The Total Skeptic's Guide to 'the World's Largest UFO Convention'

Ignore, ignore, and ignore until you can't ignore anymore.

by Brian McManus; photos by Dan Smith
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Jun 20 2018, 6:54pm

It’s not often you find yourself in the presence of a spirit traveler and energy surgeon, someone who claims to “defy time and space daily” and is able to “repair hearts, spleens, livers, gallbladders, cancers, and bones” simply through the healing power of touch. But this is Sonja Grace’s truth as she experiences it, and if it sounds at all odd or extra or far-fetched, George Noory, host of the venerable talk radio juggernaut Coast to Coast AM, which focuses on the paranormal, is doing an impeccable job of not letting on. The pair are on stage together in Indian Wells, California, at the annual Contact in the Desert conference, a series of talks and panels dedicated to all things extraterrestrial.

This particular panel, moderated by Noory, is titled Ancient Aliens: The Best Evidence, and nothing Grace tells the host seems to surprise him. When she explains that her guides, “high angelic beings,” take her to ancient sites like Stonehenge to show her how and why it was built, he is unfazed. When she tells him her mind must “dissolve completely, like little particles floating off,” before she’s able to meet with the demi-gods to make these sojourns, he is nonplussed.

It could simply be, as The Atlantic observed in 2010 of Noory’s occasional lapses in the broadcast booth, “sometimes he does not pay full attention to his guests” or is falling back into his habit of letting “clearly delusional or pseudoscientific assertions slide by without challenge.” Or, more plausibly, the latter just happens to be a part of his job description. When you make your living engaging with the community of UFO enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists, you give them space to explore ideas, no matter how divergent. Especially if they’re divergent. This is also true when, like me, you’re a skeptic who finds yourself walking among them, if only for a weekend.

This is a lesson I learn rather quickly at the Renaissance Resort and Spa, a sprawling patch of lush golf courses and fancy pools playing host to the conference. My critical eye here is best left shut, a rule borne of necessity. To not restrict judgement at this place is to risk drowning in it.

This year's Contact, which bills itself as "the largest UFO conference in the world," is its sixth. But it's the first since two bombshell articles on the government's interest in aliens appeared in the New York Times last December. In them a previously secret government initiative called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program —essentially UFO Watch—came to light. The Defense Department, it was revealed, had spent $22 million over five years to maintain the program. That money is paltry in the face of its overall $600 billion annual budget, but it is still a tacit and unprecedented admission from the government that it, in fact, has looked into the possibility that The Truth Is Out There, and in fact have actively searched for it.

What's more, they'd found it.

Included in one of the Times articles was a minute long video, taken from the camera on a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet. In it a pilot tracks a mysterious orb which performs maneuvers that make a crew heard over radio gasp. “My gosh,” one says, bewildered. “Look at that thing, dude... Look at that thing! It’s rotating.”

Speculation it’s a drone is quickly dismissed. No one present can quite place the flying object, which remains unidentified.

The other article, published the same day, features an interview with Navy pilot Commander David Fravor, who tells the Times about a 2004 encounter over the Pacific during a routine training mission that left him "weirded out." On the mission, he saw a 40-foot oval hovering above the ocean that, when he flew down to get a closer look, quickly darted off. “It had no plumes, wings or rotors and outran our F-18s," he told a fellow pilot that night when asked to describe what he'd seen.

Maybe, Church says, news outlets will no longer “cue the X-Files music every time they do a story on us."

These world-bending Times stories put the community, long mocked and marginalized, on entirely new ground. And that ground was in the field of play, finally off the sidelines. “That day I was in my car listening to the radio and they make this announcement about the New York Times and UFOs and the Department of Defense,” Fade to Black and Coast to Coast AM weekend radio show host Jimmy Church, tells me. “I nearly crashed.” Maybe, just maybe, Church says, news outlets will no longer “cue the X-Files music every time they do a story on us."

At the Renaissance, as one might suspect, this sentiment is everywhere. There's a smell of vindication, of "We told you so," in the air. Even before the Times stories, polls showed a majority of Americans believe in some form of alien life. Given the vastness of our universe, it's an easy enough conclusion to make. After all, a late 2013 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found one in five stars have an Earth-like planet orbiting around it, meaning there are roughly 40 billion potentially habitable planets like our own in the Milky Way. “More Earth-like planets than all the grains of sand on all our beaches,” as cnet put it. And just over a week ago, the NASA rover Curiosity found organic matter on Mars, the “best evidence yet the red planet once held life.”

