As a child, I loved unsolved mysteries, and I’m not talking about detective novels. I’m talking about those big, fat, cheaply printed volumes you could buy from Woolworths which anthologised everything from the Mary Celeste and the Loch Ness monster, to Kaspar Hauser to the Enfield poltergeist, throwing in the Yeti and the Moberly–Jourdain incident for good measure. I gobbled them up, as well as being an avid reader of Fortean Times and an avid watcher of the paranormal series Strange but True? – 90s television introduced me to things that a small child really has no business knowing about, such as spontaneous human combustion. The black and white image of a burned-out armchair where a person used to be, with only their charred legs remaining, will probably never leave me.
Second only to ghosts was my fascination with UFOs and aliens. The 90s was big on aliens: Alien Autopsy came out in 1995, and we children all thought it was real (it seemed as though quite a few adults did, too). And perhaps partly owing to that film, as well as Independence Day in 1996, causing such a stir, aliens were everywhere: on TV, on T-shirts and in the playground, in the form of eggs containing goo aliens which, fevered rumours said, could actually reproduce (this has since been proved false, to almost no one’s surprise).
So it’s fitting that, at the same time that the 90s are fashionable again, aliens are also back in the news, with a Pentagon report on UFOs due to be released some time later this month, looking at sightings by military personnel. Some of these videos, such as the 2004 sighting by a navy pilot of a Tic Tac shaped object near San Diego, are already available online. I’ve watched them – because really, what else is the internet for? – but they didn’t give me the same sense of wonder or excitement that I used to have as a kid. If the truth is out there, I’m not sure I’m all that bothered about hearing it.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am not an incurious person, and in a way I am right in the target market for this sort of story: sort of agnostic, a bit hippy-dippy, kind of believe in ghosts in the sense that I’m likely to end any argument about their existence by saying, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, even though no one else seems to regard it as the trump card that I do, especially now that Cern has essentially disproved their existence.
But there’s a scientific basis for aliens, which somehow makes them less exciting to the 90s child inside me. That’s not to say that I don’t want them to exist: like David Kestenbaum – whose contribution to the Fermi’s Paradox episode of This American Life is a must listen – I get sad when I think about the prospect of all that cold, dark, empty space. And not “because we want deliverance”, as the writer Sarah Jones speculated recently (I’m not convinced any alien lifeform could sort out the plague-ridden binfire that is our planet at the moment), but because the thought of human beings as the most intelligent lifeforms in the universe is very depressing, especially in 2021.
Though really we have enough to deal with at the moment, without a potential alien invasion. The past year has been a lot: we don’t need another looming disaster in the mix. Also, for a couple of years now I have had the eerie, uncanny feeling that we are in the future, and this has only been exacerbated by the dystopian feelings wreaked by the pandemic. When Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites passed over London recently, appearing in the sky like a bright dotted line of stars, it felt like it was here. With technology like that in existence, strange aerial phenomena seem even more likely to have a scientific explanation these days, and while optical illusion or secret military technology are less captivating explanations, I guess that’s a part of growing up.
And yet, the child who used to lie in bed, kept awake by the terrifying thought of alien abductions, wants the mystery to live on. I want the Loch Ness monster to possibly be a plesiosaur that somehow survived, and the curse of Tutankhamun to maybe exist, and ghosts to almost definitely be roaming the corridors of creepy old inns across the land.
Yet in this world of fake news and conspiracy theory, I realise my desire for mystery is no longer so innocent. It’s as important to cling to rational, scientific evidence as ever. And an answer isn’t always a letdown. The 1911 Moberly-Jourdain incident, which involved two British women who, while walking in the gardens at Versailles, claimed to have seen the gardens as they would have been in the 18th century, complete with the ghost of Marie Antoinette and others, seems to have a plausible explanation. Hilariously, it seems that these ladies may have stumbled upon a massive gay fancy dress party. Marie Antoinette may well have been the flamboyant aristocrat poet Robert de Montesquiou, in drag.
So sometimes, even if a paranormal-obsessed child would not agree, the logical explanation is sometimes even more pleasing than the mystery itself.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist
This content was originally published here.