The term Men in Black (MIBs), in popular culture, is used in UFO conspiracy theories to describe men dressed in black suits, sometimes with glowing eyes or other monstrous features, claiming to be government agents who attempt to harass or threaten UFO witnesses into silence. According to Albert K. Bender, their female counterparts are Women in White. “All MIB are not necessarily garbed in dark suits,” writes American researcher Jerome Clark. “The term is a generic one, used to refer to any unusual, threatening or strangely behaved individual whose appearance on the scene can be linked in some fashion with a UFO sighting.”
The phenomenon was initially and most frequently reported in the 1950s and 1960s; it is contemporaneous with many other conspiracy theories.
There are various types of Men in Black encounters, but they typically follow a pattern: after a presumably credible individual reports or witnesses a UFO sighting, the witness is visited by a man or men (they are often said to come in threes) who are often dressed in black suits, lending the reports their name. The men suggest — or the witnesses assume — that the men are government agents. The men often flash convincing-looking badges and demand that the witness recant their story or hand over photographs or physical evidence of a UFO. If the witness refuses or questions their credentials, they often subtly or overtly threaten the witness or their family with bodily harm or other hardship.
The men are often reported as driving large, late-model cars, typically Cadillacs; in rare cases, they are reportedly seen in black helicopters.
While it is not known if these threats have ever been realised, there are largely unsubstantiated reports of hardships and harassment levelled against those who resist. The number of claimants of Men in Black encounters is unknown, and might be rather small. Chevon Wallace writes that “Some of those who write about UFOs and other strange phenomena rather casually mention ‘countless’ cases where people have been visited by Men in Black. In reality these ‘countless cases’ are difficult to pin down. In fact, there really seems to be a rather small number of MIB cases where there are any details available at all.”
Appearance and Behaviour
Some Men in Black are described as essentially normal in appearance, but others are said to be quite strange, either in appearance or behaviour. John Keel thought that many Men in Black were of an “Asian” appearance, though he also thought this description was inadequate, and hinted that some Men in Black may not be human. Bender stated that the MIBs who visited him had glowing eyes which they concealed behind sunglasses. Some accounts record that agents appear to wear make-up, even lipstick, in an attempt to mask their inhuman appearances.
Witnesses sometimes describe Men in Black’s behaviour as odd, or belligerent and threatening. They are often noticeably unfamiliar with everyday etiquette and civility. Some witnesses say that they never blink. They also allegedly speak in archaic or obscure forms of English slang, or use odd sentence structure and grammar, as if English were not their first language. In some cases, they have been reported as using British received pronunciation.
Similarities between Men in Black accounts and earlier tales have been noted by folklorist Thomas E. Bullard, who argues that Men in Black “step into the shoes vacated by angels and demons … modified to reflect extraterrestrial rather than supernatural employment but clearly functionaries in the same mold … Even high gods like Odin … sometimes disguised themselves and roamed the earth to dispense justice or stir up strife … The devil of folklore sometimes rides in a black carriage, the nearest thing to a Cadillac.” (Clark, 323)
While Bullard and others have simply noted the similarities and differences, some ufologists, such as John Keel, have argued that there are explicit connections between older and more recent accounts of black-clad figures: in Keel’s view, the demons of old and the Men in Black of today are one and the same.
Jerome Clark cites Gerald Messadié’s 1973 work “A History of the Devil”, which notes, “sometimes the devil wears green or gray, but mostly he is dressed in black, and always in the fashions of the day.” (Clark, 312)
Messadié relates an account from Norway in 1730. A thirteen-year-old girl told investigators that some years earlier, she had accompanied her grandmother on a trip to meet the devil. On their way they met “three men dressed in black, whom the grandmother referred to as ‘grandfather’s boys.’ Once they arrived and met the devil, grandmother called him ‘grandfather.'”
