Beyond belief

A pair of Seacoast festivals will celebrate the unexplained

When Norman Muscarello burst into the Exeter police station early on the morning of Sept. 3, 1965, he likely had no idea he was making a small mark on history. Visibly afraid and anxious, Muscarello told Reginald “Scratch” Toland, the station’s nighttime dispatcher, an incredible tale: while hitchhiking from Amesbury, Mass., to Exeter along Route 150, he saw five flashing red lights in the woods nearby. The lights moved closer — so close that Muscarello dove for cover in a roadside ditch. The lights kept moving, then stopped and hovered near a farmhouse, and then moved back into the woods. He ran to the farmhouse and pounded on the door, but there was no answer. As a car came up the road, Muscarello ran into the street and asked the couple in the car for a lift into town. That, he said, was how he ended up at the police station.

In the last five decades, the story that Muscarello told Toland has become a part of the Seacoast’s rich history of strangeness. It’s a history that includes countless sightings of unidentified flying objects, stories of alien abductions, close encounters with ghosts, and other unexplained phenomena. This month, two Seacoast festivals celebrate all things unexplained: the Exeter UFO Festival returns for its fifth year Sept. 4-6, and Rochester hosts its first Paranormal/UFO Festival Sept. 18-19.

“We’re only aware of such a tiny little piece of what’s around us,” says Dean Merchant, who organized the first Exeter UFO Festival in 2011. “It’s part of that bigger mystery. I think that it’s fun for people; it makes us think there is something more out there, and (makes us ask), ‘What is it?’”

Watching the skies in Exeter 

What set Muscarello’s sighting apart — and helped cement it in UFO lore as one of the most well-documented sightings ever recorded — were a pair of
police officers who also saw the mysterious object.

That morning in September of 1965, officer Eugene Bertrand Jr. drove Muscarello back to the field where he saw the object. Soon after they got out of the car to explore the area, the object appeared again. Bertrand ran back to his patrol car and radioed officer David Hunt. Bertrand and Muscarello watched the object above them, some 100 feet away. Hunt soon arrived and he saw the object too, before it finally disappeared.

Bertrand and Hunt filed separate reports about the sighting, and soon the story — which came to be known as the “Exeter incident” — made it to the press. Journalist and magazine columnist John G. Fuller arrived in town a few weeks later to investigate the event. Fuller ended up finding dozens of other witnesses who had similar sightings in the weeks surrounding the September incident. His 1966 book about the Exeter sighting, “Incident at Exeter,” became a bestseller. Though the Air Force initially explained the sighting as aircraft from an Air Force operation known as Big Blast, it eventually retracted that explanation and classified the object Muscarello, Bertrand, and Hunt saw as unidentifiable.

“(The Exeter incident) really opened a door for so many people who were on the fence about (UFOs) to raise an eyebrow and say, ‘There must be something there,’” says Charles Creteau, one of the founders of Seacoast Saucers, a group that provides information to and hosts meet-ups for people who have seen UFOs or are simply curious about the topic. Because there were so many witnesses and so many similar reports, the sightings became a “focal point for people to look at and say, ‘This is an unexplained phenomenon that deserves honest research,” Creteau says.

“It’s part of that bigger mystery. I think that it’s fun for people; it makes us think there is something more out there, and (makes us ask), ‘What is it?’” — Dean Merchant

Conversations and celebrations 

Merchant turned over organizing duties of the UFO Festival to the Exeter Area Kiwanis Club a few years ago, though he’s still involved in the event. This year’s festival includes art, music, tours of the site where Muscarello first saw the unidentified craft 50 years ago, and a lineup of lectures by well-known UFO researchers, including Stanton Friedman, Kathleen Marden, and local investigators Ryan Mullahy and John Oswald.

“It’s just a great spot to come and hear great speakers,” Merchant says.

It’s also inspired some creative projects. Tilton comic book artist Michael Mitchell wrote and illustrated “UFOs Over Exeter,” an original comic book commemorating the Exeter sighting that will be on sale at Krypton Comics on Water Street during the festival.

“We thought it would make a fun and interesting and entertaining way for people who may not be totally familiar with the events that took place to bring themselves up to speed,” Mitchell says.

Mitchell doesn’t have any theories about what happened in Exeter, but says reading about UFO sightings and experiences is fascinating.

“Some are way out there, some are very credible … and some sightings, and this was the case (in Exeter), there were multiple people who saw this. It does make you wonder. They were definitely seeing something.”

All those years of accounts about and investigations of sightings helped convince Rochester Main Street executive director Mike Provost to organize the city’s first Paranormal/UFO Festival. Volunteers with the group initially suggested the idea.

“I kind of pooh-poohed the idea to begin with,” Provost says. “But then I went online and lo and behold, within 15 minutes, I had all this” information about UFO sightings and paranormal activity in New Hampshire.

The night sky in Thornton, near where Portsmouth couple Betty and Barney Hill were supposedly abducted by aliens in 1961. Photo by Andrew Rebeiro

Above and at top: the sky in Thornton, near where Portsmouth couple Betty and Barney Hill were supposedly abducted by aliens in 1961. (photos by Andrew Rebeiro)

The two-day festival in Rochester includes a “haunted history” tour of downtown buildings with psychic medium Isabeau Esby and historian Martha Wingate. On Saturday, Sept. 19, vendors and other groups, including Seacoast Saucers, will be on hand to talk about the unexplained in the Union Street parking lot, behind Jetpack Comics.

Seacoast Saucers hosts monthly meet-ups for people who have had experiences with UFOs, and for those who are curious about the subject. The group also helps people who’ve seen something they can’t explain place reports with investigatory groups like Mutual UFO Network (MUFON).

“What we do is create opportunities and events … for people who want to have conversations,” he says. The group aims to create a safe, confidential space for people to talk about experiences.

Though UFOs and alien abductions are common ground in pop culture, Creteau says that, much like in 1965, there’s still a stigma associated with publicly sharing the details of un unexplainable experience.

“People can really be traumatized by certain things and not know who to talk to. Normal people can have experiences and don’t want to talk to anybody about them,” he says.

A rich history 

The Seacoast has a long tradition of high strangeness. In 1966, Fuller followed up “Incident at Exeter” with “The Interrupted Journey,” which chronicled the case of Betty and Barney Hill, a Portsmouth couple who claimed they were abducted by aliens while driving through the White Mountains in 1961. Over the years, there have been countless sightings of unexplained objects throughout the region. Until a few years ago, New Hampshire had it