The 1994 Ariel School case has a special place in the hearts of many UFO fans. Dozens of innocent children witnessed something strange in the scrub about 200 meters from their playground during recess. With no adults around to interpret what they saw, at least some of them became convinced it was a UFO (or several UFOs) and an alien being (or several beings).
The sighting is remarkable in that we have contemporaneous footage of many witness interviews, thanks to visits by TV news crews in the days, weeks, and years following the incident. But when I placed all the children's testimonies in chronological order, they clearly show how the tales grew taller in the telling, starting relatively mundane and becoming more and more "alien" over time. As adults, some of the witnesses claim to be deeply impacted by the event, and even have "memories" of otherworldly details that nobody reported at the time.
Dallyn Vico was in grade 5. He was interviewed in 2008 by Randall Nickerson for the Ariel: Phenomenon movie, where only one irrelevant line was used in the final cut, and again for Netflix's Encounters, Episode 2 (2023), where he claimed he and his friends started the rumor that a shiny rock was the UFO. Because of apparent conflicts between Dallyn's two testimonies, the Ariel Phenomenon YouTube channel uploaded a longer version of his 2008 interview, titled: "Encounters" Ariel school UFO incident denier Dallyn Vico interviewed in 2008. Their Twitter account went so far as to imply he had been manipulated: "We are dismayed he [was] put in this position by the production company, & concerned for him."
While the now-adult witnesses talking about aliens get the spotlight, we rarely if ever hear from those who don't believe it was aliens.
Those voices aren't welcome in documentaries about "the phenomenon", as I learned when I talked to several witnesses of the 1966 Westall (Melbourne) sighting who recognized what they were seeing was a deflated balloon or airborne debris. Encounters (2023) made the decision to include a non-believer but didn't otherwise present any skeptical arguments or alternative explanations such as the ones I and others have written about.
"I made up the whole thing up... At the time there was a rock, a very, very shiny rock, and it was shining in the sun. And so I pointed, and I’m like, “Look yah, there’s a spaceship! There’s an alien!” And the Grade 1s, Grade 2s were like, “Ah, really?” I’m like, “Yah yah yah, aliens!” And within half an hour, all the kids were talking about it. All the kids were running around. The whole school was buzzing.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. You’re seeing all these people literally pointing at a rock and saying it’s a UFO. But that’s the thing with children is, that they do play these imaginary games. And before you know it they really truly believe it." - Encounters, 2023
This week I asked Dallyn for his perspective, especially in terms of the psychological dynamics of the school community, which he witnessed first-hand but which should be obvious to anyone who works with, or has raised, children. Yet this aspect is rarely explored in the Ariel case.
Realizing a group of younger children were excited about something in the distance, Dallyn admits to stirring their imaginations after they identified it as an alien craft (probably influenced by the "UFO" reports all over the news in the preceding days):
"I, as a mere observer, chose not to voice my doubts but instead became complicit in their game. I even went so far as to encourage other kids to join in, adding to the flames of their belief.
"When a few impressionable minds were convinced of the UFO's authenticity, an infectious excitement spread through the playground... Not all the children panicked. However, a few were swept up in collective hysteria, influenced by their peers and the power of social suggestion within the school."
Dallyn admits he did nothing to debunk the UFO theory, labeling his own behavior an "act of deception". He and other skeptical children had no incentive to come clean, as the disruption got them out of some regular class activities.
"Among the children, two groups emerged: those genuinely deceived by their own sincerity, and others, including myself, who knowingly played along with the charade, sharing fanciful stories and participating in the imaginary spectacle we had concocted."
He explicitly said in 2008 that he did not see any UFOs or aliens, that his sighting amounted to flashes of light in the sky. Back in 1996, 18 months after the event, he was part of a group interview by Tineke de Nooij for Dutch TV in which he described, along with two other boys, these same flashes of light:
"Like it’d go there and then vanish and then go there and vanish and there and vanish."
In line with his present-day explanation that he went along with the alien interpretation, and bearing in mind this is a primary-school boy taking up the opportunity to be on TV, he also offered this:
"I think the aliens came because they are curious like us. And, well, they want to learn about us and we want to learn about them."
As a 23-year-old invited to participate in a documentary about a now-famous UFO sighting, Dallyn said: "I was witness to an event that I cannot fully explain" - a truthful conclusion based on the lights he saw, which he then speculated may have been "government testing" and told me may have been a low-Earth-orbit satellite (of course, we will never know). He did not actively debunk the alien interpretation. It would seem he wasn't willing, at that age, to face the backlash.
