The Alien Within
At age 7, the image burned into my mind. I was always allowed to watch any horror movie I wanted, my parents had no restrictions in that regard. For some reason these few seconds haunted me for years, and still do. A man awakes in the night, irked by the feeling something is prowling around his isolated cabin in the woods. He looks at his cracked bedroom door, peering into the black beyond. “Is that someone there…?” He whispers to the shadows. Suddenly, half of an alien’s head peers around the door — staring at him with one big black eye — before it disappears back into the dark.
I still remember the goosebumps that ran up my spine. It was my first visual introduction to the taboo topic of alien abduction. It was something (through my mother’s work) that I had always heard about, even at a young age. But seeing it onscreen gave it a very real sense. A strange light in the sky is one thing. Not being safe in your own bed is another.
Strieber brazenly told of how the intimate and the alien coexist in the liminal cracks of everyday existence.
On November 10, 1989, Communion opened to abysmal box office numbers and mostly negative reviews. Thirty years later, it’s a gem. It’s also elusive. As of now, its online presence is practically nil and only available on DVD. It stars Christopher Walken, as Whitley Strieber, who gives the most Walken performance of his career. Along with Lindsay Crouse (mother to Zosia Mamet), as Ann Strieber, they create a family dynamic that’s both idiosyncratic and heartfelt. Eric Clapton even composed the cool and haunting main theme, seething with moody guitar leads and a mix of prog synth as scenes are punctuated with vast, sweeping shots above a pre-9/11 Manhattan that give the sense of an all-seeing watcher.
Besides being a film about a family who overcomes a crisis, it also offers one of the most psychologically compelling takes on the UFO phenomenon.
Communion was adapted from Whitley Strieber’s controversial and bestselling book of non-fiction about his encounters with what he calls “visitors” at his cabin in upstate New York on December 26, 1985. The book terrified audiences in the 1980's (don’t read it at night like I did), chronicling: how the traumatic events affected him mentally, emotionally, and psychically; how they threatened his home life and his own sanity; and how he came to terms with this hidden dimension of himself.
Given the fact that he was already an established horror fiction writer who was now writing a true story about little blue men taking him away to unimaginable dimensions, the prose is surprisingly humorless. I kept thinking, as I read, is the irony lost on this guy? Instead, the reader is invited into Strieber’s vast world of rumination, reverie, and self-evaluation. It’s as if he wrote his therapy journal as a published memoir that went on to be a #1 New York Times bestseller. We should all be so lucky.
In a meditation that serves as a thread throughout his story, he rhetorically asks, “Who had come to see me during the night? Did they really drop down from the sky, or have they come from some other cosmos, a place where dreams are real and reality a dream, where shadows and those who cast them are one in the same?”
Walken brings a humor to the Strieber character that softens the bizarre alien encounter sequences. This is what makes the movie work. And we’re talking bizarre. Walken’s interactions with the visitors verge on the psychedelic and absurd — a surrealist dreamtime dance with these diminutive strangers in a strange land.
The alien special effects look so fake it’s good, and even if it is subpar, whatever. I’ll take subpar practical effects over CGI any day of the week. It’s as if the cheesy effects of the grey aliens are made to look dreamlike and unconvincing on purpose, as to jar the viewer out of preconceived notions of what these creatures are.
The hypnosis scenes in which he uncovers the buried memories of his abductors are the film’s most riveting, beginning with Strieber breaking the fourth wall, gazing into the camera, and cryptically reciting, “I am you, and you are me, and…we are here… I am the dreamer…you are the dream.”
In terms of modern UFO mythology, Communion is both definitive and subversive.
Before the infamous book cover, the clichéd grey alien with bulbous head and large black eyes was not in the collective consciousness. Famous cases like Travis Walton and Betty and Barney Hill made headlines but didn’t lay down any communal touchstone for other experiencers to grasp onto. I’ve heard from several abductees about the first time they saw the cover of Communion on bookshelves. It hit them like a bolt of lightning. A primal scream came searing out of their subconscious. It was a moment of affirmation, confirmation. I’m not crazy. Someone else has seen it too.
Though, a bittersweet affirmation. Because if they weren’t crazy, then something very real is afoot.
“I wondered if there was any relationship between my experience and the mystic walk of the shaman, or the night ride of the witch.”
More on how this case was definitive. Strieber’s experience was also the first marker for apocalyptic visions shown by the visitors. It was in his own bedroom that one of these beings touched a silver wand in between Strieber’s eyebrows. What followed were a flash of images in his mind’s eye — of the Earth blowing up and of his son dying. Admittedly, these were his own deep-seated fears that he had for years (ecological concern and concern for his son’s future) that the visitors somehow knew, and brought to the forefront of his mind.
Countless cases have shown that abductees often report being shown images of the Earth’s demise, and as a result, these people develop a newfound sense of urgency and responsibility when it comes to environmental concerns. The idea of an inheritance of abduction came to light in this case as well, as an abductee’s child is typically prone to these experiences, and this was highlighted in the case of Strieber’s son. Lastly, and most provocatively, need I even mention Strieber’s experience was also the first introduction to the infamous ‘anal probe’ procedure, which became the proverbial butt of any and every alien abduction joke? I suppose I do.
At the same time, Strieber’s account subverts and frustrates the typical “profile” of an abduction. Many involved in the field of ufology watch the movie and don’t understand what’s going on, especially in the climax. The very term ‘alien abduction’ relies upon the validity of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), that is, any strange object seen in the sky or any strange being appearing in someone’s bedroom is attributed to extraterrestrials from another planet. Communion, however, delves more into inner space, acknowledging the very personal and psychic connection when it comes to encountering these beings (whatever they are, and wherever they come from).
