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The Men in Black

In the much more interesting real-world myth, the Men In Black usually are the scum of the universe. That is, they’re the bad guys, menacing heavies from another world of shifty fixers dispatched by the cover-up-obsessed government.

(It’s interesting – and a bit unsettling – that in Hollywood’s riff on the myth, the MIB become “good guys” to root for, even though they’re members of an elite and xenophobic secret-police organization not unlike the Nazi SS. Apparently in Hollywood of the nineties, it’s politically correct to round up degenerate foreigners as long as they drool copious amounts of outer-space endoplasm.)

In modern accounts, the MIB are usually connected in way to UFO activity. The most common scenario has them appearing on the scene after a UFO encounter to intimidate witnesses with extremely peculiar and often threatening behavior. Dressed in ill-fitting or out-of-style black suits, the classic MIB tend to travel in twos or threes (but also often singly). Their modes of transport vary. They seem to prefer to cruise the paranormal backstreets in black limousines, but they’ve also have been known to pilot the occasional van and, in a few recent accounts, have traded up to that all-purpose conspiracy vehicle, the black helicopter. Yet despite their outré mien, the MIB most often seem to “buy American,” usually vintage 1950s Cadillacs that, eerily enough, often smell brand-new.

Witnesses who report MIB sightings often describe “foreign looking” men with exotic features; it’s as if they’re “from elsewhere.” They look “Oriental” or “Indian” and have “deeply tanned” skin, although sometimes their complexions are extremely pale. The eyes of the MIB or usually described as slanted or “bulging,” as if from a thyroid condition. Their noses and chins are often “point,” and their cheekbones are set high on their faces. Though some are tall and thin, with naturally long fingers, others are short or stout. They may or may not have fingernails.

Stranger still is their reputed behavior, which tends to be disturbingly erratic or downright goofy: In one account a MIB who seems to be suffering overexposure to West Virginia’s oxygen-rich atmosphere is offered some Jell-O, which he attempts to drink like a beverage. Another MIB is initially perplexed when shown the strange terrestrial implement we know as the ballpoint pen, but then becomes gleefully spastic as he absconds into the street with the prize.

MIBs frequently speak tortured English with outlandish accents; in some accounts they don’t move their lips when they communicate, suggesting a knack for telepathy, while in other encounters they speak like “machines.” When it comes to the MIB, the subtext is always “We’re not from around here.”

Separating the truly inexplicable MIB encounters from the sundry hoaxes and hearsay is no mean feat. So many of the MIB tales, which first arose during the UFO flaps of the 1950s, apparently began as pranks or visits by officious government agents investigating the hullabaloo over “flying saucers.”

The book that introduced the world to the modern MIB was a lively little tome with the best title ever: They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. Penned in 1957 by theatrical booking agent and saucer buff Gray Barker, the book was a minor masterpiece in the basement-hobbyist genre of UFOlogy. Barker, a kind of do-it-yourself Fox Mulder, had been investigating reports of flying saucers and backwoods monsters in his home state of West Virginia when he met Albert K. Bender, a somewhat eccentric Connecticut man who had recently formed a group ambitiously called the International Flying Saucer Bureau (IFSB). Bender asked Barker to organize a West Virginia chapter and act as the IFSB’s “chief investigator.”

But Bender’s initial enthusiasm for investigating flying saucers quickly chilled after he was paid a visit by three “men in black suits.” At first, Bender hinted that the men were government agents who had threatened him because “I had stumbled upon something that I was not supposed to know.”

Later, Bender began to insinuate that the men might have been extraterrestrial in origin. Chronicler Barker, who knew how to promotes the hell out of the horror flicks he booked in local bijous, escalated the suspense like voltage darting up a Jacob’s ladder. The balance of They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers was devoted to speculating on the sinister, yet all-too-opaque, provenance of these dark-suited enforcers.

According to Barker, UFO investigators in Australia and New Zealand had been similarly “shushed up” by intimidating visitors in black suits. One researcher claimed to have received a call from a machinelike voice that stated, “I warn you to stop interfering in matters that do not concern you,” and then apparently to make sure the other party had not missed the significance of the robotic elocution, signed off with “I am . . . from another planet.” According to Barker, the strange phenomena down under soon escalated to include poltergeist activity and visitations from “invisible entities” lounging in very visible moccasin slippers.

