Longform

Phoenix's UFO Congress Probes What Believers Insist Comes From "Above"

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Hoover acknowledges that the UFO Congress, with its dyed-in-the-wool believers, is "an unusual venue" for his presentation.

"If I were still working for NASA, I wouldn't be able to get permission to come here," Hoover says. "But I'm retired from NASA, and I'm willing to speak my mind. All I do is report what I've found and what I know. If any scientist wants to debate this with me, I'm willing."

Elsberry says, "There's some backlash because we do have a lot of scientists speaking. I'll have people come up to me and say, 'Why did you have this person? We already know [extraterrestrial] life is here; we know it's abducting people. Why do you have this guy trying to [convince us that] life exists out there?'"

Rojas explains that believers at the conference often accuse the Open Minds team of intentionally deceiving attendees — by bringing in government disinformation agents. Naturally, speakers like Hoover are viewed with suspicion by the Congress' most paranoid attendees.

For Saturday night of the conference, the Elvis of ufology, George Noory, host of the popular Coast to Coast A.M. radio program, is booked. Best heard late at night, crackling from a set of car speakers on the open road, it's a program Noory inherited from former host Art Bell, who launched the show nationally in 1992. Bell's fascination with the paranormal served as an entry point for many would-be phenomenon seekers.

Noory took over in 2003, and though Bell has publicly denounced the show's direction since his departure, it's remarkably popular, broadcast on 570 stations.

Noory bounds onstage wearing a black blazer, jeans, and boots, as Giorgio Moroder's "The Chase" blares over the speakers. Originally featured in the 1978 film Midnight Express, the song is best known as the theme to Coast to Coast.

"This is the by far the biggest event I've attended," Noory remarks to the audience.

He cracks PG-13 jokes for a few minutes, invokes the names of some of the most legendary figures in ufology — Walter Sullivan, author of the bestseller We Are Not Alone, and Stanton Friedman, civilian investigator of the Roswell Incident — and invites Huffington Post contributor Lee Spiegel onstage to discuss the recent Dyer/Bigfoot case.

Spiegel keeps the conversation light, taking a humorous jab at the size of the purported Bigfoot's penis ("Big foot, little penis," he says). It's fun back-and-forth, leaning more toward the entertainment side of things. Noory opens the floor for questions. It doesn't take long for things to get strange.

A young man claiming to be the reincarnated Christ speaks into the microphone at the foot of the stage, demanding to know whether Noory is suppressing information that the Earth is covered by a thick layer of cosmic glass.

The crowd hisses. "Next!" one attendee shouts, and another suggests that Mr. Christ could be yanked from the mic with a long cane. The crowd, dedicated to the otherworldly and beyond, has limits to its patience.


Standing outside the vendor market, Danny Torgersen, frontman of genre-bending Phoenix band Captain Squeegee and guest DJ at the UFO Congress, explains how he chooses songs for the audience.

"I like to take songs that aren't necessarily about the topic" — songs like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone" — "and make them about the topic." Torgersen spins these tracks alongside classic sci-fi recordings and modern indie rock from the Flaming Lips and Grizzly Bear. Torgersen volunteers at the event each year, and he says he loves it. The information — from all its various sources — thrills him.

Back in the vendor room, 40-something Jeff Willes discusses his website, www.ufosoverphoenix.com. He's gathered material for 20 years by pointing cameras at the skies over metro Phoenix. Asked whether the area's light pollution makes it difficult to document flying objects, he smiles.

"A lot of my sightings take place during the day," Willes states.

Across the aisle, Lynne Kitei discusses The Phoenix Lights, a 2005 documentary about the 1997 event, in which thousands observed lights in a "V" formation over Phoenix, Prescott, and other parts of Arizona. Though it was explained by Air Force officials as flares dropped by National Guard planes, Kitei isn't convinced. She left a medical job and acting career — she played "Florence Arizona" in the Coen brothers' 1987 comedy Raising Arizona – to pursue what she says she saw. The film, produced with R. Steve Lantz, is scheduled to screen March 11 at Harkins Shea 14, celebrating the 17th anniversary of the local event.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.