On the evening of November 11, 1987, in the small town of Gulf Breeze, Florida, an ordinary suburban house was enveloped in a strange blue light coming from the sky. The owner of the house, a building contractor named Ed Walters, rushed outside and saw a flying saucer hovering above the street. Walters ran back into his house, grabbed a Polaroid camera and took several photos of the craft. The UFO reacted, shooting a blue beam at him that transmitted telepathic images. Then Walters blacked out, waking up later on his front lawn. The photos from the Polaroid camera revealed several spectacular shots of the space vehicle that he claimed he encountered.
This was, anyway, Ed Walters’ story. The photos were his chief corroboration: no one had taken such up-close and personal pictures of a UFO before. The fact that the camera was a Polaroid was significant. To those who have never heard of this device, which was nothing short of miraculous when it appeared on the market in the 1950s, it was a camera that used film that developed itself in a matter of minutes! It was thought (erroneously) that you couldn’t fake Polaroid pictures with the same sort of double exposure tricks that have been going on for as long as photography has existed. Ergo, Walters had to be telling the truth! Right?
One of Walters’s famous photos. Most experts concluded they were pretty crude fakes; a minority insisted they were real. Few believe in them anymore.
The November 11 “sighting” was hardly the end of the incident. After telling his story to a local newspaper–which caused an immediate sensation–Ed Walters began to report and document other encounters he said he had with the mysterious craft, the obvious implication being that they were aliens of some kind. In fact, Walters said he saw one of them on December 2, 1987, a strange robot-like device or perhaps a creature wearing a spacesuit. He also took many more photographs, including a shot of one of the saucers that landed on his street. As the media picked up the story, public interest increased, as it always does about phenomena like UFOs. Other people around Gulf Breeze began saying that they too had seen flying craft. Walters himself went on TV, including the popular show Hard Copy, to tell his story. I remember seeing him on one of these shows. The Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), a non-profit that investigates UFO sightings, claimed that Walters was genuine. By mid-1988 the sleepy town of Gulf Breeze was known as one of the world capitals of UFO sightings, mainly for the quality of Walters’s pictures, which far exceeded the typical grainy, indistinct and wobbly pictures taken of previous supposed flying saucers.
Walters became something of a local celebrity. His TV appearances and the interest in his story eventually led to a book deal with William Morrow, which published The Gulf Breeze Sightings, authored by Walters, in 1990. Walters sold his house and bought a new one. The same year as the book’s publication, however, the owner of his old house–one Robert Menzer–was mucking around in the attic, looking for a water pipe, when he discovered a strange object wrapped in old drafting paper hidden behind a flap of insulation. Unwrapping it, Menzer revealed a model of a flying saucer, made of foam plates, cardboard, paper and colored plastic gel.
Soon the gig was up. Walters insisted that he was framed. Someone, he claimed, had built a model of a flying saucer, broken into his empty house and hid it to discredit him. He did, however, admit that the drafting papers the model was wrapped in–which contained plans for the model–were his, but they must have been stolen from his trash. Then someone else in the town stated that he knew Ed Walters had previously been fooling around with photographic tricks, including double exposures that could be used even to fake the irreproachable Polaroids; among those who believed the Gulf Breeze UFO photos were faked, this was the leading candidate for how it was done.
The house and street where the alleged sightings occurred as they appear today, thanks to Google Street view. An unlikely place for an intergalactic encounter?
At last, Tom Smith, a local teenager, came forward and said that Ed Walters had shown him pictures of the UFO and urged him to go forward to the press with them. Smith had some of the pictures, and was able to show investigators exactly how Walters had faked the pictures–including how he had created a depression in the ground where one of the “saucers” supposedly landed. It was done with an upside-down trampoline. Thus, it was demonstrated pretty conclusively that Ed Walters had faked the incident, and that the amazing spaceship seen in his photos was in fact a cardboard and styrofoam mock-up only 9 inches long–hardly impressive for an intergalactic spaceship.
Looking back on the incident from the vantage point of 30 years, the whole thing seems quaint, and those who fell for the hoax almost childishly naïve. The question is not so much why anyone would fake flying saucer sightings, but why so many people, when confronted with the obvious falsity of Walters’s claims, remained so eager to believe. This is my second pass on this blog at the Gulf Breeze story; after I posted the original version in early 2014 I received over the years a steady trickle of drive-by commenters who insisted that Walters’s story was absolutely true and inevitably claimed I am “biased” for not believing a building contractor’s fairy tale backed up with fake photographs. It’s similar to the reactions I get on my George Adamski article, or the Oak Island nonsense. Belief in these fringe subjects touches people in a way that’s deeply wrapped up with identity and worldview. That hasn’t changed in 30+ years, and if anything identity-belief in “woo” subjects has only grown stronger as our society continues to devalue rationality and critical thinking as an acceptable basis for public discourse.
