The Unexplained Revisited: Where it Started

Unexplained 1British readers of a certain generation might recall a partwork series about paranormal phenomena called The Unexplained: Mysteries of Mind, Space and Time, which ran from 1980 to 1983. And even if — like me — you weren’t around to catch the original magazine during its 156-issue run, you might have come across the various books reprinting its articles, which continue to turn up regularly in “esoteric” sections of second-hand bookshops.

The Unexplained wasn’t overly credulous: its writers were unafraid to bring up mundane explanations for the various phenomena they covered. Granted, the magazine worked on the understanding that mundane explanations were generally less interesting than the ones involving ghosts, aliens or psychic powers – but if we approach the magazine as an exercise in cataloguing modern folklore, this standpoint is no bad thing.

I myself have fond memories of devouring Unexplained reprints as a teenager, and more recently I’ve managed to get my hands on a complete run of the original magazine. So, I thought it’d be interesting to take a look through it right from the beginning…

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Issue one of The Unexplained starts off with a short introduction. After describing a group of Neopagans at Stonehenge, the uncredited author states that “We all respond in some measure to such occasions, feeling the deep-down tug of emotions older than human memory, the sense of communion with other minds, the excitement and the magic of a world that will not submit to the physical laws we try to impose upon it.”

The text then namechecks a few examples of mysterious phenomena: déjà vu, UFOs, alternative medicine, showers of strange objects, prehistoric monsters surviving into the present day, dowsing, and psychic powers. The piece is illustrated with photographs of Stonehenge, a man undergoing acupuncture, a vaguely plesiosaur-shaped object in Loch Ness, the Indian rope trick, a scorpion’s Kirlian aura and a notorious photograph showing an alleged UFO occupant; the last image is composited against a flying saucer photo, the source of which is not credited in the caption.

After whetting our appetite with this assortment of strange images, the magazine gives us its first full article: “The UFO Paradox” by Hilary Evans.

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Headed by a photograph of two saucers flying over a building (which is presented entirely without source or comment; it’s actually a composite of a Paul Villa UFO photo, printed later in the issue, with a new background) the article opens by summarising airman Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 encounter with some UFOs. “They flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water,” said Arnold, thereby contributing the phrase “flying saucer” to our lexicon. Evans goes on to proclaim the UFO phenomenon “the strangest of our time”, noting that sightings began to grow with the advent of space exploration, giving a few statistics from around the world.

She also mentions “persistent rumours that certain governments, notably that of the United States, have indeed obtained a UFO, which is kept in total secrecy”. If this were the case, of course, than the object would presumably be identified and no longer flying. It is clear that Evans is not using UFO in its strictest sense, to mean unidentified flying objects, but rather as a shorthand for flying objects which, even if identified, would still raise significant questions.

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Evans moves on to the closest thing to hard evidence for UFOs– namely, photographs and videos. The article contains two more UFO photographs, one a nondescript red shape that was photographed by Skylab III in 1973, the other a 1954 photograph showing two white blobs that can be explained as unusual clouds or lens flare. Evans’ attitude towards such images is sceptical:

The majority are undoubtedly fakes. Those with good credentials are so blurred, so distant or so ambiguous that they simply add a further dimension to the problem; why, if UFOs exist, and in an age when many people carry cameras with them most of the time, have we not obtained better photographic evidence?

Today, of course, cameras are more prevalent than ever before, and Evans’ question still stands. The article goes on to discuss anecdotal evidence, citingan incident that occurred in 1967, involving a car and a truck in Hampshire both suffering engine failure when a “large egg-shaped object” went between them.

Evans mentions early assumptions in the USA that UFOs were Soviet in origin (any Russian witnesses would presumably have believed the opposite). “But as more reports came in it became clear that no nation on Earth could be responsible”, writes Evans. “Nor was there sufficient evidence to support other ingenious theories – that they came from the Himalayas, long a favoured source of secret wisdom, or Antarctica, where unexplored tracts of land and climactic anomalies provide a shaky foundation for speculations.” Evans ends up tenuously choosing the extraterrestrial hypothesis: “Although it is the best available explanation, it remains no more than speculation.”

The article later brings up alleged communication between humans and aliens:

If a single one of these cases could be shown to be based on fact, the UFO problem would be established on solid foundations and serious scientific interest assured. But in every instance ir remains an open question whether the incident actually occurred or is simpl a fabrication – deliverate, unconscious, or perhaps induced by some external force. Hypotheses range from brainwashing b extraterrestrial incaders, to deliverate invention by the CIA.

Following this introduction are two features, UFO Casebook and UFO Photo File, which would go on to become regular attractions in the magazine. In UFO Casebook’s “Strange encounters of many kinds”, Charles Bowen starts by talking about scepticism within the astronomic community, quoting an anecdote from Dr J. Allen Hynck’s book The UFO Experience about a gathering of astronomers who heard reports of strange lights outside and, instead of looking, responded with banter and giggling.

Bowen tells us that, after the closure of Project Blue Book and the completion of the Condon Report, UFO research fell to private organisations such as Ground Saucer Watch, Project Starlight International, UFOIN and BUFORA. After stating that 1954 and 1965 both had UFO flaps, he goes on to outline specific incidents from these years.

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The first of these is the sighting made by Captain James Howard and others on board a BOAC Stratocruiser on 29 June 1954: “a large object of metallic appearance…. Moving around this main shape were six much smaller objects… it seemed to be changing shape all the time”. This is illustrated with the first of The Unexplained’s famous coloured-pencil artistic impressions.

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Next is an incident from 23 August 1954, when M. Bernard Miserey of Vernon, France saw a luminous cigar-shaped object in the sky, along with a series of disc-shaped objects that dropped from the bottom of the first UFO; allegedly, he was later informed that two policeman saw the same sight. The meatiest of the three accounts is from 24 April 1964, when Patrolman Lonnie Zamora of Socorro, New Mexico had a close encounter involving a shiny ovoid object and two humanoid figures in white. This incident is sufficiently well-known to have a sizeable Wikipedia article.

The magazine’s feature also includes a box listing J. Allan Hynek’s UFO categories: nocturnal lights, daylight discs, radar visuals, and close encounters of the first, second and third kinds.

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Wrapping up the first issue’s UFO coverage is the UFO Photo File, containing a selection of five photos. Three are by Paul Villa, and described by captions as “almost certainly fakes”. After these is a photo of a fuzzy globe taken by 16-year-old Christophe Fernandez in 1974, and three traditionally saucer-shaped objects shot by 15-year-old Stephen Pratt in 1966.

So, this is how The Unexplained grabbed the attention of its brand-new readership back in 1980: with tales of UFOs and close encounters. Convincing? Not necessarily, but it was engaging enough to the magazine’s readership. And there was plenty more weird and wonderful Forteana where that came from, as I intend to cover in future posts….

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