At some point in the fall of 1992 Jello Biafra and I travelled to El Cajon, California with a small camera crew 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, no hint of a Heaven’s Gate vibe) UFO cult with their own cable access show, and was at that time housed across the street from both a center for recovering drug addicts/methadone clinic and a sleazy plasma center where you could sell your blood for cash. A Foster’s Freeze was a block or two away. There wasn’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 seemed to be almost no one else around.
To a certain extent, that might be the reason that people joined the cult 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 some of the town’s residents looking for a little solace from a cruel universe that dealt them the shitty hand of ending up in El Cajon, might be an explanation for the goofy cult’s local 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 to the San Diego suburb of El Cajon, where she also bought up several parcels of now valuable real estate 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.
The Unarian cosmology predicted that 33 planets would simultaneously send ambassadors in spacecraft that would lock together and form a futuristic city. Uriel taught that beings outside of our direct experience and comprehension exist—she was one of them!—and that one day the Space Brothers will help us silly humans 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.
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!
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 inner tubes and swam around as the rest of them held a trial and passed judgement on the “creature.” A lot of their psychodramas had a “trial by jury” aspect to them. Holy shit were they tweaked.
These programs made it as far as New York’s cable access weirdo 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 inside the old Playboy building in Beverly Hills. Who would steal goddamned hand-labeled tapes?)
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 who would arrive here in 2001. A tin spaceship contained 33 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 most of the birds could barely dribble out of the thing. Some 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, but you had to admire their commitment in the face of mainly disinterest, secondarily people driving by and shouting insulting things at them the whole time and that it was boiling hot that day and they were all in their layered interplanetary garb.
I believe they still do the Interplanetary Confederation Day every year. Frankly, I’m just amazed that 20 years after Ruth Norman’s death that the cult still exists. But they do. And even with their leader long gone, her prophecies that didn’t even remotely come close to passing and the sheer pointlessness of the whole thing, the Unarians persist, although the ones who we met 22 years ago are a bit longer in the tooth now (aren’t we all?) What’s weird is that they never grew out of their quirky belief systems even after the Space Brothers failed to arrive—the WHOLE THING that their belief system hinged on—in 2001. Uriel herself was supposed to return then, too. She didn’t even send a text!
If you think of the Unarians as characters straight out of a Daniel Clowes comic, it might make a little more sense.
This weekend at Cinefamily in Los Angeles, Jodi Wille, co-director of the acclaimed documentary on The Source Family hippie cult of the Sunset Strip has arranged a THREE DAY spectacular screening of rarely seen films and videos from Unarius. This “full-immersion” weekend includes core Unarius members onstage for live Q&As, the world theatrical premiere of Unarius’ 1979 film The Arrival, highlights from their massive archive of public access videos — plus a Unarius costume exhibit, Uriel’s space Cadillac, a pop-up reading room stocked with Unarian literature, workshops and tea house on Cinefamily’s back patio.
Here’s the trailer for the event:
The trailer for Bill Perrine’s feature-length Unarius documentary, Children of the Stars: