by Brady Tackett
Most alien abductions go something like this: You’re driving alone at night, perhaps down a country road, when suddenly your car is filled with a blast of light. Paralysis renders your arms and legs useless. Then you are floating through an open window and the night sky and into a cold grey vessel that never stops spinning. You’re inside. The hallways curve endlessly away from you, offering no escape, and they are filled with tall, mysterious creatures who say nothing but whose voices echo inside your head. You are ushered into an all-white room and fastened to its only fixture—an operating table. Then the experiments begin.
At least that’s how some remember it.
“I don’t know if any of this is true or factual, but this is what was reported to me in the questionnaires,” says Kathleen Marden, one of five speakers on the April 13 opening night of the twenty-fifth annual Ozark UFO Conference in Eureka Springs. More than 550 enthusiasts are here to learn, confer, and share experiences others wouldn’t understand.
Marden, author of Science Was Wrong and Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience, has investigated UFOs for more than twenty years. Tonight she is sharing the results of an informal survey she conducted with alien abductees earlier this year. In her printed pink cardigan, thick prescription glasses, and cropped hair, Marden, sixty-three, blends easily with the other hundred or so “truth-seekers” packed into the Best Western Inn of the Ozarks convention center for her lecture. It’s a sea of gray hair and orthopedic shoes.
Marden’s grandmotherly demeanor hasn’t prepared the audience for her presentation.
“One labia minora had been cleanly severed during an abduction experience,” she says. She’s seen photographic proof, she informs the horrified crowd, but decides to spare them. Marden launches a grisly slideshow of photos sent in by other respondents to her survey. The giant screens light up to show a woman’s forearm covered in three long, finger-like bruises. “As if she had been held down,” Marden says ominously. Next, a revolting close-up of a belly button encircled by dried blood. “It served as an extraction point during experiments,” she says. It’s a surreal moment, Marden up there, flanked by two wounded navels hovering on the projection screens above her.
The Ozark UFO Conference features an eclectic roster of cosmologists, engineers and hypnotists delivering lectures with such titles as “Deciphering Abductions” and “The E.T. Agenda: Why don’t they land on the White House lawn?”
Conference-goers arrive eager to share strange encounters and personal theories that explain them. Some believe they abduct to learn more about the human race, or to improve humans genetically, or to improve themselves genetically, Marden tells the crowd. Others believe the extraterrestrials mean to create human-alien hybrids and infiltrate world governments.
Because eyewitness accounts can vary so widely and because no physical evidence is ever recovered, ufology remains forever amorphous. The conference is a celebration of possibility.
Below the auditorium is the vendors’ room, a bustling marketplace of otherworldly items and services. It’s mid-afternoon on Saturday, April 14, and merchants wait behind long tables, beaming hopeful smiles at each potential customer. Some have traveled from as far as Hawaii to hawk their strange spiritual merchandise, most of which has no apparent relation to UFOs. They sell windcatchers, key chains, Native American flutes, hemp jewelry, and stacks of used books with titles such as Babe Ruth Lives and Interview with a Snake.
“We specialize in Native American art mixed with what we call ‘high strangeness,’” says Chad Dillard, a tall, goateed forty-five-year-old in a brilliant teal shirt. An expensive banner hanging on the wall behind him reads: “U-Neek Rabbits Shawls.” Dillard has draped the shawls about the booth, and they hang there like colorful specters.
“You can use them as decoration, but they’re meant to be used for prayer and meditation, stuff like that,” he says. He thumbs through a rack of jean jackets decorated with hand-painted creatures such as a moth man and a sasquatch. Finally, he settles on his personal favorite: a Catholic Christ icon with the head of a blue alien. “High strangeness, like I said.”
Dillard and his wife, a fifty-four-year-old palm reader named Alta, arrived yesterday from Alabama. For the Dillards and most of the other vendors, the Ozark UFO Conference is just another stop on a circuit of similar New Age conventions. Business has been booming all weekend, and Dillard can’t seem to contain his grin. “I love it,” he says. “Alta’s done a ton of readings.”
Suddenly, a sharp ringing pierces the drone of conversation. It comes from the opposite corner of the room, where a woman paces around a massage table, striking tuning forks together at careful intervals. A gray-haired man lies still on a massage table, his fat belly shrouded in white linens, His face is motionless under a pink eye mask.
A nearby booth gives name to the ritual: “Star Healing Intergalactic Energy.” Promotional materials fan out across the vendor’s table, every piece emblazoned with the face of a smiling blonde woman. “Kelly Hampton is a compassionate angelic channel/medium, compelling speaker, media personality, spiritual author and the founder of powerful THREE NEW healing systems from the Archangel Michael,” reads one pamphlet.
It’s Hampton who is conducting this healing ceremony. She raises the forks above her head, clanging them together faster, louder, into a terrible earsplitting climax.
As a “third-generation metaphysician,” Hampton performs healing sessions that “allow you to access higher vibrational levels,” the pamphlet continues.
