Fire in the Sky

UFO theories are increasingly hijacked by the powers they’re meant to interrogate

On December 27, 2018, for about three whole minutes, the dark New York City skyline flashed an eerie aqua blue. People stood in the streets and looked out their windows at the strange glowing light, wondering (and possibly panicking) about the source, and unsurprisingly, many pulled out their phones. Instagram and Snapchat stories taken from all different parts of the city came pouring out, as did darkly comic speculations on Twitter about the possibilities of apocalypse, nuclear war and, of course, alien invasion. Coupled with these theories was the sentiment that at the end of a year marked by tumultuous national political events, abuse of power fully on display in every corner of society, and the knowledge of imminent climate catastrophe, would an extraterrestrial onslaught really be that outlandish? Even mainstream news anchors commented on the nonchalant attitude on display, as shown in a tweet by MSNBC’s Katy Tur: “Folks on Twitter reacting without surprise to the prospect of an alien invasion in NYC is peak 2018.”

After only a few minutes, the sky went dark, as if someone had flipped a light-switch on the world, and reports started trickling in that the source of the bright colorful aura was actually a transformer explosion at a nearby Con Edison power plant (it was later confirmed that it was even less-serious “electrical fault”). Attention turned away as quickly as it was captured, but that strange liminal moment, in which both disaster and wonder seemed equally likely, showcased an even stranger reaction: a collective shrug.

Post-Watergate, the nearly forgotten Roswell event became an instant emblem of a new paranoid age

People have been looking at wondrous, seemingly inexplicable things in the sky forever, and investigating the possibility of extraterrestrial life has only raised more questions about how we live our lives on Earth. Over the 20th century, UFO stories (and alien imagery in general) became a shorthand for the feeling that daily life isn’t all that it seems; that there are machinations at play that powerful people are eager to conceal. Such a feeling is not mistaken. If we trace the history of “unidentified flying objects” — or rather, the belief in them as alien spacecrafts attempting some sort of contact with human life — a story of a deteriorating American identity and fatalism under capitalism emerges.

UFO theories provide insight into newer, more incendiary conspiracy theories that have in various ways “gone mainstream.” Conspiracy theories offer a secret knowledge, which feels like a weapon against overbearing forces. But in an age of maximum knowledge, when paranoia is no longer the domain of niche communities but a symptom of day-to-day life, conspiracy theories are increasingly hijacked and weaponized by the very powers they’re meant to interrogate. UFO theories speak to the ultimate bind of conspiracy theories in the modern age: the stories that speak to our inner anxieties about our place in the world (or universe), the hunch that things are not quite right, and that truth is being hidden from us, are the same stories that keep us trapped in a state of powerlessness.

The first photograph of what would later be referred to as an “unidentified flying object” was taken on August 12, 1883 by Mexican astronomer Jose Bonilla. While working at Zacatecas Observatory he took a series of photographs through his telescope and was struck by the sight of hundreds of dark round objects crossing the face of the sun.

Bonilla may not have interpreted what he recorded to be otherworldly, but his inability to identify the objects left room for speculation and mystery. The photo documents have since been retrofitted by many believers as “proof” of extraterrestrials, but there have also been plausible explanations for his sighting: Researchers in 2011 posited that the objects may have been fragments of a billion-ton comet that had passed by, nearly hitting Earth. If they had collided, the researchers concluded, it would have been “probably an extinction event.” Thus, while this early photograph may not be evidence of extraterrestrial life, it speaks to what American conspiracy theories have done throughout their history: offer an illusion of control over an intractable reality.

Not long after Bonilla’s report, more sightings of mysterious aircrafts — reported by everyday people, not just scientists with telescopes — prompted wider interest, laying the groundwork for UFO mythology. Through the 1880s and 1890s, sightings of phantom airships, often described as “cigar” or “sausage” shaped and accompanied by flashing lights, were reported worldwide. These stories were typically published by less legitimate, “yellow” journalistic outlets and were routinely dismissed by more reputable journalists as hoaxes. As the field of UFO study began to grow in the 20th century, however, they received more interest, with later researchers claiming that such sightings should not have been dismissed so easily.

