Monday, 27 December 2010



The best urban legends never fizzle out and the Curse of the Crying Boy keeps returning to my inbox year in year out.

Stories about a cheap print of a crying toddler that eerily survived fires unscathed first spread through the UK in 1985. In my definitive article, originally published by Fortean Times, I traced the genesis of the legend to a news story published by The Sun (right) in September that year. This told how firemen in Rotherham, Yorkshire, could not explain how the print had escaped from a fire that gutted a terraced house.

During the ‘80s it emerged that more than 50,000 versions of the print were sold in the UK alone and news of the curse led hundreds of people to report house fires where a crying boy painting survived. Since then stories about the “cursed” painting by Spanish artist Bruno Amadio – actually one of a series by different artists – has become an internet phenomenon. Elaborate legends have appeared online, seeking to explain who the boy was and why the paintings are cursed.

The story was resurrected in October 2010 by comedian Steve Punt for an episode of his BBC Radio 4 series Punt PI, for which I’ve become a regular source of weird and amusing legendary. In his mission to pour cold water on the flames, producer Laurence Grissell managed to bag an interview with legendary former Sun editor Kelvin McKenzie. It was McKenzie who set the crying boy hare running. He was also the editor who presided over tabloid inventions such as the ludicrous 1986 page one splash, “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”.

In suitably playful mood, McKenzie admitted that the Crying Boy legend was born on a slow news day when a filler sent by a regional news agency caught his eye. The fact that firemen – rather than credulous members of the public – appeared to confirm this unlikely tale was enough for him. It was, he said, “as if a light went on”.

Not only did he and the tabloid create the Crying Boy phenomenon, but McKenzie personally fanned the flames, encouraging worried readers to send their prints to The Sun HQ for destruction on a Hallowe’en bonfire. When quizzed by Punt PI, McKenzie admitted he was a superstitious man who personally refused to allow a copy of the print to be installed on his office wall. But when asked whether there was any truth to the story, he said:

“Who knows…[but] there comes a point when you research a story too deeply – as you keep on asking more and more questions about it - the story actually disappears and before you know where you are we are all sitting there, its ten to five, we haven’t got a front page lead and the story’s just collapsed. So some stories are just too good to check.”

Too good to check or too good to kill?

Remember that the next time you read a headline proclaiming Atlantis has been discovered or the alien invasion fleet has been spotted hovering above your neighbourhood!


Back in July in a blog post titled “Where are the UFO Whistleblowers?” I asked why, despite the massive leak of secret war logs to Wikileaks, not a single hint of US government contact with UFOs or ETs had emerged - despite decades of claims by conspiracy believers.

An answer to this question became all the more pressing when, in November this year, a further 250,000 US state department cables emerged dating back to the 1960s. Shortly afterwards the mercurial Julian Assange revealed during a Guardian Q&A session that Wikileaks is plagued by what he described as 'weirdos' looking for the smoking gun that will confirm their beliefs. In a statement that will not endear him to the UFO disclosure brigade, Assange said they had not satisfied a Wikileaks rule that documents must be bona fide and not self-authored (which eliminates MJ-12 and other obvious fakes). But he hinted that “in yet to be published parts of the Cablegate archive there are indeed references to UFOs.”

Now bear in mind the fact that in 1993 the US general accounting office identified some 3,067,000 people who had clearance to information classified secret and above (Guardian, 29 November 2010). We should not therefore be surprised to find at least some passing tongue-in-cheek reference within diplomatic traffic to the more bizarre UFO legends that regularly circulate in the media and on the net.

The anticipation was short-lived. On 17 December the Guardian revealed, in a follow-up, that Assange was merely poking fun at UFO buffs. “Despite what [he] said…there are no references to aliens in the cables,” they said. “We searched for aliens and UFOs (“visitors” and “non-terrestrial officers” too, thanks, UFO-minded readers).”

Which returns me to my original question: where are the UFO whistleblowers?


2010 may have been the year of Wikileaks but it was also a great one for the disclosure of genuine government UFO archives. Just before Christmas the Royal New Zealand Air Force published electronic versions of nine files containing details of UFO sighting reports dating way back to the great phantom airship flap of 1909. You can download these files in PDF format.

