This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
When I asked Randall Nickerson what led him to make “Ariel Phenomenon” — a documentary about a mass UFO sighting by 62 school children in Zimbabwe — he told me the answer was personal.
“I was also very young when I first saw something that didn’t make sense,” he said.
Nickerson doesn’t like talking about exactly what it is that he saw, except to say that it happened more than once while he was out roaming the acres of forests surrounding his childhood home in Massachusetts. He doesn’t consider himself a “believer” — a term that implies faith without proof — so much as a witness.
“I didn’t have to believe it because I saw it — there’s a big difference,” he said. “Nobody’s explained the things that I’ve seen.”
Nickerson describes himself as a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy; a realist. But these experiences never left him, and as he got older, they weighed on his mind.
“It’s very isolating, I think, because you really can’t talk about it,” he said. “And even with other people who have had the same experience, you really don’t talk about it too much because it’s so disturbing.”
The genesis of ‘Ariel Phenomenon’
For years, Nickerson kept his experiences shut away in his mind. He attended a few meetings with other “experiencers,” as they’re called, but mostly, he stayed on the sidelines.
Until he was approached by the family of Harvard psychiatrist John Mack in 2007. Mack had recently died, and his family wanted Nickerson to make a short film about the psychiatrist’s work with UFO experiencers — specifically, about his work at the Ariel School, where the Zimbabwe sighting took place in 1994.
Nickerson agreed, and began poring through hours of video interviews that John Mack had done with the children. Quickly he realized this was a much bigger story than he could fit in a short film.
Over the next 15 years, Nickerson made three trips to Zimbabwe, conducted dozens of interviews, and, along with his team, immersed himself in hours of archival footage — all in an effort to piece together one of the strangest and most haunting UFO sightings ever recorded.
A reporter, a psychiatrist, and 62 school children
For John Mack, it all started with a phone call from BBC’s Zimbabwe correspondent Tim Leach.
In September 1994, Leach — a hardened war correspondent, who passed away in 2011 — had been reporting on the Ariel School incident, and didn’t know what to make of it. It was a bizarre and eerie story, and weeks later the kids remained terrified and disturbed.
His quotes, along with those of John Mack and the school children, are drawn from archival tape included in “Ariel Phenomenon.”
“I could handle war zones, but I could not handle this UFO thing,” Leach said. “It just didn’t make sense. And that’s when I had to call in extra help.”
By that time, John Mack had earned a growing reputation as an expert in UFO encounters. It was considered an odd, even disreputable, choice for Mack, a Pulitzer Prize winner and head of Harvard’s psychiatry department — but, Leach reasoned, Mack’s experience and credentials would bring a level of credibility to his reporting, and maybe help get to the bottom of what had really happened.
When Mack arrived at the school a few weeks later, trailed by a filmmaker, he asked Ariel’s headmaster, Colin Mackie, what he thought had happened.
“Do you think it’s possible that one imaginative child had a story and kind of stirred the rest of them?” Mack said.
“I don’t believe that, I don’t believe,” Mackie said. “I honestly believe they saw something, but for me to actually draw a conclusion as to what it is, I don’t think I could do that at this point in time.”
The rest of the staff at the Ariel School had mixed opinions.