As an atheist and skeptic, I don’t put much stock in organized religion. Still, even though I can’t get behind supernatural dogma, I do love a good story, and the world’s myriad religions offer up an unending supply of those. Moses and the ten commandments, tribal folklore, Greek gods smiting and fucking anything that moved; they’re all epic, interesting tales. While I don’t believe the theology for a second, the narratives are fantastic, full of plagues, earth-shaking revelations and drama, and, yes, even wisdom. I’m not in the market for a new faith or superstition, but I am looking to be entertained, and though it’s less a major religion and more of a fringe cult, the Unarius Academy of Science can spin a yarn with the best of them. I’d rather listen to anything by the Unariuns than experience the story of Adam and Eve or the first Christmas again, but that’s mainly because the Book of Genesis and the Nativity don’t have any cavemen, intergalactic battleships or bitchin’ special effects.
Unarius (which stands for Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science, by the way) was founded in 1954 by Earnest and Ruth Norman of El Cajon, California, who would later be known by their “archangel” names Raphiel and Uriel. Earnest was said to be an amazing child prodigy (reportedly with a giant head to match), and went on to become an electrical engineer as well as, if the Unarius website is to be believed, an accomplished clairvoyant and poet by the time he founded the academy at the age of 50. On a meager combined income of just $200 dollars a month, he and his wife formed the Unarius Educational Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading a vague, mysteriously divined philosophy about how man’s suffering comes from being, cut off from the memories of his past lives and the alien benefactors that will come to restore that lost knowledge. Though registered as a non-profit, the organization was not granted tax exempt status until 1974, three years after Earnest passed away (or as they put it, “made his transition to the higher planes of the light world”). Apparently, the IRS was swayed by the #1023 tax form they submitted, which explained how their religion was “Planned and masterminded by millions of super-intelligent beings from higher worlds” and suggested that Ruth Norman’s “mental transmissions” from deceased presidents and luminaries could be the key to winning the cold war.
Even before Earnest’s death, the Unarius belief system was a poorly defined hodgepodge of spiritual and pseudo-scientific ideas, incorporating faith healing, psychological quackery and promises of immortality alongside all the talk of reincarnation and UFOs, but things only got more convoluted when Ruth stepped into a larger role in his absence. In a study of the group’s “interpretive reasoning”, published in Sociology of Religion in 1998 , Diana Tumminia notes “The grand Unariun ‘prophecy’ took shape over a large timespan, not as a distinct event…[it’s] the outgrowth of a multiplicity of improvised stories and unfulfilled predictions.” “After 1972,” Tumminia adds of the period following Earnest’s death, “Ruth/Uriel rapidly increased the number of channeled messages from outer space.” This reached a peak in 1976, when she announced that the long promised alien landing was imminent, and promptly purchased 76 acres of land on the outskirts of town to gather the faithful and wait, putting up a giant sign reading “WELCOME SPACE BROTHERS.” Needless to say, no interplanetary craft appeared (it probably would have been on the news), but the faith of the Unariun true believers was not shaken, in fact many said it only strengthened their conviction. She later updated the aliens ETA to the millennium, but died in 1993, before she could see them not show up again.
If her skills as a prophet were less than sharp, however (a vocal minority believed the Unariun faith lost its way under her leadership), there was no doubting her media savvy. The New York Times described her as, “a true American original who combined the couture sensibilities of a drag queen with the joi de vivre of a Frisbee-chasing Irish Setter,” adding, “When Ruth became a media darling in the seventies, reporters showed up for a laugh--which they got--but they usually left charmed.” It was also Ruth who spearheaded the cult’s move into film and video production, and then got the results of that effort into near constant rotation on public access television. The most talked about of their many forays into filmmaking is undoubtedly the 1969 feature The Arrival, which, while not providing any real answers to life’s big questions (at least from where I’m sitting -- my apologies if you end up converted) is nonetheless a pretty enthralling little movie.
The film serves as something of an introduction to the basic tenets of the faith, relating how far-advanced life forms visited a startled prehistoric man named Zan and revealed unto him the secret of humanity’s existence and the key to its salvation. According to the strange cosmic beings, mankind, in a previous incarnation, had been participants in an immense intergalactic conflict, and as the commander of an Orion warship, Zan himself had made a battlefield decision that left billions dead. Zan’s selfish error royally fucked up the race’s karma, and humans were banished to earth, until such time as they could learn enough from their spirit’s past lives to take back their position as enlightened supernatural beings.
Or something like that. To be honest, the details of all the space-politics are rather hard to follow, especially since the amateur actors, including Ruth/Uriel herself, seem to speak in protracted, confused monologues. But while the dialogue is supremely clunky, it crosses into camp, with every word delivered in a hilariously hammy fashion. The Arrival isn’t something one should only be able to appreciate ironically though; the direction and special effects are creative enough that you could get the broad strokes of what’s happening, and enjoy it, even if you were watching with the sound off (maybe cue up some Floyd instead...). The more abstract, and let’s face it, just plain insane the Unariun’s mythology gets, the trippier the visuals get, and one can only imagine all of the minds that it blew being released in a year as drenched in LSD as 1969. If you can distance yourself from the somewhat icky feeling that it’s more or less a recruiting and brainwashing tool, the film is a blast, coming off something like 2001: A Space Odyssey if it had been made by Ed Wood instead of Stanley Kubrick.
It’s a bit strange to watch a science fiction film and continually have to remind yourself that for some people this is not fiction at all, but gospel. Most would scoff at their devotion to something so absurd, but there’s just as much evidence for their view of the universe as there is for God creating the earth and the heavens in seven days, which is to say none at all (Hell, even Christians can’t agree if the bible should be viewed literally or allegorically). But it’s a waste of time to point out the great leaps of faith necessary in accepting any religious paradigm, or to debate which fantastic stories make which schools of thought worthy of making them. Personally, I look to science for answers (real science, not kooky Unariun “science”), but for the length of a good tall tale, apocryphal and imaginative as it may be, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief, if not become a believer.