As Barker was quick to note, Bender and his Commonwealth counterparts hadn’t been the first to encounter UFO-connected MIBs. In 1947 a harbor patrolman named Harold A. Dahl had reported one of the earliest modern saucer sightings, near Maury Island, Washington. Dahl and his fifteen-year-old son saw six doughnut-shaped, metallic objects a hundred feet in diameter hovering over Puget Sound. One of the objects, which seemed to be experiencing mechanical difficulty, discharged a load of liquid, metallic slag. The hot debris fell toward Dahl’s boat, injuring his son and killing his dog, after which the objects flew away.

The aftermath of the “Maury Island Affair,” as it came to be known, is what interested Barker. According to Dahl, the next morning, a man in a black suit confronted him at a local restaurant, offering an exact account of the previous day” incident. Then the man threatened Dahl, telling him that harm would befall him and his family if he told anyone about the incident. But Dahl was undeterred, and his story got out. From there, the case becomes even murkier, with Dahl later confessing that the whole scenario had been a hoax and then, naturally, recanting the mea culpa, generally escalating the confusion.

Eventually, Barker persuaded Bender to go public with the full story of his “shushing.” The result was a 1962 book, Flying Saucers and the Three Men, ostensibly authored by Bender but heavily edited by Barker. Unfortunately, after the giddy buildup of Barker’s prequel, Bender’s tell-all came as a major letdown. Reading more like fan-boy sci-fi than the interplanetary expose it purported to be, Flying Saucers and the Three Men was brimming with all the pulpy chiches of the day, from teleportation to underground saucer bases to mid-atlantic alien dialogue like “Please be advised to discontinue delving into the mysteries of the universe.”

After contacting the saucer men telepathically from his bedroom (by mentally projecting a message of “utmost friendship” into the cosmos), Bender eventually meets three MIBs face-to-face. They are “dressed in black clothes… like clergymen” but wearing “hats similar to Homburg style.” Per Bender, “The eyes of all three figures suddenly lit up like flashlight bulbs…. They seemed to burn into my very soul.” To make a long story short, the MIBs announce that they are visitors from the planet “Kazik” on a secret mission to steal earth seawater. With what can only be the deadpan irony of an advanced extraterrestrial race, they explain that they will confide in Bender because “one day you will write about this, and we are certain nobody will believe you, but you will be much wiser than anyone else on your planet.”

It is, of course, possible that a kernel of truth lies at the heart of Bender’s fantastic tale: As head of the impressive-sounding International Flying Saucer Bureau, Bender may indeed have been paid a visit by government types curious about then-ubiquitous reports of flying saucers; and from there the impressionable Bender may have let his imagination run wild. Barker would eventually suggest as much.

But the real trouble with the MIB legend is that Barker himself is so acutely tangled in its origins. Barker died in 1985, but in recent years his friends have confirmed that he was an inveterate hoaxer.

Indeed, he may turn out to be one of the great pranksters of the twentieth century: According to his friend and fellow MIB chronicler John Keel (more on Keel in a moment), Barker “left behind a rich heritage of practical jokes and UFO hoaxes which… are now an integral part of flying saucer literature. He paved the way for the myriad of hoaxes of the 1980s.”

In the afterward of his book The Mothman Prophesies, Keel claims that it was Barker who invented the tale of Hanger 18, the supposedly top-secret air-force repository of crashed alien saucers and ET corpses at Wright-Patterson Field in Ohio. And Keel maintains that Barker also fabricated the “Edwards Air Force Base fairy tale (in which he names several of his personal friends as witnesses, along with President Eisenhower).” Both of those whoppers (according to Keel) “served as the framework for the MJ-12 and Roswell, New Mexico, ‘crashed saucer’ hoaxes that absorbed the attention of many UFO buffs throughout the 1980s.” (And well into the 1990s, I might add. And IF Keel is correct, latter-day UFOlogists, many of whom accept the MJ-12 and Roswell stories as bedrock truth, are perched on a rather unstable fault line.)

Another former Barker confederate, Lonzo Dove, told conspiracy chronicler Jim Keith that Bender’s three mysterious men were none other than Barker and two pals in disguise. According to Dove, it was all a “cruel joke” at Bender’s expense.