During World War II, Allied pilots in both the European and Pacific theaters reported sightings of unidentifiable aircrafts and bright lights they commonly referred to as “foo fighters.” The mainstream press worried that these were a new German weapon, and legitimate newspapers like the New York Times and Time reported on the “balls of fire” that followed pilots around and could not be destroyed or outmaneuvered. Mainstream interest lingered even after the war: In 1947, newspapers nationwide reported that a pilot named Kenneth Arnold had seen nine metallic flying objects near Mount Rainier, Washington, which he described as “like saucers skipped over water.” In 1948, a foreman named William Brazel discovered an unidentifiable wreckage in Roswell, New Mexico. Soon afterward, the United States Air Force conducted a series of investigations into aerial phenomena in an attempt to determine their origin and threat level. The most famous of these investigations, Project Blue Book, is credited with coining the term “unidentified flying object.”

The growth of the communications industry in the United States had a tremendous impact on the public’s belief in UFOs and extraterrestrial life. With national newswires expanding coverage of local events to a national scale, personal photographs and firsthand accounts gained legitimacy and helped solidify the image of UFOs in the public’s mind: local newspaper stories, such as photographs taken by Paul and Evelyn Trent in McMinnville, Oregon, were picked up by national news services and circulated widely. This period marked a shift from ridicule to legitimacy for UFOs in the media — in 1952, Life published a major story on UFOs called “Have We Visitors from Space?” — as well as a demonstration of the virality of the UFO as an image. Familiarity with the concept of UFOs was so prevalent that an August 1947 Gallup poll found 90 percent of respondents claimed to have heard the term “flying saucer.” Most, however, believed there were earthly explanations for their appearances.

While the mainstream press entertained, at least for hyperbole’s sake, the idea that UFOs were extraterrestrial in origin, most legitimate news sources were reluctant to posit such theories. What they did was circulate the UFO as a meme, which lent itself neatly to the imaginations of a reading public. While Time might have concluded that UFOs were likely secret military aircrafts, a logical explanation that still spoke to an underlying conspiracy, the same decade saw the rise of a popular trope and a genre, to which social and political anxieties attached.

In the 1950s and ’60s, self-published UFO zines began to circulate that proposed theories of extraterrestrial life, while providing illustrations of how this life might appear. Many of their creators also worked for science-fiction magazines, and their work helped standardize a “look” that blurred the lines between what readers understood as real and fake. Mechanical illustrators like Frank Tinsley and Donald Keyhoe, contributing to popular books, imagined what actual UFO machine technology would look like, injecting realism into the idea of flying saucers. Such images formalized a set of implications as well: the concept of extraterrestrial beings expertly harnessing technology and exploring the universe without limits created the possibility that humans might one day as well. 

The early-to-mid 1950s also produced many influential science-fiction films about aliens arriving on Earth in a spacecraft, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing From Another World (1951), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). These films have been interpreted by critics and historians as thematically addressing the anxiety of the McCarthy era: The simultaneous fear of invasion by outsiders, coupled with fear of restrictions on individual autonomy. Government and authoritative control, and paranoia in general, would soon become a defining feature of UFO belief, and UFOs would become a meme shorthand for government distrust and embracing paranoiac uncanniness. The more metaphorical power UFOs acquired, the more invested people became in theorizing their existence; the more they wanted to believe.

Up until the 1970s, UFOs were a familiar part of the American cultural imagination, a symbol of technological advancement and otherworldly possibility, whether one believed they were real or not. It wasn’t until after the U.S. government abandoned inquiries into the existence (and potential threat) of flying saucers that UFOs collided with conspiracy theories. After Project Blue Book was officially terminated in December 1969, investigations into UFOs became the responsibility of independent researchers: dedicated enthusiasts, as well as scientists working without institutional support and academic practices like peer review. Although derided as pseudoscience, their work ignited a new era of UFO discourse and cultural production, uniting a nascent community of believers who believed that the government, in ceasing their own investigations, had something to hide.

In 1978, ufologist Stanton Friedman interviewed Jesse Marcel, a U.S. Air Force Major who was involved in collecting debris from the now-infamous Roswell flying saucer crash. The Roswell event had not been considered controversial at the time, the official Air Force explanation having been a weather balloon crash. But in a post-Watergate landscape, where conspiracies were not just objects of speculation, but actually revealing themselves on national TV, the nearly forgotten event became an instant emblem of a new paranoid age.

