By Shane Cashman
It’s almost midnight and I’m sitting alone in a diner outside of Washington D.C. studying a map with over a century’s worth of reported UFO encounters in the country. Saucers over Possum Kingdom, Texas. Large triangles in Boise. Y-shaped objects in the trees. Orbs, fireballs, spheres, phantoms, and teardrops falling from the sky all over the states.
The diner is wedged between a massive field and a cemetery. It’s just the cook and me in the bright-lit place with the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the radio singing: psychic spies from China try to steal your mind’s elation…
“I have a weird question for you?” I ask the cook. “Any strange alien-type stories in this area?” I don’t tell him I just drove down from New York to take a job writing and researching about the paranormal.
He takes a second to answer.
“Nothing I can think of,” he says, as if he’s shocked he doesn’t have a better answer.
“I guess that’s good,” I say, hoping I don’t sound too disappointed.
“It’s weird though because, like, there’s all types of weird stuff around here,” he says. “Camp David’s not far and D.C.’s so close…”
When I tell people I write about the paranormal, the first thing they typically want to know is whether or not I’ve encountered anything strange. As if I’m some type of freak-priest with access to supernatural proof beyond the realm of reason. And I wish that were the case.
Nearly every night, when my wife and I put our 5-year-old son to bed, he asks us if ghosts or aliens or monsters are real––and sometimes I hesitate to answer. Of course, I should just say, ‘no.’
No kid wants to hear, “well, maybe…” just before bedtime. Thankfully, my wife steps in and says ‘no’ so our kid can go to sleep with at least some comfort knowing there’s nothing hiding in the shadows or hovering outside his bedroom window.
As much as I might hesitate to tell my son, no… I also hesitate to say yes to everyone else when they ask me about ghosts or aliens. That doesn’t mean I haven’t seen green orbs fly through cars, or what I believe to be ghosts walking in and out of houses, or appliances with minds of their own, or UFOs, or abandoned graveyards that seem like gateways to Hell, and more.
I am optimistically agnostic about the supernatural. Since childhood, I have felt that there is a fracture in the fabric of our reality––that, clearly, it’s impossible to have all the answers or explain away everything that might make us uncomfortable or challenge the accepted narratives. On the flip side, if aliens were to step out of the sky tomorrow, my gut reaction would probably be to find out where James Cameron or Steven Spielberg are to make sure they’re not using some new CIA/Hollywood technology that I don’t know exists yet. My sense of the world, and all the strange things in and around it, is in a constant tug-of-war between pragmatism and wanting desperately to believe in things that defy the laws of physics.
I can’t help it. I grew up in a forgotten little river town where, supposedly, we have trolls and witches, aliens, ghosts, wolf boys, skeletons missing from the local graveyard, and monsters in the river. I suppose I’ve always co-existed with these stories in the same way that Jordan Peterson once responded to a question about whether or not he believes in God. “I act as if God exists,” Peterson said. And, so, I’ve likewise always acted as if the supernatural exists. I have this instinct, or maybe it’s a curse, to always try to peek behind the curtain.
I used to laugh at the number of UFO sightings near my hometown until I saw one myself hovering in the sky just above my car. I was driving alone at night when I saw three blue lights blinking in the dark of the fog above the mountain. I thought it was a police helicopter. I slowed down. The lights pulsed. I made the final turn and on my left, above the silhouette of the mountain, there was this tall isosceles triangle with three blue lights––suspended in the dark sky. I braked in the middle of the road, stared at the UFO for a minute, and then sped off.
I went back the next night to see if the UFO was still there. This time I brought a friend. Someone to validate me. The fog still cloaked the valley. And when we returned, we saw the same blue lights blinking over the same mountain. I hesitated to get closer. What were the odds that it’d still be there? Would it destroy us? Abduct us? We were both genuinely in awe of the sight. After a few minutes, the fog receded enough to get a good look at the alien technology. As soon as the fog cleared, we realized it was a cellphone tower.
It’s an embarrassing story. In many ways, I wish I never went back to find out the truth because for 24 hours, I 100% believed. Even though I proved myself wrong––I will never forget the feeling of being an absolute believer for just one day. I admit this so you know that I will always take everyone’s stories of UFOs or ghosts or anything strange––deadly serious. Even if I know I might be able to uncover an explanation, I try to always start from a place of empathy and true curiosity.
