Gray Barker Photo credit: Gray Barker Collection, Clarksburg-Harrison Public Library
They inspired a Hollywood blockbuster starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. They inspired recurring characters on The X-Files. They inspired a comic book series. They fly in black helicopters and patrol in unmarked black sedans. They're said to have harassed and threatened innocent citizens since the 1950s, and some believe they're driving around your neighborhood right now. If you speak out about a UFO experience, some say you can expect a terrifying visit from these strange, black-clad men who may or may not work for the government. They are the Men in Black.
Strange visits from government agents have long been a part of UFO folklore; many stories feature alleged military men poking around the locale where a UFO was spotted, or even cautioning witnesses to remain quiet. But that's only half of the Men in Black story. Those who appear at the front door of UFO witnesses late at night, and who intimidate, interrogate, and threaten them, are often described as having characteristics just a little bit outside the range of norm. Sometimes their skin is dark, sometimes unnaturally pale; sometimes their eyes are improbably colored, or their bodies devoid of hair; often their clothes and vehicles are reported as brand new and unused. Paranormal writer Robert Goerman has collected a number of such stories in his article Menace in Black:
Shearer managed a closer look at the face. There was no eyebrows or eyelashes, no signs of stubble. The caller acknowledged Shearer by name, and specified that they wanted to discuss his UFO sighting, giving exact date and time. Shearer was perplexed as to how they had gotten this information, but refused to let him in. Shearer asked to see some identification, but the visitor ignored him and repeatedly asked to come in. It was almost as if this character could only utter a limited selection of set phrases.
Two men in their twenties visited Richardson and questioned him briefly. They never identified themselves, and Richardson, to his own subsequent surprise, did not ask who they were. He noted that they left in a black 1953 Cadillac. The license number, when checked, had not yet been issued.
At 5:30 PM, there was a knock at the door. A representative of the "Missing Heirs Bureau" said that he was looking for an Edward Christiansen who had inherited a great deal of money. This investigator dressed in black and stood at least six-foot-six with an enormous frame, with thyroid eyes, dead white skin, and pipe-stem limbs. His shoes featured unusually thick rubber soles. Despite his size, the visitor spoke in a high "tinny" voice that issued in an emotionless monotone, in clipped phrases, "like a computer."
The inquisitor's too-short trousers had ridden up his skinny leg and... a thick green wire... came out of his sock and disappeared under his pants. The wire seemed to be indented into his leg at one point and was covered by a large brown spot... When the visitor left the house and reached the road, he gave a hand signal and a 1963 black Cadillac pulled alongside with its headlights out. The stranger climbed into the car and it drove off, its headlights still off.
Men in Black stories, though often told and retold, appear only as stories. Although many of the witnesses seem sincere enough, no Men in Black have ever been photographed, not even by remote security cameras, and none of the mysterious license plate numbers has ever been recorded. Of course, if they are as omniscient as the reports indicate, such beings would likely have the foreknowledge to avoid having their presence be documented. This makes the Men in Black phenomenon interesting, but it also puts the whole subject into the category of special pleading: By its very nature, no evidence can exist to support it. This leaves a skeptical investigation little to go on if we want to establish its validity.
But here at Skeptoid, we are not entirely without resources. By studying the secondary literature — basically, books that cite original accounts — we find that the first time the phrase "Men in Black" was used was in a 1956 nonfiction book called They Knew Too Much about Flying Saucers, by UFO writer Gray Barker (1925-1984). The book purports to tell the true, dramatic story of a UFOlogist who had been threatened by government agents telling him to stop researching and writing about UFOs. It's a startling book, and tells quite a gripping tale. Barker's book became the seminal source for the Men in Black corner of UFO mythology. Since its publication, it's been referenced by virtually every UFO author since who has discussed the subject. Moreover, to give a sense of Gray Barker's influence among UFOlogists, he's cited more than a dozen times in the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research's 1969 publication, UFOs and Related Subjects: An Annotated Bibliography.
Unfortunately, Barker was — if not an outright con artist — a wholesale fabricator. His entire writing career was a patchwork of invented stories and lies. In a series of articles in Skeptical Inquirer magazine, author John Sherwood confessed his lengthy history as an aspiring writer who got his start under the tutelage of Barker. Barker persistently encouraged him to make up and sensationalize his stories. Sherwood even caught Barker doing such things as making phone calls with a disguised voice to report made-up sightings of strange phenomena to honest paranormal researchers such as John Keel, all for the sake of creating a story. Barker did it consciously, even telling Sherwood outright that he "pretty much took all of UFOlogy as a joke." Sherwood wrote that Barker:
...hawked his books and magazines by embellishing stories and encouraging others to fabricate more. He launched hoaxes, joined others' deceptions, and manipulated people's beliefs.