In Wales, in the early 1900s, there was a religious revival centred on thirty-eight-year-old Mary Jones. Though in some ways very different from modern UFO or Men in Black reports, this account is intriguing because it is perhaps the earliest account of spooky, black-clad figures explicitly associated with inexplicable lights reported in the skies.
Beyond the usual events associated with revivals, Jones was accompanied by “Mysterious Lights” (Evans, 114) in the night skies, which Evans reports were widely visible to many reputable witnesses and which “follow(ed), preced(ed), or accompanie(d) Mrs. Jones on her journeys.” (Evans, 119) Writer Beriah G. Evans asserted that he saw these aerial lights himself. Residents furthermore reported encounters with a number of “Dread Apparitions” associated with Jones’ revival. (Evans, 114)
One of these dread apparitions has some similarities to later Men in Black accounts: “In the neighbourhood dwells an exceptionally intelligent young woman of the peasant class, whose bedroom has been visited three nights in succession at midnight by a man dressed in black … This figure has related a message to the girl, which, however, she is forbidden to relate.” (Evans, 117-118)
Evans goes on to note that “a similar apparition was seen from different standpoints, but simultaneously” by two witnesses. One of the witnesses “startled (and) uttered an involuntary prayer. Immediately, one of Mrs. Jones ‘Lights’ appeared above, a white ray darting from which pierced the figure, which thereupon vanished.” (Evans, 118)
It is worth noting, however, that these Welsh accounts also feature elements not typically featured in modern UFO or Men in Black accounts. For example, one of the “dread apparitions” was said to transform into “an enormous black dog”. (Evans, 117)
As noted above, there are relatively few MIB reports which can be verified in any detail — for example, there might be only a handful of cases where names of MIB witnesses are publicly known. A few such cases are noted below.
Maury Island incident: The first Men in Black?
Arguably the first Men in Black report was made shortly after June 21, 1947. On that date, Seaman Harold Dahl claimed to have seen six UFOs near Maury Island, Washington. Dahl, his son, two other men, and Dahl’s dog were on the boat. Dahl took a number of photographs of the UFOs, and reported that one UFO shed some type of hot slag onto his boat. The slag, he said, struck and killed his dog and injured his son.
The next morning, Dahl reported a man arrived at his home and invited him to breakfast at a nearby diner. Dahl accepted the invitation. He described the man as imposing, over six feet tall and muscular, and wearing a black suit. The man drove a new 1947 Buick, and Dahl assumed he was a military or government representative.
While the two men ate, Dahl claimed the man told him details of the UFO sighting, though Dahl had not related his account publicly. Furthermore, the man gave Dahl a non-specific warning—which Dahl took as a threat—that his family might be harmed if he related details of the sighting.
Some confusion and debate over Dahl’s statements has occurred: Dahl would later claim the UFO sighting was a hoax, but he has also claimed the sighting was accurate but that he had claimed it was a hoax to avoid bringing harm to his family.
Bender and Barker
Alfred K. Bender seized on Dahl’s story and printed it in his newsletter. In 1953, Bender claimed three Men in Black visited him and warned him to stop his UFO research. Bender’s account was popularized in Gray Barker’s 1956 book They Knew Too Much about Flying Saucers.
Historian Mike Dash writes that “One of the first visits from the Men in Black occurred in 1953, when Albert K. Bender, director of the International Flying Saucer Bureau, the largest early UFO organization, was visited by three dark-suited men who, he said, first confided the ‘solution’ of the UFO mystery to him, then threatened him with prison if he told the secret to anyone else. Bender was so scared by the visit that he closed down his bureau and ceased all his active involvement in the world of ufology.” (Dash, 161)
In Flying Saucers and the Three Men in Black (1963), Bender wrote of “three beautiful women, dressed in tight white uniforms.” Like their male counterparts, Women in White also had “glowing eyes”.
Bender’s insistence that he was ordered quiet would become an important feature of UFO lore; the tale was initially spread by Bender’s friend, writer Gray Barker. Clark writes that “Bender’s ‘silencing’ obsessed Barker, who would go on to become a prominent writer, editor and publisher in the fringes of saucerdom.” (Clark, 312) Barker speculated that the “silence group” might not be human, and advised UFO researchers to be cautious.
