DENVER - All day long, Douglas Wilson had tended to cracked sidewalks and overgrown lawns, but now his shift was over, and he felt exalted as he looked up at the boundless Colorado sky.
To pay the bills, Doug was a groundskeeper for a local school district in Denver. But his real calling - his vocation - was the search for truth.
Specifically: the search for truth about aliens, whose existence and technology he believed the U.S. government discovered decades ago and has kept hidden from the public.
“I can’t tell you we’re ever going to find the answers in our lifetime,” Doug, 63, said one recent summer afternoon, his grandfatherly eyes peering through gold-rimmed aviator glasses. “It is so very similar to the religious experience. It really is.”
In his other world, Doug was the recently promoted Director of Investigations for the Mutual UFO Network, founded in 1969 to dig into unidentified flying objects and alleged extraterrestrial encounters. Through screens and servers, Doug explained, he and scores of other volunteers under his helm sifted through hundreds of UFO reports filed each month through MUFON’s website and by telephone. They used flight trackers, weather reports, satellite trajectory maps, and interviews to evaluate whether self-described witnesses had seen something extraordinary or just common blips of modern life in the sky.
They were a particular genre of believers, self-described misfits on fringe journeys motivated by curiosity and skepticism. But in a country rife with grievance and loneliness, their inclination toward discovery was often susceptible to becoming compulsion and conspiracism instead.
Throughout America in 2021, the same feelings of alienation that had bound members of UFO communities to each other for decades were now fueling a constellation of new, dangerous fantasies and mass delusions. There were examples everywhere, it seemed, all the more visible and combustible because of social media and the vast disinformation campaigns it facilitated: the QAnon phenomenon; the disproved but widespread belief that massive fraud marred the 2020 presidential election; the fear that the government was using the coronavirus as a pretext for population control.
These belief systems were increasingly colliding and combining, the forces of indignation and distrust pulling disparate conspiracy theories together like a gravitational collapse.
Doug knew what it was like to be caught between faith and evidence, how one person could glimpse someone’s conviction and see only a conspiracy theory. He had sometimes drifted toward the dangerous edge of devotion himself.
After decades chasing aliens and living on the outer margins of acceptable belief, Doug had discovered that the community he found among fellow travelers in MUFON brought him a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose. He often logged upward of 40 hours a week - unpaid - in a small wood-paneled room in his home, where a marker of his devotion stood atop a modest wood desk: a plastic trophy thanking him for his “many years of service and leadership.”
He thought about his life outside his obsession, working as a garbage collector, at a candy factory, grain mill, and concrete production company.
And he thought about what his life was like now, receiving calls from all over the country from people asking to interview him for podcasts or radio shows listened to by the out-of-sight but vast world of UFO believers. He received calls from other investigators who needed his advice.
“We’re living paycheck to paycheck, but, by gosh, I’m director of investigations for UFO research in the United States!” he said. “I go to these UFO symposiums, and people from all over the world come to me and want to know what Doug Wilson thinks about this and that. I feel like I’m someone. Like I’m someone important.”
“And then when that week of the symposium finishes, I go back to my desk for Denver Public Schools, where I’m just the local kook who believes in flying saucers.”
Doug was in high school in the 1970s when he encountered his first UFO along a rural stretch of highway in northwest Missouri - first a fleck of red lights, like fireflies, and then a red-orange oval of brightness that drifted over the trees lining the road.
He soon began his UFO “investigations,” which included traveling to collect soil and plant samples from places where sightings were reported. The intrigue helped provide a respite from the fact that his mother was dying from cancer. She had been the family’s rock, ever since his dad died when he was 6 years old.
Later, in his 30s and 40s, he would venture into the Nevada desert, camping on the edge of Area 51 to look for unidentified objects in the sky.
In many ways, Doug was part of a new American movement.
The sweeping political and technological changes that followed World War II fed the rise of anti-government UFO conspiracy theories, according to historians, and fears of alien invasions functioned as a sort of displacement of anxiety over nuclear attack against the backdrop of the Cold War. Newspaper reports about unidentified flying objects begat more reports of such sightings, an example of what psychologists call mass suggestion, and an out-of-context quote in national media about “flying saucers” gave shape to the now-popular image.
