HOEP4All. MEDITATE. The custom license plates that dot the packed and arid parking lot of the Brantford, Ontario Best Western are the closest things to a sign that the Alien Cosmic Expo has taken over the hotel for the weekend. In just its second year, the expo brings together UFOlogists, mediums, telepaths, authors, radio hosts, ex-deputy prime ministers (yup), and YouTube comment thread debaters united by their common belief that extraterrestrials exist and are regularly making contact with our planet.
Like anyone who has gazed at the stars in the night sky and pondered the seemingly endless cosmic buffet that is the universe, I view the chance of life existing somewhere out in that expanse with an optimistic, "Sure, why not?" Despite this attitude, and an ardent love of sci-fi culture, I've never read nor seen anything to convince me that such life has visited earth.
When I came across the Alien Cosmic Expo poster on Facebook, (which appeared to come from the X-Files opening credits school of design), I wasn't drawn to it because I wanted to believe, but rather to understand what it was that so many others were dedicating their lives to believing in.
I arrived on Friday afternoon. The conference halls of the Best Western are mercifully air-conditioned and bathed in a sickly yellow non-alien glow. The programming for that day was a workshop for "experiencers" who believe they've had contact—mental or physical—with an alien. It was set up like an extraterrestrial support group that allowed a mix of speakers and audience members a place to share their stories openly. The workshop had just broken for a half hour and its attendees were now mingling in the lobby. Directly beside the reception desk was a table with a large cardboard cutout that read "ALIENS AMONG US" sitting next to a stack of books with the same title. An elderly man and woman sitting behind the desk noticed me staring at it.
"This book was co-written by an alien named Mou," the woman leans in and says to me.
I smile and nod at her. It's the same understanding and encouraging smile a parent would give a child when they say they're going to be a giraffe when they grow up. There were a lot of quotes like this over the weekend, quotes that may sound crazy when you read them. But beyond their alternative views, most of the ticket holders I met were friendly, conversational, and inviting people.
Brad was one of those attendees. I spotted him in the lobby wearing a button up shirt adorned with green alien heads that had big black eyes. He'd flown in from Calgary for the event, and after the weekend he was heading to Europe to visit the sites of the Belgium wave UFOs.
"In the world, I've probably been to over 30 different sites" he told me.
"Sites" include any archeological spot that is thought to share a connection with aliens; places like Petra in Jordan or the Giza plateau in Egypt. Before we can talk more, people begin shuffling back into the conference room. I shuffled in and found a seat.
Jo-Anne Eadie, the expo organizer, took the podium to applaud this year's turnout and tell a very convoluted story about how bad traffic was when picking guests up from the airport. It's an unsensational introduction for the next speaker, who is one of the most famed experiencers in UFO lore—Travis Walton.
On the night of November 5, 1975, Walton claims he was driving home from a logging job in Sitgreaves National Forest, Arizona, when he and his co-workers saw a saucer-like spacecraft hovering over the road in front of them. Walton exited the truck to look at the craft, but when he approached it he was hit with a beam of light and knocked down on the road. The jarring reaction from the saucer caused Walton's co-workers to flee in fright, and Walton recalls being taken on board a craft and placed in a hospital-like room in the presence of three short, bald creatures. The creatures placed a plastic mask over his head and that was the last thing he remembered until he was dropped off on the side of a highway five days later.
Over the years, this story has been adapted into a Hollywood film (1993's Fire in the Sky), subjected to a litany of hoax accusations and polygraph tests with fluctuating conclusions, and continues to be debated across the web. Amongst skeptics, it's believed to have been a money grabbing hoax orchestrated at a time when the public's fascination with UFO's was sweeping the media. For believers, it's the single greatest abduction account in history.
"It's Travis!," a woman next to me whispers to her friend as he takes the stage.
With a wide grey suit and a thick, mahogany moustache, Walton looks like he was beamed into the Best Western directly from the 70s. If you were making a movie about a guy who claims to be abducted by UFOs, Walton is the guy you'd give anything to cast. His speech was brief. He mainly expressed his appreciation for the existence of groups like this and lamented his past struggles with doubters.
"The feeling of these things is sort of like a family reunion," Walton said emotionally.
