By Matthew Gulick
For those very few people out of the loop when it comes to extra terrestrials, this October saw the 70th anniversary of what the Maury Island Incident Historical Society deems “two of History’s most notable UFO sightings,” which took place here in Washington in 1947. As the original conspiracy theory stomping ground, alleged alien encounters served as the forge for modern day accusations of government treachery.
Celebrating the momentous date in due fashion, the Historical Society hosted “UFO Night” at the Washington State History Museum. For a $15 early-registration fee, unidentified flying object enthusiasts gathered in one place to drink craft beer from Three Magnets Brewing Company and learn about previous extraterrestrial happenings across the state. Attendees obtained their very own “Washington State History Museum UFO Night 2017” commemorative laser-etched pint glass, the kind of memorabilia that fits nicely in any college student’s eclectic drinking glass cabinet, or devoid of context on the shelves of the local thrift store. Visitors were only granted two drink tickets and the higher alcohol content “UFO IPA” sold out accordingly as people sought to lower their inhibitions, thereby increasing their credulity for the conspiracy theories to follow.
The crowd at UFO night was somewhat of a mixed bag, containing run of the mill history nerds (season ticket holders perhaps) and more colorful characters not often found in the halls of the museum. Beside one other group of obvious University students, our posse appeared the only people there under 30, a fact made clear by the woman in front of me in line for beer. As a compatriot and I waited patiently for one of our two pints, this individual in question turned to us for polite chitchat.
“Gonna write this one in the diary, huh?” she asked.
“Does mom know you snuck out of the house for this wild night?”
I remained unperturbed, knowing that this individual did not reflect the general UFO night crowd. On the whole, individuals seemed attentive, respectful and ready to receive knowledge. Many sported tinfoil hats made of aluminum provided courtesy of the Historical Society. I myself crafted a trendy metal headband while a companion donned an aluminum swan I had liberated from a nearby table. Approximately 33 percent of attendees wore foil in various forms, allowing everyone the opportunity for unique artistic expression. One gaggle of bearded, portly men all shaped their hats with scorpion tails. Another man actually walked about in a full-metal facemask with small slits for eye and mouth holes; while his wife seemed slightly embarrassed, she also remained in his company for the remainder of the evening.
This self-deprecating headgear raised some interesting questions, such as, “what purpose does the ironic tin foil serve?” “Does it lampoon nut job conspiracy theorists?” “Is it a shield against accusations that one is themselves a nut-job conspiracy theorist?” “Who is really the joke here, those wearing the aluminum or those laughing at them?” Perhaps I am reading too much into a simple, light-hearted gag, but I hold that this self-awareness is crucial for any good conspiracy theory aficionado. There is an element of understanding one’s stereotyped position that a conspiracy theorist needs to internalize in order to grant their theories a certain credence, a conscious knowledge of how crazy it all seems, that gains the trust of those unaware of the conspiracy.
A screening of “The Maury Island Incident” served as the keynote event of the evening. Extra chairs were required to seat all interested viewers. The movie, voted a staff favorite at the Grand Cinema Film Festival according to filmmaker Steve Edminston, tells of a South Puget Sound man’s encounter with six flying saucers in 1947, a few months before the Roswell sighting, just off the coast of Maury Island. Edminston delivered an unscheduled 45-minute lecture on the film prior to its showing. He mostly touched on facts presented in the film and how the film crew chose to portray them. One slide from the presentation sticks in mind, a picture showing the sliding scale of “hoax” to “mainstream consensus” titled the “spectrum of [dis]belief,” framing conspiracy and mainstream belief in terms of plausible deniability. In the end, “The Maury Island Incident” raised more questions than it answered.
Audience members proved largely receptive to its message of government cover-up, shady FBI involvement and the potential creation of a unit deemed “the men in black” (yes, those men in black). A solid third of the crowd remained in attendance for the following Q&A session with Edminston.
“Seeing people get excited about UFOs made me really excited about UFOs,” recent Puget Sound alumnus and local Tacoma resident Cole Jackson ‘17 said. “Although I’m not sure I believe the story, it was based on some compelling evidence.”
Program Specialist for the Washington State Historical society Dave Beals organized the high-turnout event.
“We should have expected that there would be this many UFO people just from the number of phone calls. There’s something about bigfoot and UFO’s and conspiracy theories,” Beals said.
I asked Beals what he believed occurred at the Maury Island Incident.
“It’s tempting since its off, kind of, the public radar, that Roswell, and all those other things like Steve was saying, that they pushed this to the side and highlighted Roswell. There seems to be some merit to it,” he said.
Julianna Verboort, who serves as the Marketing and Communications director for the Washington State Historical Society, highlighted other events the group will put on.
“UFO Night is one of our ‘After Hours’ series of events,” she said. “In addition to our ‘After Hours’ series, we are hosting a ‘Scholarly Selections’ series of lectures in collaboration with University of Washington, Tacoma. The lectures are free, held on third Thursday evenings when the museum offers free admission from 3 p.m. through 8 p.m. The next ‘Scholarly Selections’ lecture will be Nov, 16, 6:30 p.m. Also on Nov. 16, at 5:30 p.m., students can hear from Washington photojournalist George P. Hickey who will be here to talk about his work in the exhibition ‘Loyal Opposition.’”
More information on Washington State history events can be found on their website at http://www.washingtonhistory.org/visit/wshm/eventsprograms/.