Who are they, what do they want and why do they show up every time someone sees a UFO? Larry Sloman, author of On the Road with Bob Dylan and Reefer Madness, investigated what might be a cosmic Watergate for the February, 1980 issue of High Times.
“A procession of the damned. By the damned, I mean the excluded. We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded. Battalions of the accursed, captained by pallid data that I have exhumed, will march…. The little harlots will caper, and freaks will distract attention, and the clowns will break the rhythm of the whole with their buffooneries—but the solidity of the procession as a whole: the impressiveness of things that pass and pass and pass, and keep on and keep on and keep on coming.” —Charles Fort, The Book of the Damned
First of all, you gotta see a UFO. Or something equally weird. Jennings Frederick, a good ol’ boy from West Virginia, sure enough did. It was a beautiful summer day in July of 1968, and Jennings was on his way home from hunting woodchuck when he heard a weird high-pitched jabbering. The voice seemed to be saying something like, “You need not fear me. I come as a friend. I come in peace. I wish medical assistance. I need your help!” Next thing he knew, he saw a walking vegetable.
Now, many of you may have seen vegetables walk in your time, but Jennings was the kind of guy who, when he’d hear the word acid, would reach for a Tums. For him, “grass” was a chore. So you can imagine how he wigged when this tall, skinny vegetable, with semihuman features, long ears, yellow, slanted eyes, pin-thin arms and seven-inch fingers that tapered into needlelike tips and suction cups grabbed his arm and began to take a blood sample. Needless to say, he didn’t tell his family a thing.
And except for a previous episode, when Jennings’s mother saw a small, naked creature in her backyard, stuffing dirt and grass into a small bag, all the while attached by cable to a five-foot cream and silver craft, the Fredericks were your typical American family. So it was natural that Jennings might get his ass into the air force to see the world. And he did, and then he came back and lived with his folks again and nearly forgot about that vegetable man.
Until early one morning, about two o’clock, when he was awakened by a flash of red light. He pulled his .38 out from under the pillow and started down the steps. In the living room, he noticed a small canister bouncing around on the floor. Suddenly, a hand grabbed him and he felt a needle prick in his left arm.
There were three of them and they were all dressed in black. Black turtleneck sweaters, black slacks, black ski masks over their faces. One shouted, “The dogs have been darted and everybody gassed!” “What about this one?” another said. “He’s going out soon,” came the reply. The men pulled something over Jennings’s face and began to ask the young man what he thought UFOs actually were. They also asked what time it was and what he thought about the future. Jennings finally passed out. When he woke up the next morning, they were gone.
These things are not peculiar to hayseeds from West Virginia. Men in black have, since time immemorial, been associated with evil. The Devil himself, on his visits to the earthly plane, would dress in black, sometimes riding a black horse. The early alchemists reported strange nocturnal visits from men in black. Dracula and his bloodthirsty colleagues wouldn’t be caught dead in red. Times change, but some things stay the same.
In the last few years, a growing lore has accumulated around a new type of unwelcome visitor. Since Kenneth Arnold spotted some strange disks flapping around over Mt. Rainier in 1947, ushering in the modern era of UFOs, many UFO witnesses and contactees have received unsolicited visits from official-looking men dressed in, you got it, black. They usually come in a trio. Their black suits might be from Brooks Brothers. They arrive in long, sleek black Cadillacs or Chryslers. Sometimes they wear funny black shoes with thick gummy soles. They claim to be from the air force or from other intelligence agencies. Sometimes they even pose as traveling salesmen. Whatever. One thing’s certain, they’re not in your Welcome Wagon area. Black ain’t beautiful, especially when they’re threatening your life.
Sometimes they just want to repossess some hardware. Either that or put the fear of God into some unsuspecting unfortunate. The earliest man-in-black (MIB) case dates back to 1880, and it’s not even known if the man wore black. It happened in Galisteo Junction, New Mexico. Four locals spied a fish-shaped “balloon” cruising low over town. They counted about ten figures in the craft, babbling in an unknown tongue. Suddenly, a vase dropped from the craft, all covered with strange symbols. As proof of their experience, they carted it into town and displayed it at the general store.
A few days later a stranger came around. He said he was a “collector,” had heard of the vase, offered a good sum of money and took the artifact and ran. How he “heard” of the vase remains a mystery. Over the next hundred years, this type of transaction will be repeated ad nauseam.