Doug first became interested in UFOs in the late 1960s, he said, when he was in the fifth or sixth grade and the U.S. Air Force - overrun with reports of UFO sightings - commissioned a scientific research committee at the University of Colorado.
It was the first thing Doug ever followed closely in the news. He envisioned these illustrious scientists at this fancy university reviewing evidence together.
But in the end, Edward Condon, a prominent physicist who chaired the committee, publicly stated that there was no value or scientific knowledge to be gained by continuing to study UFOs in any official capacity.
Doug was dismayed.
That was, Doug thought later as an adult, what first pushed UFO belief to the fringes of respectability in America, even as some respectable scientists dissented from Condon’s conclusion.
It was all part of a coordinated plan, he concluded later, to distract people from the truth: that the government knew more about life beyond Earth than it was letting on.
“You have to make people seem like they’re incapacitated if they believe in this stuff. That’s when the media quit giving serious consideration to UFO stories,” he said. “It was that attempt to gain control, and they truly did, to get people to go from, ‘Oh God, I think I saw a flying saucer,’ to, ‘Oh jeez, I didn’t see that.’ "
“You can see something and convince yourself you didn’t,” he said.
Doug’s suspicions were heightened when he learned about a secret panel of scientists convened by the C.I.A. in 1953 that recommended a “broad educational program” to reduce public interest in UFOs, including through mass media; the full meeting notes were declassified and released in 2013. And then there was the admission by the U.S. government in the 1990s that the famed 1947 crash in Roswell was in fact a coverup - albeit of human nuclear detection technology, not of aliens. Doug called it another decoy.
He remained steadfast in his beliefs even as some people mocked him. In some ways he retreated, compartmentalizing parts of his life to survive. But he also became more committed, more strident.
“People attack you. They see believing in something different as a vulnerability, they see you as a minority: ‘Ha ha ha, you believe in aliens. Ha ha ha,’ " he said. “I can’t tell you how many conversations that start off amiably turn to insults: ‘When’s the last time you were probed? Was your mother probed?’ "
From such ridicule, Doug had learned that what people called “the truth” was a social agreement built from trust and credibility - and he came to resent how unstable those essential elements could be, how people like him were left out of that process. His was a grievance that echoed through American life, where fewer and fewer people felt they could trust the custodians of “official” knowledge. Contempt for unconventional ideas felt like a type of social control.
And yet, when he let his guard down, Doug did wonder if this UFO fixation had stood between him and an easier life. While his gaze was elsewhere all these years, relationships and opportunities had slipped into the periphery, then out of sight entirely.
“This is the part of the story nobody wants to know. Honestly, I think this is why some people think I’m rather foolish. I allowed this fascination with the unknown . . . to take such control of my life,” he said. “And I never paid enough attention to making money, and so I never really made any.”
His UFO hobby eventually led to a rift with his first wife, and then to a divorce, he said. Their problems were partially about money and how he was spending his time. His relationship with his children never recovered from the divorce, he said. He believes they were embarrassed by him.
His search for the truth about UFOs had perhaps made him blind to other parts of his life.
“My adopted son, from my first marriage, has three kids but, because of family politics, I’ve never gotten to know them. It’s one of my biggest regrets and disappointments in life,” he said. “I suppose I could have tried harder to locate my children. Life gets in the way. We’re in the pursuit of making a living, in pursuit of various other things, and in pursuit of other relationships.”
“Ufology has cost me,” he said. “But only as much as I let it.”
Bringing a sense of credibility to ufology mattered deeply to Doug. He often cautioned people against saying they believed something; they should be able to say they concluded it if they were on steady footing.
The highly bureaucratic process MUFON developed over decades to investigate sightings, Doug believed, gave members a structure akin to the scientific process to organize their search - and maybe also their lives.