As one example, in 1957, Barker and his friend Jim Moseley wrote a fraudulent letter from the US Department of State and sent it to George Adamski, a Polish immigrant who believed he'd been kidnapped by aliens. The letter assured Adamski that:
...the Department... encourage(s) your work and your communication of what you certainly believe should be told to the American public.
Adamski duly continued his public advocacy of UFOs, and flaunted the letter as evidence that the government confirmed their existence. Barker then wrote another book, Gray Barker's Book of Adamski, reporting the incident that he himself had created. Not content to stop there, Barker and Moseley made some hoax film footage in 1966 using a ceramic saucer held from a fishing pole, footage which he thenceforth sold.
And so, we'd be within reason to regard Gray Barker's genesis of the Men in Black in They Knew Too Much about Flying Saucers with a degree of skepticism. But Barker did tend to grow his fiction from the seeds of actual reports, and the Men in Black were no different. In this case, the seed came from one of his early publishers, a strange man named Albert K. Bender (1921-2002).
In 1952, Barker was an enthusiastic young writer, 27 years old and brimming with ideas. He found a publisher for some of his early stories in a periodical called Space Review, the newsletter of the grandiloquently-titled International Flying Saucer Bureau. This "bureau" consisted of one man, Albert Bender, by profession a factory timekeeper. Although in his thirties, Bender lived with his stepfather in a room he called his Chamber of Horrors, decorated with his own paintings of ghouls and skulls, and flavored by ambient sound effects from a phonograph. One of his chief inspirations had been the excitement of pulling dead bodies out of the water once when he'd been in the Air Force. He claimed Indian blood and a heritage of witchcraft, and relaxed by telling stories telepathically to people all around the world. And, in his spare time, Bender edited Space Review. Gray Barker targeted Bender and his Space Review early on as both a publishing outlet and as a source of material. By early 1953, Bender named Barker his chief investigator, and relied on him for nearly all of the content of Space Review.
Later that same year, a document called the Robertson Panel Report was released by the US Central Intelligence Agency detailing their conclusions from a special panel that had reviewed Project Blue Book to determine if UFO reports posed any potential threat to national security. The conclusion was that they did not. However, buried deep within the report was a reference to private UFO enthusiast groups:
The Panel took cognizance of the existence of such groups as the "Civilian Flying Saucer Investigators" (Los Angeles) and the "Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (Wisconsin). It was believed that such organizations should be watched because of their potentially great influence on mass thinking if widespread sightings should occur. The apparent irresponsibility and the possible use of such groups for subversive purposes should be kept in mind.
Bender obsessed over all such documents, and this one appears to have struck a nerve with his paranoia. In September he notified the Bridgeport Herald newspaper that he was closing his International Flying Saucer Bureau immediately, following a frightening visit. The paper reported:
Bender said "three men wearing dark suits" came to his home, flashed credentials showing them to be representatives of the "higher authority", and asked him many questions about the IFSB... They told him "not roughly, but sternly and emphatically," to stop publishing flying saucer information.
Bender also claimed that a recent television psychic's prediction — that the US government would make an announcement about flying saucers on December 10, 1953 — was based on the writings of Nostradamus.
For the next nine years, Bender refused to give any further details of the three men. However he finally did break his silence in 1962, when Barker persuaded him to write (for Barker's own publishing house Saucerian Books) a detailed account of what happened. Bender called it Flying Saucers and the Three Men. The volume was, to put it mildly, bizarre. Bender claimed that he learned of the truth about flying saucers by astrally projecting himself to their secret underground base in Antarctica, populated by aliens of three genders. The visitation from the three men had been a psychic visitation. Albert Bender, in addition to being quite the eccentric, probably also suffered from a delusional disorder.
But little did Gray Barker care about that. The moment Bender had folded his enterprise, Barker wrote an entire book, They Knew Too Much about Flying Saucers, giving his own pulp-fiction version of Bender and his mysterious government agents — made up from whole cloth, since at that time Bender had still refused to give details. This history, upon which the entirety of today's Men in Black folklore was based, came from the imaginative fiction of Gray Barker, based wholly upon a single rambling report from a man who was probably mentally ill. It was truly a distasteful case of exploitation, but it worked for the legend. Sherwood wrote:
Barker's prose gave Bender's story sufficient credibility to sustain an urban legend: Strange aircraft are observed, but, after black-clad men step from their huge auto, the witnesses clam up.
Are strange, pale, half-alien Men in Black a reality? They were to the troubled mind of Albert Bender. But obviously, more corporeal government employees do exist, and at least in the days of Project Blue Book, did go out into the field to interview UFO witnesses. But it's noteworthy that not one of those witnesses ever reported being threatened or harassed in any way. The Men in Black remain merely a comic diversion for modern cinema-goers, a source of pulp-fiction for authors like Gray Barker and the many who have followed him, and sadly, as a source of all-too-real torment for those few, like Albert Bender, who suffer from paranoiac distress.