Look at how we talk about UFOs today. It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of UFOs was low hanging fruit for the non-believers. You were a conspiracy theorist for hinting at massive government cover-ups and shadow agencies investigating encounters with otherworldly crafts. But, in the last few years, we’ve seen actual headlines (and videos) about what we now call Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, or UAPs, that may or may not be of this planet. Whether or not we know these crafts to be alien yet, doesn’t matter––but the story has entered the mainstream and the majority of people seem bored by the revelation. I like to think that in a post-plague world we have learned what science tells us as definitive truth yesterday might become nothing more than myth and superstition tomorrow. The UFOs might be extraterrestrial, or they might be government-funded technology built in secret like a modern day Manhattan Project. Either way, it seems like the public at large is not as shocked by the news as I think we should be. Our indifference, to be honest, is more shocking than the news of the UAPs themselves.
I think Eric Weinstein summed it up well on one of the latest episodes of the The Realignment Podcast.
“My guess is that our phones have changed us so that nothing excites us…” Weinstein told hosts Marshall Kosloff and Saagar Enjeti. “We have UFOs, the craziest story in the world, so far as I can tell… Imagine that you found this really mysterious canyon in southern Utah, and you clap, and you expect to hear an echo, and then you hear a bird. And you clap again, and there’s nothing. And you clap again, and it says, ‘there’s no one here, go away, this is not a CIA facility.’ And you’re thinking, ‘this is not behaving like a normal canyon…’”
He’s got a point, although I worry about these blanket statements that trace our modern desensitization to just one thing because it reminds me of the talking heads on TV back in the late 90s telling me that the heavy metal and gangster rap I was listening to would turn me into a satanic gangbanger. That didn’t exactly pan out. However, the idea of becoming desensitized by our technology seems to me, at least, to have some validity in the wake of our government revealing things like UAP footage or how they formed programs like the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. And there’s a deafening sigh from the general public.
The complexities of our universe have been condensed and flattened into a piece of glass we keep in our pockets. Weinstein might be on to something because I also sense widespread Meaninglessness taking place today. We’ve been pacified, subdued, and drugged by the Internet, TV, social media, politicians, narratives, and fear. I’m not anti-technology. I love that I can use YouTube to time travel to concerts that happened before I was born, or use my phone as a telescope into deep space, but I also think the phones and TVs have robbed us of much of the beauty in the mysteries of physical human existence.
I recently asked my friends and family on social media if they ever had any encounters with the supernatural. I was flooded with stories. Jessica saw orbs floating with the bodies in the funeral home cooler. Cheryl saw a ghost in an ambulance. Will had some thing sit on his bed in Puerto Rico. Amanda grew up with a ghost that terrorized her brother’s girlfriends. Susan had a ghost in her closet that communicated by knocking. Liz has seen cryptids and spirits. Mark met a woman who met a troll. Finn knew a ghost named Josh. Sarah said she doesn’t believe in ghosts, but one time she and her roommate both saw a man walk through their apartment––even though all the doors and windows were locked––they looked everywhere and never found him. My friend Matt’s grandfather used to drive cross-country to the desert and wait for UFOs. That’s just a fraction of the stories I received. Maybe there’s still a stigma attached to the paranormal and that’s why more people aren’t talking about it as much as I thought they would. But the response from friends reminded me that I’m certainly not alone in walking the line between skepticism and belief. I like to think we can still be excited.
When COVID hit, reports of paranormal activity were on the rise. COVID, in general, punched a hole in the way many people perceive reality. Fear and confusion warped our sense of the world. But, at the same time, it’s just as conceivable to me that people were home more than they’d ever been, and bored, which allowed people to witness strange things about their surroundings that they hadn’t previously noticed.
Sometimes it does seem like an unremarkable world if we only view it through the lens of our phones and televisions. We can get lost in the distortion of constant news. I want to remember how strange life can be. That the mysteries do make us remarkable.
The cook at the diner finally rings me up. A photo of Lucille Ball smiles at me from near the register. I’m reminded of how Ball once told Dick Cavett that she received transmissions of Morse Code through her dental fillings while driving through Coldwater Canyon in California. She’d said that the FBI traced the signal to an underground Japanese station––this was during World War 2. I guess that’s all I’m doing, looking for a signal and trying to track it down for some answers.
“Aren’t they supposed to be releasing all that UFO stuff soon?” the cook asks, referring to the upcoming Congressional report on UFOs.
“Supposedly… I thought that’d be bigger news. Right?”
“People would rather fight about their political views, man,” he says.
“Can’t we just talk about aliens?” I ask. The cook laughs.
“They’re the ones that are gonna round us all up and conquer the planet…” he says, and points up at the night sky through the window.