What if, as many Contact-attendees believe, all that's just the beginning?

Contact co-founder Victoria GeVoian sits in a chair and balances her cell phone atop her crossed leg. On top of it, eight multi-colored multi-vitamins roll about but never off. Sometimes, quite impressively, she answers the phone, quickly pocketing or palming the pills in a motion so deft it wouldn’t be surprising if she had a side gig practicing close magic. Once I notice the pills—their disappearing, their reappearing—it becomes hard to pay attention to much else. Then she speaks, and her words become the new focus.

“I’ve been going out of body since I was nine years old,” she says as part of a free-flowing, long-form answer to a question about how she turned Contact from an idea into reality. In a rapid fire stream-of-consciousness, she pings freely from ancient aliens to “our so-called reality,” from the difference between an aware mind and a conscious mind to her multiple encounters with the extraterrestrial.

She says things like, “This is all an illusion, quantum physics, we know this” while motioning toward her general surroundings and, “One time I woke up on the table with a needle that was going through here,” while pointing to her temple. She has devoted much of her life to the study of and in service to the paranormal and esoteric.

Somewhere along the way I get an answer to my original question. GeVoian, along with cofounder Paul Andrews, started the conference in 2012 at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, a property GeVoian managed for 11 years. When Andrews suggested the two book a conference together, one that catered to their myriad interests, she decided to give it a go. They agreed it would incorporate not just the fetishization of little green men and spaceships like so many others, but also the spiritual, the mental, "forbidden archeology," abductions, and disclosures.

For the first five years the conference was held at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center before outgrowing the facility and moving 50 miles southwest to the Renaissance in 2018. Now six years on, the event attracts an eclectic mix of people willing to spend $300 for a weekend pass, or $505 for couples. Ticket buyers can also opt to attend smaller workshops and "intensives" with their favorite speakers from $24.99 to $49.99. GeVoian won't tell me how many have come to Contact 2018, fearing an accurate headcount would, as she puts it, “collapse the wave function” and limit the possibilities for the conference's continued growth. “You’ve got to be careful what you utter and think, because your thoughts are going into the field where infinite possibilities are, and the only thing that’s collapsing is that which resonates with yours—in other words, it’s frequency specific to your thought,” is how she explains it. “So we just say thousands.” Given the sizes of the various ballrooms and crowds at speeches, I'd feel comfortable putting that vague "thousands" between two or three.

Photo by the author

A longtime friend of GeVoian and Contact, Barbara Harris, sat alongside her at Joshua Tree when planning for the first conference was coming together, and remembers well its modest beginnings. In those days Harris acted as a kind of unofficial consultant, talking with GeVoian about speakers that may make the trek out to the desert. She was there when GeVoaian got the website up and running and wondered if anyone would notice. She remembers too how giddy GeVoian was when they did.

"There was a moment when, she'd check the numbers, and at one point she looked and she'd sold 300 tickets," recalls Harris excitedly. "We just couldn't believe it! We were so happy—300 people coming to the desert to camp out and hear these talks."

One of those talks was given by Harris herself. In Contact's first five years she gave a lecture about some of the most sacred spots in and around Joshua Tree and the high desert, the place she's called home for several decades and, as former president of the Morongo Basin Historical Society, knows well. She would give Contact attendees tours of the area too, sometimes leading groups of up to 60 in a caravan into the desert and the best places for sightings in the pitch black night. Contact's steady growth and ultimate move to the ritzy resort surprises Harris, but she also had a hunch it was kind of inevitable. GeVoian, she says, is "one of the smartest people on the planet." Contact would be better than other UFO conferences, different. "There was more to it," she says.

GeVoian and Andrews see everything at Contact to be interconnected. "Imagine a spider's web," says Andrews. "The spiritual, the mental, the extraterrestrial, all of them are strands leading to the same center." At that sacred center, Andrews says, is credibility, and everyone associated with Contact—from vendors in the corridors to speakers on the stage—must have it.

“So many of these conferences, Victoria will tell you, have a lot of [speakers] who say, ‘This is so because I said so,’” Andrews says. “We don’t do that here.”