Another significant phenomenon that began around this time was the spread of alien abduction accounts. These stories typically involved people reporting alien visitation to their homes, or encounters with spacecrafts outdoors, that resulted in capture. Narratives would vary, but some themes include abductees losing control over their bodies and potentially experiencing paralysis, being taken onto a spacecraft and medically examined against their will, psychic communication with their alien captors, and a sense of lost time or memory. Early highly-publicized accounts set the stage for what became a more common tabloid story, namely the abduction of Betty and Barney Hill in 1961: In a six-hour interview with Daniel Keyhoe, the Hills recounted their experience being followed by a large, silent spacecraft while driving late at night in New Hampshire. When the couple got out of the car to see the craft, they allegedly lost consciousness, coming to dozens of miles away from the encounter site.

Sightings or abductions, while described as events that appear clearly traumatizing, also confirm the suspicion that such invisible authoritative powers exist

Abduction accounts have become their own paranormal narrative subgenre, to the extent that they are also frequently ridiculed by viewers of daytime talk shows and cable docuseries. And there is a significant amount of credible research that provides reasonable explanations for such experiences, from post-traumatic stress disorder to sleep paralysis. But for the people who claimed to have been abducted, the idea that there is a conspiracy to cover up their experience is part of their embodied lives, and intimately tied with conceptions of bodily autonomy, alienation, and powerlessness. As a result, strong communal bonds form among abduction survivors, facilitated by support groups that began being organized starting in the 1980s.

After spending time meeting with attendees of a Texas abductee support group, many of whom spoke frequently of Area 51, anthropologist Susan Lepselter decided to go out there herself in 1997. Immersing herself in Rachel, Nevada, the closest habitable town, Lepselter interviewed and socialized with the community of abductees and UFO enthusiasts who lived there. They typically communed at a local cafe called the Little A’Le’Inn, where residents swapped personal stories and theories about the powers that be, while mingling with tourists and alien fans who made the stop a road trip destination.

In her time spent in the support groups, but also in people’s homes and social spaces, Lepselter observed that UFOs seemed to explain everything from daily unexplained anxieties to everyday coincidences and feelings of deja vu. “Here, a UFO was not a simple flying object from an as yet unidentified source in outer space,” she writes in her ethnographic account, The Resonance of Unseen Things. “Instead, it was an unfinalizable index to the open-ended weird.”

A belief in UFOs charged the ordinary with meaning, but the stories themselves, Lepselter says, which contain the frequent themes of paralysis and medical experimentation, overlap with other American cultural narratives, namely the early settler-colonial stories of white people’s (usually women) abduction by indigenous people. She describes the formal similarities between the two genres of abduction stories; how they are both characterized by similar images and motifs like paralysis, helplessness and loss of speech, while folding real life memoirs and fictionalized accounts into one another. Most importantly, both types of captivity stories transcended the individual tellers and grew to serve some social function, whether it was frightening early settlers into keeping the nuclear family in line or forging bonds between otherwise alienated people disillusioned by modern life. Lepselter identifies the European genocide of indigenous people in North America, and the domination of their land, as the “still-unresolved, foundational master narrative,” a violent shame that continuously resonates within Americans’ everyday interactions with the ground they stand upon, continuously informing our sense of the real.

Connections can also be drawn to other historical narratives, ones involving the oppression of American populations by dominant powers — from forced sterilization and medical experimentation on non-white people, medical neglect and abuse of people marginalized by race and sexuality, mass incarceration and state-sanctioned killing. They thus evoke a distinctly American cultural memory in the realm of an alienated present, in which the people describing their feelings articulate a detachment from the land they walk on and, often, their own embodiment; as well as the general amorphous feeling that something just isn’t right. Lepselter sees belief in extraterrestrials as an articulation of powerlessness under modernity, and the feeling of restraint and containment they foreground as communicating lack of control or mobility defined by class status.

“There are stories of class and its invisible, unmarked limitations,” Lepselter observed, “and stories of race and gender, and the small multiple ways that a life is disappointed by master narratives of progress and success.” While UFOs and the conspiracies surrounding them previously evoked being on the brink of something incredible — of discovering a whole new world or way of existing, or of exposing a grand truth that proves once and for all that there is more to the visible everyday world — for self-described abductees, they represent strangling of agency. Towards the end of her book, Lepselter describes how many of her subjects (and friends) start talking about a man named Alex Jones, and how validating it felt to hear someone so passionately and confidently confront the powers that be.