Having retired the tuning forks, Hampton now looms over the man on the table, her head thrown back and eyes clenched shut, reciting an incantation. Her hands hover in a diamond shape just above the man’s face. Another woman covers his chest in a thin layer of tiny black gemstones. Fluorescent lights buzz overheard, giving the scene an unpleasant luster.
“Maybe you should come back when Kelly is done,” one of Hampton’s assistants says to me. “She’s in a very deep state right now.”
The pamphlet doesn’t list a price—how much has the man paid for this healing session?
“Conference prices are different than regular prices,” the assistant says, dodging the question.
Marden gingerly descends the steps from the stage, exhausted by her hour-and-a-half-long lecture Friday night. Immediately, she is besieged by fans.
“Mrs. Marden? Oh, it’s so nice to meet you. My name is Joanne,” says one UFO blogger who has driven from Canada to attend the conference. She’s trying to schedule a next-day interview with Marden, whose eyes search the auditorium for some escape.
“Joanne? Nice to meet—”
“They didn’t have time to do a proper press badge,” Joanne interrupts, “but I have another press badge with me that I never wore because they told me not to make my own, but you’ll recognize me I hope. You’ll remember me, right?”
As her fans will tell you, Marden is heir to a legacy—she first became interested in UFOs when her aunt and uncle, Betty and Barney Hill, were abducted in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. That encounter received international media coverage in 1965, becoming the first widely publicized account of an alien abduction.
Marden was only thirteen then, but the experience initiated what would become a lifelong mission to understand alien abductions. In 1990, she became a field investigator for Mutual UFO Network. Membership to the organization indicates devotion and commands the respect of conference attendees. MUFON recently bestowed Marden with a new title—Abduction Research Specialist.
“I speak at a lot of conferences, and there’s been just a really nice, warm feeling from the people at this conference. People treat me really well,” Marden says, leading me from the stage, past green and purple wall lights and rows of gawking fans to the double doors in back. She settles into a chair near the edge of the front lobby.
Marden has observed a surge of abduction reports since she began her research. “There was interest then, but I think that people were more reticent about expressing their opinions. They weren’t as willing to admit that they had sightings or that they thought we actually were being visited,” she says.
But as they reach retirement age, abductees are suddenly more inclined to share their experiences, Marden says.
“People don’t have to worry about the consequences of making those statements,” she says. “They can’t get fired from their jobs anymore. I’m finding that many people are coming forward now with their abduction or missing time experiences that they had thirty, forty years ago.”
The data Marden cites is culled from “about sixty people,” mostly American, who mailed their written accounts to her voluntarily. Most respondents were fifty to sixty years old. Marden admits that many of the questions in her survey were leading: “Did you observe dials, buttons or switches on the walls of the craft?”
Tellingly, most abduction accounts contain a familiar list of physical features that have been staples of alien pop culture for nearly forty years: large head, inset black eyes, small humanoid body, and smooth, gray skin.
“The argument that popular culture has corrupted abduction recall, I discount that,” Ryan Jones, another conference speaker, tells me the next morning in the vendors’ room. Jones, an articulate science-fiction author with an impressive gray moustache, believes reports of new alien species appear all the time.
“The cast of characters changes. There’s a new praying mantis type. What’s causing that?” he says. “Certainly these unpleasant experiences, like the woman who believed she was gang-raped by reptilians, that’s certainly nothing you would wish for. This isn’t E.T. This is something non-warm and fuzzy.”
Jones is distrustful of aliens—his second novel, Specters, told of a human-alien hybrid who infiltrated the CIA. His newest book, Final Security, is a reimagining of a historical account by Joseph Farrell, who explored secret Nazi weapons in his 2005 book The Reich of the Black Sun.
“That was really the source for a lot of the fiction I created here,” he says, thoughtfully crossing his legs. “Of course, [Farrell] has to stick to the facts. I answered the questions that he didn’t answer. I just said, ‘OK, what if?’ I took it one step further and made it fiction.”
Even so, Jones believes the anything-goes culture of ufology has weakened its credibility. “Marden was trying to take this horribly amorphous subject of abductions and do a scientific reduction of that. We’re trying to reduce the amount of fantasization to cold hard facts,” he tells me. The real accounts, he says, are revealed by their reoccurrence. When more people report similar abductions, those reports gain credibility. This leaves ufologists in a tough spot—the only condition for a theory’s truth is its popularity.
Those who don’t trudge off to bed after the stage darkens Friday night head for Jean’s Joint, a hotel suite-turned-conference-hangout where they gather for beer, wine, and weenies. It’s a festive scene. Tiny alien Christmas lights hang in the window and plush alien dolls slouch against the windowsill. Here, attendees can assess sightings, debate theories, and trade abduction stories. “Have you ever been abducted?” Here, they are safe to discuss such matters without ridicule from family or co-workers.
“It’s somewhere I can come and be with people who will openly discuss things and experiences without criticism,” says Urza Silverwind. (“It’s my given name. It’s on my driver’s license. People don’t believe me.”) The thirty-one-year-old slouches alone near the edge of a frayed couch.
