The untold truth of the 1969 Berkshire UFO sighting

Of all the world's unsolved mysteries, those with a paranormal twist are probably the most difficult — and the most controversial. Are they really mysteries? Is there anything to solve ... or are these tales simply that — tall tales?

For the Reed family of Massachusetts, their stories of unexplained encounters are anything but tall tales. Instead, they're encounters that span three generations and entire decades, punctuated by terrifying instances of lost time, encounters with alien creatures, and — perhaps even worse — ridicule and harassment from those who heard the stories. 

The previously obscure case reached a whole new audience when it was featured in the first season of Netflix's Unsolved Mysteries reboot (via People). Will anyone come forward to shed a light on just what has been happening to the Reed family? Or will it simply ... continue to happen to them? Are they destined to keep having mysterious and unexplained encounters? Or is there a rational explanation for what's been happening to them for more than 50 years?

The first generation of encounters

The most famous encounter that the Reed family, consisting of parents Nancy and Howard and their sons Thomas and Matthew, had was in 1969, but according to The Alien Abduction Files, it really started in 1954. 

Nancy was 15 that year. She, her mother, her brother, and her brother's girlfriend rented a cabin on Massachusetts' Moosehead Lake. Nancy and her brother's girlfriend both woke in the middle of the night and later told of a similar experience that started with a light streaming into the window.

The light illuminated something in the darkness: two squat, pudgy figures, standing in the room and simply watching them in silence. Nancy recalled that she was unable to move on her own but could feel her body moving — as though someone or something else was moving her legs for her. The sensation faded as the sun rose, but the nausea remained. The events of that night were the only unexplained occurrence she went through until things started happening to her sons, more than a decade later.

September 1966: they're back

Thomas Reed's account of the events of 1969 and what led up to them was detailed in The Alien Abduction Files, and he told interviewers that for him, it started in September 1966.

It started fairly quietly, with the appearance of orbs that seemed to float around the room he shared with his brother Matthew. He described a series of lights, floating in the air and giving the distinct impression of watching them. Just a few days later, he and his brother both experienced something terrifying, an encounter that started when they were standing on the stairs in their home. They glimpsed two figures, and suddenly, they were outside ... where they were then escorted onto a craft they both described as looking like a turtle shell.

Inside, Thomas was shown images of what he believed were galaxy clusters, along with an image of a willow tree that he believed was incredibly important. The brothers were also told that they were going to be part of a study the beings were doing on human genetics and the immune system ...  and then they woke up back in their bedroom.

The encounters, the boys say, kept happening. The next year, their mother found them missing. When she tracked them down, they said that a ball of light had appeared outside their bedroom window. They also told of seeing figures standing over their sleeping mother and grandmother and of repeat visits to the craft.

Here's what the Reeds saw in 1969

On September 1, 1969, Thomas, his mother, brother, and grandmother had just driven across the Old Covered Bridge in Sheffield, Massachusetts (pictured). According to the telling in the Engineering News-Record, that's when they witnessed a bright light rising from the Housatonic River. Nancy, says The Alien Abduction Files, knew what was going to happen and tried to outrun it. The car stalled, though, and they were all suddenly in what Thomas would later describe to Mass Live as "what looked like an airplane hanger [sic]."

He remembered being forced to lie on a table, but he jumped up and ran. He only got glimpses of a single, wide-open area and some hallways before being returned to the original room, and then ... they were all back in the car. Two hours had passed, but to them, it had felt like only a few minutes. And no one had been returned to exactly the same place they had been taken from. Thomas remembered that his grandmother had been in a state of shock, wandering down the middle of the road. His mother — who had been unconscious when he woke — was able to drive them home once he got his grandmother safely back to the car.

There were a ton of other witnesses to the UFO sighting

Here's the thing: It wasn't just the Reed family who told a story of something bizarre happening that night. There were a ton of other witnesses.

According to Atlas Obscura, the local radio station was bombarded with calls from people who were seeing strange lights flashing among the clouds. Some of the 40-odd callers even reported spotting a mysterious craft in the sky, and at the time, it wasn't a matter of people calling to report a UFO. David Isy, manager of the station WSBS, says that people didn't know what it was — just that something strange was happening in the skies over their town.

