At the time I sat down to write this, news and social media had been all abuzz about a Chinese spy balloon seen floating across the country. It was, eventually, shot down. I was surprised to see just how many people on social media had become national security experts overnight, as it seemed everyone had ideas about what should be done. I’ll admit that I don’t know anything about spy balloons, or why on earth such low-tech espionage would be necessary in today’s technological age- but the particular interest among the Disclosure set, and those on hashtag UFO Twitter, got me thinking about the symbolic nature of balloons and, more specifically, this symbolism in relation to the topic of UFOs.
I was unable to finish writing this post the first time, and now, a week later, as I sit to complete it more objects have been shot down from both the U.S. and Canada…
My good friend, the right honorable Most Reverend StarDoG pointed out on Facebook:
You have to chortle at so many of those who are forever telling people that “People are losing their shit over a weather balloon and there’s nothing strange here, please move on”, currently, totally losing their shit over an actual weather balloon..
-Steve Mills, author of the blog post You’re Just Like a Little Child Chasing a Balloon into the Sunset
The irony related to balloons runs deep in UFOlogy. “Weather balloon” is one of the classic hand-waving dismissals of UFO reports since the 1940s, alongside the planet Venus, misidentification of birds or known crafts, and Swamp Gas. Weather balloons and UFOs are inextricably linked, and as I intend to persuade you through my ramblings here, the symbol of all balloons hints at something existentially unsettling and as hard to capture through words as clouds are in one’s hand.
Back in 2020, a “leaked government photo” of a UFO, taken from inside a jet, was revealed to be remarkably similar in size and shape to that of a party balloon featuring DC Comics’ Dark Knight, Batman. At the time, I found this profoundly amusing, and perhaps an indicator of the Cosmic Trickster at play. I had often felt that the extreme camps of those who engage with the Phenomenon, as it were, were exemplified by the Disclosure Set/TTSA mob, and fans of the documentary series Hellier. This dichotomy is often expressed as the “nuts and bolts” camp vs those open to a panoply of interpretations, bordering on the mystical and visionary. In cryptozoology, it might be the “flesh and blood” camp vs those open to supernatural answers for why we see Bigfoot and other beasties. In the interest of disclosure, although it’s probably entirely obvious, I fall into the latter camp. The caveat is, I don’t think either extreme at the exclusion of all evidence to contradict it is healthy. While I think chasing capital “D” Disclosure is a fool’s errand, I also think there is a very real danger of missing the forest for the synchronici-trees.
A major part of Hellier, for those who haven’t seen it, involves a blue star balloon that served as a synchronicity during the course of the investigation more than once. The balloon in question has become as emblematic of the Hellier goblin-hunt as the goblins themselves. In this sense, it seems amazingly on-brand for Trickster phenomena that the other extreme, who likely would not respond well to the language of high strangeness, to be taken in by a blue Batman balloon.
In Tim Burton’s 1989 movie Batman, balloons appear in the form of a dastardly plot perpetrated by the Joker. As he is throwing money out the people of Gotham, the floats above him are loaded with toxic gas that he hopes to unleash on the unsuspecting public. Of course he is foiled by the Caped Crusader, who flies in in his Batwing, towing the balloons to a safe distance from the city. This heroic act is mirrored later in the 2012 movie The Dark Knight Rises, in which Batman has to (we’re led to believe) sacrifice himself in bringing a bomb out into the sea to save the city.
The clown imagery and invitation to collect money in the scene, along with the hidden horror of the plot to poison Gotham, within a balloon, get at this odd symbolic quality of the unassuming and seemingly friendly object. A balloon might not be what it seems; is it a message from the cosmos, a whimsical decoration, a UFO, or a parade float filled with poison? Already, we can see that pinning down a straightforward meaning here is as evasive as the string of a free-floating balloon that has just left your grasp…Another relevant sinister clown / balloon connection is worth mentioning here- a single red balloon has also been a symbol of the character Pennywise in Stephen King’s It.
The shape-shifting entity, most often portraying itself as a clown, is revealed to be (spoiler alert) a giant spider from either space or another dimension. The balloon sometimes acts as a harbinger of his appearances, or as a way to lure victims to their doom.
During World War II, balloons coming from Asia were a major concern for the United States, particularly along the Pacific Coast. Japan had released balloons loaded with incendiary devices, as a means of attacking the U.S. mainland. Balloons were also used during the war to distribute pamphlets of propaganda across enemy lines, or as a means of communication. All the while, phenomena such as “foo fighters” and ghost rockets were reported by airmen. After the war, the flying saucer age began with the publicity around the Kenneth Arnold sighting- but before the war, there were reports of mystery airships. Dirigibles, essentially piloted balloons, were reported throughout the country.
These mysterious airships seemed to be just ahead of where commonly accepted technology would take us, but as zeppelins came into use they seemed less mystifying. They might have enjoyed greater use as a means of travel, had it not been for the widely publicized Hindenburg disaster in 1937. The words of the reporter covering the disaster – “Oh, the humanity!” have become ingrained and meme-ifed into public consciousness to this day. Public trust in airships dropped quickly following the crash.