“I mean, I told everybody I was going to a UFO conference. A couple people snickered at me and I’m like, ‘You got no idea. It’s so much fun,’” she says, suddenly bursting into laughter. “I don’t mind a couple snickers.”
Silverwind is a rare specimen at the conference for two reasons—she’s young and she’s not a UFO enthusiast. “I just like learning about new things, and this is something I’m not going to get from watching the news or reading the newspaper,” she says.
There are people back home in Lawrence, Kansas, who are accepting of Silverwind’s curiosities, but “they’re just few and far between.” She’s attended the world’s largest UFO conferences in Roswell and Las Vegas, but says she prefers this one. This is her third visit in the past decade.
“I come for the intelligent conversation, and you won’t find that in a conference where people paint their dog green,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Here, it’s so diverse. You get the entire new-age palette, instead of just aliens, aliens, aliens, I got abducted and my cow got mutilated.”
She takes a hearty swig of chocolate fudge soda.
“Last year, we had [Mayan expert] John Major Jenkins talk about the 2012 phenomenon from an archaeologist’s point of view, instead of a doomsday point of view. We’ve had astrophysicists talk about things like the consciousness of plants. It’s just things that are faux pas to modern science,” she says excitedly.
Across the room, an unlikely pair guards the snack table. The first is Kay Southard, an unassuming seventy-year-old bookstore employee in a Kansas Jayhawks T-shirt. She nibbles a corn chip and says nothing.
Her companion, sixty-six-year-old Mary Lou Schmidt, laughs loudly between sips of Coors Light. She may or may not be in costume: her overgrown black hair flows past oval spectacles and splays across the shoulders of her long black cloak. A golden pentagram medallion hangs from her neck. She is only missing the pointy hat.
“I believe very strongly in the existence of aliens,” Schmidt announces. “They’ve been here for eons. I think they’ve actually helped evolve the human race. I’m not crazy. I’m not drunk either,” she says loudly.
Schmidt has believed in aliens ever since a childhood incident she elects not to discuss.
“There’s some people I can talk to about it, and basically I don’t give a freakin’ damn whether they like it or not. I believe it, this is who I am, and if they don’t like it, they don’t have to listen to me,” she says, dismissing them with a wave. “Kay and I have been believers in this stuff since we’ve known each other.”
Schmidt and Southard have traveled from Topeka, Kansas, to the Ozark UFO Conference every year since 1999. They met more than twenty years ago in a bookstore where Southard worked. Schmidt struck up a conversation about The X-Files and a friendship was forged.
Like many UFO enthusiasts, Schmidt believes a secret sect of the federal government works to conceal alien activity from the American public, unbeknownst to the rest of Washington.
“People think the President of the United States is the highest. No, it’s not. Not even Congress, darling. Did you see the movie Independence Day? Remember when the president didn’t know about Area 51? That’s a true fact.
“And this is not just a paranoid drunk woman telling you this. I’m not drunk and I’m not paranoid. Well, yeah I am paranoid,” she says, erupting in laughter.
Through the room and adjacent kitchen is a tiny balcony, where Robert Johnson sits silently in the night, overlooking the lush forest just beyond the inn. He’s dressed in all black like some mysterious seer: black boots, black cargo pants, and an unruly black goatee. A thicket of black hair blends into the shoulders of his black Looney Tunes T-shirt.
At forty-two, he is one of the youngest-looking attendees. But Johnson, a Los Angeles native, says he has been attending UFO conferences for most of his life.
“See, it’s this function that makes this UFO conference so different from all the others,” he says with an endearing stutter. “The ones on the West Coast are much more uptight. And this is great.”
Inside, the steady flow of free beer and wine escalates the volume of conversation. A loud laugh rings out. A tall man wanders onto the balcony, Budweiser in hand. He glances at Johnson and strikes up a conversation about triangular UFOs, which speaker David Marler discussed earlier in the day.
“I saw one in 1995,” the man says. “Me and my wife lived in Seattle.”
“Really?” Johnson asks, leaning forward in his chair. “Was it daytime or nighttime?”
“Night. I was outside and saw it and as soon as I went back in, it was already on the news. And of course they blew it off: ‘No, no, no, that was space garbage.’ All I know is, I saw the ship. You can call it what you want.”
Johnson presses him further. “So, did it have all the characteristics? Was it silent?”
“Oh it was totally silent. I bet you there was ten lights and they were all just bright as shit. I mean, goddamn, the whole fucking Northwest saw it.”
“So, did it go from west to east? Or which direction?”
The man shrugs. “It’s been so long since I lived up there. I don’t know what fucking way it was going. A lot of people saw it, all I know is that.” He pauses to run his palm across the stubble along his jaw.
“I believe there’s something out there,” the man says. “I know there’s something out there. It’d be stupid—it’d be naïve and absolutely pompous for us to think we’re the only freakin’ living individuals. And hey, if you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it.”
Johnson nods ambiguously. A storm is coming, and the sound of cold air rushing through the leaves fills the night. His eyes scan the darkened woods, a sea of deep greens receding into just shadows.