The wacky UFO podcasts are occupying our earbuds, saying things like, “They put me on a ship and took me into the sun”

In the depths of winter last year, I was running through a cold and unlit field near my house when I saw a trail of lights moving through the sky. I stopped. The air caught in my throat. “Bloody hell,” I thought, “were the UFO people right all along?”

In the last five years, the number of podcasts investigating aliens, UFOs, the esoteric and the inexplicable has exploded on to the internet like a meteor shower. High Strange, That UFO Podcast, Johnny Vaughan’s Alien Kidnap Club, Chinwag With Paul Giamatti, the BBC’s Uncanny; the list goes on. There are certain themes and similarities, of course. A lot of men. A lot of men talking about military hardware, philosophical theories, government conspiracy and maligned intelligence. A lot of people selling DVDs, hosting conferences and self-publishing. But there is also a richness to these podcasts that mirrors, in their own way, previous podcast trends in true crime podcasts, songwriting podcasts, two comedians chatting podcasts and wellness podcasts. They have an audience, they have experts and, boy, do they have stories.

One of the early guests on Vaughan’s Alien Kidnap Club is the shaman, drummer and author Devara ThunderBeat. Listening to her describing spaceships, messages from angels and spotting ancient Egyptian forms in the rocks around her home in Sedona, Arizona, it would be easy to mock. And yet, when I speak to ThunderBeat via Zoom about her experiences of meeting aliens and travelling on UFOs, she is utterly compelling and not afraid to laugh at herself.

“What’s very interesting,” she begins, with a voice that speaks of late nights and rock bands, “is that there are so many similarities between what happened to me and how people describe near-death experiences. After they brought me up into the ship through a portal, they took me to Sirius A.” I nod, Googling Sirius A – apparently the sky’s brightest star. “Things were a lot thinner, almost translucent. You can still feel, you can still hear. I’m not sure about smell.” She laughs. “So I put the two together and said: ‘When you die you go up into the sixth dimension. There’s no death.’” That’s a comforting thought for a rainy Tuesday morning, I joke, and she nods, smiling.

Flight of fancy … 202o image from the US Department of Defense of “unidentified aerial phenomena”.

ThunderBeat also believes that she has travelled to the centre of the sun. Which is, surprisingly, not very hot. “They opened up another portal and brought me into another ship to take me into the sun,” she explains. ‘“They had a purple triangle-headed being, he was 5ft tall, he had three fingers and three toes on each side, and he started floating around me. I said: ‘What is he doing?’ and they said: ‘He’s looking for implants because they’re not allowed inside the sun, where we live.’” Does she lead a very clean life here on Earth, I wonder, thinking of my childhood friends and their macrobiotic diets, angel cards and meditation retreats? “Oh yeah, I’m fully organic,” she replies. “During the 20 years of being in rock bands I hardly ever drank. I took my music very seriously.” So much so, she says, that when she met Led Zeppelin in 1977 and was offered cocaine, she ended up spending four hours in a backroom bar playing backgammon instead.

For Andy McGrillen, the presenter of That UFO Podcast, the interest is not so much the tales of weird creatures but being a conduit for an audience – whom he knows have a broad range of interests – and his guests, who might have particular areas of expertise. “From commercial pilots to naval staff, people in the air force – a lot of them don’t want to put themselves out there because of the ridicule, the stigma factor,” he tells me. “So they appreciate if you’re coming to the subject with respect. It’s about removing any judgment and just presenting the information to allow other people to decide. The mainstream media are still stuck in that rut of little green men and flying saucers.”

How, I wonder, did he get interested in UFOs? “In the mid-90s I used to go to the Boys’ Brigade,” McGrillen replies. “And one night, myself, my mum, sister and two others, we left and were crossing a busy, built-up urban area. Lots of houses, no sprawling fields or anything like that. This was the middle of Glasgow at nine o’clock on a winter’s night. And about half a mile down the road there was what looked like a ferris wheel, tilted on its side at a 30- or 40-degree angle. It was spinning ridiculously quick, like a washing machine. So, you know, if it was a carnival ride then everybody on it was dead.” We laugh.

