All around Brumfield, people were offering books and posters and nifty little handbags for purchase; best as I could tell Brumfield, a Nashville songwriter who told me the Johnny Cash UFO story, had nothing to sell. He said he’d sold out of his book, which is titled Reality: Escape from Planet Earth. The rest of his table was adorned with hand-typed signs and fliers (“Philanthropist/Investment Opportunity 50% of Mike’s Books $50,000 Proceeds go to stop Meteors”), including smoking-gun evidence about Easter Island and the “Owl Man of Peru,” as well as several warnings of the danger of a meteor destroying the earth. Brumfield thinks Ancient Aliens is largely bunk; he believes that aliens would not inhabit earth, because planets are finite and space is infinite (or something like that). He also told me he’s devised a new theory of evolution, because “Darwin’s theory is vague,” and to be honest that’s where he started to lose me a little bit, but at the very least it’s clear he’s got this logic straight in his own head.
I’m not going to lie: I am somewhat skeptical about the theoretical basis for Brumfield’s hypothesis, just as I was skeptical listening to Childress explain his notions about ancient mummies and time travel while signing autographs and wearing a T-shirt that read, “Science.” But nevertheless, there’s something powerful about being in a place where people believe in their own theories so strongly that they’re willing to tolerate your skepticism. I don’t think most of these people were simply paranoid conspiracy theorists like, say, the toxic radio host Alex Jones. They were more narrowly focused, less hostile, less inherently political. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something kind of weird about hearing sentences like I’ve been resesarching freemasons for a long time delivered with a complete lack of irony. But there was an underlying faith driving the believers at Alien Con that felt like a religion of its own: There are a million different permutations of this story, but they were united by the conviction that something was out there.
“I was driving with some friends in Wisconsin in 1976, and we saw a man in a cornfield,” a woman named Cindy Papp told me. Papp was here selling products like aura-cleansing soap and Earth Energy Squishies comprised of crystals that she insists helped her recover from several serious diseases. When I asked her about aliens, she started telling me about the people—respectable professionals who work as lawyers and accounts—who come into her holistic health office and speak of being abducted. Something must be going on, Papp said, and she referred me to the work of a Harvard professor named John Mack, who studied alien abductions. And then she told me that story about the cornfield in Wisconsin, and how they saw the man in the cornfield, and her friend began to drive into the field, and the next thing they knew they woke up eight hours later, with no idea what the hell happened.
“After that,” she said, “we never spoke of it again. But then a few years ago I saw a TV show with a woman running through a cornfield. And it all came back to me.”
They lost me at times, like when they delved into alleged UFO cover-ups in Texas in 1897 and one involving Franklin Delano Roosevelt and 37-degree masons, but on the fundamental notion behind Alien Con—on the notion of life existing outside of earth—science and speculation are beginning to converge.
People see things and experience things like this all the time, Linda Fleschtner told me, and they want to share it with someone who isn’t going to dismiss them out of hand. Fleschtner was ringing up purchases at a table sponsored by MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network, a research and investigation organization that’s been around since 1969. MUFON has no ties to the government, but does employ hundreds of “field investigators” who look into reported UFO sightings; they maintain a database of sightings and attempt to verify whether the sightings are due to explicable or inexplicable phenomenon. Roughly 20 percent, Fleschtner told me, can’t be attributed to natural earthly things. Of those, Fleschtner estimates maybe half—or 10 percent of all sightings—are “alien” of some kind.
Fleschtner referred me to Ben Mezrich’s book The 37th Parallel, about a computer programmer who investigates the unexplained. She told me her brother is MUFON’s “cattle mutilation expert,” and that her sister is involved with MUFON, as well, and when I asked her why her entire family gravitated toward the unexplained, she says that they “saw stuff” in Arizona when they were kids and never really spoke about it until they were grown up. When I asked her what kind of stuff she saw, she demurs.
“I can’t tell you,” she said, “because it involves part of my family.”
MUFON’s site, when I click on it, links to a recent Esquire story headlined, “Cracking the Crackpot Vote,” which is about Clinton and Trump’s attempts to win over true UFO believers. Among the people quoted is MUFON’s communications director, who expresses skepticism that either Clinton or Trump would actually allow the truth to be revealed. “The carrot has been dangled too many times in the past,” he told Esquire.
And yet not everyone is so skeptical, particularly not the participants in that panel discussion anchored by Linda Moulton Howe. They saw this as a potential tipping point, as the moment when their theories graduate from tin-foil hat pseudoscientific absurdity into the realm of rationality. Again, they lost me at times, like when they delved into alleged UFO cover-ups in Texas in 1897 and one involving Franklin Delano Roosevelt and 37-degree masons, but on the fundamental notion behind Alien Con—on the notion of life existing outside of earth—science and speculation are beginning to converge.