The 1998 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine casts a different light on Barker. The issue featured John C. Sherwood’s article “Gray Barker: My Friend, the Myth-Maker”, which suggests that deliberate hoaxes were responsible for some early Men in Black stories. Sherwood says he was part of the hoax, and cites his own “youthful amorality” and an eagerness to see his fiction published, in that he wrote sensationalistic UFO accounts at Barker’s request. Barker had earlier published one of Sherwood’s tales, which Sherwood altered to give the fiction a “factual” veneer.
In a letter to Sherwood, Barker wrote that Saucer Scoop was printing a piece on Sherwood, calling it “a big deal on you, suggesting you really were hushed by the blackmen. I’ll always be glad to print an article by you if you’ll tell the real (or made up) story of how these strange forces made you quit. You might as well go out of saucers in the usual syndrome.” The “usual syndrome” being warned to keep quiet by sinister men.
“By the mid-1950s,” writes Clark, “the legend of the Men in Black had become fixed in the imaginations of ufology’s more excitable followers.” (Clark, 315) Accounts of Men in Black have been reported since then and continue today.
Dr Herbert Hopkins
A detailed Men in Black account comes from 1976, as related by Dr Herbert Hopkins of Maine. In late 1975, two men—David Stephens and Glen Gray—had reported an odd UFO encounter to several people, including Hopkins.
Some six months after speaking with Stephens and Gray, Hopkins took a telephone call at his home from a man who claimed to represent a UFO research group, and who had heard that Hopkins had spoken to the UFO witnesses. The man asked to interview Hopkins, who agreed to the request. Just moments later, the man knocked at the back door of Hopkins’ home, and Hopkins let him in without asking his name. The man wore a clean, pressed black suit and white gloves and “looked like an undertaker”, said Hopkins. (Dash, 161)
The man was pale and bald, also lacking eyelashes and eyebrows. His lips were bright red. In a dull, monotone voice, the man asked Hopkins about the tale related by Stephens and Gray. Hopkins began relating the account, then at one point, the man’s gloved hand brushed against his face and smeared lipstick from his bright red mouth onto both the man’s white gloves and his pale face.
This bizarre sight snapped Hopkins from the trance-like state he had been in since the man arrived, and Hopkins realized how profoundly strange the entire incident was. “Then came the threats,” writes Dash. The man then made a coin that Hopkins held dematerialize, and then told him that “No one on this plane will ever see that coin again,” seeming to suggest that the man had teleported the coin. (Dash, 162) The man then told Hopkins to destroy his notes and tape recordings of his meetings with Stephens and Gray, or Hopkins’ own heart would disappear just as the coin had.
The man’s voice slowed and he told Hopkins, “My energy is running low. Must leave now. Goodbye.” (Ibid) The man then walked slowly and stiffly out the backdoor towards a bright light. Hopkins never saw the man again; Dash does not note if Hopkins did indeed destroy his notes regarding the UFO sighting.
Peter Rojcewicz reported a detailed Men in Black account which occurred while he was researching his Ph. D. thesis in folklore. Like some other Men in Black reports, this one has been interpreted as having its origins not in physical reality, but in an altered state of consciousness.
One afternoon in November 1980, Rojcewicz was in the library of the University of Pennsylvania, seated at a table near a large window. “Without any sound to indicate that someone was approaching me from behind,” said Rojcewicz, “I noticed from the corner of my eye what I supposed was a man’s black pant leg. He was wearing rather worn black leather shoes.” (Clark, 320)
A tall, slender man with deep-set eyes and a dark complexion stood by the table. After gazing out the window for a moment, the man sat near Rojcewicz. His suit was somewhat dingy and oversized, hanging loosely on his slim frame. With a slight “European” accent, the man asked what Rojcewicz was doing; he replied that he was researching similarities between UFO accounts and earlier tales from various folklore traditions. This instigated a brief conversation about UFOs.