What Communion does, thirty years later, is remind us of the more nuanced and profound conversation to be had when it comes to the UFO phenomenon.
Researchers in the past, like Dr. Kenneth Ring, author of The Omega Project: Near-Death Experiences, UFO Encounters, and Mind at Large, have set the ET Hypothesis aside to tackle the more confounding nature of these experiences. “If you look at the structure of these experiences, they have the structure of the shamanic journey, of initiation: you’re taken from the ordinary world, you’re taken to another world, you learn things, you are transformed in that world, and you bring back those transformations with you.”
Strieber himself acknowledges the mystical aspect of his own journey. In the book, he writes:
“That first night back at the cabin, I looked at the couch where they had left me on December 26. I wondered if the old earth did not settle in some obscure, internal way just at the moment I came to consciousness there. Perhaps its low-frequency emissions changed and I fell not from that hidden room in the sky but rather from some lurching walkabout in my own night house. I wondered if there was any relationship between my experience and the mystic walk of the shaman, or the night ride of the witch.”
With UFOs all over the news, we find ourselves reassessing our relationship to them. But although the ridicule factor isn’t what it was thirty years ago, we still have no answers. The phenomena of UFOs and alien abduction are just as opaque today as they were thirty years ago — and thirty years before that.
Instead of tirelessly, and with no satisfaction, searching for answers ‘out there,’ Communion begs the question: what happens when we search within?
During the climax of the film, the true confrontation isn’t between him and these strange creatures. He actually is at peace with these beings. He literally hi-fives them with an ecstatic laugh while they dance.
The true confrontation comes between Strieber and a reflection of himself — a sinister double version dressed as a magician and repeating things back to him that he said during his abduction: “I wanna go home”… “Please let me go”… “You’ve broken my mind”… “I’ll kill you”… “Can we talk this over?”… “I can’t wake up”… all with the taunt of a schoolyard bully (and the chilling effect of a guttural echo in his voice).
The ‘magic trick’ that his double reveals is a hissing monster under the mask of a grey alien. “That’s not it…” Strieber says, incredulously. “I didn’t come all this way for you to tell me that that’s what it is. Is there something under that because I don’t believe that one,” he continues as his double laughs at his reaction villainously. “It’s like a box, a Chinese box. You open it and there’s another one inside… another one inside… another one inside. You’re not going to let me see you, are you?”
This is not unlike the sentiment of writer and psychonaut Terence McKenna, who purported that this intelligence has disguised itself as an alien invasion as to not alarm us over what’s really going on.
What Communion does, thirty years later, is remind us of the more nuanced and profound conversation to be had when it comes to the UFO phenomenon. The ET Hypothesis fits nicely into our warmed-over materialist and Newtonian worldview, but we cannot be so naïve as to think something as spooky and mercurial as UFOs can be caught in the net of rationality.
I am the dreamer…you are the dream.
It’s all there in the title, Communion. There’s a spirituality inherent in these kinds of experiences that many ufologists ironically gloss over in their research and quest for ‘the truth.’ Whereas it was included in the daily lives and rituals of aboriginal cultures (who were thusly in communion with their environment), we in modernity have Othered the spirit world, shunning it from our consensus of what constitutes reality. Charles Fort referred to this as ‘the damned’ in his 1919 book, The Book of the Damned. “By damned, I mean the excluded. We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.”
Both mainstream religion and science have been disappointing avenues in the realm of the mind and heart. This disconnection has gotten us into a heap of trouble — the imminent collapse of our own ecosystem, for one. The late John Mack, Harvard and Pulitzer Prize winning psychiatrist who brought a mainstream seriousness to abduction, once interviewed at the 1992 Transpersonal Conference in Prague, spoke to the revelatory experiences of alien abductees, mainly that they reconnected them to the Earth:
“The abductees themselves, on the ships, receive intense messages about ecological destruction, annihilation of whole forest systems, pollution of the water supply. Visions of the planet dying. And they see that on television-like screens, or they get it through telepathic communication. These are not environmentalists, these people. They are ordinary people except that they are getting this extraordinary information. And they actually become intensely and passionately concerned with what’s happening to the Earth, and their children do, because their children may be abducted as well.”
The news of quantum science (as opposed to material science) has settled the debate over whether these paranormal experiences are ‘psychological’ or whether they are ‘real.’ The answer it has given us is, simply, yes. In order for reality to exist, it requires an observer. In short, it is ALL psychological. Reality is not what it seems, and our universe — like the mind — is one big haunted house. As Charles Fort once expressed (via Damon Knight): “If there is a universal mind, must it be sane?”
These are all quandaries Strieber mulls over to great extent in the book, “The visitor experience may be our first true quantum discovery in the large-scale world: The very act of observing it may be creating it as a concrete actuality, with sense, definition, and a consciousness of its own. And perhaps, in their world, the visitors are working as hard to create us.”
In the film, Strieber is introduced to a therapy group of alien abductees who immediately and brazenly ask him questions like, “Which group of aliens abducted you?” and “Did you see a ship?” Strieber feels out of place, and seemingly to have less in common with the people in the room than to his alien abductors. “Ship…?” Strieber responds, confused. “This happened in a house… in the country.”
Instead of succumbing to paranoid groupthink, Strieber leaves the meeting, unsatisfied. (The book gives a much more fleshed out and nuanced account of Strieber’s interaction with other experiencers). He later dons a suit and tie, and journeys back into those same haunted woods by himself, becoming a seeker. He finds it, or it finds him. He steps into the sphere of white, brilliant light, determined to confront the heart and soul of the mystery.
In the resolution, Strieber comes to terms with his experiences, incorporating them into his life. He embraces that grey alien face — the face of the abyss — as he would himself. He makes peace with the darkness. We should all be so lucky.