Contactees are persons who claim to have experienced contact with extraterrestrials. Contactees have typically reported that they were given messages or profound wisdom by extraterrestrial beings, and that they were compelled to share these messages. These claimed encounters are often described as ongoing, but some contactees claim to have had as few as a single encounter.
As a cultural phenomenon, contactees perhaps had their greatest notoriety from the late 1940s to the late 1950s, but individuals continue to make similar claims in the present, such as Swiss cult leader Billy Meier. Some have shared their messages with small groups of followers, and many have issued newsletters or spoken at UFO conventions.
The stories of contactees contain much material that has not stood the test of time, such as claims that there are unknown planets within this solar system, or that the planets of our solar system are inhabited by so-called "Space Brothers", beings physically similar to humans but more spiritually evolved. Certainly at least some of the claims were fraudulent.
The contactee movement has seen serious attention from academics and mainstream scholars. Among the earliest was the classic 1956 study, When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, et al., which included information about, and analysis of, contactee groups. Additionally, there have been at least two university-level anthologies of scientific papers regarding the contactee movements (see sources below). Jenny Randles and Peter Houghe have written that "The contactee movement is a rich treat for anthropologists, sticky with sincere and sincerely deluded individuals. Were the contactees in touch with anything other than their own internal fantasies?"
Contactee accounts are generally different from those who allege alien abduction, in that while contactees usually describe beneficial experiences involving human-like aliens, abductees rarely describe their experiences positively.
Astronomer J. Allen Hynek described Contactees as asserting "the visitation to the earth of generally benign beings whose ostensible purpose is to communicate (generally to a relatively few selected and favored persons — almost invariably without witnesses) messages of 'cosmic importance'. These chosen recipients generally have repeated contact experiences, involving additional messages. The transmission of such messages to willing and uncritical true believers frequently, in turn, leads to the formation of a flying saucer cult, with the 'communicator' or 'contactee' the willing and obvious cult leader. Although relatively few in number, such flying saucer advocates have by their irrational acts strongly influenced public opinion."
Contactees became a cultural phenomona in the 1940s and continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s, often giving lecture and writing books about their experience, and in some cases developing cult-like followings. Although the cultural impact of contactees has since declined, the phenomona still exists today. Skeptics hold that such 'contactees' are deluded or dishonest in their claims. Writer Susan Clancy, wrote that such claims are “false memories” concocted out of a “blend of fantasy-proneness, memory distortion, culturally available scripts, sleep hallucinations, and scientific illiteracy.”
Contactees usually portrayed the "Space Brothers" as more or less identical in appearance and mannerisms to humans. The Brothers are also almost invariably reported as disturbed by the violence, crime and wars that infest the earth, and by the possession of various earth nations of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons. However, despite their global concerns, the "Space Brothers" never landed their flying saucers in front of the United Nations building, the White House or the Kremlin to spread their message. Instead, they invariably selected obscure people (dishwashers, road crew members, assembly-line workers, sign-painters and taxi-drivers), often having a long prior history of involvement with mystical sects. Almost every contactee asserts that the urgent message of the Space Brothers is religious rather than technical; extraterrestrial religions as reported by the contactees are generally difficult to distinguish from a blend of Christianity and Theosophy.
Peebles summarizes the common features of many contactee claims:
Though the word contactee was not in common use until the 1950s, the authors of the anthologies noted in "sources" below use the term to describe persons whose claims occurred centuries before the UFO era, attempting to depict them as a part of the same tradition.
Though not linked to flying saucers or odd aerial lights, it is perhaps worth noting that there is a long history of claims of contact with non-earthly intelligences. The founding revelations of many of the world's religions involve contact between the founder and a supernatural source of wisdom, such as a god in human form or an angel. In this context, it might be expected that most of the 1950s contactees would form their own religions, with the contactee as sole spiritual leader, and that is just what happened, almost invariably.
As early as the 1700s, people like Emanuel Swedenborg were claiming to be in psychic contact with inhabitants of other planets. 1758 saw the publication of Concerning Earths in the Solar System, in which Swedenborg detailed his alleged journeys to the inhabited planets. J. Gordon Melton notes that Swedenborg's planetary tour stops at Saturn, the furthest planet known during Swedenborg's era — he did not visit Uranus, Neptune or Pluto.
Later, Helena Blavatsky would make claims similar to Swedenborg's.
In 1891, Thomas Blott's book The Man From Mars was published. The author claimed to have met a Martian in Kentucky. Unusually for an early contactee, Blott reported that the Martian communicated not via telepathy, but in English.