Only that's not always the case. The speakers at Contact this year run the gamut from someone like Grace, who believes she time travels with demi-gods to learn the real history of the world, to Robert Schoch, a Ph.D in geology who believes the Sphinx was at one point under water, and everything in between. There are healers, ex-FBI agents, a former congressman, Utah's Merrill Cook, who once held a mock congressional hearing on the existence of UFOs, and a man, Emery Smith, who claims he's autopsied over 3,000 extraterrestrials. A good deal of those who speak at the conference would be (or have been) laughed out of more scholarly quarters. But that's also the attraction for the community, which actively loathes academia, the government, and mainstream media, and distrusts any information that may have been derived from official channels.

One of the year's big scores is Erich von Däniken, a Swiss author of some 38 books, Chariots of the Gods most famous among them. He is largely responsible for popularizing the idea that aliens helped build the pyramids. His mentee, the living meme with the impressive coiff Giorgio Tsoukalos, is also at Contact. The two are frequent talking heads on the runaway History Channel hit inspired in part by von Däniken’s work, Ancient Aliens, and bonafide rock stars in the UFO community. Especially von Däniken, “the father of Ufology,” as Noory dubbed him in a brief intro at one point during the weekend.

Nevermind that von Däniken has been absolutely savaged by no less than Carl Sagan, who once wrote that his “principal thesis is that our ancestors were dummies,” and bemoaned his popularity, saying it constituted “a sober commentary on the credulousness and despair of our times.” This was 45 years ago. No telling how Sagan would cope with the TV show based largely on Däniken's work, which Smithsonian mag calls “far-fetched, evidence-free idiocy,” and “fabrications and lies.” All of Däniken's presentations and panel appearances about ancient aliens over the weekend are well attended.

Another of the week's featured presenters is David Wilcock. Over the course of two hours, I watch him tell a packed house—1,000-plus people in the hotel's main room—that Martians with elongated skulls comprise the core of the illuminati that controls the world. They’ve infiltrated the Vatican, he says, and their misshapen heads are why the Pope and high ranking members of the clergy wear funny hats. Wilcock believes Pizzagate is real, and opens his talk by chiding the Hollywood elite for passing off sci fi and fantasy, which they know to be fact, as fiction to us plebeians, fearing we can't handle the truth they have access to due to their exorbitant wealth. They have sex with children, too. "And that's just not cool," he says.

Attendees pack convention halls labeled Atlantis, Endeavour, Independence, Discovery, and Crystal all weekend to learn about secret space programs, the giant spacecraft buried beneath Antarctica, how to identify false flags (from what I'm able to gather, if it happened, it's a false flag), and alien religions. All of it, experienced back to back in one lecture after another, is enough to pry my critical eye back open.

Over the weekend, twice each day, Contact also features what they call an "Experiencers Gathering," a place where those who believe they have experienced an abduction or encounter can talk openly with others who claim to have undergone similar experiences. GeVoian, Andrews, and Harris, like several I spoke to at Contact, say they have had encounters with extraterrestrials.

Psychologists have identified certain personality traits and brain sensitivities that are often shared between people who believe they have been abducted or experienced an encounter with the extraterrestrial. These include a susceptibility to hypnosis, a proclivity for fantasy, and propensity to conflate real and imagined events. And while attending one gathering, I hear stories from people who describe missing time, and weird waking sleep, both hallmark signs of sleep paralysis, also common among those who believe they've had these experiences. Still, researchers at Harvard University led by psychology professor Richard McNally found “People who sincerely believe they have been abducted by aliens show patterns of emotional and physiological response to these ‘memories’ that are strikingly similar to those people who have been genuinely traumatized by combat or similar events.”

Those with "memories" like these may "build false beliefs they have as a result of psychosis out further and further," Dr. Doug Osman, a psychologist who has studied and treated psychotic disorders like schizophrenia for over 15 years, tells me. "These symptoms interact and build upon each other over time and can become fairly complex. As time goes by, they seek out or come across more information or incidents that they add to their 'evidence' for their beliefs."

The notions, then, put forth by Wilcock and von Däniken and everyone else—the conspiracies and coverups, the entire swirling cosmic gumbo—serve as a kind of feedback loop in the minds of the vulnerable. The community at Contact are by-and-large lovely and open and gracious, and some of them have come to the resort to seek an explanation about something, possibly traumatic, that may have happened to them in their lives. The info they're served at Contact can, according to Dr. Osman, cause them more problems, and sink them deeper into a hole of conspiracy. And the lectures aren't the only thing threatening to send them spiraling.

