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The Roswellian Syndrome
Skeptical Inquirer

The Roswellian Syndrome

Posted Sunday, April 26, 2015   |   2397 views   |   General Interest An analysis of four classic flying-saucer incidents reveals how debunking can send a mundane case underground, where it is transformed by mythologizing processes, then reemerges—like a virulent strain of a virus—as a vast conspiracy tale.

Defined by the Roswell Incident (1947), this syndrome is repeated at Flatwoods (1952), Kecksburg (1965), and Rendlesham Forest (1980).

Near the very beginning of the modern UFO craze, in the summer of 1947, a crashed “flying disc” was reported to have been recovered near Roswell, New Mexico. However, it was soon identified as simply a weather balloon, whereupon the sensational story seemed to fade away. Actually, it went underground; after subsequent decades, it resurfaced as an incredible tale of extraterrestrial invasion and the government’s attempt to cover up the awful truth. The media capitalized on “the Roswell incident,” and conspiracy theorists, persons with confabulated memories, outright hoaxers, and others climbed aboard the bandwagon.

We identify this process—a UFO incident’s occurring, being debunked, going underground, beginning the mythmaking processes, and reemerging as a conspiracy tale with ongoing mythologizing and media hype—as the Roswellian Syndrome. In the sections that follow, we describe the process as it occurred at Roswell and then demonstrate how the same syndrome developed from certain other famous UFO incidents: at Flatwoods, West Virginia (1952); Kecksburg, Pennsylvania (1965); and Rendlesham Forest (outside the Woodbridge NATO base) in England (1980). Between us, we have actually been on-site to investigate three of the four cases ( Joe Nickell at Roswell and Flatwoods, and James McGaha—a former military pilot—at Rendlesham)

Roswell (1947)
Here is how the prototype of the Roswellian Syndrome began and developed:

On July 8, 1947, an eager but relatively inexperienced public information officer at Roswell Army Airfield issued a press release claiming a “flying disc” had been recovered from its crash site on an area ranch (Berlitz and Moore 1980; Korff 1997). The next day’s Roswell Daily Record told how rancher “Mac” Brazel described (in a reporter’s words) “a large area of bright wreckage” consisting of tinfoil, rubber strips, sticks, and other lightweight materials.

Soon after these initial reports, the mysterious object was identified as a weather balloon. Although there appears to have been no attempt to deceive, the best evidence now indicates that the device was really a balloon array (the sticks and foiled paper being components of dangling box-kite–like radar reflectors) that had gone missing in flight from Project Mogul.

Mogul represented an attempt to use the airborne devices’ instruments to monitor sonic emissions from Soviet nuclear tests. Joe Nickell has spoken about this with former Mogul Project scientist Charles B. Moore, who identified the wreckage  from  photographs  as  consistent  with  a  lost  Flight  4 Mogul array. (See also Thomas 1995; Saler et al. 1997; U.S. Air Force 1997.)
With the report that the “flying disc” was only a balloon-borne device, the Roswell news story ended almost as abruptly as it had begun. However, the event would linger on in the fading and recreative memories of some of those involved, while in Roswell rumor and speculation continued to simmer just below the surface with UFO reports a part of the culture at large. In time, conspiracy-minded UFOlogists would arrive, asking leading questions and helping to spin a tale of crashed flying saucers and a government cover-up.

This is the most complex part of the syndrome, beginning when the story goes underground and continuing after it reemerges, developing into an elaborate myth. It involves many factors, including exaggeration, faulty memory, folklore, and deliberate hoaxing.

For example, exaggeration played a large role in the Roswell case. Major Jesse Marcel, who had helped retrieve the wreckage, often made self-contradictory and inflated assertions, giving, for example, grossly exaggerated statements about the amount of debris, its supposed imperviousness to damage, and other matters. It is now known that Marcel made claims about his own background—that he had a college degree, was a World War II pilot who had received five air medals for shooting down enemy planes, and had himself been shot down—that were proved untrue by his own service file (Fitz gerald 2001, 511). Kal Korff (1997, 27), who uncovered many of Marcel’s deceptions, found him “exaggerating things and repeatedly trying to ‘write him-self ’ into the history books.” As he described the debris, Marcel said the sticks resembled balsa but were “not wood at all” and had “some sort of hieroglyphics on them that nobody could decipher” (apparently referring to the floral designs). As well, there were “small pieces of a metal like tinfoil, except that it wasn’t tinfoil” (Berlitz and Moore 1980, 65).

