Updated 25 April 2010
The latter half of the 20th Century saw a rise in global awareness and interest in visitors from another world. This entry looks at the subject of encounters with extra-terrestrial beings and focuses on the classification of sightings that involve alien spacecraft and their inhabitants.
Close Encounters and their Entry into Pop Culture
Perhaps the most widely-recognised piece of terminology in the lexicon that has grown up around the study and classification of UFO sightings after the infamous 'Flying Saucer', the term 'Close Encounters' and the phenomenon to which they relate were first defined by one Dr J Allen Hynek in the mid-20th Century.
Hired by the US Air Force, Hynek worked on their long-term UFO study known as 'Project Blue Book'. Running for a total of twenty two years between 1947 and 1969, the project recorded in total 12,618 reported sightings of unidentified flying objects in US airspace. According to official sources only 701 of these remain 'unexplained' to the current day. They are also adamant that of these remaining cases, none is surrounded by adequate evidence to suggest that what was seen was of extra-terrestrial origin.
In his work for Project Blue Book, Hynek laid down logical and scientific rules to allow the categorisation and study of sightings of different kinds. These categories allowed reports of UFOs to be classified and analysed with ease, but also allowed those working on the project to refer to the same sightings in a terminology not readily understandable to those on the outside.
But despite the efforts of those working on the project, the UFO phenomenon rapidly became a growing part of popular culture and folklore as sightings increased and the media proliferated tales of contact with extra-terrestrial beings around the world. Eventually the term 'Close Encounter' entered into the vocabulary of the average person on the street, helped by such pop-culture outings as the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Today these five simple categories are perhaps the easiest way available to quantify and record just what a person believes they have seen and/or experienced due to the fact they are clearly defined and so widely recognised. The categories of Close Encounter from first to fifth are as follows:
Close Encounters of the First Kind
This is defined as when a witness has reported the sighting of a UFO within a distance of 150 yards, either in the air or on the ground. At this distance the witness is usually able to discern enough detail about the object they claim to have seen in order to give a description beyond the common 'ball of light' sightings that are often described when a UFO is seen from a greater distance. Unlike many of the other categories of close encounter, one of the first kind is almost as likely to be experienced from the air as from the ground and they are commonly reported by pilots and passengers on both commercial and private flights.
Close Encounters of the Second Kind
Here a UFO is not only reported to have been seen, but there is also some form of quantifiable evidence of its presence left behind after the craft has departed. This may take many forms, but common examples are scorch marks left by the propulsion system of the craft, impressions of its landing gear, abnormal levels of residual radiation around the alleged landing site or even materials of alien origin.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
In this case a witness claims to have not only seen an alien craft, but also some or all of its occupants as well. Most commonly this form of close encounter takes the form of the witness either happening upon the alien craft and its occupants in the vicinity of one another or firstly seeing the aliens themselves engaged in some form of activity and later also bearing witness to the alien craft taking off and departing from the vicinity. Most rare in this category are reports of people witnessing alien craft in flight with occupants visible through some kind of window or aperture in the craft itself.
Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind
A close encounter of this kind is perhaps the most infamous and daunting of all to contemplate and involves the actual abduction of a human being by the inhabitants of a UFO. Often deeply traumatic in nature and predominantly committed with no regard of any kind for the wishes of the abductee, reported close encounters of this kind exploded in numbers in the latter decades of the 20th Century. In most cases an abductee will be spirited away while alone, most commonly while sleeping or driving alone late at night and returned within the space of anything from hours to days later. Most are isolated incidents, but there have been reports of recurring abductions of some subjects by the same entities time and time again. Though group abductions have been reported, these remain in a distinct minority. In some cases the victim will bear witness to the whole experience from start to finish and in others details will be vague and only revealed through the use of hypnotic regression. Abductees almost universally report that once in the power of their captors they are subjected to examination and study of an intrusive nature. The object of these examinations has been speculated upon wildly, throwing up suggestions from simple scientific curiosity to a sinister plan to create a race of human/alien hybrids for use as a slave race.
Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind
The last distinct kind of close encounter features the hallmarks of many of the others, but also requires one element that the others lack which sets it apart. In a close encounter of the fifth kind, as well as coming into contact with alien beings the witness also achieves communication of one kind or another with those beings. The nature of the communication may be verbal or telepathic and there is of course no guarantee that the information exchanged will be of a positive or constructive nature (a close encounter of the fifth kind may for example develop from an encounter of the fourth when the abductee is informed of the reason for their abduction by their captors). But the fact that both parties demonstrate both the ability and the will to communicate with one another means that a close encounter of the fifth kind has the most far reaching potential.
The Project Blue Book Archive provides access to US government documents relating to UFO phenomenon in the public domain.
... while the file held by the FBI on the subject has recently been released into the public domain and can also be read in full online.