UFOs are in. The current wave of enthusiasm began in 2017 when major newspapers reported on the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), which spent $22 million investigating Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs), with media homing in on the idea that the government might soon reveal what it knows about UFOs. Four years later in 2021 the Pentagon “released a report of UAP sightings by pilots and military personnel… revers[ing] the multi-year—and quite successful—campaign to debunk all types of witness testimonies regarding UAP sightings.” Then, last summer, retired intelligence officer David Grusch testified before congress, claiming to have second hand knowledge of a secret program to reverse engineer alien technology. Grusch described himself as a whistleblower and said he hoped these revelations would cause “ontological shock.”
All this talk of imminent UFO disclosure hasn’t gone unnoticed by religious studies scholars. So when I was offered an interview with filmmaker and reality TV star Serena DC about her forthcoming documentary We Are Not Alone, I was intrigued. The film (not to be confused with the sci-fi comedy of the same name) describes DC’s own experiences with CE5 (close encounters of the fifth kind)—a growing movement of people attempting to contact aliens using meditation.
CE5 experiencers often report seeing anomalous lights (and sometimes even beings) in response to their efforts. Practitioners want UFO disclosure and believe their experiments may help persuade the government to reveal what it knows. While CE5 is not an institutionalized church, DC’s story of how she discovered it and why she promotes it maps with sociological models of how people become associated with new religious movements. As an NRM scholar the desire for government disclosure strikes me as a form of millennialism—a hope for a form of collective salvation.
The documentary features an impressive cast, including legendary Ufologist Jacques Vallée, Andrea Perron, whose experiences formed the basis of the film The Conjuring, and Dr. Steven Greer, the inventor of the CE5 protocols. We Are Not Alone is what Serena calls a “follow doc,” in which the audience is invited to follow her as she interviews experiencers, explores the UFO subculture, and even experiments with past life regression therapy. Following DC’s journey isn’t going to persuade anyone who’s skeptical about recent disclosure claims, but it is useful data for understanding what draws people to the contemporary UFO culture.
In 1972, Ufologist J. Allen Hynek published his book The UFO Experience, outlining three categories of close encounters with aliens. In the 1980s, Ufologists added a fourth category: abduction by aliens. In CE5, however, humans take the initiative, trying to draw the aliens to them. This is not a new idea. We Are Not Alone features a snippet of The Carpenters’ “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,” a song originally recorded in 1976 by Canadian rock band Klaatu, who themselves adapted the lyrics from an experiment conducted by Albert K. Bender, founder of The International Flying Saucer Bureau (IFSB). Bender encouraged readers of his magazine, Space Review, to simultaneously concentrate on sending a telepathic message to the UFOs on March 15, 1953—a date Bender called “Contact Day.” Note Bender’s hope that the ET’s will not only help us, but bring a miracle:
Calling occupants of interplanetary craft. Calling occupants of interplanetary craft that have been observing our planet EARTH. We of the IFSB wish to make contact with you. We are your friends, and would like you to make an appearance here on EARTH. Your presence before us will be welcomed with the utmost friendship. We will do all in our power to promote mutual understanding between your people and the people of EARTH. Please come in peace and help us in our EARTHLY problems. Give us some sign that you have received our message. Be responsible for creating a miracle here on our planet to wake up the ignorant ones to reality. Let us hear from you. We are your friends.
CE5 is essentially a more sophisticated version of Bender’s Contact Day experiment. In 1975, before Steven Greer became a physician, he was trained as a Transcendental Meditation teacher. In 1990 he founded the Center for the Study of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (CSETI) and in 1991 Greer’s team reported their first successful contact with a UFO, which appeared in the sky and blinked its lights at them. CE5 has continued to grow over since.
In April 2020, Greer was featured prominently in the documentary Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind: Contact has Begun, directed by DC’s friend Michael Mazzola. As DC recalls, the film was perfectly timed to coincide with Covid lockdown:
It was the middle of Covid and I was bored and I had become an alcoholic I think at that point, like everybody else. Living in my pajamas. I watched this movie and I was like “Wow, this is so cool! I’ve always believed in ETs but I’ve never seen anything. . . . So I’m like OK I’m gonna go out into a field with my partner at the time and we’re gonna do CE5 and maybe we’ll see something. . . . We do the meditation, open our eyes, look at each other and start laughing, feeling like we’re two idiots in a field, you know? And then it happened. And I saw the most profound unbelievable UFO sighting ever—way more than I was expecting! And that just changed my life forever.
