24 July 2014

Messengers and Harbingers: Sneaky Owls in Fantastical Movies

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

Owls and UFOs. To those with no interest in either the two might seem like chalk and cheese, but these ‘phenomena’ – one assumed to belong exclusively to our world, the other thought to originate ‘elsewhere’ – often go hand-in-hand; that is, at least, according to the testimonies of countless UFO experiencers the world over.

In has long been theorized in the UFO research community that the sighting of an owl or owls shortly prior to, during, or immediately after a UFO close encounter is a strong indication of a repressed abduction experience, with the image of the owl acting as a screen memory for the traumatised abductee. The logic here is that the large, penetrating (and sometimes glassy black) eyes of an owl closely resemble those of the archetypal alien ‘Grey’. Owls also swoop from the skies – the domain of the UFO.
In his fascinating and deeply personal essay Owls and the UFO Abductee, Mike Clelland considers the possible psychological function of owl imagery in abduction reports, but ultimately ascribes it a more profound and mystical meaning, concluding – or, rather, confidently speculating – that the owl in these circumstances may be “part of a shamanic initiation,” a wake-up call from the universe itself for those who suspect but refuse to acknowledge their lifetime of hidden experiences with intelligences beyond the realm of everyday perception.

Mike's essay -- which is now slowly working its way toward a book -- is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the abduction phenomenon or in the otherworldly beauty of the owl.

All of this may seem slightly off-topic for this blog, being, as it is, so tightly focused on Hollywood. But there is indeed a Hollywood connection, albeit a fleeting one, so far as I can tell (and I would welcome more input on this if anyone can offer other examples similar to those presented below).

Owl imagery was used prominently in the 2009 movie The Fourth Kind in an overtly alien context, and again more recently in the children's adventure film Earth to Echo (2014), but right now I’m more interested in how owl imagery can be used very subtly, even subconsciously by filmmakers.
Owl imagery in the 2009 abduction movie, The Fourth Kind.
A couple of months back, not long after having chatted with Mike Clelland on Facebook, and having owls on the brain as a result, I switched on the TV. The 1986 movie Short Circuit was playing. A high-concept, family-friendly sci-fi flick, the movie follows the adventures of Johnny 5, an escaped experimental military robot who gains sentience – and apparently even a soul – after being struck by lightning.

The scene that happened to be playing was a pivotal one in the movie: Johnny 5’s first meeting with the character of Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy). The scene is shot to resemble a distinctly Spielbergian 'close encounter' event, with Stephanie under the impression that Johnny 5 is not a robot, but an extraterrestrial. As Stephanie steps outside her house one night to investigate a disturbance, she sees a mysterious glow emanating from her van. “Hey, get outta there!” she yells, nervously. It is at this point that we cut to a close-up of an owl perched atop Stephanie’s personalized mailbox. The bird turns its head to her, almost expectantly.  

As Stephanie approaches her van, its side panel flips open vertically to reveal an alien-looking Johnny 5, bathed in misty light. We then cut once more to the owl, which turns its head to Johnny 5, and, in that moment, one can’t help but draw a visual parallel between the robot and the bird – both having large, round, yellow and black eyes harshly accented by a ‘frown’ (metal eyebrows in Johnny’s case, and ‘ear’ tufts in the owl’s).
Short Circuit (1986)

It is now that Stephanie exclaims: “Oh, my God! I knew they would pick me, I just knew it!” perhaps indicating that she expects – and even wants – to be abducted. “Welcome to my planet,” she says, excitedly.

It goes without saying that owls have always been a permanent fixture in the iconographic landscape of the horror genre. But Short Circuit is a sci-fi, not a horror, and, while Johnny 5 isn't actually an alien, in this crucial scene, the filmmakers have gone out of their way to present him as alien-like and as a potential abductor. Also seemingly significant is the positioning of the owl directly on top of Stephanie’s mailbox, which clearly bears her name, as if the bird has come for her specifically (just as Mike Clelland feels the owls in his own life are communicating something to him on an intensely personal level). We might expect an owl to be perched on a tree branch, but here the owl prefers a mailbox – a ‘message’ box, a communications receptacle. In Western culture, owls are often associated with knowledge and wisdom, and so it is fitting that, in the very same scene, the first thing Johnny 5 demands of Stephanie is “input.” She’s delighted: “That’s information,” she replies, “I’m full of it!” As an aside here, while writing this post I was reminded by an owl-loving friend of mine that Harry Potter’s beloved owl Hedwig was also a messenger, serving Harry faithfully for six years by delivering his mail to him.

