The California UFO Religion (That Looked Like An LSD Prom)
Millions of years ago, the angel Uriel, leader of the Pleiades, journeyed to the Orion system to bring a message of peace and enlightenment to its ruler, Tyrantus. But to everyone's shock Tyrantus turned out to be a pretty bad guy and betrayed Uriel, who was tortured with cruel genetic experiments for a thousand years. Fortunately, they bumped into each other again in 20th century California and agreed to put all that behind them and collaborate on a short film in which an 80-year-old Southern debutante looks for love on a racist old-timey riverboat. The universe is wild like that.
If that sounds insane to you, strap the hell in, because this article only gets wilder from here. The legend of Tyrantus is part of the beliefs of a group called Unarius, which stands for "Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science." Unarius was founded in 1954 by a guy named Ernest Norman, who bragged about inventing the television and claimed to be in psychic contact with wise alien dream-lords with names like Mal-Var of Venus and ShaTok of Mars. When Ernest died in 1971, the group was taken over by his elderly wife Ruth, who immediately turned it into something much weirder.
Ruth was a former aspiring actress with a dress sense best described as Glinda the Good Witch if she got really into ecstasy. Before long, she had declared herself the angel Uriel, launched a production studio and sent her Unarians to scour the thrift shops of Southern California for every sequin they could find, as the group prepared to bombard public access television with some of the weirdest pieces of outsider art ever created.
According to Uriel, all problems were the result of unresolved trauma from a previous incarnation, and the best way to resolve that was to coat yourself in body glitter and reenact your past life in an elaborately staged psychodrama, featuring Uriel herself wearing every single Christmas tree light the group could afford. The Unarians eventually started filming these psychodramas and broadcasting them on public access television, in a largely failed attempt to attract new believers (the group never numbered more than a hundred people). They did however, succeed in deeply baffling audiences, who were casually flicking through channels when they suddenly found themselves watching what appeared to be a porn parody of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Take this clip from The Arrival, which might be the first movie filmed entirely through a kaleidoscope. The film itself is set on the legendary continent of Lemuria, which was apparently both prehistoric and somehow firmly lodged in the 1970s. Hunky tribesman Zan is mourning his life as the chief's son (and rejected extra from Charlie's Angels) when he is contacted by aliens, who inform him of his past life as the "spaceship commander of an Orion battle cruiser." This is apparently great news, as opposed to the worst possible thing you could tell a guy who still has to shit in the woods for the next 40 years. Presumably the aliens wanted to spread their message further, but couldn't find anyone else who didn't instantly have a seizure from the amount of strobing lights bolted to their disco-mobile.
It's hard to fully capture the atmosphere of the psychodramas, but basically imagine if the cast and crew of Power Rangers spent their entire episode budget on mescaline, then tried to adapt the Tibetan Book of the Dead with stuff they had lying around the set. Unarius's height of artistic achievement was probably A Visit to the Underground Cities of Mars, which is available on YouTube and perfectly captures the feeling of accidentally taking a bunch of LSD right before attending a fancy reception at the Moldovan embassy. If you don't want to lose an hour and the remnants of your sanity watching the whole thing, you can enjoy this clip, which comes over like the in-flight safety announcement you had to sit through on the way to be thrown into one of Xenu's volcanoes:
Ruth Norman herself probably enjoyed the psychedelic escapism after an astonishingly hard life. She was born to abusive parents in 1900 and left school at 13 to work full time as a fruit packer. She was married by 18, divorced by 20, and bounced between a series of jobs until the 1940s, when she started attending psychic readings. It was basically like the country and western song Scientology would write in a failed attempt to land Dolly Parton. In the 1950s, she met Ernest, who was nursing a one-sided grudge against Philo T. Farnsworth for supposedly stealing the secrets of television from him. They soon married and supposedly experienced a series of revelations about their past lives, which climaxed when Ruth dashed into a gas station bathroom and vomited a mysterious black liquid before informing her husband that he was none other than Jesus Christ reborn.
Meanwhile, Ernest was using his psychic powers to astral project himself to alien civilizations, where he learned the secrets of the universe, before returning to found the Unarius Academy of Science in Los Angeles. This was actually nothing unusual in the 1950s, which had been overrun by alien psychics ever since a guy called George Adamski bumped into a "Space Brother" from Venus while wandering around the Mojave Desert. They hit it off and the aliens later treated Adamski to a trip to Venus itself. Since it was the '50s, he reported back that everybody in space was white and all the women were "excellent housewives" obsessed with the latest kitchen gadgets. His books quickly became huge sellers, despite an embarrassing incident where his photo of a Venusian "flying saucer" turned out to be an old heating lamp, complete with GE visibly stamped on one of the lightbulbs.
Before long, everyone from L. Ron Hubbard to Shirley MacLaine was channeling the wisdom of intergalactic spirit beings. Dozens of new religions sprung up based around reported UFO encounters. A guy called George van Tassel even started holding a popular convention for them in the middle of the desert, where he was living beneath a giant rock and building a time machine under the direction of an alien called Solganda. The skies were apparently so choked with flying saucers it's a miracle any sunlight trickled through. Seriously, you couldn't even grab a taxi without the driver swerving off the road and announcing he'd become "the voice of Interplanetary Parliament."
Ernest died in 1971 and Ruth took over leadership of Unarius. A couple years later she was on the planet Eros getting married to Nikola Tesla when she bumped into Ernest, who was performing the ceremony. That seems awkward, but Ernest probably didn't want to make a scene in front of the 33,000 guests, who included Albert Einstein and Copernicus. Instead, he informed Ruth that she was the latest incarnation of the queen archangel Uriel, sent to bring the wisdom of the Space Brothers to the people of Earth. Armed with this knowledge, the Angel Uriel moved her headquarters to a cheaper building outside a strip mall in the San Diego suburbs and set about building the most fantastic collection of outfits this side of a drag show supplied entirely by Spencer's Gifts.
