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Opinion: I went to Vernal, Utah, in search of tiny green men. What I found might be stranger

Suddenly the $150, six hours in the car and depletion of my travel rewards points all felt worth it

Illustration by Zoë Petersen

Are extraterrestrial visitors responsible for Sodom and Gomorrah? It’s a provocative question. One that was on offer during the Q&A at Phenomecon, a first-ever paranormal conference held this month in Vernal, Utah.

I’ve always been both interested in, and terrified by, the paranormal — scared to walk through a haunted house, but peeking behind every door. Watching horror movies through laced fingers, but also watching the sequels. In recent years, however, my interest morphed into somewhat of an embarrassing obsession, and during the lowest points of my pandemic boredom this past year I found myself idly browsing ghost hunter sites and Google Images for UFOs.

Which is how I found Phenomecon.

Conferences aren’t my thing, with all the sitting and listening and mingling. Those are three of my least favorite activities. But, I told myself, this is a paranormal conference, which couldn’t possibly be stale.

I hit “purchase tickets” on the Phenomecon website. I don’t know which of Newton’s laws state all ghost-adjacent websites must be green text on black background, but the law holds true here. After nervously typing in my credit card information (I momentarily considered a potentially different meaning for “con” in Phenomecon) I then made a few reckless clicks and spent $150 at the speed of a tractor beam hitting a farmer.

I talked a friend into joining me and together we drove three hours east to attend a full day of speakers. We opted for one day instead of the full three because, while I’m a firm believer in the efficacy of the vaccine and science generally (what paranormal aficionado isn’t?) three days indoors with a demographic known for distrusting the government felt like tempting the virus.

Besides, we only had enough Marriott points to cover two nights.

We showed up at the conference center Saturday morning and met our fellow attendees who had traveled from all over the country (universe?) to be there. We were ready to hear a litany of spooky and thrilling stories. What we got, instead, was a bunch of maps and math. The first speaker spent a good hour interpreting petroglyphs and using terms like “spectrum” and “dosimeter”—the latter I learned measures how much radiation a person is absorbing. I assume such information would come in handy if I were to be abducted.

Lifelike alien replicas greet guests at Phenomecon in Vernal, Utah.
Meg Walter

To be fair, he did share his belief that there’s some sort of device hovering over the Uintah basin that rips the fabric of space and time and evidently explains the prehistoric watersnake that lives in Bottle Hollow. He also divulged that he once smelled Bigfoot (didn’t see, but smelled). But aside from those revelations, the topographical maps and jargon were a bit heavy for this aspiring mystic.

The next speaker, Travis Walton, on whom the movie “Fire In The Sky” was based, spent all of three minutes explaining what happened when he was abducted by an alien craft outside Phoenix, and the remaining hour detailing how the pine needles at the sight of his abduction proved it actually happened. The most riveting part of his presentation, for me, was the artistic renderings of his experience (enjoy!):

Meg Walter
Meg Walter
Meg Walter

The third speaker shared an emotional moment when she was able to use a device to speak with her deceased grandfather. I was right there with her, but then 20 minutes later, she disclosed the man who created the device was a scammer.

And, then, the final speaker, George Knapp, the premier paranormal journalist, gave an entire presentation on 1) His admiration for Harry Reid (really) and 2) Why the government should be more transparent about its records on the paranormal — without ever telling us what is in the records.

The tagline for this conference was “We Believe,” but every speaker seemed determined to get us to believe without providing anything for us to believe in. I kept waiting to feel spooked or thrilled or excited but, right when a speaker was creeping up to the good stuff, they would pivot into a diatribe against the establishment media who had not believed their stories — the very stories I had paid good money to hear.

We were perhaps the most receptive audience possible for these speakers. I was ready to soak in every detail of what Walton experienced on the alien ship and what Knapp knows about Area 51, and what exactly a prehistoric watersnake is doing in northeastern Utah. But instead, I found my attention waning as each speaker spent hours trying to prove they aren’t frauds.

I don’t need proof. If they’re frauds, the joke’s on me — my $150 should have made that clear.

By the end of the day, I was feeling frustrated, and bored, and ready to write off the conference completely when a man stood up to the microphone during the Q&A portion of George Knapp’s presentation.

“It doesn’t seem like the aliens who have come to earth have ever meant us any harm, except for maybe Sodom and Gomorrah,” he said.

The entire room did a double-take, and for the first time all day, I felt that rush of adrenaline, the ping down my spine, the thrill mixed with terror, just being near someone who believed something so wild. Suddenly the $150, six hours in the car, and depletion of my travel rewards points all felt worth it. They got me.

I’ll be back next year.

Meg Walter is the editor-in-chief of The Beehive and a Deseret News contributor.