The man asked if Rojcewicz thought that UFOs were real. Rojcewicz replied that he was less interested in the physical reality of UFOs than he was in studying UFO accounts and stories from the perspective of a folklorist.
The man suddenly became angry, shouting, “Flying Saucers are the most important fact of the century, and you’re not interested?” Rojcewicz feared that the man was a “lunatic” and tried to “calm him,” after which the man became silent. The man then stood, placed his hand on Rojcewicz’s shoulder and said something like, “Go well in your purpose.” (Clark, 320)
Moments later Rojcewicz grew frightened and anxious as he became aware of how profoundly strange the brief encounter had been. “I got up,” he wrote, “walked two steps in the direction he had left in, and returned to my seat. Got up again. I was highly excited and walked around to the stacks at the reference desk and nobody was behind the desk. In fact, I could see no one at all in the library. I’ve gone to graduate school, and I’ve never been in a library when there wasn’t somebody there! No one was even at the information desk across the room. I was close to panicking and went quickly back to my desk. I sat down and tried to calm myself. In about an hour I rose to leave the library. There were two librarians behind each of the two desks!” (Clark, 320)
Clark cites an official response to Men in Black reports which suggests that U.S. government officials gave some credence to accounts of harassment of UFO witnesses by persons claiming to be government officials. In 1967 United States Air Force Colonel George P. Freeman is quoted as saying, “We have checked a number of these cases … By posing as Air Force officials and government agents they are committing a federal offence. We sure would like to catch one.” (Clark, 321)
A classified U.S. Air Force memorandum from 1960 also reinforces the fact that there was high-level interest in reports of impostors: “Information, not verified, has reached HQ USAF that persons pretending to represent the Air Force or other Defense establishments have contacted citizens who have sighted unidentified flying objects. In one reported case an individual in civilian clothes, who represented himself as member of NORAD, demanded and received photos belonging to a private citizen. In another, a person in an Air Force uniform approached local police and other citizens who had sighted a UFO, assembled them in a school room, and told them that they should not talk to anyone about the sighting. All military and civilian personnel and particularly Information Officers and UFO Investigating Officers who hear of such reports should immediately notify their local OSI offices.” (Randles and Hough, 160)
The report of the Condon Committee devotes some eighteen pages to a UFO sighting case from 1965, in which the witness, Rex Heflin, claimed to have been visited by two men who said they were NORAD officials. Heflin, described as a California Department of Transportation “on duty Traffic Investigator” in Santa Ana, California, took three clear photographs of a “metallic looking disk” (and a fourth photograph of what Heflin said was its exhaust plumes) on August 3 1965.
Heflin made multiple copies of the photos and tried to interest government officials or the mass media. He met with limited interest from officials, but the Condon Report does state, however, that popular interest was piqued and “most of Santa Ana was saturated with the UFO pictures.” (Condon, 446)
On the evening of September 22, Heflin reported that “two men, claiming to be from NORAD, arrived at the witnesses’ home and asked to borrow the original Polaroid prints.” (Condon, 449) Heflin turned the first three of the four photos over to the two men. NORAD denied that any of their employees had ever visited Heflin, at least in any official capacity. The three photos were not returned to Heflin until 28 years later when in 1993, Heflin received two phone calls from an unidentified woman telling him to check his mailbox where he found the three photos in an unmarked 9×12 inch manila envelope.
Citing inconsistencies in Heflin’s story, the Committee noted that the alleged “‘NORAD Episode’ … is open to serious question,” but they also added that “Indications are that if the two visitors did in fact exist, they were probably impostors.” (Condon, 450)
Ultimately, the Committee offered a somewhat inconsistent appraisal of the Heflin case, describing it overall as “inconclusive” and Heflin’s story as “internally inconsistent,” (Condon, 437) but also noting that “this case is still held to be of exceptional interest because it is so well documented.” (Condon, 454)