You don't have to be a Steven Spielberg fan to recognize the famous scene — a giant UFO hovering over Wyoming's Devils Tower, dotted with bright neon lights against a black sky. It's from the 1977 movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and it's a perfect example of Hollywood science-fiction fantasy.
Or maybe not?
OK — "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is fiction, but it's inspired by more than just a smart screenwriter. According to both the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) and the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC), the remote, northern American West is a hot spot for reports of alien encounters. Of course, not all are close encounters of the "third" kind.
Like the 1977 film, if you're lucky enough to see a creature of this other world, congratulations! That's a close encounter of the third kind. But what about close encounters of the first and second kind? What are those? (We'll get to that in a minute.) And who came up with them?
A UFO encounter classification system may seem like it was made up by RV-dragging, desert-dwelling conspiracy theorists, but it was created by J. Allen Hynek, a well-respected astronomer, defense researcher, and director of The Ohio State University's McMillin Observatory.
The U.S. Air Force approached Hynek with concerns about a growing number of reports of unexplained aircraft sightings throughout the country in the late 1940s. Hynek studied more than 200 reports and found that about 20 percent couldn't be identified. Hynek reported that he didn't see these "unidentified flying objects" as being of particular interest, but the public did, and the term caught on in the American zeitgeist.
Hynek continued to study well-publicized UFO sightings and consulted on the Air Force's Project Blue Book. But it wasn't until October 1973 when he investigated a Pascagoula, Mississippi, case in which two men reported being abducted by aliens that he decided there should be a classification for UFO sightings. Hynek believed the men were truthful and even gave the press sketches of the aliens who took the men hostage. He launched the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) soon after.
"A close encounter of the first kind is a visual sighting of a UFO. The second kind involves the UFO leaving some kind of a physical effect in its wake, and the third kind would involve the sighting of a UFO occupant," says Dr. Barna Donovan, a professor of communication and media studies at Saint Peter's University in Jersey City, New Jersey. Donovan also teaches a class on the history of conspiracies and is the author of "Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in the American Conscious."
Though Hynek died in 1996, other researchers have taken up the charge and since added additional encounter types: a close encounter of the fourth kind covers alleged alien abductions while a close encounter of the fifth type includes — according to most sources — communication exchange between humans and non-Earth creatures.
"This broad five-point typology is the most effective way of categorizing alleged UFO encounters, although by the time researchers get to the close encounters of the fourth and fifth kind, they are dealing with the most controversial aspects of the phenomenon," Donovan says.
Though Hynek's classification system is the one most used by science-based UFO researchers, it's not the only one. Some UFOlogists, as they're called, use sub-classifications within each kind. These subtypes further classify encounter by factors such as where the creature was seen (inside or outside the UFO) and whether lights were seen at night or during the day.
And if you want to get really into it, you can rate each encounter on the Rio Scale, which was developed at the 51st International Astronautical Congress, 29th Review Meeting on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in 2000. The Rio Scale uses factors like reliability and quality of reporting to give each encounter a rating. Zero means a totally insignificant encounter, and 10 indicates an "extraordinary" sighting worthy of serious study.
Why Classify UFO Encounters Anyway?
Of course, both of these systems raise a question: Why bother spending much time on classification systems when aliens aren't real? Donovan — who is himself a skeptic — says it's the roughly 10 percent of cases that can't be explained that are of interest to science.
"About 90 percent of sightings are misidentified aircraft, weather phenomena or sleep disorders [like sleep paralysis] of people reporting abduction experiences and experimentation upon by aliens," he says. But the other percentage is proof of one of two things: either a legitimate extraterrestrial presence or some type of phenomenon that science can't yet explain. To enthusiasts with a healthy imagination, either one is a massively exciting prospect.
However, perhaps an equally interesting aspect of alien encounter classifications is just how much the people who report alien abductions vary in age, location and background. While a small percentage actively seek encounters, Donovan says that most people are skeptics who often try to explain away what they've seen.
"It is not good to want to believe too much," he says. "People should be well versed in the ways of skeptical, critical observational methods." That said, Donovan points to cases like the Hill Abduction of 1961 as one of the very few textbook abductions that science can't fully explain more than 60 years later.
Donovan finds the unexplained sightings by the military — which are of the first and second kind only — the most fascinating and most likely to be actual proof of non-Earth-based life. These reports, some of which were confirmed by the Pentagon, are more recent and often recorded by the government via radar and military cameras. The visual evidence is often documented in several places by multiple witnesses removed from one another, which is far harder to explain away than phenomena like the "Marfa Lights" (likely headlines reflecting in the distance) or the 1947 "Roswell Incident."
Now That's Crazy
If you have hope of being in the "lucky" 10 percent of people who report unexplainable encounters, you may actually want to follow in cinema footsteps: the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC) has 380 reports of UFO sightings in Wyoming, with reports from the Devils Tower area citing visuals like "multiple orbs of green light frantically moving around in a seemingly random fashion." Though if you want to maximize your chances of a full-on encounter, head to California, which tops NUFORC's list with nearly 15,000 reports since 1975. Take note, Steven Spielberg.
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