The prominent inclusion of the owl in Short Circuit was, in all likelihood, little more than an effort to enhance the ‘spooky’ atmosphere of Stephanie’s introduction to Johnny. Nevertheless, in the implied context of the scene (a close encounter with an alien entity), as well as in the context of Mike Clelland’s essay, the presence of the owl assumes a deeper meaning, whether or not it was consciously intended.

The 1997 movie Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan, also features a curious owl cameo. Early on in the film, a young Ellie Arroway (Jenna Malone) -- who as an adult makes direct contact with an alien intelligence -- asks her father (David Morse) a crucial question: "Hey, dad, do you think there's people on other planets?" At the very moment the question is spoken, the observant viewer will notice a picture on little Ellie's wall...

The mystical connection between owls and otherworldly entities presents itself again in a very different film – the 1982 inspired-by-real-events domestic chiller The Entity, starring Barbara Hershey. 
This disturbing film follows the plight of Carla Moran (Hershey), a young mother of three, who, for all intents and purposes, is single (her boyfriend spending most of his time on the road). One day, without warning, Carla is viciously beaten and raped in her bedroom by a powerful but invisible entity. In the days and weeks that follow, Carla continues to be sexually assaulted by the entity and, fearing for her sanity, seeks help, first from a skeptical psychotherapist, and later from a team of parapsychologists. All the while, the entity is relentless in its aggressive sexual pursuit of this traumatised woman.

In many respects, The Entity certainly can be classed as a horror movie, but it also flirts with science fiction. It constantly defies genre expectations; perhaps, in part, because it is based on a true story – the rigidity of genre rarely applying to life as we live it.

The film’s sci-fi element is particularly identifiable in onscreen debate surrounding just what the entity actually is, and where it comes from. In the third act, the team of university-employed parapsychologists devises a plan to capture and kill the entity for scientific study. Their weapon of choice: liquid helium.

One of the parapsychologists explains:

“What we’re seeking is to determine if this entity has mass. If in fact this is the case, then we should be able to freeze it, verify its objective existence, and prove that it isn’t just a psychic projection, but rather an independent force from some other level of reality that has never been isolated.”

Spoken about in these terms, the entity seems to have less in common with the traditionally supernatural (ghosts, for example) and more with the interdimensional trickster intelligences theorized by the likes of Jacques Vallee and John Keel.

The interdimensional hypothesis posits that UFO entities might exist beyond space-time and can flit in and out of our reality at will, assuming a multitude of forms – from the faeries, goblins, and incubi of ages past, to the UFOs and aliens of modern times. This theory is explicitly brought to mind in The Entity during a scene in which Carla’s psychiatrist, Dr Sneiderman (Ron Silver), attempts to dispel her ‘irrational’ belief in the literal existence of her invisible tormentor, showing her old drawings of goblins, demons, and faerie folk: “They were supposed to abuse people sexually,” he tells her, “they were supposed to impregnate people. Do you think these things really existed then!?”

It is notable that the true nature of the entity is never discovered in the movie, although there is no indication that it is anything so mundane as the lingering ghost of a deceased man; indeed, no indication that it was ever human at all. In the movie, the entity’s few physical manifestations take the form of dazzling lights, bright, fast-moving orbs, and electrical discharges – phenomena typically associated with UFOs. In one scene, when asked by parapsychologists to reveal itself, the entity appears literally as an unidentified flying object, a vaguely spherical green light that calls to mind (to this mind, at least) the green fireballs frequently sighted over US nuclear installations throughout the late 1940s and which lead directly to the formation of the USAF’s Project Twinkle. The stunned parapsychologists look on in awe in shots that wouldn’t seem out of place in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
"Show yourself!" The Entity (1982)
So where do owls come into this? Well, they’re onscreen throughout the movie as decorative wall ornaments. In the hallway, directly by Carla’s front door, we can see a board displaying five owls made from coloured felt. In Carla’s kitchen we can see a woven owl on the wall near the sink. At one point, in Carla’s bedroom, her dressing chair even appears owl-like. The camera never dwells on any of these images, but they are noticeable to the perceptive viewer. Why this owl motif pervades the film, and whether or not there was conscious purpose behind its inclusion is debatable. The Native American Hopi people traditionally associate owls with sorcery and evil. In Mesoamerican cultures, the owl is considered a symbol of death and destruction. In the Mayan religious text the Popol Vuh, owls are described as messengers of Xibalba (the Mayan “Place of Fright”). In these folkloric and religious contexts, owl imagery perfectly complements the nature and intent of the malevolent entity in the movie.

I could waffle on about all of this for quite some time without threatening to reach anything resembling a conclusion. So, for now, I’ll leave readers with some stills from The Entity. Make of them what you will, and, next time you watch a movie – any movie – keep your eyes peeled for sneaky owls... you never know where they might decide to put in an appearance.
Five owls stand watch over Carla's front door. Is their purpose to keep something out, or to keep her in?
Above and below: In these, some of the final shots of the movie, immediately after being shut in by the entity and subjected to shocking verbal abuse, Carla calmly but defiantly opens her front door...

