From Roswell to ‘E.T.,’ ‘The X-Files’ and Modern UFO Videos, How Our Obsession With Aliens Evolved Through the Decades
From 1950s alien invasion tales to modern UFO videos, the human fascination with aliens builds, and changes, with each generation. Photo: Aaron Foster / The Image Bank via Getty Images
This weekend (Saturday June 11) marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Steven Spielberg’s classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. To mark the occasion — as well as this week’s announcement that NASA is moving forward with a team to study unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs) — we revisit our June 2021 exploration of how the human fascination with aliens has been shaped by social, political and pop culture influences throughout the decades.
There’s a video on YouTube that begins in a secure room at the Pentagon, where two agents from the U.S. National Security Agency interview three Americans who “experienced the first verified case of alien abduction.”
The first witness notes: “I came to and saw a beautiful being made of a beautiful calming light.” The second witness adds that a similar being “touched my head and I felt every emotion in its purest form. I cried.” The third witness, however, reveals an entirely different experience. “I woke up in a dirty metal dome and 40 little grey aliens watched me pee in a steel bowl … I don’t think I was dealing with the top brass.”
Far from a secret Pentagon investigation, the video is actually a hilarious 2015 Saturday Night Live sketch, in which two people (played by Cecily Strong and Canuck Ryan Gosling) describe a vastly more dignified alien abduction experience than the third, played by Kate McKinnon.
The sketch became an instant classic, as much for McKinnon’s unparalleled comic delivery in recounting her humiliating alien abduction as for everyone else’s inability (especially Gosling) to keep a straight face through it. But the sketch also illustrates how the idea of aliens visiting Earth was, until recently, most often played for laughs.
In fact, when was the last time you even heard someone claim to see a UFO, or get abducted by aliens? Such stories — once the fodder of supermarket tabloids and “investigative” TV specials — have all but disappeared in recent years, packed away in the cultural attic with other outdated generational fascinations like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster and Elvis sightings.
According to Stuart Walton, a cultural historian who spoke with The Guardian in 2018, “Belief in UFOs is definitely in a state of decline, along with much else that could be classed as paranormal. Part of the reason is that the technology for providing documentary evidence of such matters is now widely available to everybody with a smartphone, and such purported evidence as there is on YouTube looks extremely threadbare.”
In other words, pics or it didn’t happen.
Conversely, UFO researcher David Clarke told The Boston Globe in 2016 that, “I think there are just as many people who believe that these things happen,” but, “that they’ve retreated from public view” to online forums to share their beliefs among themselves.
The chatter around UFOs, however, began growing exponentially again after reports surfaced in 2017 that the U.S. Department of Defence (DOD) maintained an Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program from 2007-2012 which, the New York Times reported, “produced documents that describe sightings of aircraft that seemed to move at very high velocities with no visible signs of propulsion, or that hovered with no apparent means of lift.”
In 2020, the DOD released three videos shot by Navy fighter jets — from 2004 and 2015 — that show UAPs (unexplained aerial phenomenon) following previous leaks of such footage. In a statement accompanying the videos, the DOD noted that they released the tapes “to clear up any misconceptions by the public on whether or not the footage that has been circulating was real. The aerial phenomena observed in the videos remain characterized as ‘unidentified.’”
And at the end of this month, the Pentagon is expected to release a report on the UAPs though, as many are already cautioning, the likelihood of the report revealing the existence of alien life visiting Earth is slim.
Aliens: A Generational Perspective
Still, our innate fascination with UFOs and alien lifeforms — be they little green men or hostile Martians — has evolved and shifted throughout generations.
Most historians agree that it began in and around the 1950s, though one might argue that Orson Welles’ famed War of the Worlds radio broadcast — which aired on Halloween night in 1938 and, as the story goes, tricked terrified Americans across the country into believing an actual Martian invasion was occurring (though some now claim that stories of the “hysteria” are greatly overblown) — had a hand in planting the seed for the idea of aliens visiting Earth.
In 1947, the discovery of what the Air Force claimed to be a weather balloon by a sheep farmer in Roswell, N.M., ignited the theory that not only had aliens visited Earth, but they also crash-landed and were hidden by the U.S. government.
Following that, as the Boston Globe explained in 2016, “Space exploration in the 1950s and ’60s forced the country to admit that a vast unknown lay beyond our atmosphere — at the same time, the Cold War inspired existential fear of invasion.”
The 1960s and ’70s, the Globe added, brought “horizon-broadening mysticism, publicized experimentation with drugs — people talked about out-of-body experiences. The 1980s saw an explosion of angst around ‘stranger danger,’ with near-constant reports of child abduction and sexual molestation, and then, recovered and repressed memory. Alien abduction stories absorbed those strains, re-inventing them as anal probes and sinister hybrid breeding programs.”
In effect, then, each generation unknowingly projected their own fascinations, fears and insecurities into the cosmos, only to have them come back to Earth in the form of ideas about aliens of varying temperaments and motives.
Conspiracy theories centred on Area 51 and photos of “aliens” splashed across supermarket tabloids, while pop culture depictions of alien lifeforms — from Star Trek to Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mork & Mindy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and many others — dominated popular culture. Just as Paul Simon sang that “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,” they each also tossed their own extraterrestrials up into the night sky.
The ‘90s: The Alien (Pop Culture) Invasion
By the 1990s — nearly 60 years after the War of the Worlds radio broadcast — our perspective on aliens largely abandoned the tinges of fear and conspiracy once associated with extraterrestrials.
Instead, aliens were discussed with a wink and a smirk — a subject to be treated with the same seriousness as flat-Earth conspiracies. And in popular culture, perhaps more than in any other decade, aliens became the creature du jour on which to pin everything from sitcoms to sci-fi thrillers.
