In this era of advanced recording technology, videos of distant aerial light formations are as common as rain. Most recent 'UFO sightings' seem pretty normal, or even groan-worthy in their obvious artificiality. A spider on a camera lens, a piece of metallic debris tossed about during a tornado, a shooting star - come on, nightly newscasters, give us something good!
Half a century ago, the stories were better, weirder, and more convincing. Maybe this was due to witnesses' minds playing paint-by-number with the facts in the time afterward, but in the absence of recording devices, UFOs seemed altogether more bizarre, more likely, and just plain cooler.
In the summer of 1955, an Ohio man was startled while checking his mailbox. W. M. Sheneman saw what looked like a plane in the sky, indicated by a giant red light. Judging by the speed at which it was moving toward the ground, Sheneman assumed it was going to crash; and as the light moved closer, a vertical beam was sent toward the ground, illuminating a huge pattern in the yard. He ran to the house, hoping to calm his crying children and frightened wife.
The "thing" came to hover over the garage, its red light alternating with a green one. According to Sheneman, it was only about 75 feet above the ground, silent but for a sound like a fan running. Suddenly the lights turned off and, still visible, the UFO zoomed with incredible speed to stop over some nearby woods. Then, it disappeared completely.
Scarier and more bizarre stories accompany sightings: these are close encounters of the second kind, in which a UFO leaves behind some form of physical effect, usually damage. The stories are rare but remarkable.
In Venezuela in 1886, a family of nine slept soundly in their hut, near Maracaibo. They were all startled awake by a loud humming sound and a bright white light, which illuminated the whole interior of their home.
In an attempt to save themselves during the perceived end of the world, the people fell to their knees and prayed, but it did them no good: their faces and lips swelled, and soon they were vomiting. The experience ended abruptly, and by morning, painless black blotches appeared where the facial swelling had been.
After nine days, their skin was peeling, and the blotches turned into painful sores. The family began to lose their hair. Their home suffered no damage at all, although a few trees directly outside withered on the ninth day, just as the family's injuries became serious.
The man who documented this story, Warner Cowgill, left the family in hospital, wishing them well. No further records of their strange and painful experience exist.
Driving through a dense fog near a graveyard, a Massachusetts couple, Mr. and Mrs. William L. Wallace, noticed a bright glow to their left. It was one o'clock a.m., on March 8, 1967. Afraid the glow might be fire (and the fog smoke), they turned around for a better look.
The glow turned out to be a light hovering a few hundred feet above the cemetery. Mr. Wallace got out of the car, and was then thrust against it by an unknown force. The car stalled. Its electrical system went out at the same time. Wallace couldn't move from where he stood, and his wife was panicking. In an instant, the light disappeared, and everything was back to normal - except, of course, the shaken witnesses.
UFOs have been known not only to harass people, but damage wildlife. Around midnight on June 28, 1973, Venea Richards was taking care of her younger brother in the Missouri motor home they shared with her father. She was startled by a "thrashing" sound, coming from a northern swath of trees. She called to her father, and they both looked out the window to see to white beams of light appearing to rise from the trees. They disappeared shortly, revealing their assumed cause: a very bright, floating, oval shape.
The trees blew around as if in gale winds. Some appeared to bend in half, tugged toward the ground. Venea and her father heard a loud crack, and the low floating object moved further north. Dimming, the object emitted orange and blue light. If flew around for a little while, then shrank until it disappeared.
In the aftermath, trees were found broken and scattered; limbs were partially severed, and looked like they had been twisted. All of the damage was fresh, and the leaves on the ground around the broken branches looked charred. Authorities checked the area for radiation the next day, and didn't detect any.
Not all UFO evidence can be put down to errant satellites and weather balloons - some, like the stories above, will likely never be explained, either due to a lack of serious scientific investigation, or because the stories are just too old to be considered more than fiction, however truthfully they were phrased.
Jerome Clark. "The UFO Book: Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial." Detroit, Michigan: Visible Ink, 1998.