I hadn't even entered Europe's biggest UFO convention before someone handed me a pamphlet linking Satan to aliens, featuring a quote attributed to Jesus that was apparently uttered by the Son of God sometime in September of 1985. I'd gone with my friends, Tom and Matt, to check out Awakening, billed as the place "where ufology and conspiracy meets spirituality and consciousness."
A month or so ago, Tom texted me a link to the event page. I knew I had to go as soon as I saw it—we wanted to challenge our deeply-held beliefs and see if they would stand up to all the ideas and theories we'd read about in obscure corners of the internet. Was the Earth flat? Are politicians actually reptilian humanoids? Why not go in with an open mind?
As Tom finished his cigarette, a man dressed as Darth Vader emerged out of the venue, followed closely by a troop of Stormtroopers. The Bowlers Exhibition Center in Manchester usually plays host to Elvis impersonator concerts and the Great Northern Ska Festival, but I doubted the 84,000 square feet hall had ever encountered this mix of sci-fi enthusiasts, New Age kooks, Flat Earth conspiracy theorists, and people otherwise willing to fork out anywhere between £15 to £100 for a ticket to drink in a Star Wars inspired cantina bar.
When Tom threw his cigarette butt on the ground, a woman handing out pamphlets to asked him to be a good lad and pick it up and put it in the bin. "They'll get ya," she added in a thick Mancunian accent, looking around conspiratorially.
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This was the first Awakening expo, but the packed crowd clearly didn't care that this was its maiden voyage. People stood around the entrance, spinning on their heels and deciding where to go first: the stalls selling everything from Pokémon toys, healing crystals and VHS tapes for 20 pence apiece? The Area 51 mock-up, complete with a UFO guarded by two alien "greys" with bulging, orb-like eyes? As we decided on a plan for the day, Tom nudged me, and I looked up to see a man dressed as Elvis circling the Pokémon stall, talking to a friend.
On our way to a talk titled "The Secret Life of Teas: A Journey Into Plant Intelligence and How It Can Guide Our Personal Evolution," we walked past two men dressed as men in black, complete with sunglasses and earpieces. "Cool costumes," I said to Matt. "Is that what they want you to think?" he replied.
Anne, the founder of Attic Teas, a Bristol-based tea company and cafe, took to the stage in front of about 25 people. Hydration, she informed us, was important to reach a higher state of being, and vibrations were key to reaching this higher consciousness.
We lined up to be served a small paper cup of tea and returned to our seats. According to Anne, it was a blend of Attic Teas' own making; once we'd drunk it, she would help us through a guided meditation routine. I downed mine and enjoyed the slightly herb-y aftertaste as Anne fiddled around with her laptop for a few seconds. "Notice the energy of your breath," a soothing voice radiated from the speakers. "Notice how it feels."
Darth Vader had clearly circled back to the venue; I could hear his distinctive breathing from somewhere in the crowd. Maybe he was a fan of artisanal teas and guided meditation. Despite the distractions, most of Anne's audience kept their eyes closed. I did feel relaxed and kind of spaced out, even though it sounded like Darth Vader was wheezing directly in my ear.
"We will definitely be attending next year," Anne said in an email after the event. "It was right up our street!" When I asked what a tea company had to do with conspiracy theories, and UFOs, she replied that she didn't really like the term "conspiracy theory" because it "sets an 'us versus them' tone."
"We should all be encouraged to question things and discover alternatives," she added. "For me, the power of possibility is what I find intriguing, the invisible world of vibrational energy, intention and ancient wisdom that comes from everything, not just humanity."
On another stage, Flat-Earth truther Darren Nesbit was just beginning a talk with the somewhat protracted title: "A Fixed Plane Earth Presentation. Exposing The Lies of NASA, The World Governments and Media."
Nesbit, a solemn bald man with a beard, admitted that a talk on the flat Earth might seem incongruous at a UFO convention, but explained that it was the perfect setting for it because everyone was here "seeking truth." As the name suggests, Flat Earthers believe that we live on a flat plane, instead of a round, sphere-like planet. (You might think that any number of NASA pictures would be enough to dissuade them, but Flat Earthers also believe that NASA is in on the conspiracy.)
The talk began with an image from The Truman Show (1998) featuring Jim Carrey ascending the stairs at the edge of his film set world, about to discover the truth of what lies behind his life. Its caption read: "We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented."
Nesbitt's talk went down a storm: All the seats were taken, and people had lined up at the back to listen to him speak. After the event, he said that getting the Flat Earth message out was usually a lot harder. "I try to look for the right opening to bring it up, normally with humor," he said on email. "It's easier if you start with money, politics—things that people are familiar with and know there's something dodgy about to begin with."
According to its organizers, Awakening was a "phenomenal success"—tickets for their 2018 expo have already been released. The 2,500 people that walked through its doors, they said, were proof that "more and more people are seeking answers to the biggest questions of mankind and our true origins." One thing I do know is that I came out with more questions than when I went in, but maybe next year I'll just go for the tea.