Soon after, DC reached out to Greer and began work on her own documentary. As she explains, DC has gotten more out of CE5 than just UFO encounters:
When you’re 40 and you have kids and family you sort of lose friendships. You don’t have as many close friends as you used to and it can be quite a lonely life. What CE5 has done for me is it’s given me friendship and love and a community to be part of. So for anybody who’s just looking for something where they can meet like-minded people and have fun and do crazy weird stuff and see UFOS, look for the CE5 app, which is something Dr. Steven Greer has, or watch the movie and just get involved. Because something’s going on. We don’t exactly know what it is, but I can tell you this: it’s magical and when you do see a light in the sky, if you’re lucky enough to see one, it will change your life forever.
DC doesn’t consider CE5 to be a religion due to its lack of institutional structure and belief in a supreme deity. But her story is structurally similar to models of joining alternative groups first developed in the 1960s. In an article called “Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective,” sociologists John Lofland and Rodney Stark theorized that people who join marginalized groups generally experience seven stages. It begins with people finding the movement during a period of tension, which leads to the formation of “affective bonds” (friendships) with others before finally spreading word of the movement. Lofland and Stark presented this model as an alternative to claims that people who joined marginalized religions were “brainwashed,” but the model may also explain why so many people discovered CE5 in 2020 during the stress of lockdown.
In 1993, Greer started The Disclosure Project, which encourages the government to disclose the reality of UFOs, as well as advanced technologies like alternative energy that could save the planet. The idea behind disclosure actually predates modern UFO culture. In 1946, Ray Palmer, the editor of science-fiction magazine Amazing Stories, wrote, “If you think responsible parties in world governments are ignorant of the fact of space ships visiting Earth, you just don’t think the way we do.” The following year, pilot Kenneth Arnold reported a sighting of objects that the media described as “flying saucers,” which—with help from Palmer—began the era of modern Ufology.
Skeptics point out that the government can only disclose information about UFOs if it actually has any. DC is confident they do, citing her interview with Daniel Sheehan, a constitutional lawyer who claims to have sources who know what the government is hiding. Supposedly, the scenario the government is trying to avoid is one of “catastrophic disclosure,” in which the public reacts with mass panic. DC feels this scenario is unlikely: “We just endured a global pandemic—I mean it was only two and a half years ago—but not only did we survive, we thrived through it and now we’ve gotten over it and moved on. I tend to think that’s what will happen when disclosure happens.”
DC believes the government has adopted a strategy of “controlled disclosure,” in which the public will be given a slow drip of information in preparation for the full truth. She hinted that something was coming in the next few weeks and, indeed, just days after our interview, Congress passed a “UFO disclosure bill.” Unfortunately, the bill was stripped of any language requiring documents to be declassified. It merely directs the National Archives to collect reports on UAPs.
Claims of imminent disclosure start to seem like Charlie Brown constantly running to kick the football only to land on his face. In 2002, Greer claimed he had “over 400 military witnesses” ready to testify before Congress about UFOs (and added that disclosure could not only have freed us from oil dependence but also prevented the September 11 terror attacks). Similarly, while figures like Grusch and Sheehan admit they don’t have firsthand knowledge of UFOs, they claim to know people who do, and that they will talk some day soon.
NRM scholars have noted that while failed prophecies sometimes harm religious movements, more often groups simply postpone their millennial predictions or declare the prophecy was misunderstood. This seems true for CE5 practitioners who insist these are not false starts but the slow progress of controlled disclosure.
We Are Not Alone invites the audience into the worldview of those hoping for disclosure. To them, disclosure means not only solving humanity’s problems, but learning the truth about our origins and our place in the universe. All it requires is a few hours sitting in a field with friends, sending good intentions to the stars. It sounds almost reasonable.