But things were rapidly changing across the UFO community, in part because of social media. Doug scoffed at the new generation of fanatics who posted what he considered outlandish speculation about vast government coverups on Instagram and Twitter. More than ever, he felt, MUFON was necessary to provide a corrective to that instinct toward fantasy.
MUFON had been created, Doug said, to fill the research gap created when the government decided to stonewall the public. Now it also needed to be a bulwark against parts of the UFO community that seemed incapable of separating fact and evidence from anti-government delusions.
And so, on a recent summer Tuesday, Doug instructed three recruits on the first step to becoming MUFON field investigators: learning the organization’s case management system, or CMS. When reports came in through MUFON’s online submissions portal, he explained, they were farmed out to the appropriate MUFON state directors. They, in turn, assigned them to investigators.
From his home in Denver, Doug spoke into a black headset as he welcomed the recruits over Zoom. Two of the three trainees - all men - appeared to be listening on their smartphones from their vehicles.
Doug told them about the importance of using the right forms. The training was not unlike onboarding a new office worker.
“Form 1 and Form 30 are the ones you must always use,” Doug said with the persistence of a Human Resources representative.
Doug said MUFON’s commitment to process kept people grounded in reality and evidence. This was the logic of the bureaucracy in action: it conferred credibility and also shaped rational thought processes.
And yet there were other forms.
Form 3: Electro-Magnetic Cases
Form 7: Entity Cases
Form 8: Abduction Cases
Form 14: Animal Mutilation Cases
Form 15: Crop Circles Cases
Doug paused the presentation to show the recruits the database of investigators. He noted the differences in title between Trainees and State Directors and “Star Team” investigators.
“You’re going to go through all of this work to become a certified field investigator. You’re not going to get a badge. You’re not going to get a pass. You’re not going to get a ring,” he said. “All you’re going to get is a ‘Yes’ in this column and the satisfaction that you are a certified field investigator.”
Christopher Cogswell joined MUFON in 2017, curious about the devotion people brought to the topic of UFOs.
As a trained scientist based in Boston, he described himself as a “hopeful skeptic” when it came to extraterrestrial visits.
Given his credentials - a bachelor’s of science and a PhD in chemical engineering - he soon became MUFON’s “director of research.” His effort to combat pseodoscience from within did not go well.
Chris found that what members called scientific research was akin to elaborate playacting. Although MUFON used the language of scientific method, its members, he said, often showed no understanding of research falsifiability - the principle used to pick apart assertions or theories that cannot be tested and disproved. In UFO communities, he said, a lack of evidence is commonly taken as proof that something is being covered up.
The 300-page spiral-bound Investigator Manual is full of pseudoscience and fantasy, he said. Toward the end of the manual, for instance, there is a section called: “HOW TO REMOVE AND ANALYZE ANOMALOUS FOREIGN OBJECTS FOUND IN THE HUMAN BODY.”
Before long, Chris came to see MUFON as a membership scam aimed at sucking money out of earnest believers. New investigators are required to purchase the manual for $125, including shipping. They were also on the hook for yearly membership dues of about $100. And they were required to sign nondisclosure agreements promising not to sell “proprietary” information.
The organization’s board of directors - Doug’s superiors - often tried to sell cases to entertainment companies like the History Channel, according to several former members, including witness testimony from vulnerable people who believed they had been abducted by aliens.
For his part, Doug said he tried to be up front with people about the fact that they may never crack the secret of UFOs.
“Some of my colleagues higher up in MUFON, they kind of chide me sometimes. They’re like, ‘Will you stop trying to get people to not join, what’s wrong with you? We need this money!’ And I’m like, I don’t want them coming back here and being disillusioned,” Doug said.
To Chris’s mind, the belief that intelligent life likely exists elsewhere in the universe was one thing, and common enough even among scientists. But the speculation that extraterrestrials not only regularly visited Earth and that the government was actively hiding that fact was another.
As the Trump presidency progressed and some factions on the far right slid toward political fantasy and extremism, the stakes were thrown into stark relief for Chris. Within MUFON, he saw how conspiratorial thinking made people susceptible to various forms of manipulation. He worried about where they could be led amid intensifying fights over facts and truth. He saw how some were already making their moves.
