Unarius Academy of Science
At some point during 1992, Jello Biafra and I travelled to El Cajon, California, to shoot a short documentary about the Unarius Academy of Science for a Showtime pilot I was directing. The Unarius Academy of Science is a colorful (and quite harmless) UFO cult with their own cable access show, and is housed across the street from both a center for recovering drug addicts and a plasma center where you can sell your blood for cash. A Foster’s Freeze was a block or two away. There isn’t much of anything else going on there. Just a bunch of empty parking lots and an occasional unoccupied building, some threadbare thrift stores and a funeral home. Not to say it was a ghost town, but minus the Unarians, and the junkies, in this part of town, there was almost no one else around.
And to a certain extent, that might be the reason that people joined the cult-like group in the first place: because there is next to nothing to do in El Cajon which isn’t related to gang activities, drug dealing, burglaries, car theft and crime in general. El Cajon’s crime rate is three times the national average. There are very few legitimate jobs for the people who live there, even at the best of times. Maybe to find a little solace in a cruel universe that dealt them the shitty hand of ending up in El Cajon, might be an explanation for the goofy cult’s appeal.
But then again, maybe nothing can adequately explain it.
The Unarius Academy of Science was formed by Ernest and Ruth Norman, a couple of dotty New Agers, in the mid-1950s. Unarius is an acronym which stands for UNiversal ARticulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science. The story I heard was that Norman was a traveling psychic medium who put grieving WWII widows in touch with their dead husbands and Ruth was one of his clients. One of his wealthier clients, whose dead husband had left her a restaurant chain, or so the story went…
The two met and were married within weeks. Soon Ernest would start self-publishing channeled books and they began having public meetings in Glendale, CA, ultimately publishing over 100 books and garnering several hundred followers. After Ernest’s death in 1971, Ruth Norman moved Unarius’s activities to the San Diego suburb of El Cajon, where she also bought up several parcels of land so that a landing strip could be built for the “Space Brothers,” of whom, Archangel Uriel (as Ruth Norman now called herself) was their emissary on Earth.
Uriel taught that beings outside of our direct experience and comprehension exist—she was one of them—and one day the “Space Brothers” will land on Earth and help us evolve, turn deserts into vegetable fields, stop wars and improve our architecture. In the early 80s, “The Arrival,” an elaborate, seemingly high budget film about the “Space Brothers” showing up in the year 2001 was produced by the group, allegedly with the help of someone who worked for George Lucas doing special effects on the Star Wars films.
As I understand it, the Unarian cosmology of the “Space Brothers” describes 33 planets that would simultaneously send ambassadors in spaceships that would lock together and form a futuristic city.
In the early 80s, certain members of the cult began to take an interest in making a cable access television program promoting the group’s beliefs: “Everything is energy.” “You, as a form of indestructible energy, possess a soul that has recorded data from past lives.” “All happenings to you currently have their origins in past lives and past actions.” “Negative acts must be compensated for by positive acts.” And best of all, Asians are Martians and vice versa (Unarians are not racists, this is seen as a good thing, i.e. proof that the aliens have been here for millennia!). The “star” of these programs, naturally was Uriel/Ruth Norman, who took to wearing clothing that would make Liberace blush, often made with Christmas tree lights that needed to be plugged in, thereby awkwardly limiting her mobility.
These programs made it as far as New York’s cable access weirdo’s home, Channel J. I used to have dozens of them on tape (which were tragically all stolen, along with the camera originals of the shoot with Biafra, from a car parked in the old Playboy building in Beverly Hills. Who would steal hand-labeled tapes?). Some of the shows would just be Uriel talking to her followers and others would be like super low budget “psychodramas”—think Kuchar Brothers, early John Waters, Andy Milligan, etc.
These “psychodramas” were unfuckingbelievable, featuring full outer space costumes, zany make-up and and batshit crazy scenarios. For instance, Uriel might decide that a certain Unarian had been a murderous space captain or an evil sea serpent in a past life. So the group would do these semi-improvised and somewhat elaborate plays, that were designed to “drastically relive” these past lives, so that the Unarian follower would be freed from their karma (more or less). In the one with the sea serpent, they literally videotaped it next to a swimming pool and several people got into a crappy aquatic dragon suit fashioned from floating pool furniture and innertubes and swam around as the rest of them held a trial and passed judgement on the “creature.” A lot of their psychodramas had the trial by jury aspect to them. Holy shit were they tweaked.
Biafra and I never did get to meet Ruth Norman herself, her health didn’t permit it, but he did speak to her on camera via a speakerphone. The next morning, in their parking lot, we shot their Interplanetary Confederation Day, where far fewer than 33 Unarians marched around in a circle with fewer than 33 banners representing the (hilariously named) 33 planets who were supposed to supply all 33,000 of the Space Brothers in 2001. A tin spaceship contained 33 white doves who were supposed to spill out into the sky at the ceremony’s climax, but they didn’t figure on it being as hot as it was on the day and many of the birds could barely dribble out of the thing. Many probably fried inside as the fully-costumed Unarians marched around their parking lot to the amusement of the folks, like myself, who were there to gawk at them in amazement. Spectacular it wasn’t.
This year’s Interplanetary Confederation Day happens today, October 15th. Frankly, I’m just amazed that 16 years after Ruth Norman’s death that the cult still exists.
The clips above this point in the post all come from the Unarius organization itself (via Everything is Terrible) and all date from the 1980s. Many of the people in these clips were around when we shot there in 1993. Take a close look at the faces in the older clips and note how many are still involved with the group today, in Bill Ingsgate’s recent three-part documentary on the group, embedded below. It’s weird to see people I recall being in their 20s and 30s, now in their late 40s and 50s. What’s even weirder is that they never grew out of their quirky belief systems after the complete and total failure of Uriel’s predictions about the arrival of the Space Brothers in 2001.
If you think of them as characters straight out of a Daniel Clowes comic, it might make more sense.