In and out of the ballrooms at Contact vendors offer a wide variety of out-there goods that could perhaps best be described as Goop for people on a budget. One table features a product designed to “restore and maintain your biofield,” whatever that means. Another sells a Rainbow Ascension Key, “The key to lightbody so your cells can communicate better energy and balance in you.” There are crystals available for purchase, of course, and geodes, silver pendants and more self-published books than anyone could read in a lifetime.

In one of the open market corridors, a bit away from the ballrooms, a man offers iridology analysis, an alternative medicine whose proponents believe the characteristics of a patient's iris hold the key to health. The first result on Google about the practice is a 2004 entry on a website called Quackwatch, "Your Guide to Quackery, Health Fraud, and Intelligent Decisions."

Up front by the main ballroom is a portable infrared sauna which promises to help with MS and fibromyalgia. For sale nearby is a cell phone EMF absorber called “The Zorb,” which works because of “20 oxide minerals heated to extremely high temperatures then liquid nitrogen cooled into an advanced ceramic form," which undoubtedly sounds impressive.

Most appropriately considering the venue, another man is selling an Eau de Parfum called Abduction he tells me is “inspired by the scents people recall after their abduction experiences,” which he describes as “a mix of cinnamon and...burnt things.”

After a few days, like the perfume, everything at Contact—the lectures, the workshops, the products available for purchase—smells funny.

“It just gets very lonely here sometimes."

On the last day of Contact I forego more lectures and “intensives,” and opt instead to go on Barbara Harris's tour of all the sacred spots in the high desert, the places that make the area such a go-to for the community which holds them dear. She gave this same tour to Contact attendees the first five years of the conference and I'm told by several attendees during the week its an absolute must if I want to get the full Contact experience, if I want to feel some of the magic.

On the tour, Harris drives me past a dome built with no screws or nails and “perfect geometry” called the Integratron and recalls its incredible history. We visit hollowed-out stand-alone concrete structures that used to serve as rooms where people long ago with tuberculosis were quarantined. "Not a sacred spot, really, but I just thought you'd want to see it. I think it's so neat," she says.

We drive to Desert Christ Park, a truly odd five acre sculpture garden that saw its first reinforced steel and concrete statue erected in 1951. Various statues across the property include the 12 apostles, Mary, several angels, and a 15-foot, three ton Jesus which was inspired by Rio de Janeiro's much grander Christ the Redeemer. "It is the perfect place for weddings, picnics, photo ops, or a walk through the Bible—or to just come and drink your morning coffee," its barely-maintained website reads. "Whatever your choice, the stark white slurry statues press against the desert sky in vivid detail and continue to remind us of the rich historic heritage that is California and The Christ."

We continue the drive and she points out important landmarks that tell the story of the area—Goat Mountain, several Buddhist Temples—all of which, she says, illustrate that the people who come to the area are "searchers." She tells me why the high desert and Joshua Tree are such a hotbed for UFO activity—close to a military base, mineral rich, and underground aquifers contain a lot of water—which made it a perfect spot for Contact. We go to the Joshua Tree Retreat Center and walk around, and she shows me the convention's humble roots, the small rooms and outdoor spaces where the lectures used to take place and where attendees ate lunch.

We then drive deep into the desert, down dirt roads, to a giant rock called Giant Rock. It is massive, "a freestanding boulder about seven stories high and covering about 58,000 square feet, weighing 25,000 tons." Harris has spent 30 years researching, talking, and thinking about the rock, and has even ascribed to it a pronoun. “She’s tired,” she says, looking at graffiti scrawled across her that reads "BLOODS ARE QUEERS" with unmistakable sadness in her eyes.

She tells me the history of Giant Rock, and the "Burning Man type atmosphere" it used to invite. Back in the car she tells me she decided against going to Contact this year. Not just because a recently mended broken foot left her sidelined, but because, like her rock, she is tired. Besides, she says, she worries about the convention moving from Joshua Tree. She wasn't familiar with many of the speakers this year anyway, she says. There were, according to Harris, many sightings and extraterrestrial encounters at Contact at Joshua Tree, and she fears attendees won't get the same experience at the Renaissance, where golf, not connection, is the attraction.

Suddenly the car stops and Harris has buried her face in her hands and is quietly crying. She apologizes. “It just gets very lonely here sometimes,” she says, referring to Earth.

It took all weekend. But finally I hear something on which we can all agree.

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