforwardly alien-related, you can opt for one of his classics like Missing Time: A Documented Study of UFO Abductions or Intruders: The Incredible Visitations at Copley Woods.

If you need a break from all of the Unidentified Objects flying around, I still have some ideas for you! You’ve probably heard everyone talking about the new Netflix documentary mini-series Sons of Sam, and while you may think it’s been a little too hyped up or that you already know everything about David Berkowitz and the Son of Sam murders, believe me, everyone is talking with good reason.

The Sopranos fans will remember Michael Imperioli talking about his research into the case while writing the screenplay for the 1999 film Summer of Sam (another great watch) on a recent episode of the “Talking Sopranos” podcast (another great listen) and many of the deeper stories he got into were featured in the docuseries. 

Related: Son of Sam’s Reign of Terror: 40 Years Later

First off, the series is directed by Joshua Zeman, the same director who made the fantastic 2009 Cropsey documentary, so from the start you know it can’t be half bad. The series revolves around the research of Maury Terry, the journalist, and author of The Ultimate Evil: The Search for the Sons of Sam and delves way further into his research on the case and his theories than you may be familiar with because Terry shared his notes with Zeman in hopes of convincing him to do a documentary on the murders before his death in 2015. It covers the Satanic cults active in the area at the time and draws connections between some very suspicious characters related to the case.

the sons of sam
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  • Still from The Sons of Sam.

    Photo Credit: RadicalMedia

Another non-alien non-film murder-related option to check out is The Piketon Massacre podcast. Released in July of 2020, the series covers the largest mass murder in Ohio’s history, the slaying of eight members of the same family at four different crime scenes on April 21, 2016, in rural Pike County. The team from KT Studios who created The Piketown Family Murders documentary for Oxygen return to Pike County to investigate the case as a local family is arrested for the slayings. 

The first season is out in full so it’s easy to binge through as they delve into the Rhoden family members who were killed, those who survived, the Wagner family who were accused of the crime, and the connection between the two families. The second season is being released as we speak and covers the gripping court case as it unfolds, and the first episode already surprises with a jaw-dropping revelation.

Try to stay sane, stay safe, and happy reading/listening/watching/searching!