In 2018, WGBH spoke to Tom Warner, who was one of the other witnesses. He said his memory of what happened was just as strong as it was on that day: He had been lying out in the yard, stargazing, when suddenly he was looking up at a floating object that flooded him in a beam of light. "Twenty feet or more in height, probably about 30 to 40 feet around, and it has — as I'm looking now, I can see it — it had lights. The lights were colors I'd never seen in my life." And witnesses are adamant: Warner told WGBH, "When you see something, it's like — I see you. I see that rock. I see that building. I saw that UFO."

Yes, Thomas Reed passed a polygraph test

The Reed family was positive about not only what they'd seen, but what they'd experienced — and had been experiencing for a long time. When Thomas was asked to undergo a polygraph test, he agreed. He passed with flying colors: The results were that he was telling the truth, 99.1 percent (via Atlas Obscura). But that raises an interesting question: How accurate is that?

According to the BBC, a lie detector test actually measures "an indirect effect of lying." Specifically, it picks up on things like changes in the breath and blood pressure and how much someone's sweating. So basically, it's like author and professor Aldert Vrij says: "It does not measure deception, which is the core problem. The idea is that liars will show increased arousal when answering the key question, whereas truth tellers will not."

There's a further catch, says forensic psychologist Dr. Sophie van der Zee: "[...] the polygraph is quite good at identifying lies, it is not very good at identifying truths." That said, experts estimate that if the examiner knows what they're doing, and if there are proper controls in place, then it's between 80- and 90-percent accurate. Still, it's possible (but very difficult) to cheat the system, although a number of things can make for a false reading.

The family has struggled with their experiences

Let's address the cynics out there, as well as the inevitable belief that some people claim to have been abducted just for the attention. Thomas Reed says that's not the case at all — he told The Boston Globe that his family's experiences have actually made their lives pretty miserable: "We know what we saw, and it was not local. It was definitely off-world. And it affected my whole family, and there has been a lot of post-traumatic stress."

His mother was a local restaurant owner, and there were plenty of people who stopped by just to turn her day miserable. Thomas himself suffered regular beatings because of it, and it finally got so bad that they first boarded up their house and then moved. But, Thomas says, his mother always told him to tell the truth, so he wasn't going to keep quiet.

"It hasn't helped us in any way to talk about it," he says. "We're not making any money. This has tarnished our life. This has smeared our family's name. It can only hurt you when someone Googles your name. But when you have something extraordinary like this happen to you, how do you keep a lid on it?"

A historical society confirmed the 1969 UFO sighting as an official part of history

A quick flip through most mainstream history books will give you a lot of information about things like wars, kings, and conquering, but alien encounters? Not so much, which makes it weird that the area's local history museum, the Great Barrington Historical Society & Museum, inducted the Reed UFO case into their archives in 2015. According to The Boston Globe, the group believes it's the first time an actual historical society has done that, and it's the first time a UFO encounter has been recognized as "historical fact."

Debbie Oppermann, the society's director at the time, had this to say: "I know we're going to get a lot of backlash. We're going to get hammered. But we have given it an awful lot of thought and, based on the evidence we've been given, we believe this is a significant and true event."

A third of the board's members were opposed to the decision, and three years later, they backtracked ... but just a bit. New executive director Robert Krol told WGBH, "I think the historical society regrets that our words, or our decision, has been taken out of context." They weren't, as it appeared, saying the Reed family had definitely been abducted by aliens. What they were saying was that something monumental clearly happened that night over the area: So many people reported seeing something that there had to have been something in the skies. Right?

A 2009 encounter provided physical evidence

One of the things that was distinctly lacking in the tale was physical evidence, but according to the retelling in The Alien Abduction Files, the Reeds got that in 2009.

It was Matthew Reed who was driving along in his SUV one night, late, after dropping off a friend. He stopped at a traffic light and suddenly found himself parked near a cornfield. His boots were covered with mud, an hour had passed, and he immediately reached out to the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON. MUFON sent out a response team and found magnetic anomalies centered around the SUV — compass needles went crazy when passed along the surface of the vehicle. They also documented radiation readings around the vehicle and noted that there were no other nearby places which yielded the same readings, and the same tests performed on other vehicles didn't yield the same results, either. 

