Project Blue Book is a journey into a world of mystery and paranoia where UFO sightings are commonplace, encounters with monsters are routine and Nazi scientists are still around and up to no good. And yet each episode opens with the announcement that what we’re about to see is “based on true events”. As the show itself asks us on more than one occasion, who can we trust? Is it really real?
The simple answer is yes, it’s true: Project Blue Book – a series made by the US History Channel – is based on actual events. The Lubbock Lights episode is based on a real-life mass sighting of strange lights in the sky (one teenager even took photos of them). The Flatwood Monster – a “10-foot Frankenstein-like monster” – was seen by numerous residents of a small West Virginia town. Operation Paperclip, the Allied operation to spirit Nazi scientists out of Germany ahead of the Soviets to help with various top-secret projects (and help found NASA), really happened.
Likewise, many of the characters in the series are real. Aidan Gillen’s character, astronomer J. Allen Hynek, really was a prominent and respected figure in the scientific community when he was recruited to head up the US Air Force’s investigation of unidentified flying objects. His character arc is true to life, too: initially sceptical, he eventually became enough of a believer to call for further scientific investigation of the events he was hired to explain away.
And while he probably didn’t see an alien creature floating in a tank (as he does in one episode of Project Blue Book), he eventually set up his own institute to investigate UFO sightings.
More cynical minds might say that sure, a bunch of people thought they saw something – but that doesn’t mean they saw what they thought they saw. If hundreds of people saw strange lights in the sky, all that means is that there were strange lights in the sky, not that a fleet of alien spaceships were flying by. Hynek himself dismissed one famous mass UFO sighting as “swamp gas”.
Even back in the '50s there were plenty of down-to-earth explanations for what people were seeing. Mass hysteria brought on by the heightened tensions of the Cold War was one; the rapid advances in military technology after World War II was another. And there are always people with strange stories of weird things they’ve seen – having UFOs out there in the culture gave them a credibility they otherwise wouldn’t have had.
And yet a lot of trained experts – pilots, military officers, police officers – were seeing things that couldn’t be easily explained. So some of the cases in Project Blue Book aren’t quite so easy to dismiss.
Episode seven, “The Scoutmaster”, is based on the notorious 1952 Sonny DesVergers Scoutmaster UFO case where a Florida scoutmaster was driving home a trio of scouts when he pulled over to investigate a bright flash of light. After hacking his way through the vegetation alongside the highway, he claims to have encountered a metallic hovering object that used some kind of heat ray on him.
Episode 7: 'The Scoutmaster'
While DesVergers was both terrified and slightly singed when he returned to the car, it was the grass samples that were later taken at the site of the supposed attack that remain the biggest mystery. Burnt in ways difficult to replicate even in a lab, they suggest something definitely unusual happened out there, no matter what your stance on UFOs.
Other episodes are based on slightly shakier material, such as the Barney and Betty Hill abduction case. On the third day of a lengthy drive, the married couple saw a bright light in the sky following them. They saw alien passengers in a spaceship hovering overhead, heard strange sounds coming from the boot of their car and woke up two hours later 35 miles down the road. Alien encounter or ‘Drowsy Drivers Die’ commercial in the making?
But their case is important in the annals of UFO encounters because it became the first widely publicised case of what would become known as a “close encounter” (a term Hynek himself came up with). After their story became known, more and more people would come forward with abduction tales, often following roughly the same template.
Something was definitely going on. But was it that aliens had established a new protocol for abducting humans, or humans had found a new story to tell each other? That’s the real question at the heart of most UFO stories. It’s not whether the events are real, but at what point in the story does reality end?
Season 2 of Project Blue Book premieres on Wednesday 19 February at 9:30pm on SBS and at SBS On Demand. Catch up on season 1 now.
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