I need only mention that I am writing a history of flying saucer sightings and claims of alien contact, and soon enough I am asked about alien abductions. Some version of “What’s that all about?” and “Do you believe them?” are probably the most common questions directed at me. It’s at this stage that I make the point that I am approaching the subject as a historian. This means I treat those claiming to have been abducted by aliens like any other historical actor: I treat their accounts with the same respect and reserve I would any other source. That said, I don’t see it as my job to either disparage or defend their claims. Rather, it is the responsibility of the historian to see how the accounts of individuals – in this case, those saying they had encounters with extraterrestrials – have changed over time, how others have responded, and how we might account for the changes. This may well leave some unsatisfied, but adopting such a perspective allows us to see often neglected patterns and gain new insights into the making of our contemporary world.
The phenomenon of contact with aliens has its own history. It was not always the case that those contending they had an encounter with extraterrestrials described the experiences as coercive and frightening. On the contrary, in the decade and a half after the first reports of flying saucer sightings in 1947, most prominent stories of close encounters of the third kind – as astronomer J. Allen Hynek later dubbed them – described the aliens as inviting, friendly, and kind.
This first generation of supposed witnesses were referred to at the time as the “contactees.” To this day, most observers consider their tales to be complete fabrications. This includes most UFO researchers, calledufologists, who have generally dismissed the storytellers as con men. Yet, it can’t be overlooked that during the 1950s the contactees garnered a great deal of publicity and built a devout following. They too, then, have a place in the history of the UFO phenomenon.
One such contactee was Orfeo Angelucci. Born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1912, he described himself as sickly throughout most of his early life, preoccupying himself by reading about and experimenting with electricity, magnetism, and balloons. One day in 1946, when he was experimenting with his balloons, he noticed an odd flying object in the sky. As he later recalled, “From that moment on for the next five years and nine months I remained under constant observation by beings from another world, although I was wholly unaware of it.”
In 1947 Angelucci moved to southern California for health reasons and took a job working for Lockheed. It was in May 1952, while living around Los Angeles, that Angelucci said “they” introduced themselves to him. One night driving home late, he claimed to encounter a hovering flying saucer on the roadside. A voice spoke to him, telling him not to be afraid, after which a male and a female figure with large eyes and “an impressive nobility about them” appeared and communicated with him telepathically.
According to Angelucci, over time the beings would reveal that they were from another planet, and that they had been observing Earth for centuries. It was out of concern for Earth’s inhabitants and their future that they were now appearing. They were here to warn us to spurn hatred and war, lest we go down a path that leads to “the bloody holocaust of Armageddon.” And Angelucci, it would seem, was to be their messenger. “Tonight you, an entity of Earth, have come close to the Infinite Entities,” he recalls them saying. “For the present you are our emissary, Orfeo, and you must act! Even though people of Earth laugh derisively and mock you as a lunatic, tell them about us!”
This he did. Along with the other contactees of the 1950s, Angelucci spoke to news reporters, wrote articles, gave public lectures, and eventually published his own memoir of the events. The Secret of the Saucers was published in 1955. And while few take seriously his claims, his story is considered by some to be one of the most moving and sincere among the contactees.
Angelucci’s tale of contact with aliens who were envoys of hope and peace in the 1950s stands in marked contrast to the stories of extraterrestrial kidnapping and abuse publicized in the early-1990s. In many ways, his narrative demonstrates the extent to which memories of the devastation of World War II were folded into anxieties about the Cold War. The specter of destruction, it would seem, was far more tangible and immediate for Americans in the ‘50s than it would be for those at the end of century.
Greg Eghigian is the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and professor of history at Penn State University. He is presently writing a history of the UFO and alien contact phenomenon.