In Advance of the Landing: Folk Concepts of Outer Space by Douglas Curran
In Advance of the Landing (1993) [Abridged version?]
“Douglas Curran has rediscovered the New World – with its own religion and a tribe of credulous believers no less brave than the Cree or the Wampanoag. A not-ready-for-prime-time cult that makes up in fervor what it lacks in style. One that seems to worship equally Ray Walston and Stephen Hawking.”
Chris Carter, creator of “The X-Files”
Close encounter with the saucer sects by Salem Alaton
Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Globe and Mail. 22 February 1986. [News Clipping]
Loren E. Gross
Having completed a detailed survey of UFO material covering the years 1896 to 1963, I came across some English language newspaper clippings primarily from the 1970s and 1980s. A day-by-day treatment of these decades will not be attempted. Instead, I will select certain items that caught my eye and will make a few comments.
Loren E. Gross
By SALEM ALATON
The Globe and Mail
IT WAS A dream that aroused photographer Doug Curran from sleep one night, and in it he imagined the title of a book. After seven years of driving around the United States and Canada with his camera, he was ready to write that book.
In Advance of the Landing: Folk Concepts of Outer Space sounds like an anthropological essay, but that isn’t what Curran came up with. And for all the photo accounts of folk who build rocket idols in rural California or UFO landing pads in Texas, the Abbeville Press book is not a pop culture survey of cranks, misfits and eccentrics.
Instead, it is a respectful memoir of a series of close encounters Curran had with people for whom a flying saucer is “God wrapped in stainless steel.”
A roadside in rural Quebec pointed Curran to the work that would fill in that dream title; a man named Charlie LaBranche had a big model of a rocket mounted on metal poles outside his general store, and to Curran it looked like “a totem attempting to leap away from the gravity of the earth.”
Travelling when he could for one-to three-month bouts in his Renault 16, Curran financed the search that followed with carpentry work in Toronto, commercial photography assignments in Edmonton (where he now lives), and selling postcards of his pictures of the LaBranche rocket and other spacey “folk concepts” he was brushing up against. He met the woman who would become his wife during a stopover in Albuquerque, N.M.
Asking questions at gas stations, cafes and local newspaper offices by day, sleeping in his car at night. Curran clocked more that 35,000 kilometres in the first trip alone, making an intense survey of back roads in states like New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and California. In the “incredible country” that is the United States, he eventually found a network of saucer lovers.
“There’s an incredible texture to life in the U.S. that goes beyond TV watching and four-wheel driving,” Curran says. “Hindus know where they’re going because they know where they’ve been. Americans have no idea. They’re in a continual state of becoming.”
In El Cajon, Calif., he met the head of the Unarius Educational Foundation, a portly woman whose deceased husband is now working on Mars. In St. Paul, Alberta, he heard Mother Teresa give an address from the local UFO landing pad, where “the tiny nun” stood bravely to receive a $975,000 donation from the space-minded citizens. In Washington state, he watched members of New Age Foundation join hands in a “Druidic” ceremony to summon aliens, and in Bellaire, Mich., he visited the elaborate electronic station that a young man named John Shepherd had built in his granny’s home to keep 24-hour surveillance of extra-terrestrial visitations.
“I could talk about spirit with them, and I didn’t mean the Holy Ghost,” Curran, 33, says. “I could listen to them talk about spirit and not have to find the same meaning of it they did.”
On the road again, Curran now goes through the sometimes dispiriting rigors of a publicity tour for his book. Ever wary of the journalist seeking “the 30-second hook,” Curran has a secret he knows will drain away his media sex appeal. He couldn’t care less about UFOs. If pressed, he will say that alien visitations are “possible but not likely.” The insurmountable problem for Curran on this tour is to explain in 30 seconds that UFOs are beside the point.
The beliefs of the UFO devotees, Curran writes in his introduction, “reaffirmed the essential fact of human existence: the need for order and hope.”
The history of UFO sightings has a couple of remarkable concentrations. In 1896-97, Curran notes, there were thousands of individual sightings over 20 U.S. states in what came to be known as The Great Airship Mystery. In the forties and fifties, sightings again proliferated, this time with tales of contacts with aliens. In one case, an alien called Earth “the home of sorrows,” and it isn’t hard to understand where that extraterrestrial was coming from.
“If it (the phenomenon of UFO sightings) is because of an actual occurrence, it’s wonderful,” Curran says. “And if it’s because of a mass hallucination, it’s also wonderful.”
In spiritual terms, apparently, the two possibilities add up to the same thing, the flying saucer representing what psychologist Cart Jung said was in other cultures a sun wheel or magic circle, or, in Curran’s paraphrasing, “an archetype of order, wholeness, deliverance and salvation.”
Among the saucer sects, Curran found a couple of other common denominators. “Jesus Christ as a figure exists for all the flying saucer groups. God as a figure does not, but the idea of a Universal Mind is common. For some, Jesus Christ is the commander of a fleet of spaceships. Christianity has always been the most adaptable of all the religions. For these people what you need, you take and use. What you don’t need you leave off.”
As important is the general love-hate relation with technology. Fear of the atomic bomb is “overriding and pervasive” among the cultists, and reported alien messages often reprimand Earthlings for their irresponsible attitudes. But the saucers, gods so symbolic of the age, “are seen as rooted in nature,” says Curran, who saw many a tin welded rocket in some beautiful patch of backwoods wilderness. “It is nature and technology all at once.”
Not everyone in the book is likeable, and Curran’s text is written in the kind of “impartial” journalistic idiom that leaves it clear he is at times describing charlatans, anti-social types and people otherwise on the fringes. Curran grew up as something of an outsider himself, his father an air force careerist who moved the family to a number of Quebec and Ontario towns before settling in “Loyalist, smug and oppressive“ Belleville, Ont.
But an air of sympathetic understanding wafts through even the inevitably ironic accounts of determined sky-looking pagans (who generally lack a sense of irony themselves). “I genuinely care about them,” Curran says, “which is different than saying that I want them as my friends.”
He has been praised as a “way-shower” by one of the groups, and during his research he made friends with journalist Tom Wolfe, who received a Curran postcard from a friend and eventually wrote a supportive foreword to In Advance of the Landing.
Now Curran is getting ready for a book on tent revivalists in the southern United States. He’s a little nervous about it.
“The evangelists are not as Christian as the UFO people,” Curran says, meaning the evangelists “are not so generous in letting you be the way you are.” Curran has already bumped into a man who “heard the call of the Lord,” sold his business in Massachusetts and now tours with his wife, two children and circus-size tent in a two-ton truck. In small towns they post handbills that read: Revival Tonight.
Curran will do less road work this time, he says, noting that he was 25 when he first started the UFO book. “I can’t stand all those miles of Burger King strips through the U.S. again,” he says.