As a 39-year-old, he wants to set the record straight, for the sake of scientific enquiry into the subject:
"Just to be clear, I do believe in extraterrestrial life, but I am absolutely certain that nothing of that nature occurred that day. After years of reflection and witnessing people speculate about what happened, I felt it was time to share my truth, even if it meant facing backlash. If we, as humanity, are to uncover the truth or experience a genuine encounter, we must be rigorous in our assumptions and base our conclusions on real evidence, rather than mere speculation."
He also clarified his statement on Encounters that "60 people lied", with this post on his Facebook:
"I would say 'lying' is a strong word. I would rather say 'truthfully mistaken.' I never claimed that something strange didn't happen that day, but rather, I will say, and I stick to this, that there were no aliens that landed in the school grounds." - Dallyn Vico, Facebook, Oct 2, 2023
According to Dallyn, he did six hours of interviews for the documentary and Netflix show. Editing down lengthy interviews into soundbytes can skew a narrative. For example, on Encounters he did in fact expand on the characterization of the witnesses as liars:
"They have to choose what they want to believe. Maybe they truly believe that they’d seen it. But I’m sorry to tell you that it never happened and they’re lying to themselves. I might have lied once or twice, but the rest of the people they continued the story for me."
Perhaps on Encounters Dallyn exaggerated his role in starting the rumor, rather than only fanning the flames as he told me, or perhaps his expanded explanation ended up on the cutting room floor. In any case, he is a witness who saw the same thing the others saw, but recognized it as mundane and then watched the "power of social suggestion" take hold.
What happened at Ariel?
As to what the "UFO" and "aliens" actually were, it's unlikely we'll ever know. The sighting was out-of-bounds, no child is reported to have investigated, and no physical evidence was left behind. What is clear is that nothing was seen clearly, since many of the drawings bear little resemblance to each other (even allowing for differing drawing skills and styles) despite the witnesses having essentially the same view along the boundary logs from 200 meters away. These drawings must therefore be largely based on imagination and existing knowledge of "what a UFO looks like." Descriptions of the "people" or "creatures" are also varied.
Dallyn estimates he did not witness the first 15 minutes of the sighting as he was busy playing, so if a physical object was out there in the bush (such as a van) perhaps it had already moved on before Dallyn arrived. Perhaps the children did witness real unidentified objects (such as a puppet troupe per Gideon Reid's theory) and Dallyn missed the main event and now wrongly believes he is responsible for hyping up a shiny rock.
Dallyn referred me to this article in SUNlite by Oliver D. Smith, who believes the children saw a dust devil, and he also reiterated what he said on Encounters:
"I remain firmly convinced that it was simply a rock that we saw. It was a case of pareidolia, where a dust devil and the rock's gleam in the sun combined to create the illusion of an extraterrestrial vessel on the ground."
Two of the child witnesses said they thought the men or "beings" could have been a laborer or gardener, and Dallyn agreed this was a possibility. Again, reading the witness testimonies in chronological order, there was nothing particularly alien about their descriptions given to the BBC and MUFON investigator Cynthia Hind in the days following the incident.
I think it's necessary to call out the Ariel Phenomenon Twitter account for labeling Dallyn a "UFO incident denier" in the context of his Encounters appearance, as if he had recanted his testimony. He has never said he saw UFOs or aliens. And clearly there was an incident - just not the one pushed by Randall Nickerson, the filmmaker who has described experiencing as a child what sounds like typical bouts of sleep paralysis (speaking from personal experience), and who with the help of John Mack came to believe he was being abducted by aliens, and who as a result of this connection set about finding Ariel witnesses who would confirm his bias.
Perhaps most importantly for anyone wanting to get to the truth of the matter, if Dallyn as a child was playing along with the narrative, knowing it to be false, there are surely others - that's only to be expected in a schoolyard environment. Where are these "deniers" now? Does any media platform care to promote their stories and risk the backlash after questioning an established myth?
There is no good evidence of anything extraterrestrial happening at Ariel. There is ample evidence the witnesses - surrounded by excited peers and under the guidance of credulous adults - fooled themselves into interpreting the event as alien, to the extent that today some of them have incorporated false memories and even been mentally harmed. Dallyn Vico says he watched this interpretation evolve in real time, and acknowledges that it impacts some witnesses to this day.
"I've shared my honest recollection and analyzed the situation from an adult's perspective. People can choose to reflect on their own beliefs and memories, or they can continue to hold onto their misconceptions. The truth matters to me because I want to see progress, not regression, in our understanding."
I'm blogging about the Three-Dollar Kit.