To start, The X-Files proved one of the most popular television shows of the decade, premiering in 1993 and running for nine seasons while spawning two feature films, two revival seasons between 2016 and 2018, and various spinoffs and multimedia crossovers — all while popularizing the mantra that “The Truth Is Out There.”
Meanwhile, the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun — about an alien family posing as humans to study their habits — kicked off its six-season run in 1996.
And, of course, there was the infamous 1995 Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction special on Fox, which purported to show the 1947 government medical examination of an alien recovered from Roswell (the creators later admitted to fabricating the footage, though they maintain it was based on real footage that they saw but that had since decomposed).
Elsewhere, the big screen also proved fertile ground for aliens. Will Smith enjoyed a box office bonanza with both Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997), NBA legend Michael Jordan teamed up with his Looney Tunes pals for an intergalactic basketball showdown in Space Jam (1996) and Sigourney Weaver added two more films to the Alien franchise — Alien 3 (1992) and Alien Resurrection (1997).
In fact, aliens proved to be incredibly versatile entertainers in the ’90s. We had comedic aliens (Coneheads; Lost in Space; Galaxy Quest; Muppets From Space), introspective aliens (Contact); sexy aliens (Species); exhilarating aliens (Stargate; The Fifth Element; Starship Troopers; The X-Files: Fight the Future) and, well, whatever you consider Mars Attacks!. The 1996 Tim Burton blockbuster — a take-off on bad 1950s sci-fi films — featured an A-list cast including Jack Nicholson, Annette Bening, Glenn Close, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox and many more in the story of a Martian invasion of Earth that became the decade’s most high-profile alien-related box office disappointment. It currently holds a 54 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
In the ’90s, even a simple trip to the grocery store led to the inundation of aliens on the covers of tabloids like Weekly World News, which obsessed over the creatures and their “dealings” with President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton. Mother Jones compiled the years-long parade of absurd stories and described them as “the Clintons’ political alliances and personal dalliances with extraterrestrials, including Hillary’s on-again, off-again boyfriend P’Lod.”
The Cusp of an Alien Renaissance?
Whether you want to blame it on the internet, better technology, or perhaps even the flop of another conspiracy — the supposed Y2K crash that, thankfully, never materialized — our general willingness to consider a threat bigger than our planet began to wane as we celebrated the new millennium. After all, it was the year 2000 — the advanced age described in sci-fi lore for decades — and we were now the collective millennium race. We had 21st century horizons to conquer — flying cars and hoverboards and transporter machines — and didn’t have time to indulge in silly 20th century fables like UFOs.
But now, the buzz around DOD UFO videos and the impending release of the Pentagon report could ignite a resurgence of alien interest.
And that’s despite Reuters reporting earlier this month that the New York Times got a sneak peak at the Pentagon report and said that “U.S. intelligence officials found no evidence that unidentified aerial phenomena observed by Navy aviators in recent years were alien spacecraft, but the sightings remain unexplained.”
That the “sightings remain unexplained,” however, is the key point. With movements and manoeuvres that largely defy the abilities of known aircraft, the lack of answers certainly leaves the door open to the alien hypothesis.
The New York Times reporting also says that American officials showed “concern” that “China or Russia could be experimenting with hypersonic technology.” And Lue Elizondo — who formerly worked with the U.S. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and as a Counterintelligence Special Agent — told 60 Minutes in May that the UFOs/UAPs could be a new Chinese cruise missile, or a reconnaissance balloon.
However, he noted, “Ultimately when you have exhausted all those what ifs and you’re still left with the fact that this is in our airspace and it’s real, that’s when it becomes compelling and that’s when it becomes problematic.”
And it’s in the dust of all those exhausted “what if’s” that the alien hypothesis flourishes. The timing, meanwhile, couldn’t be better.
To start, let’s not discount the idea that being isolated for more than a year during a pandemic has left some longing to hitch a ride to another part of the galaxy via UFO.
As well, over the last two decades, society-altering events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2008 financial crisis and dire warnings about climate change turned our attention to far more real, immediate human threats.
But within the last year, the successful SpaceX rocket launch, the Mars rover landing — including the incredible sights and sounds it beamed back to Earth — and billionaire Jeff Bezos’ intention to ride on his rocket company’s first space flight next month all reignited the public’s interest in outer space.
And it’s only human instinct that, when we look long enough at the stars, we eventually start to wonder who, or what, is looking back at us.
To that end, the dual discoveries of water on the moon last year and on Mars this year lend credence to the very realistic possibility of life on other planets. To quote Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.”
And if there is life on other planets, who’s to say that that life isn’t advanced enough to build a spacecraft and come visit us?
Even Barack Obama told James Corden recently that the first question he asked when he became president in 2008 was, “Is there the lab somewhere where we’re keeping the alien specimens and spaceship?”
He said that the answer was “No” — though it’s not like he’d spill the beans on classified info to a late-night talk show host anyway.
Obama did, however, tell a New York Times podcast that he wants to know more about UFOs and that, if aliens were proven to exist, “I would hope that the knowledge that there were aliens out there would solidify people’s sense that what we have in common is a little more important.” He added, “We’re just a bunch of humans with doubts and confusion. We do the best we can. And the best thing we can do is treat each other better because we’re all we’ve got.”
So, rather than aliens probing humans, perhaps proof of the existence of aliens would prompt humans to conduct a deeper, more existential probe, if you will, of our own collective humanity.
Still, for those who remain skeptical about aliens overall, just remember: we live in a world where harbouring conspiracy theories like blaming wildfires on Jewish space lasers doesn’t get you shunned from society. In fact, they can actually help get you elected to U.S. Congress.
And compared to Jewish space lasers, the notion of aliens from other planets visiting Earth suddenly doesn’t sound so far-fetched.
A version of this story was originally published in June 2021.