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Sneaky Owls in Fantastical Films

Owls and UFOs. To those with no interest in either, the two might seem like chalk and cheese, but these ‘phenomena’—one assumed to belong exclusively to our world, the other thought to originate elsewhere—often go hand-in-hand, at least according to the testimonies UFO experiencers the world over.

It has long been theorized in the UFO research community that the sighting of an owl shortly prior to, during, or soon after a UFO close encounter is a strong indication of a repressed abduction experience, the image of the owl acting as a screen memory for the traumatized abductee. The logic here is that the large, penetrating eyes of an owl closely resemble those of the archetypal alien Grey. Owls also swoop from the skies—the domain of the UFO.

In his fascinating book, The Messengers, author Mike Clelland considers the psychological function of owl imagery in abduction reports, but, ultimately, he ascribes it a more profound and mystical meaning, confidently speculating that the owl in these circumstances may be “part of a shamanic initiation,” a wake-up call from the universe itself for those who suspect but refuse to acknowledge their lifetime of hidden experiences with intelligences beyond the realm of everyday perception.

Owl imagery was used very explicitly in the context of abduction in the 2009 movie The Fourth Kind. Before that, it was used prominently in the 1989 big screen adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s bestselling Communion. For the purposes of this article, I’m interested in how owl imagery can be linked to UFO phenomena by filmmakers very subtly, even subconsciously. Examples that spring to mind are Twin Peaks (“The owls are not what they seem”), or even Labyrinth, in which Bowie’s Goblin King, Jareth, adopts the form of an owl to spirit away an infant to an other-dimensional realm.

A couple of years back, soon after a chat with “owl guy” Mike Clelland (and having owls on the brain as a result), I switched on the TV. The 1986 movie Short Circuit was playing. A family-friendly sci-fi flick, the movie follows the adventures of Johnny 5, an escaped experimental military robot who gains sentience—and apparently even a soul—after being struck by lightning.

Synchronistically, the scene that happened to be playing was a pivotal one: Johnny 5’s first meeting with the character of Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy). The scene is shot to resemble a distinctly Spielbergian “close encounter” style event, with Stephanie under the impression that Johnny 5 is not a robot, but an extraterrestrial. As Stephanie steps outside her house one night to investigate a disturbance, she sees a mysterious glow emanating from her van. “Hey, get outta there!” she yells, nervously. It is at this point that we cut to a close-up of an owl perched atop Stephanie’s personalized mailbox. The bird turns its head to her, almost expectantly.

As Stephanie approaches her van, its side panel flips open to reveal an alien-looking Johnny 5 bathed in misty light. We then cut once more to the owl, which turns its head to Johnny 5, and, in that moment, one can’t help but draw a visual parallel between the robot and the bird—both having large, round, yellow and black eyes harshly accented by a “frown” (metal eyebrows in Johnny’s case, and ‘ear’ tufts in the owl’s).

Short Circuit (1986)

Stephanie exclaims: “Oh, my God! I knew they would pick me, I just knew it!” perhaps indicating that she expects—even wants—to be abducted. “Welcome to my planet,” she says, excitedly.

It goes without saying that owls have always been a permanent fixture in the iconographic landscape of the horror genre. But Short Circuit is sci-fi, not horror, and, while Johnny 5 isn’t actually an alien, in this crucial scene, the filmmakers have gone out of their way to present him as alien-esque and as a potential abductor. Also significant is the positioning of the owl directly on top of Stephanie’s mailbox, which clearly bears her name, as if the bird has come for her specifically (just as Mike Clelland feels the owls in his own life are communicating something to him on an intensely personal level). We might expect an owl to be perched on a tree branch, but here the owl prefers a mailbox—a ‘message’ box, a communications receptacle. In Western culture, owls are often associated with knowledge and wisdom, and so it is fitting that, in the very same scene, the first thing Johnny 5 demands of Stephanie is “input.” She’s delighted: “That’s information,” she replies, “I’m full of it!” As an aside here, it’s also worth remembering that Harry Potter’s beloved owl, Hedwig, was also a messenger, serving Harry faithfully for years by delivering his mail to him.

The prominent inclusion of the owl in Short Circuit was most likely little more than an effort to enhance the spooky atmosphere of Stephanie’s introduction to Johnny. Nonetheless, in the implied context of the scene (a close encounter with an alien entity), and in light of Mike Clelland’s work, the presence of the owl assumes a deeper meaning, whether or not it was consciously intended.

The mystical connection between owls and otherworldly entities also presents itself in an entirely different film: the 1982 inspired-by-real-events domestic chiller, The Entity, starring Barbara Hershey.