Chris left MUFON in 2018 when one of the group’s state directors published a racist screed on Facebook about “white genocide.”
MUFON’s executive director, David MacDonald, said in an email the organization “does not tolerate any hate group” or illegal activities and that complaints filed against members could lead to removal. “It is not an issue! It is not alarming! It is not a big deal! As a matter of fact, it is quite rare,” he wrote.
MacDonald added that MUFON did not sell cases outright but would occasionally license out data, photos and videos submitted to the organization. MUFON, he said, did not include personal information that could make individuals easily identifiable in those deals, unless approved by the submitter.
To Chris, the similarities between what he called UFO World and QAnon had become increasingly clear: the expansive mythology that evolves with real-world events; the instinct against falsifiability that inoculates believers against fact-checks; the belief that shadowy forces were pulling hidden levers to manipulate and control the population; the way Internet message boards and YouTube algorithms and social media led people to darker and darker places.
He became terrified by how easily sincere people inclined to conspiratorial thinking could be co-opted by those who he considered to be political extremists and con artists. The pro-Trump riot on Jan. 6, partially born of shared election-related grievances between QAnon believers and right-wing militas, had shown how explosive the effects could be.
By 2021, military officials and high-profile politicians in Washington became more vocal about their interest in investigating unidentified aerial phenomena - U.A.P.’s in official parlance - as a national security matter.
Suddenly, the most compelling talking point for ardent UFO believers was firmly in the mainstream.
What was left for those on the edges of UFO belief?
Some said the focus on U.A.P.’s was a bait-and-switch to further conceal the truth of a vast government coverup. Many became more rabid about “Disclosure,” the insistence that the government admit that it has known about aliens all along. Some spoke about Disclosure with a messianic zeal.
Angry social media stars fanned the flames of discontent over supposed “government lies.” They often claimed they had proof they could not show anyone.
Some right-wing militia members joined MUFON, several longtime former members said, and began recruiting within its ranks. White supremacists became increasingly vocal in UFO World’s online spaces.
“We’ve let this community just sort of rot. And when that rot starts to spread to other parts of the house, to the parts of the house you use, that is not surprising,” Chris said. “What is scarier? That aliens exist, and the government has been hiding it? Or that aliens don’t exist, and this entire community has been tricked for 70 years?”
“To me,” he said, “the second is scarier.”
Didn’t that slide toward fantasy and extremism stand against Doug’s values? Didn’t it distract from what he wanted, which was to find the truth about unidentified flying objects in the sky and intelligent life beyond the Earth?
He paused when the question was asked.
Every institution, he said, had problematic members. “The government” was not bad, for instance, even if some people in the government might be.
He acknowledged that he has detected strains of extremism within UFO circles, but he added that it is not a big part of MUFON. He declined to speak about his own political preferences, but said that until recently it had been his sense that UFO believers were primarily liberals - people like him, he said, who were sympathetic to marginalized communities because they themselves had felt dismissed.
After a long pause, he came back to the question another way, defending MUFON by offering himself.
“I promise you, I would have never affiliated myself with MUFON if I was not impressed by their credibility,” he said. “It’s very difficult to get any kind of credibility when most of the people you run up against want to laugh at you, make fun of you, and make crude jokes about what you must believe in.”
“I have fought tooth and nail to maintain my credibility,” he added.
In pursuing the truth about aliens, Doug had put his trust in the idea that MUFON was doing important work - in facilitating the search, but also in guiding the searchers. To be part of it all meant making some compromises and putting up with shortcomings, he said, like any organization.
Anyway, he said, he had spent his entire life reconciling contradictions.
“A lot of people don’t want to face their uncertainties,” he said. “I’ve spent most of my life pursuing something. And it is not easy to look at it and say, ‘There’s still a lot I don’t know. There still might be a lot I might be mistaken about.’ "
Doug said he had come to terms with the fact that he may never know the truth about UFOs. But there was one thing he was sure about: The unknown is a space every person inhabits, whether they realize it or not.