I have long abandoned the desire to understand reality, to measure and quantify what the world is and predict what it will be.
This is what science and technology have long presupposed: that with each new discovery and innovation the world sharpens and comes into focus. But as the real attains clarity, something else appears in the shadows, demanding attention even as it becomes more obscured by the brightening radiance of the real. This is the unreal: that which is unexpected and slippery. The unreal exists alongside the real as a promise of the otherwise.
The unreal is on display in Roswell, New Mexico at the International UFO Museum and Research Center. I took a half-day detour while driving from California to New York to explore this remote and dusty town, famous as the site of a UFO crash and alien encounter in 1947. I didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to know how the museum articulated/framed the real and the unreal, the known and the unknowable.
I visited this museum after spending a sabbatical year in the capital of the unreal: Los Angeles. Los Angeles offered endless lessons in the fluid interchange between unreality and reality. This desert city ought not exist, but the perpetual sunshine and mild climate convinced East Coast movie makers in the 1910s that their industry could be otherwise. Disneyland sprung up a few decades later and has since inspired countless thinkers to meditate on the hyperreal. In 2018, during my sabbatical year in the land of the unreal, I took electives in Hollywood and theme parks, but my primary course of study was virtual reality and the community of storytellers and innovators that had collected in LA to update this 20th century technology for the new millennium.
Part of VR’s appeal is its offering of digital adventures more real than reality: a plunge into the deep sea to swim alongside blue whales, the experience of floating weightlessly through a psychedelic infinitude. But my interest in the technology was grounded in a fantasy that VR’s immersion could bring a user into another’s reality or even into another’s body.
VR seemed to me to offer a promise of being anywhere and anyone—a radical transparency of being, able to access any and all worldviews.
Could wielding such a technology bring us closer to the truth we believe to be out there?
The UFO Museum in Roswell documents as completely as possible the 1947 crash—an archive that has been framed and hung on the walls that carve up the main room of the museum. It would take hours to read and examine everything on display and, in a weak effort to maintain neutrality—to let every visitor draw their own conclusion—there is little curation or commentary. “What really happened?” reads a text orienting the visitor: “You decide.”
The conceit of the museum (and of the attached research center, which extends the inquiry into UFOs and alien contact beyond the Roswell incident) is that given abundant information, an individual can make sense even of something so unreal as a UFO crash. Any phenomenon is knowable, the museum tacitly argues, if you spend enough time with the data. But why do we accept that there is a common reality, that my reality is the same as your reality? That the world is singular in event and experience?
While the museum’s agnostic invitation—“You decide”—purports to be a concession of divergent realities, it instead asserts a quiet confidence in the knowability of the world through information overload.
Virtual reality similarly pulls in two directions. The very need to embody another in order to understand the world as they do embraces an unreality by which the world is differently known and experienced. And yet, the claim is that upon completing a VR experience the unknowability of another’s reality has been rendered knowable. Multiple unrealities collapse back into a single one.
In LA, I feasted on VR experiences that, despite their digitality, could usually only be seen in specific places. While it now circulates , I experienced Dinner Party at a VR showroom.. With a VR headset and noise-canceling headphones on, reclining in a red velvet pod programmed to swivel and tilt in time with the VR experience, I was brought into a psychological exploration of the first reported case of alien abduction.
Betty and Barney Hill are hosting a dinner party and I am a disembodied presence watching the evening unfold. It’s the 1960s and they have a few friends over. They all amicably banter, and Barney cracks a joke about his and Betty’s first date—in a jail where they met after both were arrested at a sit-in. Barney is African American and Betty and the friends at the party are all white. Despite Barney’s efforts to keep the evening light, Betty is agitated. She pulls out a tape player and insists they listen to the audio.
We hear Betty’s voice, recorded during a hypnosis session. She’s describing something otherworldly, as if she is learning the secret to the universe.
I leave the dining room and ascend into Betty’s subconscious. Her body dissolves into a mesh of glowing particles as she floats through an abstract environment of hyper-colored swirls. The recording ends with her laughing, delighted in the experience. Back in the living room, however, it is now Barney who is agitated. The tape switches to the hypnotist coaxing his account of the same experience. I ascend now into Barney’s subconscious. He, too, has become a glowing point-cloud, but he is in distress—not laughing like Betty but rather afraid for his life, being tortured and abused. The recording ends and Betty and Barney struggle to make sense of these different experiences. Sensing the tension in the room, the guests see their way out and I am left alone with the couple who stare intently at each other, perhaps trying to gain access to each other’s interiority to make sense of how the unreal so glaringly exposed the rift between their realities.
The UFO Museum wants its visitors to converge on a single understanding. A snapshot of an older woman sitting on her front porch is accompanied by a text which explains that she had long believed that the UFO at Roswell was a misrecognized Air Force weather balloon. But “before passing away,” the text notes, “she admitted that she had been mistaken in the belief and acknowledged the reality of the incident.” Another exhibit discusses a small I-beam that was recovered from the scene of the crash. While the actual artifact is, with the other recovered material, secreted in a government bunker, one of the military officers who cleaned up the debris on the night of the crash noticed strange violet symbols lining the inner surface of this particular scrap. After surrendering the I-beam to higher authorities, he drew the symbols from memory. At the museum, a replica of the I-beam as remembered by the officer is on display. “The I-beam and it’s [sic] mysterious symbols. If not of alien origin, then what?” The plaque also notes, “The I-beam replica has made appearances on both national and international television.”
After the credits for Dinner Party ended, I removed the VR headset and sat in the velvet pod, thinking about the experience. UFO sightings were common in the decades following Roswell, but the Hill’s account was the first widely-circulated case of alien abduction. But it was not immediately clear to the Hill’s that their frightful and disorienting encounter with the UFO included abduction; the unreality of their situation was slow to unfold. Days after the event, Betty began having vivid nightmares that suggested something more sinister might have occurred. Years after, hypnosis sessions convinced them both (but not the examining doctor) that Betty and Barney had been taken aboard the craft and medically examined by gray, humanoid aliens with giant eyes who communicated telepathically. Just as Roswell created the narrative blueprint for a UFO crash, the Hills’ experiences offered the framework for abduction stories that would soon proliferate.
One of the final exhibits at the UFO Museum is a life-size diorama depicting a scene of medical examination; but here the aliens and humans no longer play the same roles as in the experience of the Hills. Two male mannequins—one man in a black suit and hat, the other in a white lab coat and scrub cap—stand over a hospital bed upon which is sprawled the naked body of an alien—thin, small, and gray with a large head. A sign hanging behind the mannequins serves as set dressing and explanation: “Alien Life-Form Autopsy Room. Danger. Restricted Area.” Outside of the scene, another text informs the visitor that the alien body was a prop used in the 1994 Showtime movie, “Roswell: The UFO Cover-up.”
And so we have entered a wormhole—stitching together the desert of New Mexico with the desert of Southern California—transporting us back to Hollywood. And there, I put on countless other VR headsets, entering other realities. This technology wants to disclose the whole world to me, wants me to emerge and understand how it really is. But in navigating this matrix I instead step sideways into the otherwise, and the pleasure of not knowing.