Aliens would become a pop culture centerpiece of the ’90s, with The X-Files spawning a rabid fandom that swapped theories in independent zines (just like the old-school UFO zines) as well as on early internet message boards; and blockbuster movies like Independence Day (1996), Mars Attacks! (1996), and Men In Black (1997) making it very cool to be interested in our extra-terrestrials. Places like Roswell, New Mexico became bigger tourist destinations than ever before, and ufology conferences became more accessible than ever to the general curious public because of the internet. 

Such cultural products hit at the right moment; the beginning of the global expansion of media, from the early internet to 24-hour cable news, dovetailing with declining faith in government integrity — more footage and information was available than ever before, but so much was still hidden. From victims of the crack epidemic and the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s — both of which produced their own conspiracy theories about government involvement, not more outlandish, or disturbing than what emerged as the mainstream truth — to the constant coverage of events of the Gulf War, juxtaposed with the obfuscation of U.S. violence abroad, there was little reason to trust official narratives. 

Fictional films and TV shows offered escapism tailored to an overall sense of distrust and paranoia, spinning narratives of delicate conspiracy networks that could be pierced by those brave enough to look closer. Meanwhile, figures like Alex Jones would would use the rise of conservative AM radio to capitalize on this spread of distrust and anxiety, flattering their listeners’ intelligence for noticing that corruption exists at every level in society, and directing that momentum toward weirder conspiracies — even further away from any collective consciousness or action that would improve people’s lives.

The UFO stories that took shape in the mid-20th century provide a surprisingly astute affective analysis of how power functions in modern society, as well as the material effects those invisible loci of power inflict on everyday people. Is it easier to consider the existence of extraterrestrial beings or the existence of globally networked, powerful people whose collective financial decisions impact the lives and deaths of everyone else? Extraterrestrial stories reflect the feeling of living under constant surveillance, of bodies being subject to manipulation and constraint at all times and in all spaces, and most importantly, they translate an acquiescence to control. Sightings and/or abductions, while described as events that appear clearly traumatizing or controlling of physical and psychological autonomy, also confirm the suspicion that such invisible authoritative powers exist. They validate the sense that we’re being watched or that our choices do not exist in a vacuum. But they also seem to say to many that perhaps the easiest thing to do would be to give in.

Lepselter posits that UFO communities arrange themselves politically and socially around ideas of “powers that be” instead of “left” or “right.” However, the feedback loop of conspiracy-based communities keeps participants continuously seeking confirmation from their social grouping instead of identifying a force like capital as the source of their anxiety or helplessness. UFOs and governmental cover-up of the “truth” surrounding them came to stand in for the actual power of global, networked capital in the neoliberal age. The U.S. Air Force eventually admitted that the infamous Roswell Crash was a cover-up — not of a UFO, but of a secret weapons project called Project Mogul. Letting people believe the crash landing was the result of aliens was easier than inviting more questions about what they were doing out west.

It is arguably easier, and more in the interest of the powerful and the far-right, to take advantage of people’s disillusionment, and their desire to find answers in conspiracies, than to answer for anything else. In 2017, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Defense Department secretly allocated what would amount to $22 million to the “Advance Aerospace Threat Identification Program,” essentially a modern Project Blue Book, beginning in 2007. Just last year, the Times continued to report on the nearly-constant sightings of UFOs by navy pilots, a story that would have captivated the mainstream public in the 1980s or 1990s, but now elicits mass ennui. Confirmation of alien life pales in comparison to the truths we already know, and about which many of us feel we can’t do a thing. 

However, UFO mythology retains some galvanizing power. Today, as concentration camps are built and maintained within the United States, over 400,000 people are planning, through a viral Facebook group, to “storm Area 51.” This militarized preparation for public mobilizing against a government facility is presumably a “joke” — but the expression of such desire for agency, or revolution, is not a coincidence. Contained in the fear of constraint, of abduction, is the desire for liberation — of understanding, and overthrowing, the unfathomable systems that hold us down. The optimistic, Space Age fantasy of extraterrestrial life continues as its own meme: a dream of living without surveillance, without restraints, without borders.

Stephanie Monohan is a writer, illustrator, and youth researcher for MTV. She is currently pursuing a masters in Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU Steinhardt. Her work focuses on the intersections of technology, horror, and capitalism. She resides in New York and can often be found screening midnight movies at the Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn.