On March 29, 2016, Albert Bender died at the age of 94. Most people with an interest in UFOs will know of Bender’s name. He was the man who thrust the Men in Black – and the mystery surrounding them – into the public domain in the 1950s. Bender was not the first person to encounter one of the creepy MIB, but there’s no denying it was thanks to him that the enigmatic issue became known widely. When the “modern era” of Ufology kicked off in June 1947 – thanks to the famous encounter of Kenneth Arnold at Mt. Rainier on the 24th of the month – it prompted numerous people to get involved in the study of the phenomenon. One of those was Albert Bender.
A resident of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Bender was not just a devotee of all-things ufological. He was also heavily involved in – and interested in – all manner of paranormal, supernatural, and occult phenomena. He even converted his attic-based abode into what he termed his “Chamber of Horrors.” It was a dark and foreboding place filled with paintings of demons, witches, ghosts, and more – even an “altar,” one that was designed to summon up who knows what from who knows where.
As Bender’s interest in UFOs expanded, he established his own journal – Space Review – which attracted a sizeable, worldwide audience. And he created his own group too, the International Flying Saucer Bureau (IFSB). It wasn’t long, however, before things began to go wrong for Bender. As in very wrong. Quite out of the blue, in 1953, Bender quit Ufology. He closed down the IFSB, stopped producing Space Review, and walked away from UFOs. It might be more accurate to say he fled Ufology.
Gray Barker – an author and publisher on matters relative to UFOs - was an acquaintance of Bender and ultimately became a friend. When he learned that Bender’s exit from Ufology was prompted by a series of chilling, intimidating visits from a trio of ghoulish men dressed in black – and with nothing less than glowing eyes and sporting fedoras – Barker knew this was a story that had to be told. And it was: in Barker’s 1956 book, They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. It should be noted, however, that Barker omitted most of the really weird material, preferring instead to imply that the MIB were from nothing stranger than “the government.” Then, six years later, Bender came briefly out of “retirement” to pen his own book on the eerie affair, Flying Saucers and the Three Men. After which, Bender left Ufology for good.
The purpose of this article is not to delve into all of the intricacies of the Bender controversy, but to demonstrate the incredible extent to which Bender’s account influenced the world of entertainment. Five years after Flying Saucers and the Three Men was published, ABC aired a short-lived, but well-remembered show called The Invaders. Running for just two seasons, The Invaders told the story of a man named David Vincent (actor Roy Thinnes) who finds himself caught up in a nightmarish battle against hostile aliens. In the show, the ETs are able to take on human form. The only things that give them away are their mutated little fingers. The show is filled with MIB imagery: the aliens on The Invaders often drive black cars (as do the real MIB), they wear dark suits and fedoras, they are very good at dishing out threats and intimidation, and they can control the human mind – something which has been reported in many MIB encounters. In other words, there’s very little doubt that the Bender saga had a major influence on how the brains behind The Invaders chose to present the alien menace. Not as bug-eyed little critters or as tentacle-waving monsters, but as emotionless men in suits.
The Invaders is hardly a solitary example of how the Men in Black have infected the world of on-screen entertainment. Indeed, there are many. Of course, the most visible and obvious example is the incredibly successful trilogy of Men in Black movies starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. In the movies, the primary characters are “J” and “K” (who were named after MIB pursuer and author John Keel, of The Mothman Prophecies fame). Whereas Bender’s MIB were clearly supernatural in nature, in the movies the Men in Black work for a super-secret agency. Nevertheless there’s no doubt that the Hollywood movies – based on Lowell Cunningham’s Men in Black comic-book series of the 1990s – was, to some degree, inspired by Bender’s experiences.
Then, there’s the equally popular and successful Matrix movies, starring Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Laurence Fishbourne. Those films, too, have their very own Men in Black. They’re known as “The Agents,” computer programs whose job it is to prevent anyone from getting close to the truth of the simulated world of the Matrix of the movies’ titles. The Agents are the Men in Black in all but name. They are emotionless and threatening, and they wear black suits and black sunglasses.
There are also “The Observers” from Fringe, a sci-fi-themed show that ran on Fox from 2008 to 2013. In the show, the Observers dress in dark suits, wear equally dark fedoras and skinny black ties, and have pale skin and emotionless faces and characters. Would they have even existed without Albert Bender’s widely publicized run-ins with the MIB? Probably not. At the very least, not in the form they appeared in the show.
Finally, we come to a 1998 movie that doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves. Its title: Dark City. Not unlike The Matrix in many respects, Dark City – which was released in 1998, one year before The Matrix surfaced – is an intriguing production. It stars Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connolly, Richard O’Brien, and William Hurt. As the title suggests, Dark City revolves around a city which exists in perpetual night. We get to meet the people who inhabit it, and we soon learn that the city is not what it appears to be. In fact, reality itself is not what it appears to be. Dark City, too, has its equivalents of Albert Bender’s threatening thugs from beyond. They’re called “The Strangers.” Long black coats and dark hats are their uniforms.
In my view, and based upon my lengthy studies of the MIB phenomenon, the Strangers of Dark City are the closest fictional things to the real Men in Black. Pale-faced, they surface only at night. Threatening and dangerous, they are mind-controllers and manipulators who exude menace. Indeed, Richard O’Brien’s portrayal of one of the anemic-looking Strangers is masterful. Again, the Albert Bender imagery and story are present for all to see.
Dark City, Men in Black, The Matrix, The Invaders, and Fringe – and more – all owe a debt of gratitude to Albert Bender. Had it not been for that strange and sinister series of encounters in Bender’s “Chamber of Horrors” in the early 1950s, it’s highly unlikely any of those shows and movies would have turned out the way they did.