UNCW professor garners international attention for UFO research

Dr. Diana Walsh Pasulka is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. (Courtesy Photo)

WILMINGTON — Is the truth out there? Even if it is, the study of UFOs was long considered a professional risk until Ralph Blumenthal and Leslie Kean’s coverage of the Pentagon’s black-budget research program brought unprecedented legitimacy to the topic in December 2017.

And yet, that didn’t stop Dr. Diana Walsh Pasulka — a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington — from exploring the subject for herself as early as 2012.

Well before there were headlines about UFO whistleblowers or congressional hearings, Pasulka was cataloging reports of unexplained aerial phenomena, not from the remote areas of New Mexico but rather in the skies over medieval and Renaissance Europe. At the time, she was researching for what would later become “Heaven Can Wait,” her book about the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.

“I didn’t know what these things were — I thought they were strange — but they happened in every time period, and the patterns were consistent,” Pasulka said. “When I was finished with my book, I showed this log to a colleague of mine, and he said they looked just like UFOs.”

Despite being caught off guard by the striking similarities between the aerial phenomena of Europe’s past and the flying saucers of today, Pasulka was no stranger to the subject. As a professor of religious studies, she was already familiar with several UFO religions, including the Nation of Islam, Raëlism and Heaven’s Gate. 

“The field of religious studies is perfect for this,” said Pasulka. “As academics, we don’t weigh in on the truth or the falseness of any of these claims, so it’s pretty easy for us to look at the belief in UFOs.”

As soon as her focus shifted from Catholic history to the belief in UFOs, Pasulka quickly gained insight into the government’s secret research programs, which were only later revealed to the public by Blumenthal and Kean. She was even taken to an alleged UFO crash retrieval site in New Mexico by “Tyler,” one of the many anonymous yet influential scientists who make up what she now refers to as the “UFO Fight Club.”

“I couldn’t believe that people with these credentials believed in this,” said Pasulka. “At the time, I was a complete disbeliever, and I wanted to know why people believed in something we had absolutely no proof for; that was my premise. And what I found out was that the government had actually been studying this for a long time. This was more shocking than any belief in ETs.”

Driven by this new curiosity, Pasulka began chronicling the behaviors of an array of successful scientists, tech entrepreneurs and academics, all of whom believe in the existence of nonhuman intelligences. She examined how technology and media contribute to the way people interpret this recurring phenomenon and how these interpretations are ushering in “a new form of religion,” one that is thriving on the digital infrastructure of today. The culmination of her six years of field research, “American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology,” was published by Oxford University Press in February 2019.

“I knew I had to do this with Oxford because it was such a stigmatized field of knowledge,” said Pasulka. “They put me through a lot of rigorous credibility checks, as well as my sources, and they found no problem at all. You can’t get any more airtight than that.”

Since the release of her latest book, Pasulka has come to be regarded as an expert on the UFO phenomenon, garnering attention from academics, government officials, scientists and experiencers from around the world. In December 2020, she made an appearance on the popular “Lex Fridman Podcast,” an episode that now has more than 1.3 million views on YouTube alone. She has even been asked to write the entry on UFOs for the Oxford Encyclopedia, as well as do manuscript review for Routledge and Cambridge University Press.

“People want to know what is happening, and so they are coming to me because I’m not telling them that we are in touch with Pleiadeans,” joked Pasulka. “I’m telling them exactly what I know, which is that the government’s been studying this, and pilots have seen things that they can’t explain.”

Notwithstanding Pasulka’s growing notoriety, life for her remains that of a typical university professor. When she isn’t giving interviews, Pasulka is teaching courses, writing books and securing grants to do service work around Brunswick and Pembroke counties. She is also the mother of five teenagers.

“People just need to know that I’m a normal professor, doing the normal professor-type things,” laughed Pasulka. “I’m a busy mom and a busy professor, and I’m just trying to keep up with it all.”

Pasulka’s next book, “Encounters: Experiences with Nonhuman Intelligences,” is set to be released this November.

About Griffin Daughtry 10 Articles
Griffin Daughtry is the Business & Features Editor for the North State Journal.