In 1995, Fox Television captivated millions with a medical autopsy of a space alien. The 17-minute black and white clip purported to show military doctors examining a bloated, humanoid-looking extraterrestrial that had died in a flying saucer crash.
The broadcast generated so much hoopla that Fox aired it two more times that year, tacking on “added footage” of the UFO wreckage. Even then, the hoax—recycling the Roswell myth, which holds that the U.S. government in 1947 recovered an alien craft from the New Mexico desert—was old hat.
The latest version of this fable is the widely circulated story of—you guessed it—crashed UFOs that the U.S. government has been hiding for many decades. In June, a recently retired intelligence community “whistleblower” made this claim, like others before him in years past. That the latest “bombshell” landed without any evidence or corroboration has not dampened our feverish enthusiasm. “Are we finally ready to admit UFOs are aliens?” asks the Daily Beast in its headline.
Americans have a bottomless appetite for this stuff. The initial story of crashed aliens was the Roswell incident, which stemmed from an actual cold war event; a balloon from a then-secret U.S. military project had fallen near Roswell, N.M., just as the flying saucer phenomenon was taking root. Ever since, the crashed saucer myth and UFOs in general have steadily profited news and entertainment outlets, and they have sated a deep human need for mystery.
I get it. Aliens are cool. Fuzzy UFO videos, which (let’s be honest) the media uncritically hype way too much, are fun. Maybe this is why friends and family members are always texting me the latest, craziest UFO story (that is quickly proven to be bogus). UFOs are so damn entertaining!
(A quick public service announcement: All this talk for decades about a “cosmic Watergate” is not amusing to everyone. Some people get really worked up and land in serious legal trouble; others find it a gateway to a toxic, paranoid swamp and entice vulnerable minds to join them.)
For the most part, the ubiquitous alien icon is now a gimmicky relic from a larger landscape of escapist fantasy, the same terrain that has relegated other faddish subjects, like the Bermuda Triangle and Nessie, to the annals of pseudoscience. UFOs, in contrast, remain an enduring American obsession. Why? Are they so much fun that we can’t let them go?
It’s more than that. “Despite centuries of scientific and social progress, we remain, at our most intimate level, believers,” writes author Marc Fitch in Paranormal Nation: Why America Needs Ghosts, UFOs, and Bigfoot. Indeed, this is a core sentiment of the hit 1990s X-Files show, which is embodied on the poster of a flying saucer above agent Mulder’s office wall with the phrase, “I want to believe.”
Perhaps it also explains why Scott Brando, a diligent monitor and debunker of phony UFO videos that regularly go viral online, is always playing whack-a-mole. People fall prey to such hoaxes because they “need to believe something extraordinary” or “satisfy their craving for mystery,” he wrote in an e-mail to Scientific American.
That human desire for mystery is something that UFO promoters—and they seem to have multiplied in recent years—are adept at fulfilling. Hence, all the recycling and reimagining of classic UFO narratives, such as Men in Black.
On occasion, there is a creative blending that invents a new myth for the UFO canon. The latest is a 512-acre ranch in rural Utah that is supposedly a “hotspot” for UFOs, poltergeists, animal mutilations and “shadow creatures.” A Las Vegas TV journalist (who is also a host of a conspiracy-themed radio show), refers to the ranch as a “paranormal Disneyland.”
It’s the basis for a scripted reality show on the History Channel called The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch. The main character is a retired Department of Defense astrophysicist (a featured character for years on Ancient Aliens) who also happens to be the former chief scientist of the Pentagon’s 2022 Unidentified Aerial Phenomena report produced by an agency task force.
Wait, this gets better.
The person formerly in charge of the Pentagon’s UFO task force is now appearing on the Skinwalker show (as himself), after he too, retired after a long DoD career. . Both have reportedly claimed that a Skinwalker ranch poltergeist followed them home. (Nonetheless, this hasn’t kept them from returning to the ranch.)
Like the latest UFO “whistleblower,” these fellows all have otherwise impeccable credentials. As Mick West, a prominent skeptic and debunker, writes in a 2021 Guardian piece, such influential messengers couch “weak evidence” for UFOs as compelling. “Don’t be fooled,” he cautions.
But what if, like fans of professional wrestling, we know it’s just a big goof and don’t care? After all, ghost stories are fun. It’s the same with UFOs. The filmmaker behind the Alien Autopsy video later said he regretted his deception, but admitted “it was a joke, a bit of fun.”
Avid consumers of UFO stories seem to be in on the joke. “Part of this whole thing is just wonderful bullshit,” Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester, said to me in a recent conversation about the latest wave of UFO mania. “It has nothing to do with science, but we all love talking about aliens.” Frank was speaking in general about the silliness factor that has long made it virtually impossible to take UFOs seriously—except as a sociocultural phenomenon.
Pop culture needs a consistent diet of this junk food to meet our incessant UFO hunger. Will we ever kick the habit? UFO promoters obviously don’t think so. In recent days, the “whistleblower” has spoken out more to say that the multiple space alien crafts retrieved by the U.S. military are the size of football fields and held by unnamed U.S. defense contractors. Additionally, he suggested that the Vatican is involved in the cover-up and that, oh, by the way, people have been murdered to keep all this hushed up.
That does not sound like fun. Perhaps this is why no one texted it to me.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.