Another early contactee book, of sorts, was From India To The Planet Mars by Theodore Flournoy (1900). Flournoy detailed the claims of Helene Smith, who, whilst in a trance, dictated information gleaned from her psychic visits to the planet Mars — including a Martian alphabet and language she could write and speak. Flournoy determined that Smith's claims were spurious, based on fantasy and imagination. Her "Martian" language was simply a garbled version of French.
Magoon's book William Magoon: Psychic and Healer was published in 1930. He claimed that, in the early 1900s, he had been unexpectedly and instantaneously transported to Mars. The planet was essentially earth-like, with cities and wilderness. The inhabitants had radio and automobiles. Though they were invisible, Magoon sensed their presences.
Though Magoon was obscure, Ballard would have more impact via the I Am movement he established. In 1935, Ballard claimed that, several years earlier, he and over 100 others witnessed the appearance of 12 Venusians in a cavern beneath Mount Shasta. The Venusians played music for the audience, said Ballard, then showed the crowd a large mirror-like device that displayed images of life on Venus. The Venusians then allegedly reported that the earth would suffer through an era of tension and warfare, followed by worldwide peace and goodwill.
George Adamski, who would later become probably the most prominent contactee of the UFO era, was one contactee with an earlier interest in the occult. Adamski founded the Royal Order of Tibet in the 1930s. Writes Michael Bakun, "His [later] messages from the Venusians sounded suspiciously like his own earlier occult teachings."
Christopher Partridge notes, importantly, that the pre-1947 contactees "do not involve UFOs." Rather, he suggests that an existing tradition of extraterrestrial contact via seances and psychic means promptly incorporated the flying-saucer mythos when it arrived.
The 1947 report of Kenneth Arnold sparked widespread interest in flying saucers, and before long, people were claiming to have been in contact with flying saucer inhabitants.
There was a nearly-continuous series of contactees, beginning with George Adamski in 1952. Radio host John Nebel interviewed many contactees on his program during this era. The stereotypical contactee account in these days involved not just conversations with friendly, human-appearing spacemen but visits inside their flying saucers, and rides to large "Mother Ships" in Earth orbit, and even jaunts to the moon, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn.
By the late 1950s, many contactees were no longer claiming to have been physically visited by aliens; rather, they were more often in psychic contact with the spacemen, who passed their messages on to people in trances. However, alien contact via Ouija board, spirit mediums and channelling was fairly common even in the early 1950s. Eventually, there was a complicated crossover with the later "psychic channeling" movement, which found a degree of renewed popularity beginning in the late 1960s.
In support of their claims, early 1950s contactees often produced photographs of the alleged flying saucers or their occupants. A number of photos of a "Venusian scout ship" by George Adamski and identified by him as a typical extraterrestrial flying saucer were noted to bear a suspicious resemblance to a type of once commonly available chicken egg incubator, complete with three light bulbs which Adamski said were "landing gear."
For over two decades, contactee George Van Tassel hosted the annual "Giant Rock Interplanetary Spacecraft Convention" in the Mojave Desert. Another 1950s contactee, Buck Nelson, held a similar convention in the Ozarks of Missouri up until 1965.
Though contactees faded from mainstream consciousness, people continued making claims of extraterrestrial contact.
Swiss cult leader Billy Meier has managed to include every one of the classic 1950s contactees within his own religious framework, and has made room for tens of thousands more, as this reported exchange between Meier and one of his extraterrestrial contacts indicates: "Meier: ... If you allow, I want to ask you about some matters respecting contacts. How many contactees exist in the world today...?" "Ptaah: The exact number of real contactees on Earth is presently 17,422 (1975). They are scattered over all your states and lands. Of that number only a few percent come to public attention. Many of them are working according to our advice at different labors and tasks.... In different cases such persons are also having contacts with us without being informed that we do not belong to Earth.... Of all these 17,422 contactees (the number increases continuously) only a few hundred are known publicly...."
Examples since the 1990s include the Heaven's Gate group (whose members committed mass suicide) and the Raelian Movement, which earned international attention with their claims of successful human cloning.
Even in ufology — itself subject to at best very limited and sporadic mainstream scientific or academic interest — contactees were generally seen as the lunatic fringe, and "serious" ufologists subsequently avoided the subject, for fear it would harm their attempts at "serious" study of the UFO phenomenon (Sheaffer 1986:17; 1998:34-35). Jacques Vallée notes that "No serious investigator has ever been very worried by the claims of 'contactees.'"
Some time after the phenomenon had waned, Temple University historian David Michael Jacobs noted a few interesting facts: the accounts of the prominent contactees grew ever more elaborate, and as new claimants gained notoriety, they typically backdated their first encounter, claiming it occurred earlier than anyone else's. Jacobs speculates that this was an attempt to gain a degree of "authenticity" to trump other contactees.
Those who claim to be contactees include: