The Ariel Phenomenon took place in September 1994, when more than 60 children at a school in Ruwa, Zimbabwe claimed that a UFO visited them during recess.
In September 1994, a strange story emerged from the tiny community of Ruwa in Zimbabwe. There, 62 children at the prestigious Ariel School reported seeing flying silver discs land in a nearby field. According to the children, bizarre creatures emerged from the discs and spoke to them in what came to be known as the Ariel Phenomenon.
The creatures were allegedly humanlike but had waxy skin and large, penetrating eyes. What’s more, the children reported that the creatures communicated through thoughts, not spoken words, urging them telepathically to protect Earth’s environment.
A number of adults soon investigated the children’s claims, including UFO expert Cynthia Hind, Harvard professor of psychiatry John E. Mack, and the BBC. But while some see the Ariel Phenomenon as compelling proof of extraterrestrial life, others see it as a prime example of mass hysteria.
This eyebrow-raising incident has recently been reexamined in the documentary Ariel Phenomenon (2022). But what exactly happened at the school in 1994 is still a matter of great debate.
What The Children At The Ariel School Saw
The Ariel School Phenomenon unfolded on Sept. 16, 1994, in Ruwa, Zimbabwe, a community so small that it was sometimes described as more of a crossroad than a town. There had been a lot of alleged UFO sightings in the previous days, but nothing would match what dozens of school children claimed to see during an otherwise normal school day.
Around 10 a.m., the children went outside for a midmorning break. But as they were playing near the school building, something in the distance caught their attention. As the children later told adults, they saw silvery round discs.
“It looked like it was glinting in the trees. It looked like a disc. Like a round disc,” one of the children told the BBC a few days later. Another recalled seeing “something silver…amongst the trees” as well as “a person in black.”
Most of the adults were indoors for a faculty meeting and learned about what the children had allegedly seen once the meeting ended. As IFL Science reports, the teachers were skeptical, and continued the school day as normal. But then the children went home and told their parents.
Some children described what they’d seen as aliens; others believed they were zvikwambo, the evil goblins of Shona and Ndebele folklore. And their parents, who paid the Ariel School’s expensive tuition, were determined to learn what had actually happened.
They weren’t the only ones. Soon, the Ariel School phenomenon attracted the attention of UFO expert Cynthia Hind.
Cynthia Hind’s Visit To The Ariel School
Cynthia Hind had been keeping a close eye on alleged extraterrestrial sightings in southern Africa. In September 1994, multiple people had reported seeing lights streaking across the sky, and several had claimed that they’d actually crossed paths with aliens. But then Hind got wind of something big that had happened at the Ariel School.
Hind went to the school and interviewed the children about what had happened. In groups of two to six, they told her what they’d witnessed, and sketched out drawings of the “alien” and the “UFO.”
“[I] could see the little man (about a meter tall) was dressed in a black, shiny suit; that he had long black hair and his eyes, which seemed lower on the cheek than our eyes, were large and elongated,” one student identified as Guy G. explained, according to the Mail & Guardian. “The mouth was just a slit and the ears were hardly discernible.”
Hind believed the children’s claims were credible. Since they lived in a rural environment, Hind argued, they wouldn’t have seen many depictions of aliens in movies or TV. She called upon a Harvard professor named John Mack to help her investigation, and Mack would find that the aliens allegedly did much more than just land on the school grounds.
What The Students Told Dr. John E. Mack
Mack, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, had previously been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his 1977 study, Lawrence of Arabia, A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence. In the early 1990s, however, Mack took an interest in alien abductions, publishing his bestselling book, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (1994).
His interest in aliens had caused problems for him. As IFL Science reports, Mack had recently been investigated by Harvard for giving “credence” to a patient who believed that they had had an extraterrestrial encounter. But in Ruwa, Mack’s beliefs helped him bond with the children.
While speaking to the psychiatrist, the children opened up even more about what they’d experienced during their alleged alien encounter. Significantly, they told Mack that the aliens had communicated with them telepathically and had urged them to protect Earth’s environment.
“He never said anything,” one girl said when Mack asked how the aliens had transmitted their message. “It was just the eyes.” When asked what “sense” she’d gotten from the alien’s eyes, the girl added: “He was interested.”
A fifth-grade student named Francis told Mack that the figures had warned him that “pollution mustn’t be.” And another student named Emma explained: “I think they want people to know that we’re actually making harm on this world and we mustn’t get too technologed [sic].”
In the decades since, many of the children of the Ariel School have stuck to their story. They insist that the Ariel School Phenomenon truly happened, and, on that day in September 1994, they crossed paths with alien beings.
But some believe that there’s a much simpler explanation.
Did The Ariel Phenomenon Really Happen?
To skeptics, the Ariel Phenomenon can be easily explained. For starters, Hind recorded a number of UFO sightings in the days immediately before the incident at the school, but the light show that people noticed was actually the re-entry of the Zenit-2 rocket from the Cosmos 2290 satellite launch.
According to Skeptoid, Hind’s claim that the children would not know about aliens was also likely false. Ruwa was a small community but closely situated to the thriving metropolis of Harare. Plus, the children came from affluent families and would have had access to popular media.
Given this, it’s likely that the children could have heard about the alleged UFO sightings that preceded the Ariel School Phenomenon. And since Hind interviewed them in groups of two to six, the children could have picked up cues from each other — explaining their similar stories.
They may have also picked up cues from Mack. As Skeptoid notes, Mack was a known environmental activist. And it wasn’t until after his interviews that the children claimed that the aliens had transmitted an anti-pollution message. They hadn’t mentioned that to Hind.
So did the Ariel Phenomenon truly happen? Like many alleged extraterrestrial encounters, it seems to depend on who you ask. Mack, Hind, and many of the children certainly believed that aliens visited the Ariel School in 1994. Others are more likely to label it as mass hysteria.
In the decades since, there’s been plenty of buzz about aliens, UFOs, and unexplained encounters. These, and the Ariel Phenomenon, raise the pressing question that humanity still hasn’t answered — the question of whether there’s life beyond the stars.
For more standout UFO sightings, read about the 1994 Lake Michigan incident, where hundreds of people reported seeing strange lights in the sky. Or, read about the 1969 Berkshire UFO incident that shook a small town in Massachusettes to its core.