This disturbing film follows the plight of Carla (Hershey), a young, essentially single mother of three. One day, without warning, Carla is viciously beaten and raped in her bedroom by a powerful but invisible entity. In the days and weeks that follow, Carla continues to be sexually assaulted by the entity and, fearing for her sanity, seeks help, first from a skeptical psychotherapist, and later from a team of parapsychologists. All the while, the entity is relentless in its aggressive sexual pursuit of this traumatized woman.

In many respects, The Entity can comfortably be classed as a horror movie, but it also flirts with science fiction. It constantly defies genre expectations; perhaps, in part, because it is based on a true story—the rigidity of genre rarely applying to life as we live it.

The film’s sci-fi element is particularly identifiable in an onscreen debate surrounding just what the entity actually is, and where it comes from. In the third act, the team of university parapsychologists devises a plan to capture and kill the entity for scientific study. Their weapon of choice: liquid helium.

One of the parapsychologists explains:

“What we’re seeking is to determine if this entity has mass. If in fact this is the case, then we should be able to freeze it, verify its objective existence, and prove that it isn’t just a psychic projection, but rather an independent force from some other level of reality that has never been isolated.”

Spoken about in these terms, the entity seems to have less in common with the traditionally supernatural (ghosts, for example) and more with the interdimensional trickster intelligences theorized by the likes of Jacques Vallee and John Keel.

The interdimensional hypothesis posits that UFO entities might exist beyond space-time and can flit in and out of our reality at will, assuming a multitude of forms—from the faeries, goblins, and incubi of ages past, to the UFOs and aliens of modern times. This theory is explicitly brought to mind in The Entity during a scene in which Carla’s psychiatrist, Dr Sneiderman (Ron Silver), attempts to dispel her “irrational” belief in the literal existence of her invisible tormentor, showing her old drawings of goblins, demons, and faerie folk: “They were supposed to abuse people sexually,” he tells her, “they were supposed to impregnate people. Do you think these things really existed then!?”

It is notable that the true nature of the entity is never discovered, and there is no indication that it is anything so mundane as the lingering ghost of a deceased man; indeed, no indication that it was ever human at all. In the movie, the entity’s few physical manifestations take the form of dazzling lights, bright, fast-moving orbs, and electrical discharges—phenomena typically associated with UFOs. In one scene, when asked by parapsychologists to reveal itself, the entity appears literally as an unidentified flying object, a vaguely spherical green light that calls to mind the green fireballs frequently sighted over US nuclear installations throughout the late 1940s and which lead directly to the formation of the USAF’s Project Twinkle. The stunned parapsychologists look on in awe in shots that wouldn’t seem out of place in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The woven owl in Carla’s kitchen. Here she appears to be smiling at the owl. This is never explained in the movie.

So where do owls come into this? Well, they’re onscreen throughout the movie, from beginning to end, as decorative wall ornaments. In the hallway, directly by Carla’s front door, we can see a board displaying five owls made from coloured felt. In Carla’s kitchen we can see a woven owl on the wall near the sink. At one point, in Carla’s bedroom, her dressing chair even appears owl-like. The camera never dwells on any of these images, but they are noticeable to the perceptive viewer. Why this owl motif pervades the film and whether or not there was conscious purpose behind its inclusion is debatable.

Five owls stand watch over Carla’s front door. Is their purpose to keep something out, or to keep her in?

The Native American Hopi people traditionally associate owls with sorcery and evil. In Mesoamerican cultures, the owl is considered a symbol of death and destruction. In the Mayan religious text, the Popol Vuh, owls are described as messengers of Xibalba (the Mayan “Place of Fright”). In these folkloric and religious contexts, owl imagery perfectly complements the nature and intent of the malevolent entity in the movie.

The owl is noticeably skewed on the wall as Carla feels the strain of her abuse.

I could waffle on about all of this for quite some time without threatening to reach anything resembling a conclusion. So, I’ll leave it here. Next time you watch a movie—any movie—keep your eyes peeled for sneaky owls… you never know where they might decide to put in an appearance.

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Robbie Graham has lectured around the world on the UFO subject and has been interviewed for the BBC, Coast to Coast AM, Canal+ TV, Channel 4, and Vanity Fair, among many others. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian, New Statesman, Filmfax, and Fortean Times. He holds first class degrees in Film, Television and Radio Studies (BA hons) and Cinema Studies (MA) from Staffordshire University and the University of Bristol respectively. He is the author of Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies (White Crow Books, 2015) and the editor of UFOs: Reframing the Debate (White Crow Books, 2017). Visit robbiegraham.uk
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