Outside of their public access broadcasts, the Unarians received a burst of publicity in 1976, when they placed a $4,000 bet with British bookies Ladbrokes that UFOs would land within the year. The surprised staff at Ladbrokes eventually took the bet, but did insist on slashing their odds on an alien invasion from 100-1 to 40-1, presumably on the basis that Uriel might know something they didn't. The sect was actually so sure the landing would happen that they spent most of their funds buying 67 acres in the hills to serve as a landing site for 33 UFOs. Although that was probably overkill, since Uriel actually predicted that all 33 flying saucers would be landing one on top of the other in a big tower. The Unarians even built a little model saucer to add to the tower to represent Earth, which is just adorable.
Uriel was helped in all this by Charles Spiegel, who was none other than the latest incarnation of Tyrantus. Uriel and Tyrantus had reincarnated repeatedly on Earth ever since an incident on the lost continent of Lemuria, where Tyrantus lured Uriel into attending a fancy art show, then shot her in the back with a disintegrator ray. Since then, they had opposed each other throughout human history. Tyrantus was Satan, Nero, Pontius Pilate and Napoleon, while Uriel had been Charlemagne, Peter the Great, Queen Elizabeth I and the Mona Lisa. Spiegel was quite surprised to be informed that he was Satan, but he quickly agreed to reform his ways and do penance for his past lives by acting as Uriel's second-in-command. In celebration of this momentous peace accord, he was given the new name of Antares, which definitely doesn't sound like an evil dude about to betray everyone.
The predicted 1977 landing ultimately never happened (Uriel blamed some problems incurred during her stint as the Egyptian goddess Isis), but the news of the bet helped boost the group's profile. Uriel made an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman and became a regular attraction at local parades, where she waved from a Cadillac with a flying saucer strapped to the back. This wacky image probably helped the group as the public mood started to turn against the California UFO religions. The first blow came in the '80s, when the space-themed inner teachings of Scientology became public knowledge. These involved a galactic tyrant named Xenu executing billions of aliens on Earth with a combination of volcanoes and atomic bombs. Since Scientology had just been caught trying to infiltrate the US government and have critics imprisoned, this wasn't a great association.
Worse was to come. In 1997, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate sect committed mass suicide in nearby San Diego. The Heaven's Gate cultists believed that suicide would allow them to ascend to a new life aboard a UFO following the Hale-Bopp comet. Meanwhile, the Order of the Solar Temple was linked to at least 74 deaths between 1994 and 1997. The Order taught that death would allow believers to ascend to the home of the Cosmic Masters on a planet orbiting Sirius. At one Solar Temple compound, the cops discovered a three-month old boy with a wooden stake driven through his heart. At another, three teenagers managed to talk the adults out of killing them. They were left heavily drugged in a shed while their parents blew themselves up.
Next to Heaven's Gate and the Solar Temple, the Unarians came across as a delightful group of weirdos, making tacky art and generally having a good time. But the group did have a dark side, as exemplified by the story of their lead designer, dubbed Arieson by Uriel. In his private life, Arison was a semi-closeted gay alcoholic who was attracted to the group by its promise to cure homosexuality, which Uriel considered a "cosmic aberration." It apparently didn't go well, since he ended up being berated as a "slut" after being caught having sex with another male Unarian. He later claimed that a large number of Uriel's followers were gay and that she used shame as a weapon to control them.
Arieson joined the group in 1977 and quickly endeared himself to Uriel during the filming of The Ballad of Annabelle Lee, a psychodrama in which the elderly Uriel played a young Southern ingenue on a 19th century riverboat. Arieson donned a dress to play her loyal maid "Nell," shuffling around in blackface with a giant fake ass and delivering lines like "Oh, Miss Annabelle, you always my beautiful girl. You got mo' beaus up and down the Mississippi than anyone can shake a stick at!" This, no joke, was intended to demonstrate that the Unarians were not racist. The performance delighted Uriel, much to the outrage of her previous favorite, a guy called Cosmon. He reportedly became so upset with the attention paid to Arieson that he threw the Angel Uriel over the side of the boat and then left the group forever while she splashed around in her petticoats.
Arieson himself left the Uranians after getting into a "bitch fight" with Uriel, during which the archangel "took off one of her crowns and was hitting me with it. She said, 'Here! If you want to be the Archangel Uriel, wear the crown! Be the Archangel Uriel!'" He used the skills honed as Unarius's designer to become a successful painter, but eventually paid the group a visit to seek closure. Uriel, who had a closet full of wedding dresses, immediately proposed marriage and the guy basically ran to his car while the "angel" trailed after him frantically demanding to know why they couldn't tie the knot.
Uriel herself began to wane as the '90s approached. After the failure of her 1977 prediction, she had revised the date of the "Space Brothers" arrival to just after her hundredth birthday, in the year 2001. But it became increasingly clear that she wouldn't make it, and her followers were informed that she would ascend to another plane once her mission was complete. She died in 1993, loyally tended to the end by her most faithful servant: Satan (or Antares or Tyrantus, as he was also known). Her remaining followers continue to maintain the Unarius Academy of Science, which has become something of a pilgrimage for lovers of kitsch. After all, Unarius might have a history of homophobia, racism and exploitation, but so does Catholicism, and can you really say this dress is any less impressive than the Sistine Chapel?
Top image: Unarius Academy of Science