... Before stepping out into an uncertain future.

Above and below: the 'owl' chair.

The woven owl in Carla's kitchen.

Strangely, Carla here seems to be smiling at the owl. This is never explained.

The owl is noticeably skewed on the wall as Carla feels the strain of her abuse.





  1. Ghosts are just Luddite aliens, Robbie ;)

    Srsly though, the researcher in The Entity case, Dr. Barry Taff, wrote the book Aliens Above, Ghosts Below, which seems like a fascinating read.

    Who knows what the Entity raping Carla Moran was, but Taff & his partner did observe a brief manifestation of a green light that morphed into the crude image of a tall man's torso.

    1. Thanks, Miguel, I'll have to check out that book :)

  2. Interesting about The Entity. It's one of my favorite movies, in part because its one of the few i can still get me slightly creeped out. I have to try and look for owls next time. I can recommend Taff's book because it straightens out a lot of misconceptions about the real-life event.

  3. Barbara Hershey was in an episode of THE INVADERS where she plays a a catholic girl who feels she has experienced a miracle.

    Also, the sexual component of the UFO phenomenon is well documented (and consistently ridiculed). Women on the receiving end of repeated scubas encounters is part of ancient folklore as well as modern UFO abduction.

    As I proceed down this owl research stuff, I am finding that owls aren't just the domain of the UFO abductee, they seem to show up in any number of intense experiences. From nervous breakdowns to suicide attempts...

    Mike C

    1. Thanks, Mike, I'd completely forgotten about that 'Invaders' episode.

      For me, as a movie, at least, 'The Entity' simmers with UFOlogical undertones of the Fortean variety.

      Keep up your great work. It is appreciated :)

    2. I think you meant 'succubus' Mike --which were actually the female demons in search of male sperm... unless we're talking about lesbian abductees? :P

      Mmm... that crappy joke made me think: do we have accounts of experiencers reporting sexual encounters with beings of the same gender?

    3. Interesting question! None that I'm aware of. Although beings in quite a few experiencer reports have been described as seemingly genderless or androgynous. And a number of male contactees have described their otherworldly friends of the same sex as beautiful and attractive to the point where sexual or romantic allure is subtly implied.

  4. Oh! Then, "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" (2010) directed by ZACK SNYDER is a movie about extraterrestrials in the same way "Man Of Steel" (2013)(directed by Mr. SNYDER, too) is about an extraterrestrial?

    Maybe "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" is about MILAB? :-)

    The studios in charge of this movie were VILLAGE ROADSHOW PICTURES (that participated in "Dreamcatcher" (2003)) and ANIMAL LOGIC that produced visual effects for two sequences of "Stealth" (2005) directed by ROB COHEN...


    and "Stealth" was supported by the U.S. Navy...


    ... so... what kind of conspiracy is behind these owls?

    "A History of Government Management of OWL Perceptions through Film and Television" should be written?

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  6. Purrlgurrl, I'm not sure I've 'jumped' on anything here. I read Mike's essay, found it interesting/relevant and saw fit to draw some cinematic parallels, because indeed there are parallels to be drawn. Whether or not they have any significance is up for debate. I don't, however, draw any conclusions on the bizarre subject of UFOs & owls, because I'm not sure there are any to be drawn. If you've not already done so I would encourage you read Mike's essay and to watch his recent lecture at the UFO Congress when it becomes available online. Again, there's no conclusions to be drawn from any of this, but it's an interesting topic to my mind.

  7. I had no idea Mike did a lecture at UFO Congress, can't wait to check that out....Will it be on YouTube? I found Mike's essay extremely interesting.

  8. Well, "WATCHMEN" (the movie) depicts two NITE OWLs. One of them is HOLLIs MASON and the book he wrote shows the face of an owl... :-)
    Robbie: are you looking for aliens? You might as well be looking for "secret societies" (in particular if the one dollar bill really has an owl...).

  9. All this recently created owl mythology is becoming very concerning. One can easily imagine UFO hatin' good ole boys plugging away at the poor creatures with assault rifles because they actually believe this BS that owls are screen memories or harbingers of aliens and alien abduction. Please don't promote this potentially destructive type of hokum.

  10. There's a film called UFO, about an alien invasion, made by a British independent film company called Hawthorn productions directed by Dominic Burns where - in the final scene - funny coloured animal designs are printed on a cushion, one of them being an owl on the bottom left hand side. However, unfortunately the film is poor and the special effects bad, but an owl (subtle as it is) is in there just the same.