Recent news revealing the Pentagon’s secret UFO program has reignited the general public’s curiosity about the possibility of extraterrestrials in our skies. There has always been a blurry line between the topic of UFOs and the realms of fantasy and science fiction. Skeptical UFO historian Martin Kottmeyer has documented how virtually every detail witnesses report about alien encounters can be found in earlier science fiction stories, or in legends and mythology.
It’s also a fact that our books, TV shows, and movies have used UFO reports for inspiration, which in turn has helped spread fantastic concepts of extraterrestrial visitors. A cultural feedback loop exists between the real and unreal. Let’s take a look at a few of the most powerful examples.
The Early Days
In the 1870s, Earth’s telescopes detected dark, linear features on Mars, which were interpreted by some as canals produced by a civilization older and more advanced than our own. This inspired one of the most influential of all science fiction novels, The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells.
When Orson Welles (no relation) adapted The War of the Worlds in 1938 for CBS radio using a faux documentary style, the tale of an attack by Martian invaders was heard by thousands. Some of those listeners (but not as many as you might think) were persuaded the story was true and panicked. The reaction to the broadcast made headlines, and to capitalize on the sensation, Universal Studios quickly recut their movie serial Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars into the feature-length Mars Attacks the World. It’s kinda-sorta the first UFO movie, produced to exploit the public’s interest in extraterrestrial visitors. Like the radio play, it also preyed on the flip side of hope — fear. If our rockets were beginning to reach into space, what if someone out there had a big head start?
In June of 1947, newspapers broke the story of how aviator Kenneth Arnold had spotted a formation of unknown, disc-like aircraft moving at speeds beyond those of our fastest jets. The U.S. Air Force began an investigation into the sighting, and the explosion of flying saucer reports that followed it. By late 1949, the Air Force’s investigation, later known as Project Blue Book, determined that saucers were not a secret project by the U.S. itself, the Soviets, or anyone else. They tried to shut down the saucer fever, but science fiction had greased the skids. If these UFOs were real craft, they came from somewhere else, and that somewhere must be Mars or another planet.
Saucer reports dwindled, but radio and newspapers found that covering them made for hot filler material. In 1950, two best-selling books emerged that would shape the belief in UFOs and influence the films made about them.
Retired Marine Corps Major Donald Keyhoe’s The Flying Saucers Are Real debuted, and his key ideas would become canon: UFOs are ships from outer space, the U.S. government knows it, and there’s a big cover-up. Keyhoe reached some far-out conclusions, but he relied on the word of credible sources working in the government saucer investigation. However, there was another guy with a saucer story, a far more fantastic tale, and it became the biggest one of all time when rebranded as the Roswell UFO crash.
Frank Scully was a columnist for the show biz magazine Variety, where he first introduced his story which was later expanded into a book, Behind the Flying Saucers. Scully told how scientists revealed that a saucer had crashed in the New Mexico desert, the U.S. military recovered the disc, the alien technology, and the small deceased humanoid bodies found inside, then hid and denied everything. (Scully’s tale was exposed as a hoax in 1952, when his source, the “scientists” Silas Newton and Leo GeBauer, were convicted as swindlers, but that’s another story.)
With the phenomenal success of the 1950 Keyhoe and Scully books, many people went from asking if flying saucers were real to accepting that they were. Hollywood was ready to capitalize on the saucer craze, but they needed more stories. They turned to science fiction for material.
John W. Campbell, Jr’s story “Who Goes There” from Astounding Science Fiction, August 1938, was adapted into the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World. The first change was to make the spaceship in the story into a flying saucer, although it’s only seen as an indistinct shape through ice, except for its tail fin. The Thing bears a resemblance to the premise of Frank Scully’s saucer book, the military mission to recover a crashed flying saucer, and it also gets in a few jabs at government denials. The extraterrestrial in the movie is truly alien, a throwback to Wells’ monstrous Martians, out to survive at the cost of human life.
The Day the Earth Stood Still, also released in 1951, was loosely based on Harry Bates’ story from the October 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, “Farewell to the Master.” Again the spaceship was swapped for a flying saucer, and it’s a major set piece, almost a co-star. As for the aliens, the giant Gort is as enigmatic as the ship. Klaatu seems human, benevolent, almost angelic, bringing a message of peace, love, and understanding – but carrying a stern warning that mankind will not be allowed to spread its warlike ways to the people of other planets.
