Exeter UFO Festival

September 27, 2010 — You know what’s a funny phrase? Tinfoil hat. And when I tell you that I recently attended a UFO festival, that might be the exact phrase that pops into your head.

The festival took place earlier this month in Exeter, NH, a town of about 14,000 near the New Hampshire seacoast. And while the fact that New Hampshire has a seacoast might be tons more surprising than the fact that a town in New Hampshire would celebrate EBEs, ETIs, UFOs, and ALFs, this article is about the latter. Sorry.

Exeter is famous in UFO lore for the so-called “Exeter Incident,” in which some strange celestial lights freaked out a teenage hitchhiker and a couple of police officers back in September of 1965 a few miles outside of town. I actually visited the site of this occurrence last year and wrote about it in slightly more detail at the end of a two-part article on Betty and Barney Hill, the most famous alien abductees this side of Elijah the Prophet. In fact, the Hills actually lived in Exeter at the time of their own personal too-close-for-comfort encounter.

So Exeter has plenty of legitimate reasons to throw a UFO festival. Actually multiple festivals. This year’s Exeter UFO Festival is the second annual one.

The festival has a huge community event component. The town was decorated here and there with life-sized (word choice?) X-Files-green inflatable aliens lashed to various street architecture or displayed in shop windows. And the whole thing was an excuse for shop and restaurant owners to shove the descriptor “out of this world” in front of the usual advertisements for their wares. Local clubs sold food, posters, and T-shirts, and various kid-centered activities such as face painting, sidewalk chalk drawing, and crafts were scheduled, in addition to an evening ball for adults. Maps were also available for self-guided tours of the Exeter Incident site. I even heard a rumor about an alien pet costume contest.

Now, I am not what you’d call a participator (why do you call it that?), so most of that stuff didn’t appeal to me. Or, more accurately, it appealed to me from afar. However, there was still some solid stuff for us passive sorts. In fact, we somehow managed to hang out there for three hours after allotting like only 15 minutes for the event. It helped that the downtown area had a surprising number of unique shops to poke our heads into, and people watching becomes a whole different sport when said people are wearing antennas on their heads.

The epicenter of all this space oddity was the town hall, were various UFO-relevant speakers and authors were scheduled all day, making the festival a conference of sorts, as well. This year’s speakers included the director of New England MUFON (Mutual UFO Network), a podcast host with a show dedicated to the paranormal, a career-long UFO researcher, and two nuclear physicists, one of whom was Stanton Friedman.

I dropped in for some of Friedman’s talk since he’s pretty famous in those circles, with ties going all the way back to Roswell. I’d also read Captured! last year, a book on Betty and Barney Hill that he co-authored with Betty Hill’s niece, Kathleen Marden. It was standing-room-only for his presentation, with hundreds of people showing up to hear him speak. He was pushing a new book that he’d written, again with Marden, entitled Science Was Wrong, a book that’s not a UFO book, but the subject matter of which is easily adaptable to a UFO festival crowd.

It basically relates anecdotes where various scientists were really, really wrong in a very public fashion about what’s possible and impossible according to the laws of nature. The title’s more annoying than the topic, honestly, and Friedman explained first thing in his speech that the title was supposed to be the much less grating It’s Impossible…Isn’t It?, but that his publisher changed it to make it much more attention-getting. I’d of gone with Sometimes We Didn’t Know Everything. That's a pretty boring anecdote I just told.

Probably my favorite part of the whole festival had nothing to do with the official program, though. Along the Exeter River that flows through the town is a thin strip of grass and benches called Founder’s Park, where most of the aforementioned kid’s activities were centered. Right across the street from the park was a private house that had created their own UFO diorama on their front lawn composed of three life-sized (word-choice?) Styrofoam aliens with pressure gauge antennae and a spacecraft made out of an upturned satellite dish…the old 1980s kind of dish, the kind that was barely smaller than the SETI Arecibo Observatory itself and gave you hope that you could contact alien intelligences on your own TV...or at the very least tick off your neighbors with its sheer ostentatiousness. Nobody daydreams any of that with a tiny DirecTV dish. Anyway, seeing this lawn display made me jealous that I don’t have this holiday to decorate for.

I’m not sure where the best place to insert my own feelings on our eventual alien overlords is. Probably nowhere near this article. Still, my stance on extraterrestrial Earth visitors is pretty much my stance on ghosts. Way dig stories about them. Am slightly annoyed and sometimes hate when people try to drag them into real life. I wish I believed in more stuff.

Besides, when the aliens do come, we’re all going to know.

Overall, the festival itself is a relatively humble, but enjoyable affair. In fact, it could probably do with a little more crazy, to be honest. But it’s only in its second year. I’m sure it’ll continue to grow until before you know it they’ll have erected a 20-foot-tall Gort in the town square, will offer re-enactments of famous UFO events in the sky with high-powered lasers, and have coaxed Robin Williams out of Mork retirement…and then we’ll all owe Exeter big-time.

Back to tinfoil hats, walking around the downtown area of Exeter reminded me who else besides crazy people dig wearing tinfoil hats. Kids. Because they like to have fun with whatever is at hand. Which is exactly what the people of Exeter, NH, and the organizers of the UFO festival seem to be doing with their little celebration. Nanu Nanu.