If one believes in abstract notions like kismet and the interconnectedness of all things, then one might also take note of the serendipity of timing — the Fourth Annual Ventura County UFO Festival takes place in the same month that The Fourth Kind, about alien abduction, opened in movie theaters across the country.

It’s been more than 30 years since Close Encounters of the Third Kind introduced ufologist J. Alan Hynek’s system of classifying people’s experiences with unidentified flying objects, and interest in the subject of UFOs appears to be reaching a crescendo. According to Hynek’s system, a close encounter of the first kind is a sighting, the second kind is a sighting accompanied by some other physical phenomenon such as radiation or radio interference, and the third kind is a sighting of an animate being in association with a UFO.

The fourth (abduction) through seventh kinds were added later by a UFO researcher, but were not held to the strict standards of science that Hynek’s were. In 2003, a fairly exhaustive report on the subject of alien abduction in Psychology Today magazine reported that some “3 million Americans believe they’ve encountered bright lights and incurred strange bodily marks indicative of a possible encounter with aliens.” That’s a lot of peeps to relegate to the bananas file, yet most people’s tales of such occurrences are met not just with cynicism and disbelief, but scathing mockery and humiliation.

Up until this point, UFO Festival organizer Sabrina Zan Ferris has been careful about who she lets in on her own close encounter, preferring to reserve the story for those who will take her seriously. Yet, she understands the skepticism and accordingly put her experience to the test before accepting it as a true occurance. “The psychological mechanism of belief needs to be preceded by an objective marker,” she explains. “There was an element to my own experience that solidified it in reality.” The marker she refers to is her roommate’s presence and subsequent terror during the episode.

It was 1993, Ferris was living near the Ventura pier. She was awakened one evening by a bright light in the window (a common manifestation in abduction cases). “It was so real that it was ultra-real,” she recalls. “I was somehow transported somewhere as far away from home in both space and time as I could imagine. I couldn’t move.” The location had the appearance of her bedroom, but only as some sort of veneer. Beneath it, she sensed a clinical laboratory environment. “It felt organic and technological at the same time.”

The most remarkable aspect of the experience for her was the way the “beings” communicated. She had a distinct awareness of a female “speaking” to her through some sort of mechanism in her head. She was not hearing with her ears the electronic message that was scrambled into English for her to understand. “It was the most astonishing version of sound; it wasn’t coming from an external source,” she says.

The beings, whom she never got a clear view of because they stood behind her, spoke to her about personal matters, including some of her relationships, and told her it wasn’t their first visit. She feels it’s important to stress that she never felt threatened, and she was not physically harmed. “I don’t want people to be afraid of the story or the subject.”

The UFO Festival began as a casual night watching UFO documentaries, and quickly ballooned into a full-fledged symposium with high-profile ufologist lectures and panel discussions sandwiched between lighter-hearted activities. Since then, interest has continued to grow, and Ferris hopes to expand to the county fairgrounds next year. Her objective is to create a comfortable place for people with a shared interest in UFOs to meet, exchange knowledge and experience, and draw solid conclusions.

“I’m interested in hard facts,” she says. “I don’t need to find myself in a subjective mosh pit with human perception. I’m interested in stuff that’s really happening.”

One of a handful of authorities on UFO phenomena scheduled to appear at the festival is Robert Salas, an ex-Air Force officer whose testimony is regarded as one of the most important. Salas was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, where he worked as deputy missile combat crew commander. His job was to maintain and protect nuclear Minuteman missiles. His life’s direction took a sharp turn when, one morning in 1967, while he worked underground in the facility, officers outside reported a UFO hovering in front. Fear and uncertainty gripped the facility as the men scrambled to respond to an experience so completely outside their frames of reference.

What followed, to this day defies all logical explanation: more than five missiles were mysteriously and effectively rendered inoperable. The shut down had clear national security ramifications; yet during the investigation, Salas was asked to remain mum about his experience. According to Salas, some 40 years later, there is news to report about the incident, which is considered one of the top 10 UFO cases in history. He will discuss the new developments and participate in a panel discussion about abduction at the UFO Festival along with prolific abduction author Ann Druffel.

Salas weighed in on The Fourth Kind during a conversation with VCReporter last week and mentioned that interest in the subject is being partially fueled by Hollywood’s embrace of it. He said that, while the film pretends to portray real events that are actually blatantly false, it is not without merit. “I loved the movie because it actually does hit on the aspects of generic alien abduction,” he said. Repetition of numbers on clocks, owls, paralysis and extreme fear are all common elements of the abduction experience that are present in The Fourth Kind.

A resident of Ojai, Salas has not had any UFO encounters in Ventura County; but his wife saw an object with rotating lights in the sky while driving on Highway 33, and she’s not alone. Salas also knows of an abduction case in Oxnard involving a teacher there.

While there is no way to prove the validity of abduction stories to skeptics, Ferris and Salas are certain a critical mass is building toward eventual acceptance and demystification of the UFO mystery; but the government needs to come clean with what it knows. “We need to work together. We should not allow a small group of people to control valid information about this. We all need to get involved in the discussion about how to deal with it,” Salas said.

“It’s healthy to question it,” says Ferris, “but to continue to claim that these accounts are not factual, that would be unwise as so many people are coming forward and courageously telling their stories. Humans get so programmed by traditions, controlling belief systems, that they can’t perceive what’s happening around them. That’s scarier to me than beings with owl-shaped eyes.”   

Ventura County UFO Festival, Saturday, Nov. 21, and Sunday, Nov. 22. Speakers include Robert Salas, Ann Druffell, Preston Dennett and Dr. Roger Leir on the topics of alien intentions, UFOs, nukes and coverups, unidentified submersible objects and alien implants. Lectures are $25 each, other events are free. ZanZilla Yoga, corner of Main and Borchard in Ventura (beneath Crystal Cleaners). 890-4863, www.myspace.com/venturacountyufofestival.com