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After two-year hiatus, UFO festival touches back down in Exeter

Skeptics and believers alike — many clad in alien-shaped sunglasses, antennae headbands and limited-run T-shirts — descended on Exeter this weekend for the town’s annual UFO Festival.

Saturday’s crowd was full of excitement for the extraterrestrial attractions, which returned to Exeter after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19. Two self-proclaimed believers, Bristol and Ian Rice, brought their two dogs, Remy and Lucy, decked out in glitter and green bows.

“We've been sad to miss out on it for the last few years because of the pandemic,” Bristol Rice said. “It’s fun. There's got to be something else out there.”

This year marks the 57th anniversary of 18-year-old Norman Muscarello’s sighting of an unidentified flying object, which came to be known as the "Incident at Exeter.” The festival offered trolley rides to the site of the event in nearby Kensington, where the historic plot now houses a horse farm.

Dean Merchant, who helped start the festival in 2009 with his wife Pamela, said the event has grown a lot over the years. At first, he said, some thought it was too silly — but now, people have a lot of fun.

Merchant, a UFOlogist, said the area around the festival is a hotspot for sightings. But he’s never had an encounter himself.

“I would love to see one, but if I do, I want all the bells and whistles,” he said. “I don't necessarily think I want to go aboard it. I'm not sure about that.”

Connie Cox, who helps run the festival through the town’s Kiwanis club, was excited by the large crowd and the mix of patrons. Some came all the way from Oregon, Canada and even England, she said.

“There's many, many people who believe, have very strong feelings about this and they all come for all the information they can get to share their experiences,” she said. “And then others just come because it's fun.”

This year’s event continues the Merchants’ initial intent: raising funds for local children’s programs. Cox said the event is the Kiwanis club’s biggest fundraiser, with the money going towards local efforts like scholarships and efforts to end hunger.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.

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