MUFON has a pedigree worth mentioning, too: They were founded in 1969, and their first director was Allen Utke, associate professor of chemistry at Wisconsin State University. They have strict guidelines about applying the scientific method to field research and have come to the conclusion "that there are unexplained events in our world that are genuinely worthy of further scientific investigation."

Reed says the story has been terribly sensationalized

The Reed family's story has popped up on various television shows, ones with names like Alien Mysteries and the short-lived Paranormal Paparazzi. When he was featured on Uncovering Aliens, he says his experiences were blown so out of proportion that they became a story of medical experimentation — a story he definitely didn't tell. Each time, Thomas told MassLive, researchers and producers promised to take them seriously and report the story as it was told.

That hasn't happened yet.

"The papers and the stories have gotten so ridiculous that the truth has been lost," he says. "First of all, they keep using the cornball terminology you might find — the abduction stuff. That's not what happened. Our family is very credible. We're not a bunch of lunatics." Thomas Reed has gone out of his way to try to set the record straight, too. In 2016, he made a public appearance at the Ski Butternut resort hoping to clear up some of the misconceptions he says pop culture gets wrong over and over again.

There was a controversial monument commemorating the event

In 2015, Thomas Reed installed a 5,000-pound granite monument near the Sheffield Covered Bridge (pictured). It included a plaque from the office of Governor Charlie Baker, which read (via The Berkshire Eagle): "This Governor's Citation [is] in recognition of the off-world incident on Sept. 1st, 1969, which engaged the Reed Family, which has been established." 

But not everyone was thrilled to have the monument erected in the town, and over the next four years, it was the source of a lot of debate. Almost immediately after it was installed, it had to be moved. According to The Berkshire Edge, officials said that it had been put on town land without the proper permits and authorization, although Reed says he had gotten permission — from one of the town's assessors. The monument was very quickly covered in graffiti, and even the historical society that had confirmed the Reed family's story as true decided to stay out of the fight ... which came to at least a temporary halt in 2019, when the town removed both the monument and a bench that had been installed nearby.

UFO sightings in the area are nothing new

If there's one thing that the Reed family can take comfort in, it's the fact that they're in relatively esteemed company.

Thanks to them, Massachusetts is the site of a historically accepted UFO sighting, and Boston Magazine says it's also the location of America's first recorded sighting, too. In 1639, Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop recorded a story that three of his colonists had relayed to him: They claimed that while they were rowing in the Fens, they saw a massive, great light speeding back and forth between their general area and Charlestown. Strange? Definitely, but Winthrop clearly thought it was strange enough (and from a reputable enough source) that he recorded it. 

Notably, New England Today says that in 1808, a Massachusetts woman working in Maine recorded seeing something similar in her diary: a light that "lowered toward the ground and kept on at an equal distance sometimes ascending and sometimes descending." Is there something about people from Massachusetts that attracts extraterrestrial attention?

Is it really an "unsolved mystery?" Who believes in this stuff?

The 1969 Berkshire UFO sighting seems like an odd thing to include when it comes to kicking off a reboot of Unsolved Mysteries, a show that typically tended to feature cases more along the lines of murder and kidnapping. Some — like the Great Barrington Historical Society & Museum — say that clearly, all of those people saw something that night ... it's just not entirely clear what it was.

And according to The Conversation, there's something strange going on with the prevalence of UFO and extraterrestrial encounters. The business was booming in the 1990s, largely thanks to shows like The X-Files. But as we pushed into the 21st century, there were fewer and fewer reported sightings, and things got so slow that many established research groups started to disband. But fast-forward a decade: Hilary Clinton promises to reveal what the government really knows about aliens, aliens are back on TV, and according to a 2015 poll by Ipsos, 45 percent of people believe in aliens. That's up from even in 1990, when an estimated 27 percent believed, and 2005, when it hovered around 24.

So, why the shift? They suggest that Americans have become so disenchanted with the state of affairs these days that we're more likely than ever to explore alternatives to mainstream science and religion. So basically, things are so bad, let's look elsewhere.