Sometimes they just come to make a delivery. Bad tidings. That was the case in Barmouth, Wales, in March of 1905. According to the Barmouth Advertiser:
“In the neighborhood dwells an exceptionally intelligent young woman of the peasant stock, whose bedroom has been visited three nights in succession by a man dressed in black. This figure has delivered a message to the girl which she is frightened to relate.”
The visits occurred in the middle of a UFO-dancing-lights flap that had the whole town enthralled.
One thing the MIBs seem to have in common is their physical appearance. Most are short with Oriental features. Their skin is dark, almost sunburned. They usually have a slight accent. Sometimes they leave the limo home. Sometimes they come in costume.
It’s three in the morning. The year is 1924. Someone is pounding like the devil at John Cole’s farmhouse door in West Virginia. (These things tend to happen in the same places, year in and year out.) Cole looked out and saw an army officer standing there. Broad-brimmed hat, leg wrappings, the whole bit. Only his skin was dark and his eyes were a bit slanted.
“You picked up something today,” the stranger said. “We need it back.” As Cole wiped the sleep out of his eyes, he remembered what it was. It was a small metal thingamajig that he had found earlier that day while investigating a strange airplane crash nearby. Planes were rare enough in those days, and a crash was big news in that area—especially when the search party came upon six men clustered around the wreckage. Some of the men were in black business suits and ties, strange attire for that neck of the woods, and the others were wearing shiny overalls. They were talking in a rapid-fire foreign language and froze when the locals came upon them. The plane itself was as big as a battleship, with windows and all. But there was one thing that made Cole think twice about that plane. It didn’t have wings, tail or propellers.
Cole produced the metal fragment. The “army officer” grabbed it and walked off without a word. He didn’t seem to have a horse or a car. A few days later, Cole walked back to the clearing where the plane had been. It was empty.
It was not until the 1950s that the MIBs became anathema to flying-saucer researchers. The UFO flaps of the late ’40s and early ’50s had captured the imagination of millions across America and had aroused the curiosity of our intelligence and armed forces, despite official denials. Around the world, UFO buffs gathered into small groups to investigate the phenomenon. In the course of this research, some claimed to have discovered fragments of the saucers themselves. Enter the MIBs.
One of the first researchers they visited was one Albert Bender, the head of the International Flying Saucer Bureau (IFSB), a grandiose title for a small group that claimed a couple of hundred membership. Bender, a student of the occult as well as UFO buff, had in his possession a small scraping of a saucer that had smashed through an outdoor billboard near his home in Connecticut. Bender also possessed what, to his mind, was the secret of the saucers—namely, that they came from the North Pole, and he was about to reveal this to the world via his saucer publication. In fact, he had just sent a postcard outlining the evidence to a friend.
The next day, three men in black arrived at his home. Somehow, they had that postcard. And somehow they didn’t have a hard time convincing Bender to get out of the UFO field. In the next issue of Space Review, Bender announced the closing of the IFSB along with this cryptic item:
“STATEMENT OF IMPORTANCE—The mystery of the flying saucers is no longer a mystery. The source is already known, but any information about this is being withheld by orders from a higher source. We would like to print the full story in Space Review, but because of the nature of the information we are very sorry that we have been advised in the negative. We advise those engaged in saucer work to please be very cautious.”
Bender’s mysterious withdrawal amazed Gray Barker, one of his colleagues in the IFSB. After the visit of those three men, Bender had undergone a complete personality transformation. Alarmed, Barker dispatched two fellow IFSB members to visit the troubled investigator and record his comments. In his book They Knew Too Much about Flying Saucers Barker reproduces the strange interrogation:
Q—When did the three men visit you?
A—I can’t answer that.
Q—Who were the men?
A—I can’t answer that.
Q—Were they from the government?
A—I can’t answer that.
Q—Can you tell me where you found your source of information?
A—I was turning a theory over and over in my mind. When I got some actual names and places to back it up, I submitted it to someone. Then the men came.
Q—Why can’t you talk freely about these things?
A—Just before the men left one of them said, ‘‘I suppose you know you’re on your honor as an American. If I hear another word out of your office you’re in trouble.”
Q—What will they do with you if you give out information?
A—Put me in jail and keep me shut up.
Q—How did the three men find out about your theory?
A—I wrote about it and was going to have it printed. I sent it to a friend of mine, and right after that the three men paid me a visit. They had my story with them.
