Exeter UFO fest

Geek Road Trip: New Hampshire's massive UFO festival

Contributed by
Sep 19, 2018, 4:30 PM EDT (Updated)

They're ba-ack... And they keep coming back! Starting in 2009, hundreds of visitors have descended every Labor Day weekend on the picture-perfect town of Exeter, New Hampshire, for the annual Exeter UFO Festival.

This year, the festival drew a large crowd of alien enthusiasts, who spent the weekend swapping fascinating stories they insist happened. Panelists, ufologists, and the layman who swore they'd seen a flying saucer or even been contacted -- there were enough out-of-this-world tales ringing through the microphones at the Exeter fest to keep Steven Spielberg in goosebumps for the rest of his life.

Founded by local historian and freelance writer Dean Merchant and his wife Pamela, and now operated as a fundraiser by the Exeter Area Kiwanis Club, the festival commemorates and celebrates the rich history of New England's "experiencers," a term applied to anyone who could have had a brush with something that could be extraterrestrial. Thanks in part to a history of alleged run-ins, including 1965's "Incident at Exeter" and Betty and Barney Hill's strange 1961 sighting in Lincoln (widely considered to be the first documented claim of an alien abduction), the Granite State's wide-open fields are considered especially ripe for extraterrestrial contact... so much so that this year's fest included a trolley ride that took attendees on a "UFO Safari" in the nearby fields.

UFOFest Map

Mary Francis/ seacoastonline.com

Your intrepid reporter was unable to get on the trolley, but I did ride out to some of the nearby hot spots on my own, paying special attention to the site of the Exeter incident, so named by author John G. Fuller in his 1966 book on the subject. The story goes something like this: 18-year-old Norman Muscarello had been out late one night with his girlfriend, and was attempting to hitchhike home down Route 150. He had walked most of the way through the woods when suddenly he saw five flashing red lights that were so bright a nearby farmhouse and the surrounding area were turned red by the illumination.

When the lights moved toward him, he dove into a ditch, and when the lights moved back toward the farmhouse and into the woods, Muscarello ran into the road and stopped an oncoming car for help. The driver took him to the Exeter police station, and a patrolman named Eugene Bertrand drove back to the scene with him to see what the ruckus was about. The cop saw the lights, too — as did a second officer who he had called for backup.

Pretty cool, right? Here's what the approximate location of the Incident at Exeter looks like now, from our drive to the site:

Incident at Exeter

photo by Dan Laureano

The fest itself, held over Labor Day weekend each year, commemorates the above incident to the day, while the mysterious tale of Betty and Barney Hill occurred four years earlier. While on the road returning to Portsmouth from up north, the couple experienced an encounter much more terrifying even than Muscarello's. They say they not only saw what appeared to be a ship, but they blacked out and lost time, their watches stopped, and their clothes became torn.

Their niece, Kathleen Marden, was 13 when her Aunt Betty called her mother the next day to relay the experience. Marden has become a prominent ufologist in her own right, and seems like the closest thing to experiencer royalty for her proximity to such a famous case. She's written numerous books on the subject, but the one that sold out at the festival was her recounting of her family's tale, Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience.


photo by Jean Pauly

"When my aunt and uncle arrived home, they took a nap, and when they woke up, my aunt called my mother," says Marden, who says she had just gotten home from school that fateful afternoon. Her aunt was concerned, says Marden, "that the craft had come so close to them they might have been exposed to radiation."

Marden's aunt also noticed new shiny spots on the trunk of their car, at the same location they had heard an intense buzzing sound during the encounter the night before. Marden and her parents and two brothers soon went to the Hills' home to hear the story. "I saw the spots," says Marden. "I held the watches."

Asked if she believed her family had been singled out for any reason or purpose, Marden put more stock in their significance than her aunt and uncle had: "Betty and Barney had the opinion that they just happened to be in the right place at the right time, or you could say the wrong time. I believe it is more than coincidence."

As ufologist Peter Robbins, the MC of this year's fest, explains to me, Exeter is just one star in a growing constellation of UFO conventions and festivals around the country. A few others: May's convention in Portland, Oregon; a June gathering in Pinebush, N.Y.; and the MUFON Symposium, which this year took place in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

"Over the past decades, aliens have so deeply ingrained themselves into popular culture," Robbins says. "Even in the back of the minds of the most hardened skeptics, even the most conservative astronomers, they know that the universe is teeming with life."

UFO Convention Goers.JPG

photo by Jean Pauly

Want to take your own road trip to a UFO fest or convention? Next up is the Greater New England UFO Conference in Leominster, Massachusetts, October 5-6. And if you miss that, start planning now for next summer: UFOs (fests) are all around you.