Faulty memory was another problem. For example, Curry Holden, an anthropologist from Texas Tech, claimed a student archaeological expedition he led had actually come upon the crashed flying saucer and the bodies of its extraterrestrial crew. Holden’s wife and daughter, however, insisted that he had never told them of such an event; neither was there any corroboration in his personal papers. Holden was ninety-six when he provided his account to UFOlogist Kevin Randle, at which time his wife told Randle her husband’s memory “wasn’t as sharp as it once had been. He sometimes restructured his life’s events, moving them in time so that they were subtly changed” (Fitz gerald 2001, 514). Roswell mortician W. Glenn Dennis, who provided information on alien “bodies” at the Roswell AAF Hospital, also seriously misremembered and confabulated 1 events. According to James McAndrew’s The Roswell Report: Case Closed (U.S. Air Force 1997, 78–79), Dennis’s account “was compared with official records of the actual events he is believed to have described” and showed “extensive inaccuracies” that included “a likely error in the date by as much as twelve years.”

The processes that create folklore also played a role in shaping the Ros well legend. As reported in Leonard Stringfield’s book Situation Red: The UFO Siege (1977), a great number of tales proliferated about an alleged crash of an extraterrestrial craft and the retrieval of its humanoid occupants. The many versions of the story—what folklorists call variants—are proof of the legend-making, oral-tradition process at work. The aliens were typically described as little, big-eyed, big-headed humanoids, a type that began to be popularly reported after they were described by “abductees” Betty and Barney Hill in 1961 (Nickell 2011, 184–86). The pickled corpses were secretly stored—mostly anonymous sources claimed—at a (nonexistent) hangar-18 at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, or some ot
Roswell folklore was obviously fed in part by deliberate fakelore. Related hoaxing began in 1949 when—as a part of the forthcoming sci-fi movie The Flying Saucer (1950)—an actor posing as an FBI agent avowed its claim of a captured spacecraft was true. In 1950, writer Frank Scully reported in his Behind the Flying Saucers that the U.S. government possessed three Venusian spaceships complete with humanoid corpses. Scully got his information from a pair of confidence men who were hoping to sell a petroleum-locating gadget allegedly derived from alien technology. By 1974, a man named Robert Spencer Carr was giving talks in which he claimed firsthand knowledge of where the preserved aliens were hidden; however, the late claimant’s son reported that his father made up the entire yarn. Other Roswell hoaxes in cluded the ineptly forged “MJ-12 documents” (that continue to fool UFOlogist Stanton T. Friedman); a diary that told how a family came upon the smoldering crashed saucer and injured aliens (but was written with an ink not manufactured until 1974); and the notorious “Alien Autopsy” film, showing the dissection of a rubbery extraterrestrial who appeared to be from the distant Planet Latex (Nickell 2001, 118–21).

Reemergence and Media Bandwagon Effect. In 1980 the story resurfaced in the media with publication of the book The Roswell Incident. Its authors were Charles Berlitz (who had previously written the mystery-mongering best seller The Bermuda Triangle, containing “invented details,” exaggerations, and distortions [Randi 1995, 35]) and William L. Moore (who was a suspect in the previously mentioned “MJ-12” hoax [Nickell with Fischer, 1992, 81–105], as well as author of The Philadelphia Experiment, an expanded version of another’s tale that itself proved to be a hoax [Clark 1998, 509]). The Roswell Incident’s book jacket gushed: “Re- ports indicate, before government censorship, that occupants and material from the wrecked ship were shuttled to a CIA high security area—and that there may have been a survivor!” It adds that “. . . Berlitz and Moore uncover astonishing information that indicates alien visitations may actually have happened—only to be hushed up in the interest of ‘national security.’”

The book is replete with distortions. Consider rancher Mac Brazel’s original description of the scattered debris he found on his ranch—strips of rubber, sticks, tinfoil, tough paper, and tape with floral designs (Nickell 2009, 10)—the same as shown in photos (U.S. Air Force 1997, 7) and consistent with a Mogul balloon array with radar reflectors.

However, Berlitz and Moore impose a conspiratorial interpretation, saying that in a subsequent interview Brazel “had obviously gone to great pains to tell the newspaper people exactly what the Air Force had in structed him to say regarding how he had come to discover the wreckage and what it looked like.” In fact, Brazel quite outspokenly insisted, “I am sure what I found was not any weather observation balloon,” and he was right: the debris was from a Project Mogul array, much of it foiled paper from the radar targets (Berlitz and Moore 1980, 40).

Berlitz’s and Moore’s The Roswell Incident launched the modern wave of UFO crash/retrieval conspiracy beliefs, promoted by additional books (e.g., Friedman and Berliner 1992), television shows, and myriad other venues. Roswell conspiracy theories were off and running, typically linked to strongly anti–U.S. government attitudes. The Roswellian Syndrome would play out again and again.

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Skeptical Inquirer is the official journal of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. On a bimonthly basis, Skeptical Inquirer publishes critical scientific evaluations of paranormal and fringe-science claims and informed discussion of all relevant issues.

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