Q—Were the men friendly with you?
A—They were pretty rough with me. Two men did all the talking, and the other kept watching me all the time they were here. He didn’t take his eyes off me.
Q—What else did they do in your office besides talk?
A—They took the serial numbers of my tape recorders.
Q—Why do you delay answering each of my questions for a few seconds?
A—I’m afraid of slipping; if I do I can get into a lot of trouble.
Q—With this information you claim to know about the saucers, if you did write about it, and had it published, what would happen?
A—I would likely go down in history. Also I would go to jail for quite a long time.
Q—You said the three men who paid you the visit were pretty rough with you. Can you tell me just what you meant by that?
A—They were not too friendly.
But it wasn’t just Bender. Down under, Edgar Jarrold, the head of the Australian Flying Saucer Bureau, began to notice his house under surveillance by two men in a black limo who waited all night. Within a few months, Jarrold too had closed shop. Then Barker learned of the travails of a friend from Canada who was fortunate enough to obtain a sample of a metallic-looking object that crashed while he was fishing. Smallwood (not his real name) sent it out for analysis, then got two visits from a man in black, warning him not to reveal the results of the testing. “Your recent activities are very, very undesirable,” the stranger growled, “and if they are continued, they might be dangerous to you and your family. We would like to advise you to cease all your activities connected with these fragments. Our second advice is to forget that such things as flying saucers exist.” The visits left Smallwood on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
And then there was Stuart—John Stuart—a UFO buff from New Zealand. Seems he, too, had a fragment from a saucer. Then one night a phone call woke him up.
“Are you John Stuart? The John Stuart who is interested in what Earth men call ‘flying saucers’?” The voice was an odd monotone, almost mechanical. Stuart identified himself.
“I want you to stop interfering in matters that do not concern you! You have been warned.”
But Stuart ignored the warning. It was harder to ignore the doorbell that rang with no one around. And the empty moccasins that paraded around the living room. And, of course, the visit from that strange man. Stuart wrote Barker a farewell note in 1955:
“I had a visit from a bloke who offered me some advice—after he had left I felt I should listen to what he said. You see, I had a piece of grey-white metal and—well, now I haven’t got it! Our friend ‘thought’ he had more right to it than I. I have learned a lot about UFOs from this lad—oh yes, he told me a lot—too much maybe, for my own personal safety. It is easy to understand, I think, why he told me what he did. It was meant to scare hell out of me—it did! You will be curious as to where I got my piece of ‘metal.’ It fell from a UFO. The next night, before leaving for Auckland, my visitor called on me. I can’t, at the moment, tell you any more for it is too much for me to do. In short, I’m not game to go against my ‘orders.’ And for God’s sake be careful, Gray!”
Caution: Viewing flying saucers can be hazardous to your health. That was the conclusion of the early UFO buffs who received visits from these mysterious men. And, as we entered the 1960s, more and more reports of MIB activity began cropping up throughout the country. But who were these strange visitors? They often produced air-force intelligence identification and introduced themselves by name. Invariably, when the witnesses bothered to check out these credentials, the air force had no record of the alleged officers.
Which only added fuel to the fire. For throughout the ’50s and well into the late ’60s, many UFO researchers were convinced that the U.S. government was involved in a massive cosmic Watergate. So it was logical that MIBs were seen as government agents, maybe AFI (Air Force Intelligence), maybe CIA, maybe DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), but at any rate functioning to suppress any data that might point to the existence of the saucers and in the process intimidating witnesses who might want to communicate their UFO experiences. By 1967, there were so many reports of alleged air-force interference with UFO witnesses that a confidential letter went out from the Pentagon to all commands on February 15:
“Information has reached headquarters USAF that persons claiming to represent the air force or other defense establishments have contacted citizens who have sighted unidentified flying objects. In one reported case, an individual in civilian clothes, who represented himself as a member of Norad [North American Air Defense Command], demanded and received photos belonging to a private citizen. In another, a person in an air-force uniform approached local police and other citizens who had sighted a UFO, assembled them in a schoolroom and told them that they did not see what they thought they saw and that they should not talk to anyone about the sighting. All military and civilian personnel and particularly information officers and UFO-investigating officers who hear of such reports should immediately notify their local OSI [Office of Special Investigations] offices.