Another friend of Barker’s, UFO researcher Jim Moseley, told Keith that Barker “did take Bender seriously, at the beginning. Then, when he realized the Bender was either not sane or not truthful… when he lost faith in Bender, which was within the first couple of years, in ’55 or ’56, after that [Barker] was just enjoying himself and making money.”

Which brings me to the next major wave in MIB encounters. Over the course of a year in 1966 and 1967, the town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, was plagued by a series of extremely bizarre paranormal events centering around sightings of a humanoid, winged creature that came to be known as “the Mothman.” Interestingly, West Virginian Gray Barker would surface more than once on the periphery of events in Point Pleasant that year, which gives us ample reason to suspect the hand of a merry hoaxer at work. But the sheer scope of the weirdness suggests the involvement of other agencies as well, paranormal or otherwise.

John Keel chronicles that hysteria in his classic book The Mothman Prophesies. Hapless citizens who came face-to-face with the red-eyed birdman or who chanced upon the glowing aerial lights that haunted Point Pleasant that year were often paid visits by the MIB.

In November 1966, not far from where the Mothman would soon make its first appearances, appliance salesman Woodrow Derenberger encountered a UFO “shaped like an old-fashioned kerosene lamp chimney, flaring at both ends.” The unlikely craft landed on the highway in front of Derenberger, forcing him to hit the brakes. A five-foot-ten-inch-tall man with dark skin exited the strange vehicle and approached Derenberger’s car. Grinning, the visitor addressed Derenberger without moving his lips, ostensibly through telepathy. His name was “Indrid Cold,” and he said he hailed from “a country much less powerful” than the United States.

After a brief exchange, Cold returned to his craft, which took off into the night sky. Soon Derenberger began receiving threatening phone calls, warning him to keep quiet about the encounter, plus calls featuring spooky electronic whoops and lulus (another staple of MIB harassment). According to Derenberger, the spaceman continued to contact him telepathically and in person. Cold came from the planet Lanulos “in the galaxy of Ganymede.” Derenberger became a bit of a local celebrity, and his story fleshed itself out as time went on: The appliance salesman was eventually whisked to Brazil and then to planet Lanulos.

At about the same time, Derenberger was having his first confabs with Indrid Cold and others in the Point Pleasant region were running into mysterious, foreign men in suits. There were MIBs and black sedans around every corner it seemed:

After witnessing a UFO fly over her backyard, Mary Hyre, a newspaper reporter in Point Pleasant, had a succession of oddball visitors in thick-soled shoes. A large black car often followed her, peeling away when she noticed it and once screeching to a halt and disgorging a man with a flash camera.At one point, two short men wearing black overcoats called on Hyre at the newspaper office. According to Hyre, they looked almost like twins, with dark complexions and “Oriental” features. One of them blurted out, “What would you do if someone did order you to stop writing about flying saucers?” Later that same day, another small, Asian-looking man in black visited her office. He had abnormally long fingers and an unfamiliar accent. He introduced himself as “Jack Brown,” a UFO researcher, and then stuttered, “What – would – what would you do – if someone ordered – ordered you to stop? To stop printing UFO stories.” He denied knowing the other two men but claimed to be a friend of Gray Barker’s.

Apparently, it was the same Jack Brown who visited several other Point Pleasant residents that day, including a woman who had seen the Mothman. Again, he mentioned Gray Barker and added that he also was a friend of Mary Hyre and John Keel. He fumbled with a large reel-to-reel tape recorder that he apparently did not know how to operate.After observing a spherical UFO with four landing gears and a bottom-mounted propeller, Tad Jones reported the incident to the police. The next morning, someone had slipped a note, hand-printed in block letters, under his door. It read: “We know what you have seen, and we know that you have talked. You’d better keep your mouth shut.” Several days later, a second note arrived via the same means. It was printed on a piece of cardboard that had been singed around the edges, and read: “…there want [sic] be another warning.”

A week later, Jones saw a man standing at the site of the earlier UFO encounter. “He was very tanned,” Jones said, “or his face was very flushed. He looked normal and was wearing a blue coat and a blue cap with a visor… something like a uniform, I guess. I noted he was holding a box in his hand. Some kind of instrument. It had a large dial on it, like a clock, and a wire ran from it to his other hand.”

Other UFO and Mothman witnesses received the peculiar phone calls with either electronic noises on the other end or voices described as “metallic” or “machinelike,” often speaking in a foreign language.

