The Truth Is Out There at New England’s Biggest UFO Festival
Get to know New Hampshire’s alien obsession.
Norman Muscarello was hitchhiking back from his girlfriend’s house near Exeter, New Hampshire in the early morning of September 3, 1965, when he saw pulsating lights in the sky. The US Navy enlistee froze in his tracks beside the Dining family farm on rural Route 150 as the lights hovered overhead, disappeared, then returned in throbbing red bursts. “There was absolutely no sound, other than the fact that I heard horses in Dinings’ field raising holy hell, kicking the barn. Crickets just seemed to quit,” he recalled in a 1980 interview. Petrified, Muscarello ran across the street and hid. A few minutes later, the lights zoomed away, leaving the 18-year-old alone on the road.
The Incident at Exeter, as it’s now known, is the force behind the annual Exeter UFO Festival. Following a pandemic-fueled hiatus, the celebration is back for its 10th anniversary on September 3 and 4, 2022. The entire commercial district of Exeter—population 16,000, with a quaint downtown lined with historic architecture clustered along the Squamscott River—gets in on the action. The Town Hall hosts a variety of talks and other-wordly swag tables. There are costume contests, kids’ activities, and even trolley rides that transport you to the site where it all began.
Bill Smith, a former president of the Exeter Area Kiwanis Club and current chair of the festival, explains that the event started as a lecture series, to shed light on a most unusual piece of Exeter history. It has since become a two-day fundraiser for children’s charities, with 100% of the proceeds from ticket and concession sales benefiting area youth nonprofits and programming. “It is also a big sales day for local merchants,” Smith says. “For some, it’s the second largest sales weekend after Christmas.”
Exeter’s shops and restaurants deck out their windows alien-inspired decor. Sidewalk chalkboards showcase words of wisdom for surviving an extraterrestrial invasion (“Stock up on tennis balls” and “Buy ALL the treats” advises Paws Pet Boutique II), and an inflatable alien dressed as a sushi chef stands outside OBA Noodle Bar.
Deanna Benoit, owner of Top Drawer Boutique, has participated in the festivities since their inception. Her displays have included a big green alien sporting a pink lace bra and panties, lounging sideways in the front window, and a pair of ETs clad in nighties, clutching suitcases. The sandwich board outside the store read, “Wear pretty underwear. You never know if you’ll be abducted.”
“The business community really seems to get into it,” Benoit says. “Customers love it. They laugh, they stop and take pictures. It generates a lot of buzz.”
This year’s keynote speaker is Ralph Blumenthal, a New York Times contributor and 45-year veteran of its reporting team, as well as a distinguished lecturer at Baruch College in New York, and a summer journalism instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy, a nearby boarding school. Blumenthal’s 2021 book, The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science, and the Passion of John Mack, chronicles the work of a Harvard psychiatrist who documented the experiences of hundreds of people who claimed to have had alien encounters. Mack’s work was an important development in ufology—AKA the study of UFOs—lending credence to what had previously been considered a fringe field.
Along with Blumenthal, this year’s Exeter UFO Festival will feature Kathleen Marden, a leading UFO contact researcher; Jennifer Stein, a ufology documentarian; and Paul and Ben Eno, father-son hosts of radio show Behind the Paranormal with Paul & Ben Eno, who plan to live-broadcast from the event.
What makes the Incident at Exeter such an enduring example of UFO phenomenon, Blumenthal says, is that multiple people observed it. After Muscarello reported the sighting to the police, he and two police officers, David Hunt and Eugene Bertrand Jr., returned to the scene, where they all witnessed it simultaneously. Earlier in the evening, a woman reported to Bertrand that she had been followed in her car on a nearby road by a large object in the sky with flashing red lights. Similar sightings in the region the following day have led to the Incident at Exeter becoming one of the best-documented UFO sightings in American history.
Although a 2021 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) publicly acknowledged, for the first time, the existence of unidentified aerial phenomenon—UAPs, as they’re now known—Blumenthal says, “For many years, the United States government played a very negative role in this, by debunking it, by making it seem that people who saw UFOs were mentally ill.” Such was the case for the Incident at Exeter, which the US Air Force then declared "nothing more than stars and planets twinkling…” They explained away the occurrence as an optical illusion caused by the trapping of warm air beneath a layer of cold, dense air, or, possibly, even a military training exercise of B-47 aircraft.
The recent declassification of information is a positive step, but it hasn’t brought us closer to understanding UFOs. The data, says Blumenthal, is not yet scientifically verifiable. But, he adds, “Something happened, just like in Roswell. The witnesses were pretty clear and reliable in what they said. I’m not making a claim that it’s anything but a mystery, but it’s a mystery worth investigating.”