Hewitt T. Wheless, Lt. Gen. USAF
Asst. Vice Chief of Staff”
One case that never crossed Wheless’s desk occurred a few months after the air-force directive. It seems that in 1966, an Owatonna, Minnesota, woman, Mrs. Ralph Butler, had had a close encounter with a UFO. Over the next few years she had recurring headaches, strange telephone problems and creative noises and weird voices coming out of her CB radio. Then, in May of 1967, she received a visit from Richard French, an air-force major. French was about five feet nine inches tall, with an olive complexion and pointed features. He wore a gray suit, white shirt and a black tie, but his long dark hair seemed a bit odd for someone of the military persuasion. He was very interested in CB and UFOs, he told Mrs. Butler. He also told her his stomach was bothering him. She suggested some Jell-O. He declined but added that if his stomach ailment continued he would come back and take her up on her offer.
The next morning, the doorbell rang again. Again it was Major French, immaculate in his brand-new clothes. Seems his stomach was still on the blink. Being the hospitable Midwesterner, Mrs. Butler got some Jell-O from the fridge and slid the big bowl in front of the troubled officer. Then the Butlers realized that something was rotten in Minnesota. Major French had picked up the bowl and was trying to drink the Jell-O. It was clear the MIBs had something new up their sleeves.
Or legs. On January 9, 1967, there was a knock on the front door of the Edward Christiansen home in Wildwood, New Jersey. A few months before, the Christiansens had seen a UFO. Now there was a very strange-looking man at the front door. He was at least six feet six inches tall, wearing a fur hat with a black visor and a long black coat made of very thin material, especially for the freezing temperature. He claimed to be from the Missing Heirs Bureau, looking for an Edward Christiansen who may be the recipient of a large inheritance. He had about 40 minutes’ worth of questions.
But suspicions were aroused when he removed his hat, revealing a grotesquely large and round head and a severe crew cut. His eyes bulged with the intensity usually associated with an overactive thyroid. The most bizarre feature, however, was the thick green wire that was attached to the inside of his leg, revealed when he sat down on the couch. It ran out of his black socks and disappeared under his trousers.
He also had difficulty breathing and his questions were punctuated by strange wheezing. And what questions! He asked Ed if he had any scars or birthmarks. All the schools he had attended. The family’s automobile. He also asked if they would be willing to fly anyplace in the United States to collect the inheritance. As the interrogation proceeded, the stranger’s face grew redder and redder and he finally asked Mrs. Christiansen for a glass of water. He took out a huge yellow capsule, washed it down, and within minutes seemed normal again. As normal as a 300-pound wired MIB can get.
After 40 minutes, he was through. Mrs. Christiansen, sensing something funny, watched as he walked away from the house. His strange black gumshoes made a loud squishing sound. When he reached the road, he made a slight hand gesture and a shiny black 1963 Cadillac pulled up in the darkness, with its headlights off. The stranger got in and the car left. The next morning, Ed was alone when the phone rang. It was a female from the Missing Heirs Bureau. They had found their Ed Christiansen in California. New Jersey’s Ed Christiansen wasn’t surprised.
Ed was surprised a few days later. For a few nights straight, Ed’s kids had heard strange sounds emanating from the roof, sounds that got so loud it seemed that the whole house was shaking. The second night the hammering sounds were supplemented by heavy footsteps crunching around in the snow outside the house. Ed’s daughter’s boyfriend looked out the window and spotted a tall figure scampering away from the house. Some clown in a long white cape who leaped a five-foot-high fence like a steeplechase horse. An MIW!
The next morning, January 16, Ed checked the backyard for footprints. He found them. They were huge, humanlike, deeply recessed into the snow. They ran up to the fence, continued on the other side and went on up to the wall of an old abandoned shed. Then nada. Apparently MIWs don’t even need Cadillacs.
As the ’60s faded into the ’70s, the MIB reports got weirder and weirder. Strange telephonic activity. MIB prophecies of impending disasters that had better track records than Jeane Dixon. MIB doppelgängers who impersonated famous UFO researchers like John Keel and Gray Barker, sowing confusion and paranoia among the ranks of the UFO cognoscenti, a subset of the population that already had an abundance of those traits. MIBs were showing up all over, in some cases attempting to run down unfortunate UFO witnesses with their shiny black Cadillacs. A psychologist recently reported an MIB encounter in his private office. It seems he had a UFO tape. A strange little guy came in and demanded the tape. The doctor demurred. To show his intent, the little visitor asked the doctor to pull a coin out of his pocket; when the doctor did so, the tape seeker disintegrated the coin, hinting that he’d turn the doctor into M.D. mush unless the tape was produced. But before he could carry out his threat, the poor little guy seemed to run down like a clock and finally ran out the door. It was as if the phenomenon was beginning to parody itself.
