Jan Woods believes.
She’s sure she saw a UFO back in 1978 when she was living in Nevada, something she spotted in the sky that was so amazing, she said, she had to pull her car over by the side of the road.
That’s one reason Woods, who now lives in Adin, Calif., attended the country’s second-largest UFO festival earlier this month. Another? She wanted to enter her dachshund — a “good sport” named Skeeter wrapped in silver duct tape and green cellophane — in the alien pet costume contest at the 17th annual McMenamins Hotel Oregon UFO Festival.
There was something for everyone — true believers, fun seekers, and those in between– at the festival May 12-15 outside Portland, just as there’s something for everyone who’s ever looked up into the skies and wondered about something bigger than humankind.
Angels, demons, aliens — it’s all the same to Clyde Lewis, speaking in an episode of his Portland-based paranormal podcast Ground Zero that was broadcast from McMenamins UFO Festival.
“We come from spirituality to the idea of the space age, and now coming together, we come to the realization that all people on this planet have an idea that something is out there watching us, whether it’s a god, an angel, a demon, or even an alien,” Lewis said.
“It’s all extraterrestrial.”
Christopher D. Bader, associate professor of sociology at Baylor University, agrees the difference between belief in the paranormal, such as UFOs, ghosts, or Bigfoot, and belief in a religion is not that great. Both require faith, he said.
“People view the paranormal differently from religion, but to me it’s the same type of phenomena, he added. “It’s belief in things that cannot be proven. That’s the currency of religion.”
The professor researched people who believe in the paranormal for thebook he co-authored, Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture. He also is one of the principal investigators on the Baylor Religion Survey Project.
Those who are marginally religious tend to be the most interested in the paranormal, Bader said. Many very religious people don’t doubt the paranormal, but ascribe a different meaning to it, believing what appears to be an alien actually is a demon, for example.
People who aren’t interested in religion tend not to be interested in the paranormal either.
The difference between the two beliefs: Cultural acceptance, he said.
“The majority of people in this country profess to be Christian of some sort,” he said. “So Christian groups — you might call them the accepted version of the paranormal or the accepted version of the supernatural.”
The McMenamins hotel began hosting the UFO festival after historian Tim Hills stumbled across a famous 1950 UFO photos taken by Paul and Evelyn Trent on their farm outside McMinnville.
Hills thought that first event might attract 25 people; the crowd overflowed the room into the hotel’s restaurant and hallway and onto the sidewalk, he said. And 17 years later, the event brings 7,000 to 10,000 people to downtown McMinnville, a city of 33,0000, from as far as Florida.
This year, for the first time, the festival’s speakers focused on a single sighting: The Phoenix Lights, a mass sighting of five orbs in a “V” shape that were reported moving over the Phoenix, Ariz., on March 13, 1997.
Longtime director of the National UFO Reporting Center Peter Davenport called the sighting “probably the most dramatic event in the history of modern ufology” because of the number of witnesses, the size of the craft they reported, and the interest the military apparently took in it.
For festival speaker Lynne Kitei, witnessing those lights outside her home near Phoenix set her on a journey that made her more aware of serendipity, of the connectedness of the universe, and of what she described as the “potential we have as human beings.”
Kitei had no previous interest in UFOs and hadn’t grown up in organized religion. As a physician, she always looked for logical explanations. But she was also open to whatever might walk in her door, she said, and so what she experienced was profoundly transformative.
She set aside her career as chief clinical consultant of the Imaging-Prevention-Wellness Center at the Arizona Heart Institute to research what had happened, producing a book and documentary on the subject.
“Nobody said they had a revelation or anything religious at all, but the spiritual awakening is just amazing — in real time and long term — that these phenomena impart to the experiencer,” Kitei said.
The effect a perceived paranormal experience has on a person “really has a lot to do with how conventional they were before they had that experience,” said Bader. It’s a lot more life-altering for someone who has never considered spotting a UFO or Bigfoot than for someone who has investigated the paranormal, he said.
For instance, “Most Native American tribes are deeply spiritual,” said Jonathan Dover, a former law-enforcement officer with the Navajo Federal Rangers. Dover, who has investigated many paranormal cases, had seen circling lights similar to those described in the Phoenix Lights in Leupp, Ariz., the night before the mass sighting.
“What we find interesting with Native American groups and UFOs is they just take it for granted that they’ve always been there. … This is just how it is; whereas over here it’s something that’s fearful or it’s something that’s shocking, I guess,” he said.
It was their beliefs that brought three missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the UFO parade through downtown McMinnville, too.
The trio, wearing bright yellow “UFO volunteer” T shirts, are serving the McMinnville area through the church’s Oregon Salem Mission. They’re always looking for ways to serve the community, they said, and someone in their congregation had mentioned the parade was looking for volunteers.
They couldn’t wait to tell their families back home about it, they said. But the idea of life on other planets wasn’t particularly earth shattering to them.
“We believe that God’s created his children in his image,” said one missionary, who asked to be identified as Elder Carlisle. “The possibilities of God are endless.”