It was hoped that Ed Walters’s book about the Gulf Breeze sightings would duplicate the success of Communion, the best-selling UFO book of all time. It didn’t.
The why question, why Walter would have done this, seems easy to answer: it was probably about money, and there was a recent precedent for a big score in a similar vein. In 1987, William Morrow, later the publisher of The Gulf Breeze Sightings, published a book called Communion by former horror novelist Whitley Streiber. The novelist, who was then on the fringes of the New York literati scene, claimed that in 1985 he’d been abducted by aliens from his upstate New York cabin. Communion was a runaway bestseller, the basis of a bizarre and terrible but perversely enjoyable 1989 movie starring Christopher Walken. By late 1987, when Walters jumped on the flying saucer bandwagon, the decline and fall of Strieber’s alien abduction empire had not yet begun. Strieber would go on to write several increasingly outlandish sequels to Communion (book blogger Duke de Richleu has a hilarious review of one of them, here) and then sputtered off into aimless New Age ephemera, now “hosting” a podcast, he claims, with the spirit of his deceased wife. The 21st century has not been kind to the kind of woo that was popular in the late ’80s.
Walters never achieved anything like Strieber’s relatively short-lived success. He ran for the Gulf Breeze city council and was defeated, and after that seemed to fade into obscurity. He wrote some follow-up books in the 1990s, but no fish except the hard-core believers were biting. He continued to insist the Polaroids were real–I mean, of course he did!–despite the fact that others have duplicated the fakes, using the selfsame 9-inch model that Walters had originally used in 1987.
The 1989 film of Communion, directed by Philippe Mora, was savaged by critics, baffled audiences and sank with a muffled gurgle at the box office. It’s hard to find today, but perversely enjoyable.
The conceptual linchpin used to market both Strieber’s and Walters’s stories was the idea, made nascent by William Morrow and the media coverage but rarely actually asserted by them in direct terms, that their experiences were “PROOF!” that aliens and UFOs existed. The suggestion of veracity in Walters’s case was technological–“the photos can’t be faked!”–whereas in Strieber’s case it was reputational–“A trusted member of the New York literati says these things happened, and he’s not lying!” Media campaigns for both hoaxes trumpeted polygraph (lie detector) results; Strieber and Walters both passed polygraph examinations several times. Both media campaigns relied upon the opinions of psychologists who testified that neither Strieber nor Walters were crazy. (Communion, in fact, even contains a verbatim letter from a psychological expert declaring Strieber to be sane). Of course polygraphs are not very reliable, and one need not be insane to make up stories about alien abductions. Strieber, in fact, seems to really believe he was abducted by aliens; his case appears to involve an unusually strong form of confabulation (belief in false memories) and a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance, which is common in the world of flying saucer belief. But the marketing in both cases was flimsy and disingenuous. The Polaroids could be, and were, faked; and a trusted member of the New York literati, though not lying, did peddle stories that were patently not true. In both cases the public was deceived.
So much for Walters and Strieber. Why, though, did hundreds of people in Gulf Breeze claim, for years afterwards, that they saw strange lights in the skies or even their own encounters with flying saucers? Why do people have such an instinctive need to believe in these things, even when they’re obvious fakes? Belief is a curious thing; sometimes it spreads like a communicable disease. A good example would be the strange epidemic of windshield pitting that occurred in Seattle in 1954, a well-documented case of collective delusion. Belief that there is other intelligent life in the universe is quite rational and indeed supported by probabilities, but that rational concept is too often used to justify a leap to any number of irrational conclusions, from Adamski’s crude fakery in the 1950s to the notion that aliens sometimes interrupt television broadcasts to tell humans to make nice and stop fighting. These leaps are motivated by emotion, not by reason. There seems to be something inherently unsatisfying to many people about a world that can be explained rationally by experts. The existence of a world governed primarily by belief, and especially pleasing or intriguing beliefs, seems much more comforting. Tapping into this desire is usually good business, if you know how to do it.
If UFOs were real, you’d think that today, armed as we all are with instant cameras in our pockets, there would be many more “saucer photos” than there used to be. The opposite is true. This laughable attempt was done in Brazil in the 1960s.
I am fascinated by the pathology of deception and delusion. It’s hard to know in the Gulf Breeze case where Walters’ deliberate deception ended and the willing self-delusion of those who believed him began. We now live in a world where instant photos and “deep fakes” are commonplace and unremarkable, and, paradoxically for the believers, where the fact that we’re now constantly armed with cameras means that there are a whole lot fewer “flying saucers” are caught in pictures than there used to be. You just can’t fake UFOs today the way you could 30 or 35 years ago. This makes the Gulf Breeze hoax something of a quaint showpiece in the long history of deception.