The MIB began harassing eighteen-year-old Connie Carpenter soon after she crossed paths with the Mothman when she was driving home from church. “Jack Brown” showed up at her house, doing his usual shtick, including the Bray Barker and Mary Hyre references. While Connie was walking to school, a black 1949 Buick sidled up alongside her. The driver, a young, well-dressed man in his twenties reached out and grabbed her, trying to pull her into the car. Connie escaped, but the next morning someone slipped a penciled not under her door: “Be careful girl,” it read. “I can get you yet.”

isastrous coda to the Point Pleasant hauntings was soon to come. In Mothman Prophesiesel writes that a Long Island woman named “Jane” received from the MIBs a forewarning of that disaster. After a close encounter with a piercing beam of light during a drive through the woods, Jane received a phone call from a machinelike voice that instructed her to locate a specific book at the local library. As Keel tells it, Jane found the book and read page 42, as instructed. As she looked at the page, “the print became smaller and smaller, then larger and larger.” Then it “changed into a message” informing her she would be given a series of predictions.

The forecasts were delivered in the person of a grinning “Hawaiian” with Asian eyes who wore a gray suit and rode in the passenger section of a shiny new black Cadillac. He called himself Apol. Keel, whom Jane had contacted, was kept informed about each new prediction. Per Keel, many of Apol’s predictions of plane crashed took place on schedule. But Apol’s augury that “the Pope would be knifed to death in a bloody manner” and that “the Antichrist will rise up out of Israel” were among the misses. When Keel hypnotized Jane, she allegedly remembered several more boffo predictions that Apol had made, including Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination and a December 15 disaster in Point Pleasant. On that day, the town’s seven-hundred-foot Silver Bridge collapsed, killing forty-six people.

Whatever was really going on in Point Pleasant, it sure made for a damn good read. (A major Hollywood studio currently has plans to adapt the story into a feature film.) That Gray Barker was on the scene, ostensibly chronicling the events but perhaps tweaking them along, is the kind of thing that sets our paranoid antennae twitching.

In an interview with Jum Keith, Keel admitted that Barker was behind some of the Point Pleasant hijinks: “He did a lot of the phone nonsense, and I tracked him down on it.” Keith points out: “Was it simply an accident that the Mothman encounters, the most incredible of paranoid flaps, took place in Gray Barker’s home state of West Virginia?”

It’s possible that Barker had confreres who helped him pull off at least some of the paranormal special effects that plagued Point Pleasant. But the sheer scope of the supernatural shenanigans suggests that there were other agendas at play. In his thoroughgoing volume Casebook on the Men in Black, author Jim Keith hypthesizes that Point Pleasant may have been a testing ground for a government experiment in mass hysteria. After all, the CIA illegally conducted mind-control tests on unsuspecting U.S. citizens as part of its notorious MK-ULTRA project, and thanks to the Agency’s subsequent disposal of most MK-ULTRA records, we’ll never know the full scope of those official pranks. Perhaps the government did use Point Pleasant residents as guinea pigs in a psychological-warfare experiment.

But just as it’s impossible to dismiss all of the Mothman happenings as practical jokes, or psywar operations, so, too, is it impossible to dismiss all MIB accounts as hoaxes. The UFO literature is rife with inexplicable encounters with MIBs. In fact, UFOlogists have found similar accounts of preternatual, prankish, and often menacing beings in black throughout the annals of folklore. Jacques Vallee and others have painstakingly cataloged the cosmology that behave uncannily like modern UFO pilots. Whether those MIB motifs are merely images stored in human-kind’s collective unconscious or evidence of something more literal is open to debate.

On extreme vanguard of literal patrol, conspiracy author William Bramley posits in his book The Gods of Eden that extaterrestrial MIBs were behind the plague. He cites a summary written in 1682: “In Brandenburg there appeared in 1559 horrible men, of whom at first fifteen and later on twelve were seen. The foremost had beside their posteriors little heads, the others fearful faces and long scythes, with which they cut at the oats, so that the swish could be heard at a great distance….” Immediately after the MIBish visit to the oat fields, the plague broke out in Brandenburg, leading Bramley to wonder: “What were the long scythe-like instruments they held that emitted a loud swishing sound? It appears that the ‘scythes’ may have been long instruments designed to spray poison or germ-laden gas.”

Or maybe not.