This was not a “new” release, as claimed by some news outlets, as paper versions of these files have been available from The National Archives in Wellington, New Zealand, for a number of years. But few researchers have the time or resources to travel halfway across the planet to consult them, or can afford to order paper copies.

The RNZAF release is just the latest move by governments across the world to provide free and unrestricted access to historical UFO papers that have been hidden by unnecessary secrecy for too long. During the summer the Brazilian Air Force joined the fray by releasing a mass of UFO records to their country’s archives, following the example set by France, Britain, Denmark and Ireland in the past three years.

In Britain the on-going programme to transfer all surviving Ministry of Defence UFO files to The National Archives - for which I'm acting as consultant - saw the release of a further 42 files during 2010. The next 12 months promises to be another bumper year as the British disclosure project reaches its finale with just over one hundred remaining files being prepared for release.

The factors that led to the release of official UFO files release in Brazil, New Zealand and the UK are identical. And it is not to prepare the population for news that we are being visited by extraterrestrials, as some continue to falsely claim. The reality is that the military and intelligence services of all three countries have no interest in UFOs or the people who believe in them. They want to wash their hands of the whole messy business by literally making UFOs history, following the recommendation of fellow sceptic John Rimmer.

The most effective way of doing this is to place all their surviving records in a historical archive, where the subject clearly belongs. This allows them to direct all future inquiries to the archives and avoid wasting further public money responding to inquiries about a subject that has no defence value, in their view. This was clearly the reason behind the British MoD's decision to close their UFO Hotline in November 2009 and transfer all remaining papers to The National Archives.

The release of all these files comes in direct response to public interest stoked by the media and the UFO industry itself. It reflects open government, nothing more, nothing less. It does not indicate any international secret knowledge of ET presence or contact as claimed by some of the more credulous UFOlogists. As anyone who troubles themselves to actually read the files will realise, the opposite is actually the truth. Governments know no more about UFOs and ETs than the average person in the street.


In November the media got excited about a “mystery missile” filmed off the California coast near Los Angeles. The scare drew comparisons with the ghost-rocket flap that gripped Scandinavia in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The images, captured by a CBS news helicopter crew, appeared to show the vapour trail of a missile rising from the ocean 35 miles offshore. Conspiracy theorists were delighted when the Pentagon said it knew nothing about a missile launch and further fuel was added when former Deputy Secretary of Defence, Robert Ellsworth, hinted that it might have been deliberately fired from a US Navy submarine “to demonstrate, mainly to Asia, that we can do that.”

As the mystery grew, further footage of mystery missiles emerged from elsewhere in North America. But revealed the “missile” was simply the contrail of an aircraft flying directly towards the camera crew, with the image distorted by a trick of perspective. Although the contrail is actually five miles high, it appears to touch the ground because of the curvature of the Earth. Many other examples of “contrail scares” are known across the world.

US sceptic Bob Sheaffer believes this might explain the famous Swedish “spook bomb” wave of 1946 that immediately preceded the modern flying saucer era. Writing on his splendid new blog Bad UFOs, Sheaffer notes that despite the facts about the Californian footage being on plain view, the story has now morphed into a mystery that refuses to be debunked.


As the first decade of the 21st century ends, so UFOs retain their place as the most important modern myth. Myth is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary not as a false belief but as “a traditional narrative sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated”, much like Bible stories and traditional beliefs common to all human history.

The continuing strength and popularity of the UFO myth was underlined by the results of a survey conducted by the Royal Society and published in December. The poll of 2,000 adults found that 44 percent “believe that extra-terrestrial life exists” and men, perhaps unsurprisingly, have the most faith (46% say they believe). By contrast, 28% said they did not believe in ET and the remaining 28% simply couldn’t be sure. In my view the latter position is the only most honest position to take.

Of course there is a huge difference between the possibility, or in my view probability, that (a) life of some kind exists elsewhere in the universe and (b) the existence of intelligence life that has the level of technological sophistication and motivation to visit Earth. (a) and (b) are completely different concepts, with the latter involving a chain of unlikeliness so strained that even the most optimistic cosmologists find it hard to credit. But it is not impossible. Time will tell. But history shows that simply because lots of people believe in something, that does not make that something true.