The audience was enthralled. As Walton left the podium, the floor opened to the public and Brad took the stage. He shared the story of his own UFO sighting in BC and reminisced about the shows (In Search of...) and films (Chariot of the Gods) that sparked his obsession with aliens at a young age. But Brad is no longer a child, he's an adult with a comfortable salary in pharmaceutical sales that allows him to travel the world like the archeological theorists and conspiracy documentarians he grew up watching. I get the impression that many expo goers get caught up in these decade-spanning narratives which play out like interactive fan fiction. It's a global experience that is never short on content for fans like Brad.
"I believe that one has to keep exploring, keep asking questions; don't believe everything you hear," he told me after the workshop wrapped. He's well versed in every facet of UFO culture and has a charming enthusiasm about the whole thing. "Do your own research and work with like-minded people and enjoy them; not just about the cosmos and extraterrestrials, but in every interest you have."
He continued to tell me about his beliefs on government (not keen since Nixon's Watergate), and religion (it's used to manipulate for power, but he suspects there is a creator) as we walked outside to get some air. We were joined by Mark, a square-framed Adonis of a man who looked like he would be more comfortable holding a harpoon gun than a UFO brochure. Like Brad, he's also ex-military. Mark smiled gently and with interest as Brad gleefully explained the theory of superior aliens inhabiting earth before humans from the bookThe Twelfth Planet. It was a bit beyond our comprehension under the sweltering afternoon sun, and Mark admitted the reason he was drawn to the event was Travis Walton.
"That's what interested me" he said softly. "The true stories."
I say goodbye to Mark and Brad as they head into the hotel's Grand Ballroom for a cocktail reception followed by dinner and a movie. The film?
Travis: The True Story of Travis Walton, a documentary released just last year
The pace picked up when I returned the next morning, with more than double the amount of Friday's attendance poking about the expo. The crowd was predominantly old, white people, and men easily outnumbered women. Saturday's big draw was the "ET Disclosure Hearing," pitting a panel of UFO experts against a select group of journalists.
Featured on the panel was UFO historian and author Richard Nolan, nuclear physicist Stanford Friedman, American ET disclosure advocate Stephen Bassett, and the former deputy Prime Minister of Canada Paul Hellyer, who has openly discussed the notion that alien technology is the key to solving climate change. Within the ufology community, disclosure is when the government comes clean and makes their knowledge of aliens and alien tech, public. It's a day that many of these men believe is coming soon, and as they take turns speaking, references are made to the appearances of both Obama and Hillary Clinton on Jimmy Kimmel where they neither confirm nor, more importantly, deny the existence of aliens.
"The only reason that it's in doubt is because the government wants it to be in doubt," Stephen Bassett said to the audience "and it's up to the people to decide if that's how they want to be governed or not."
His statement was met with a roaring applause. Though this group of inflamed white dudes differ in their expertise and experience (Winnipeg's Grant Cameron claims to have experienced a conscious expanding mental download event in 2012), the emerging consensus seemed to be: government bad, alien technology good. To close out the hearing, a journalist asked what the impact of disclosure would be, and amongst the arbitrary responses like "everything will change, and nothing will change" was the overwhelming belief that disclosure will usher in a much needed global change.
"It wouldn't change just our immediate politics, it would be the admission that our government has been lying for 70 years" author Richard Dolan said. "But it would also spread through every facet of our society; our finance, our energy, our science, our religion and ultimately our existential understanding of who we are."
At that, lunch was called and trays of tiny ham, egg salad, and tuna sandwiches began to circle the ballroom. As the hearing emptied, the crowd filled out the halls and side rooms of the hotel where the panelists and other vendors had set up shop. Most of the speakers sell and autograph their books, but there were also plenty of opportunistic merchandisers selling crystals from meteorites and life energy pyramids for exorbitant prices. The alien industry is big business, catering to an elderly crowd with time and money on their hands. It's an opportunity that expo organizer Eadie told me she realized when she saw the hypnosis community taking on UFO experiencers as clients a few years ago.
I find Richard Dolan enjoying a cookie and talking with a fan. I ask if he could expand on what he thinks the government has been hiding. He starts with alien technology, and the notion that there is a conspiracy to keep us from having free alien energy.
"Free energy could heat your home for the rest of your life but it could also make a really good bomb" he explained emphatically. "The US empire is based on the petrodollar system, and if that goes away, that transforms the entire relationship with the US and the rest of the world."