So what do we have here? A bunch of sunburned creeps running around, scaring the shit out of some National Star subscribers who are dumb enough to think that the baby Jesus is coming back on a UFO shuttle and he’s going to take over, kick that born-again brat’s ass back to Plains and get the gas flowing, the assembly lines humming and appoint Richard Dreyfuss Secretary of Intergalactic Transportation. In other words, the MIB as a phenomenon is simply a festering pimple on the cosmic ass of the lunatic fringe, something to ignore while we concentrate on the real problems of the day. Like international terrorism, urban unrest, balloting by bullets. Who killed Kennedy? Beats me, but one thing’s certain: The “umbrella man” on that infamous grassy knoll wasn’t wearing a white Dior jumpsuit. And he didn’t stick around to do any interviews, either.
Science-fiction writer Charles Fort was right! So was Chicken Little, for that matter, and just ask anybody in Perth, Australia. The MIBs and the whole murky, crazy-quilt world of flying saucers and UFOs, while shunned by respectable science and social science, will continue to make their nightly forays and creepy-crawls. Add the cattle mutilations and the various Bigfoot-type monsters that spring up every so often, throw in a few poltergeists for good measure and you begin to get the parameters of the problem. Somebody or something is fucking with our minds. Fort thought he had the answer. He felt that we were property. “I should say we belong to something,” he wrote. “That once upon a time, this earth was no-man’s land, that other worlds explored and colonized here and fought among themselves for possession, but that now it’s owned by something: That something owns this earth—All others warned off.”
A more sanguine possibility is that MIBs are merely manifestations of the collective unconscious, archetypes that have, in various guises, been around since time immemorial. Direct descendants of the elves, the little people, the Tricksters. The Trickster is sort of an archetypical Donald Segretti, a prank-playing supernatural entity who instructs and ultimately may benefit humankind through his childish amoral antics.
Tibetan Yogis speak of tulpas, which are visible and sometimes tangible thought-forms that assume independent existences under certain conditions. In this theory, similar thoughts, mental projections and emotional input add to the strength of the tulpa, allowing it to assume unrestrained growth in a complex feedback situation. Sort of like, “We think, therefore you are.” So the MIB might be just one big self-fulfilling prophecy.
But then again, it might not. Another Eastern mystical tradition posits a group of adepts known as the Brothers of the Shadow, entrusted to keep lay seekers away from the Answer—the Veil of Isis. The Brothers are not the friendliest guys; like the MIBs, they’re evil and cunning, participating in a continual barrage of psychic hoaxes. They’re also fond of threatening students of the occult who get too close to the Veil. Mme Blavatsky, an old adept, called them “the leading ‘stars’ on the great spiritual stage of ‘materialization.’” It may just be a coincidence that the first book that Sirhan Sirhan requested in jail was Blavatsky’s bible, The Secret Doctrine.
But be they tulpas or schmulpas, tricksters or elementals, it seems clear that the phenomenon will pass and pass and pass and keep on and on, as Charlie said. And it will conform to our patterns of belief, as it usually does. Today we keep our vampires on the screen. During Bond-mania, the MIBs came on like sentinels from SMERSH. During the ’70s, which was a parody of a decade, the MIBs were parodies of their former selves, pitiful tittle Orientals running out of batteries.
Will they survive into the ’80s? Is the pope Polish? Are the Kennedys gun-shy? Just as the UFOs keep on coming on, flap after flap, so will the MIBs slither along in their wake. Only this time around they’ll probably look different. Less Oriental, a tittle taller, more Semitic looking. They might wear long black capes and puffy black hats. Some may even sport patriarchal white beards. They’ll probably huff and puff and wheeze a lot and prefer water to wine. Their messages might become more moralistic and less enigmatic. They might even talk about saving the world from sin and corruption by dressing everyone in black. But no need to be alarmed. After all, they’re probably only products of our own warped collective unconscious. If they ever come around, just slap Cheap Trick on the turntable and blast out “Surrender.” Odds are, they’ll scurry out the door and hop into their shiny new black Toyotas. You asked for it. You got it.