The Hindenburg crash was featured as the cover art for Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album, related to a joke spurred by the suggestion of a line-up of musicians in a band- that it would go over like “a lead balloon”, or a “lead zeppelin”.
Years later, Pink Floyd would cause UFO reports of a sort with a botched album cover photo shoot. For their 1977 album Animals, the plan was to get a shot of a balloon shaped like an enormous pig floating above the Battersea Power Station. The pig balloon was custom made by a German company called Ballon Fabrik, who had previously constructed zeppelins. For the first attempt at getting a good photo, they had hired a marksman to shoot down the balloon if it became untethered. The second day, they failed to bring one, and it floated away…
The balloon eventually landed in a farmer’s field, and he was reportedly furious that it had frightened his cows. Here we can see not only the UFO and balloon symbols merged together in one event, but also cows, which in popular media are often portrayed as victims of abduction. Beyond that, the likelihood of ever getting a straight answer with UFOs is so slight, it would seem that “when pigs fly” would be a reasonable expectation on when we’ll have it figured out. On another, weirder level, Pink Floyd got their start playing at the UFO Club in London- which was managed by the co-founder of IT magazine Joe Boyd, who helped finance the recording of the band’s first singles… right around the same time a newspaper article made the rounds in the U.S. about a police officer named Dale Spaur, who had taken to using the code name “Floyd” for a flying saucer he saw multiple times.
The imagery of a pig was part of the thematic lyrical structure of the Animals album- Roger Waters was drawing from Orwell’s Animal Farm, a critique of Communism, but turning it on its head as a critique of capitalist, commercial society. He would later expand on the Orwellian themes in the later album The Wall, which was more inspired by the book 1984.
In 1984, Nena’s song 99 Luftballons was released in an English-language version to capitalize on the success of the original song in Europe. American audiences preferred the original German version over the translated 99 Red Balloons. Nena would express disapproval at the the translated version, as it seems the meaning gets lost in translation. The basic premise is that 99 balloons, tied together, are let go and float into a neighboring airspace and mistaken for UFOs. This leads to jets being scrambled, and using firepower, which builds up to a cataclysmic war that destroys the world. The anti-war song concludes with the discovery of a single balloon in the rubble, and the line “I think of you and let it go”.
The song was inspired in part by balloons let go during a concert in 1982, causing Nena’s guitarist to wonder what would happen if they floated over the Berlin Wall. Also cited as inspiration for the lyrics was an apparent prank using balloons to hoax a UFO in Las Vegas, by students in 1973. It seems that there were several such hoaxes that year:
Balloons and hoaxing seem to go together well. In 2009, a flying saucer shaped balloon made the news when it was reported that there was a child trapped inside. The “Balloon Boy” hoax was characterized as a ploy for publicity and attention from the couple who launched the balloon, Richard and Mayumi Heene. To this day, they and their son who they originally claimed was in the balloon maintain that it was not a hoax, but a mistake. Another example of a balloon based saucer hoax occurred in 1989, when rich guy with too much time on his hands Richard Branson spooked motorists in the U.K.:
Sometimes, though, balloons are just a means of adventure, whimsy, and fantasy. Take for an example the sky journey of Kent Couch in 2008. The 48-year-old owner of a gas station rigged up a bunch of balloons to a lawn chair and spent 9 hours aloft, covering a distance of 235 miles from his starting point in Oregon. Using a BB gun to take out balloons and lower himself when necessary, he landed safely in Idaho. “I think most guys look up in the sky and wish they could ride on a cloud.”, Couch said in an interview.
As I type this all out, it does seem eerily likely that tensions are mounting around balloons from across the Pacific. I certainly hope nothing like the 99 Luftballons scenario plays out, and I would hope that we can all move toward a more adventurous and whimsical view of balloons like that shown by Kent Couch, or as utilized in the Pixar movie Up. We do seem to be living in an increasingly crazy world, a place where alien craft making an undeniable appearance seems more likely; but on a scarier note, with a recent pandemic, climate and weather changes, and political tensions high all around, it’s easy to feel like we’re on the precipice of a great change. What that change is, and whether good or bad, is as hard to determine as the motives of a balloon drifting across the pacific ocean. This brings me to one final balloon image culled from pop culture- the balloon to take us home. And if you’ve made it this far through my ramblings, I really can’t thank you enough.
At the end of The Wizard of Oz, the all-powerful Wizard has a solution for Dorothy. The plan to bring her and Toto back to Kansas involves getting into a hot-air balloon, but at the last moment, as the balloon is taking off, Toto jumps out. Dorothy has to go running after him, as her only hope for getting home appears to drift off above the Emerald City. It’s then that she learns the power to bring her back was with her the whole time; and maybe that’s the lesson with balloons. Maybe, perhaps, as Nena sang, we should think of each other and let it go. Maybe chasing balloons equates with madness, and certainly there’s danger in it. Maybe I’m crazy for ruminating so long on the topic, and bringing up such far-flung images to illustrate the nebulousness that is UFOlogy. I’m sure it could be argued that I am, indeed, full of hot air, high on my own supply… but like many other guys, I just want to know what it’s like to ride a cloud.