Dolan paused to sell one of his books to a middle-aged woman from Buffalo. She thanked him for his work and I left the two of them to talk. As I made my way through the hotel, the afternoon's events and exhibitors just got stranger and stranger. In one room, Bob Mitchell, a former Toronto Star crime reporter, slandered some of history's greatest thinkers including Newton, Einstein, and Da Vinci in a powerpoint presentation that claimed they got their ideas from an alien race known as "The Greys." Set up in the lobby is Jason Quill, a multi-dimensional time traveller who claimed to have been to Atlantis but decided to settle down in rural Ontario in 2016. There was a man who believed that Elon Musk has already harnessed alien technology (if anyone would, it would be Musk), and of course, still sitting quietly next to reception, the elderly couple who told me about their alien co-author Mou when I arrived on Friday.
A large glass frame with numbers, letters, and a few short phrase like "yes" or 'no' sat in front of them. This is what they use to talk to Mou, a power they discovered through their ability to communicate with spirits. The man, or Mou's co-author Barry Strohm, showed me a transcript of an interview with Mou that he was going to read during his lecture "Channeling An Alien."
Barry: Are you coming to Canada with us?
Barry: Are you going to wow the Canadians?
Even as an episode of The Outer Limits, these stories would sound silly. But then again, the highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar, is also silly. For some reason when authors like Quill and Strohm present their work as a genre of science-fact rather than fiction, it finds an audience. But one man who does not subscribe to these unevidenced tales is ticket holder Rod Wilson.
Rod is a self-identified skeptic from Vancouver. It's a long way for a skeptic to travel, but he said he always told his kids that if you're going to call bullshit on something then you have to be sure.
"60 percent of the stuff here is total bullshit," he confirmed.
"60?," I offered back, thinking that's generous.
The 40 percent of non-bullshit that impressed Rod was the disclosure hearing; that men with credentials from scholarly backgrounds were so confident about it. Men like former deputy Prime Minister Paul Hellyer, who, instead of speaking about aliens at an expo about aliens, used his stage time to outline his plan for Canadian bank reform. But Rod's hope was that disclosure could offer the world the solutions it badly needs.
"If I look at the world from an adult's perspective, it's not in a good place. Our reliance on gas is heading in a bad direction."
He hoped that alien technologies could help us get rid of the petrochemical industry all together. Before we part ways, Rod mentioned that he has two sons who are just too busy with their own lives to get involved with this kind of stuff, and I headed back to the lobby wondering if perhaps, he was trying to tell me something.
I walked past Strohm channeling the alien Mou and irresponsibly giving a man advice about his career, and found a large armchair to sit in. Directly across from me was a table with Travis Walton and physicist Stanton Friedman, who both stared quietly into the carpeted abyss of the hotel. Friedman is the eminent author on the Roswell UFO crash that took place in New Mexico in 1947, which is considered both the most famous UFO cover up and the most exhaustively debunked claim in history.
I approached Friedman and he calmly offersed me a seat next to him. Despite his unshakable faith in the existence of aliens, he told me that all the time travelers and alien communicators fall into his "grey basket."
"I'm a nuclear physicist" he said. "It's just not my bag."
As I've come to expect, Stanton's theories differed from the other people I'd spoken with. As someone who has worked in confidential nuclear programs, he didn't think that disclosure should be fully public and believes the technology could be misused. But what he does align with is the same notion that Mr. Dolan, Rod, and even Paul Hellyer prescribed: that the confirmed presence of aliens will push us toward a new age. He looked down his glasses at me.
"I would like to change the world from a nationalistic orientation to a planetary orientation," he said.
Despite which alien landed where, or whose government is lying, these people are all united by their dissatisfaction with institutions like government and religion—institutions they grew up trusting. Like the Age of Aquarius idealists of the 60s and 70s, this generation is still waiting for a planetary peace that never came. Now, they place their hope for human salvation in the tiny three- or four-fingered hands of a superior alien race. Their view of the planet's state is not misplaced; Britain is tearing itself apart from the inside, a reality TV show star has a decent shot of becoming the next US president, and religiously-fueled violence is a weekly occurrence.
While it's not what I'd do with $200, I think I left with a better understanding of why someone would fork over a couple of Robert Bordens and hope that extraterrestrials can solve the earth's problems. It's as good an answer as any.