From Eclipsed Extraterrestrial Encounters to Illuminating Insights: Unveiling the 1966 Dexter/Hillsdale UFO Phenomenon through the Lens of Budding Filmmakers


“Aliens in the Arb” is the 2022 winter semester class project by Hillsdale College filmmakers about the 1966 Dexter/Hillsdale UFO sightings. Screenshot from the film.

Hillsdale College student filmmakers have shined a spotlight on the 1966 Southeast Michigan UFO incidents that gripped the nation and challenged government explanations.

Most of us by now are aware of Dexter’s famous UFO sightings of March 1966. What often gets lost in the story is the equally sensational UFO incident the next night in Hillsdale. Last year, students from Hillsdale College produced a short documentary on the event.

Professor Buddy Morehouse teaches documentary filmmaking at Hillsdale College. Students in Morehouse’s class learn the art of documentary filmmaking via short film assignments. All the projects relate to Hillsdale College—stories about the history, students, alums, and faculty.

“In addition to those smaller assignments, we do one big project every semester,” says Morehouse. “We try to find some fascinating historical story from the past that we can do a documentary about.”

Coeds from the McIntyre dorm witnessed the strange lights from their second floor window. Screenshot from the film.

In his first documentary filmmaking class, one of Morehouse’s students did a short film on the 1966 Hillsdale UFO sightings. Morehouse had never heard of the incident, and it piqued his interest. He chose the 1966 events as the 2022 winter semester class project.

Without giving too much of the 32-minute "Aliens in the Arb" documentary away, on March 21, 1966, the day after Dexter’s famous sightings, girls at McIntyre Residence at Hillsdale College witnessed flashing lights hovering over the 14-acre Slayton Arboretum. The students called William "Bud" VanHorn, Hillsdale County Civil Defense Director. Thinking it was headlights or something explainable, he advised them to observe it and let him know if it didn’t go away. When it didn’t, he summoned a city police car and two State Police units to investigate. He and the officers witnessed the strange phenomena, too. Word spread quickly, and about 150 people observed the phenomenon.

One of the outcomes of the Dexter/Hillsdale sightings was the public’s refusal to accept the government’s explanation of “marsh gas” against scores of credible testimonies.

Screenshot from the film.

“One of the big surprises for the students in making this film was seeing the extreme measures the government took to explain it away by calling it ‘swamp gas,’” says Morehouse.

“The other thing that was really interesting for the students was to see the kind of hysteria that this caused, particularly for Hillsdale,” adds Morehouse. “The UFO in Dexter got a lot of attention. Then the one in Hillsdale brought more attention to both UFO sightings. For pretty much the next week in Hillsdale, it was just crazy. People came from all over the country and camped out in the streets to see if it was going to make a reappearance. You had some fraternity boys shooting off fireworks to try and get people to think they were UFOs.”

While the student filmmakers couldn’t convince eyewitnesses to speak in their documentary, they interviewed Sally Phillips, whose father was Donald Phillips, College President, in 1966. Sally did not see the UFO, but she went out to Slayton Arboretum the next day and saw the object's circular mark in the field.

The film features many current and historical commentators. Author/Investigator Raymond Szymanski assesses the entire incident and flubbed government investigation from a historical standpoint. Filmmakers included a clip of VanHorn’s radio interview where he decries the swamp gas explanation. Clips from CBS Reports “UFOs: Friend, Foe, or Fantasy,” narrated by Walter Cronkite, explores the events of March 20 and 21 with eyewitness testimonies.

“It’s not like we’ve solved the mystery of what exactly it was,” says Morehouse. “But we can explain the various theories that other people have had as to what it might have been. All nine students in the class are absolutely convinced that it was something and not an illusion or kids playing pranks. It was definitely an unidentified flying object. It was there at night. What it was, we don’t know. But it was definitely something.”

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