UFO studies from over the years have given rise to many subgenres of related phenomena. Among these, one of the strangest and most unsettling involves the so-called “Men in Black.”
Stories of odd visits from official-looking individuals that occur following a UFO sighting have become a significant part of the narratives of UFO witnesses over the years. The stories usually involve an observation or other experience involving a UFO, after which the witness is visited by someone who attempts to encourage silence about what they observed. These visitors, often (but not always) clad in dark suits, sometimes behave strangely, or even humorously. More often though, the visits have an ominous or threatening tone, leaving the witness afraid and intimidated.
In light of this description, it’s no wonder that such stories have taken on an almost mythical quality. This is not to say that the experiences don’t have some basis in reality, but rather, it acknowledges the long traditions involving the color black and its association with darkness and evil. This, as well as the idea of mysterious strangers and their appearances often being associated with a sense of foreboding or danger.
Religious scholar David Halperin, who has analyzed the UFO phenomenon in the context of religious visionary experiences, has noted historical examples where people in centuries past who observed what appeared to be anomalous aerial phenomena also described meeting people clad in black thereafter. Nick Redfern has also noted the folkloric aspect of these stories in his many books on Men in Black (a topic I specifically addressed in an essay he included in one of these volumes).
Acknowledging this folkloric aspect of the Men in Black experience is not to say that there haven’t been legitimate instances in recent decades where people have met mysterious strangers, who appeared to have had knowledge of unusual aerial phenomena they witnessed. However, even some of the best-known cases involving purported “Men in Black” bear the hallmarks of mythology at times, and seemingly blur the lines between fact and folklore.
One of the earliest instances that involved an individual who claimed to have been warned not to talk about a UFO sighting had been Harold Dahl, one of the participants in the long-disputed Maury Island UFO incident. Dahl may have also been one of the earliest to have described this individual as clad in a dark-colored suit. The following decade, early ufologist Albert Bender wrote about the visit he received from three individuals, similarly dressed in dark suits, who allegedly threatened him about his UFO interest. In Bender’s view, these men were government agents working to aid in covering up the reality of UFOs, an idea that has long accompanied claims of Men in Black meetings over the years.
Numerous other witnesses throughout time have claimed to have met these strange visitors, although many of the individuals suspected of being “Men in Black” weren’t even wearing dark suits; some wore military uniforms or even regular civilian clothes. In several instances involving possible Men in Black recounted by author John Keel, the individuals were described as dressing no differently from the average person, although their behavior was often very strange.
In one of the more famous cases recounted by Keel, an individual he had given the nickname “Tiny” actually appears to have been a ufologist whose name was known to other researchers. After a description of this individual appeared in his book The Mothman Prophecies, Keel received a letter from Charles Bowen, then editor of British Flying Saucer Review, who explained that a man who perfectly matched Keel’s description of “Tiny” had traveled to visit him in the United Kingdom. This individual, whose actual name Bowen knew, stayed for a short time with the Bowen family, which “regarded him rather as they might do a cobra, and expressed a feeling of repugnance” toward him. “Tiny”, in other words, was probably no Man in Black at all, but merely one of the many oddballs who became attracted to the UFO subject as public interest in it reached a crescendo during the late 1960s.
Despite mundane explanations like these for some of the encounters with Men in Black from over the years, their mythic status has no doubt been helped along by writers like Keel, who in likelihood had been genuinely perplexed by such stories himself. Ironically, Keel was well aware of how cases of mistaken identity and other mundane happenings had likely resulted in purported encounters with Men in Black. As he describes near the beginning of The Mothman Prophecies, a goateed Keel, clad in black and going door-to-door in need of a telephone to call a tow truck one evening, might also have led to a few reports of a mysterious “Man in Black” in West Virginia in the 1960s.
So who or what are the mysterious Men in Black? It seems unlikely that every story from over the years that involves UFO witnesses having encounters with strange, sometimes threatening individuals are entirely folklore. Nonetheless, certain aspects of the Men in Black stories bear the obvious hallmarks of myth, and one that has no doubt helped to build the curious mystique that surrounds these strange visitors and their unusual relationship to the UFO mystery.