Men in Black and anomalous experiences: Sometimes we just don’t know what the heck happened

Slate has an interesting article on reports of real Men In Black. A comic book series was inspired by real life reports of visits related by people who have seen UFOs. The comics inspired the movie series with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. The third MIB movie is released this weekend.

Men in Black sightings: Do they still happen?.

That comic book series was in turn inspired by actual reports of clandestine, black-clad figures, reports that date back several decades and are an integral part of UFO folklore.

The producers of Men in Black III are even attempting to cash in on that folklore through a viral marketing campaign that mimics “men in black” accounts of old. Cheap-looking billboards (which don’t mention the movie at all) declare that “The Men in Black Suits are Real” and direct the curious to call a hotline, which then encourages them to leave a message detailing their own supernatural experiences. (There is also, of course, a blog that further exploits MIB culture in the hopes of a box office bonanza.)

This got us thinking: Given the enormous commercial success of the Men in Black films—as well as the popularity of TV’s The X-Files, which also drew on “men in black” mythology—do UFO seekers still report such sightings? Or has the mainstreaming of this phenomenon rooted it out of the UFO subculture that produced it?

Tip: @UFODailyNews on Twitter

It’s a decent summary of the history of MIBs.

The author interviewed UFO and anomalies researcher Jerome Clark noting that accounts of MIBs have tapered since the original film was released (and the X-Files TV show is no longer on the air). She notes that Clark did not believe the films were responsible. (Not sure if this means for the decline or the surge in reports from 15 years ago).

Few ufologists, besides Nick Redfern who has a new book out about the subject, are paying much attention to the topic.

There have been some recent “events” in the media like this video of Real MIB caught on tape.

I contacted Jerry Clark and asked him to clarify one quote from the article that I didn’t understand…

Whether or not the sightings have continued or will continue, Clark cautions against dismissing such stories as the ramblings of crazy people—or to think of them as literal events, like bumping into someone at the grocery store. Rather, Clark said, the direct observation and the event must be separated. Accounts of the men in black represent experiences that, in his words, “don’t seem to have occurred in the world of consensus reality.”

What did he mean by “don’t seem to have occurred in the world of consensus reality”?

He tells me that concept got misinterpreted. Clark says: “many high-strangeness phenomena are vivid experiences while not being actual events in any ordinarily understood sense,” which he has written about in his several books.

Jerry and I don’t agree on everything but he has a point here about “experiences” versus “events”. As suggested in the quote above, in order to find the best explanation for an event, we need to remove people’s interpretation from the facts of the event. The experience can take on a wholly personal meaning dependent on the witnesses’ worldviews and frame of reference. See the difference?

When we attempt to make literal interpretations of people’s experiences, we can really fail. He writes to me:

In my view the centuries-old debate over anomalies and the paranormal stalled long ago because both sides have insisted on either-or interpretations, causing both to engage in extreme, untenable — not to mention absurdly literalist — rhetoric. It would have helped if the debaters had acknowledged that sometimes “experience” and “event” are not synonymous.

In many cases of what he labels “experience anomalies”, we just don’t know what happened. We only know that people had some experience for which no literal explanation fits comfortably.

I’m OK with saying “I don’t know”. I’m sure we will ALWAYS have such “experience anomalies” to contemplate.

  9 comments for “Men in Black and anomalous experiences: Sometimes we just don’t know what the heck happened

  1. F89
    May 25, 2012 at 11:22 AM

    Somthing to think about: Most government agencies have gone away from the whole Suit and tie appearance to Polo shirts and Khaki pants-so the MIB reporting may change.

  2. Chew
    May 25, 2012 at 12:48 PM

    “Clark cautions against dismissing such stories as the ramblings of crazy people”

    So why would he dismiss the most likely explanation?

  3. May 25, 2012 at 2:07 PM

    The Men in Black are a perfect example of the limitations of the anthropological approach to paranormal topics. You can’t tell the story of the Men in Black without talking about Gray Barker. As noted in the slate article, it wasn’t Bender that wrote about MiBs, it was Barker supposedly telling Bender’s tale, hyping up why Bender was shutting down his flying saucer pursuits. These MiBs turn out to actually be monstrous looking beings (disguising themselves for humans), too horrible to describe, who have a base in Antarctica.