Dark skies … do you believe?

“It was up in the sky but you couldn’t see the bottom of it because of the houses. It was largely just lights, I remember.” Does his mother remember this too? “She remembers it,” he says. “But she’ll also always say it wasn’t aliens. And I’m not saying it was. But it was very strange.”

Johnny Vaughan, known to many for his Radio X show, is rather less agnostic. “I don’t believe in aliens,” he says in a voice that transports me immediately to my front room in 1998 and getting ready for school in front of The Big Breakfast. “I don’t buy into the argument that says because we’re here the probability is that someone else is too. We’ve found nothing.”

Quite a lot of people who – how can I put this – had a big time of it in the 90s are now into UFOs, I venture. Robbie Williams being a classic example. Why does he think that might be? “If you can remember 1997 you weren’t there,” Vaughan laughs. “A lot of people in the 90s probably felt like they were abducted.”

And yet, his is not a podcast that ridicules or dismisses its guests. “All of them were so sincere and really made me think,” says Vaughan, who came to the subject after he and two other friends saw a dish of mirrored light beside the road while driving back from a football away game. The light began to rise up, spin and then shot off into the sky faster than anything he could explain. “What really drew me to it is that while these things might sound crazy, I know I’m not lying. So I have to go in with the assumption that these people aren’t either. They may be deluded, they may be mistaken, they may be a whole range of things. But I had a meaningful interaction with each one of them. I don’t believe in aliens so, if you rule out the impossible, what did happen?”

Here’s Johnny … Vaughan is host of the Alien Kidnap Club podcast.

Well, what indeed? When I speak to Hilary Porter, the co-founder of the British Earth and Aerial Mysteries Society, I am left feeling deeply sympathetic. “I had bedroom visitors,” she says. “Robed figures would come into the room. They seemed a little like biblical figures – I am a Christian,” she clarifies. “They brought me a ball one day – it was floating beneath this chap’s hand. His palm was open and it would be floating and he could move it without even touching it. They tried to train me to do the same. Another time they came with a pyramid shape and they made it twirl around and around with their mind.”

On another occasion, when Porter was about five, she spotted something strange in a field near her house. “We lived in prefabs in those days,” says Porter, who is a former MoD electronics draughtsperson and not, as she puts it, “a dumb bunny”. “I went into the far entrance to the field and there, sure enough, was this pearly, off-white disc. I didn’t know what it was. I was only a kiddie.” She takes a sip of water before telling me the next bit.

“I got down into the very long grass and inched my way towards it on my elbows. Suddenly in front of me was this being with reptilian-type skin and dark eyes. It was standing on all fours and it dragged me across the ground to the saucer. We went into this round chamber, it was all dark in there.” As the mother of a five-year-old, this story fills me with horror, fear and pity. Whatever happened to Porter on that day, or to anyone who reports these experiences, it is hard not to feel some sort of concern for any trauma or fear they felt.

A YouGov report from 2021 found that half of Britons believe that aliens exist. Personally – and having spoken to a number of people who claim first-hand experiences – I’m of the mind that as global politics gets more frightening (with the climate emergency, spy incursions into foreign territories, a tiny ultra-rich elite, authoritarian rulers, etc) a particular kind of psyche reacts to that uncertainty by looking to otherworldly explanations. Perhaps the rise in podcasts tackling all things UFO is because, rather than facing the unpleasant notion that we are in charge and we are flawed, many, many people lean into the idea that there are bigger forces in control. Those might be angels or aliens, secretive military forces or government services but the inclination is the same.

Oh and my inexplicable string of lights in the night sky? Well, a quick Google search as I stood shivering in the mud shut that down rather quickly. What I’d seen wasn’t evidence of aliens. It was Elon Musk’s Starlink: an attempt to use a winking satellite chain to bounce internet into rural areas. Rather than visitation by a higher intelligence, it was merely the vanity project of a billionaire. Ah well.

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