Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Lure of the Edge”


The Lure of the EdgeThe Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs. By Brenda Denzler. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

What is the history of the UFO phenomenon in the United States? That is the subject of this interesting, provocative, and sometimes frustrating book. Brenda Denzler’s narrative of the UFO experience begins in the early Cold War era, and provides an overview and evaluation of the UFO subculture as a social phenomenon juxtaposed between scientific and religious ideals. Clearly, however, it is truly neither a scientific nor a religious phenomenon.

The UFO phenomenon entered American consciousness in 1947 with the Kenneth Arnold “Flying Saucer” observation at Mount Rainier on June 24th. This touched off a wave of UFO sightings, of which more than 300 took place over the Fourth of July weekend in 1947. Sightings became a standard of the UFO story ever since and thousands of unidentified flying objects have been sited since that time. The vast majority of them are completely, and sometimes easily, explained as observations of terrestrial phenomena. But that sliver of unexplained sightings have tantalized the public ever since. UFO sightings represent the first part of this book.

A second major section deals with the contactee movement, in which extraterrestrials have been met by Earthlings and as often as not they have reported having received insights into the human condition and humanity’s place in the cosmos. These contactees became the first “rock stars” of the UFO movement, receiving speaking fees, book deals, and in some cases making television appearances about their dealings with aliens.

Beginning with the September 1961 story of Betty and Barney Hill the contactee experience suddenly turned horrific. They reported an abduction, medical experimentation, and psychological damage. Thousands have reported similar experiences in the years since that time. There has been enormous speculation over what all of this might mean, indeed whether or not if ever actually happened. Extreme efforts have been made to discover the truth about these experiences, including hypnosis to recover buried memories.

Throughout all of this, the federal government has periodically taken an interest in this subject and undertaken investigation. Project Blue Book by the Air Force sought to determine what these might mean, largely because of the fear in the Cold War that the nation might be encountering a new type of weapon from the Soviet Union. It has not found anything pointing to extraterrestrial visitation; believers in UFO visitation, however, explain this position away in a variety of means ranging from outright lying to actual cooperation with aliens.

With the failure to find any evidence—and the belief that “Cold War jitters” prompted much of the people reporting encounters—official interest in UFOs declined and with it interest from the scientific community. Denzler maintains a detached perspective on this subject through this work, offering without editorialization the various accounts.

She makes the case that this phenomenon represents perhaps the birth of a new religion. It has many of the elements of a religious group with unexplainable experiences, saints and martyrs, a salvation theology as aliens are looking out for the Earth, and a range of other metaphysical symbolism. Using sociological data compiled through surveys and other sources, Denzler focuses attention on the community of believers, their core ideology, and their overriding values.

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