    Barker was a big science fiction and weird fiction fan, not surprising when many of these specific themes and elements appear in what is probably the first most influential appearance of black suited men harassing witnesses to alien activities, H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness.” In this story, a man is documenting secretive aliens (who have monstrous forms but at a distance are largely seen as weird pulsating lights in the sky) who are pursuing him. They harass him in large part through dark suited or other mysterious human agents that intercept the mail and cut telephone lines. Eventually he makes contact with the aliens, and he decides to stop telling the world [through his correspondence with a folklore professor] about it. The tale also pioneers the notion of reading ancient folklore as being misremembered contact with extraterrestrials in the past, of alien abduction resulting in horrific body experimentation, and even ties between cryptozoology and aliens. There is no alien base in Antarctica in this story, that comes from another Lovecraft story (though one tied to this tale). All back in 1930.

    Second, the Slate article mentions John Keel, but doesn’t note that Barker was almost certainly involved in hoaxing Keel with phone pranks and the like that helped drive Keel into a state of even more paranoia than usual during his Mothman investigation, specifically around the MiB notion.

    Simply put, Gray Barker created the Men in Black in large part out of the raw material of the accounts, beliefs, and experiences (some created by Barker), of more sincere UFO believers who range from credulous but wrong to being quite off the deep end in terms of bizarre demonological beliefs (I think Keel’s Mothman Prophecies is great as entertainment, but it was either written by a man who was off his rocker, or written to affect that style, and having seen some of Keel’s letters in the Mothman museum in Point Pleasant, I’m going with the former).

    There is no reason one can’t tell this story from an anthropological/historical perspective. But it can’t be done without calling out Barker as an influential hoaxster, or people like Keel as being at a bare minimum, “eccentric.” You might frame this in terms of agency, or if it makes one feel better, invoke “tricksterism.” But there is a tendency when discussing paranormal or other occulture topics (conspiracy theory) to shy away from throwing around terms like hoax, liar, mental illness. Because that is what the immediate mainstream reaction is to any such claims, to call everyone who makes such claims a liar or crazy. Clearly, most people who have such experiences are neither liars nor crazy. Instead, we get the event vs. experience dichotomy above (though even this would rub a lot of people the wrong way depending on how much one thinks about it).

    But I increasingly think that while absolutely these topics are not just interesting but even important topics of cultural study, we can’t ignore that people with mental illness and non-sincere hoaxsters and con-men are part of the equation. Even more, they often seem to be a disproportionate part of the equation. In his book Bigfoot Exposed, Dave Daegling concludes that while Bigfoot is a cultural belief, one that is intriguingly a hybrid of stories transferring from one cultural context to another, a tradition of hoaxing is a major aspect of why the myth has continued. The stories get buoyed by sporadic hoaxing. I think this is quite true of topics like ufology, if we expand hoaxing and tall tale telling to also include delusion. Many would argue that UFOs got their start in just such a combination, with pulp fiction publisher Ray Palmer taking the raw material of the voices Richard Shaver heard emanating in his head from his arc-welding equipment, and turning it into the raw material from which flying saucers sprang (in Palmer’s publications). We might even see that people that honestly believe they have weird experiences usually frame their experiences in existing belief systems, and that it is the creative impulses of hoaxsters, tall tale tellers, and delusional visionaries that move those belief systems along.

  4. May 25, 2012 at 2:15 PM

    Here’s “Whisperer in Darkness,” btw.

  5. LREKing
    May 25, 2012 at 4:42 PM

    How many of them look like Alex Trebek?

  6. Fastmover01
    May 25, 2012 at 10:15 PM

    Now as someone who knows about “Investigators in black” rather than give you a diatribe. There ARE situational and environmental investigators that do follow up on UFO accounts. They are employed by the NRO and the FAA sometimes by contractors, to ascertain what the public reaction to public-vested craft. Public-vested meaning craft that will be employed over higher population centers that would stand a chance of being reported. They don’t always wear suits, and I can’t say they don’t threaten people (though not sure why they would) but they do enquire about sightings, to gauge what the general feelings are.

  7. F89
    May 27, 2012 at 10:10 PM

    The “threat” part may just be in a way to give a story more “Umph”-whould anyone pay attention if at the end of an MIB story you read “after they asked my opnion, they said thank you, and left” ?
    Side note (and Fastmover, I think you know this) if a Govt agency dosent’ant you to talk about somthing, you would sign a Non Disclosure Agremment, and get a copy of it detaling all the various consequences of disclosing the information. So there is physical proof-not the over used cliche “you didn’t see this, we weren’t here”

  8. LREKing
    May 29, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    Would you be so kind as to provide reliable documentation for your assertions?

  9. F89
    May 29, 2012 at 12:32 PM

    For Clarity: me or Fastmover 01?

Comments are closed.