The Day the Earth Stood Still was not influenced by genuine saucer stories, but it became a tremendous influence on those that followed. George Adamski and his cult concocted the hoax of an angelic Klaatu-like visitor from Venus here to warn of the dangers of nuclear war, as chronicled in the 1953 book Flying Saucers Have Landed. Following Adamski’s fame, a legion of imitators dubbed “Contactees” surfaced with tales of meetings and flights with the Space Brothers. This kind of friendly visitor from the stars wasn’t good movie material until Stephen Spielberg revived the idea in the 1970s.
Invaders from Mars (April 1953) delivered the goods, an original story with a flying saucer full of aliens here for the business of abducting, controlling minds, and conquering. Due to its hasty production, it has the distinction of being the first UFO film in color, so we get to see the saucer, the green-skinned Martians, and their strange little tentacled, big-headed leader in all their glory. Invaders also depicted a number of elements that would come to be staples of later UFO tales — alien abductions and medical implants.
When The War of the Worlds finally made it to the movies, it was influenced by flying saucers as well, with the Martian war machines’ tripods eliminated, updated into sinister saucer-like aircraft.
Unidentified Flying Objects: The True Story of Flying Saucers (1956) was the first try at a docudrama. It’s historically important for being the first film to be factually based on UFO cases, including real witnesses and saucer footage. Unfortunately, in striving so hard to be realistic, it did the unbelievable – it almost made saucers seem dull. Still, the ads and posters for UFO promised something far more sensational.
In 1961, after New Hampshire couple Betty and Barney Hill observed a star-like object in the sky, they started having nightmares. Under hypnosis, an abduction story surfaced, one reminiscent of Invaders from Mars. The Hills story was portrayed in the 1975 TV movie The UFO Incident, which may have in turn inspired other abduction dreams and stories that followed.
Travis Walton’s alleged abduction near Snowflake, Arizona came shortly after the broadcast of the Betty and Barney Hill TV movie. What makes Walton’s case noteworthy is that he appears to have been the first guy kicked off a flying saucer for fighting.
All the truly influential things happened in the first 20 years or so of flying saucers – both the sightings and in the movies. With rare exceptions, after 1980, films were either toying with the established memes or were just remakes, remixes, and rip-offs of what had come before.
The year 1977 was huge for saucer buffs, at least in the cinema. George Lucas’ film Star Wars was more about reviving Flash Gordon-style fun than anything else, but it’s worth a passing mention, since it featured a Bigfoot co-piloting a flying saucer.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was inspired by real UFO cases, but copied and pasted bits of them together, adding a mothership-sized dose of Disneyesque melodrama, with a side order of Adamski’s message of the aliens’ love from above. Real-life UFO expert Dr. J. Alien Hynek served as a consultant on the film and made a cameo appearance during the finale.
Stephen Spielberg scuttled the idea of a direct sequel to CE3K and went for another story of cuddly aliens in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, in 1982. Spielberg inspired many other friendly aliens, like those featured in Mork & Mindy, Starman, Cocoon, ALF, The Abyss, and others.
Hangar 18 (1980) can be seen as a marker in the UFO topic’s turn toward the dark side. It was (very loosely) based on Scully’s crashed aliens story and it also featured a sinister government conspiracy to cover it up. The huge advertising push for Hangar 18 helped prepare the public to swallow the retconned Roswell story that surfaced around the same time, but it didn’t catch fire in the mainstream until September of 1989, when it featured on the NBC TV show, Unsolved Mysteries, as “Legend: Roswell Crash.”
For the Roswell conspiracy story to be true, there must be a massive cover-up, and a mythology sprang up to serve as the story’s super-villain, a secret government cabal known as MJ-12. The idea of benevolent ETs was again pushed aside, replaced with spooky tales of government treaties with aliens to allow abductions, cattle mutilations, and human-hybrid breeding programs at Area 51 and secret underground bases.
When Travis Walton’s abduction story was turned into a movie, 1993’s Fire in the Sky, Hollywood considered his 1950s-style aliens outdated. The producers insisted on a jazzed-up, more horrific version of the aliens, and abductions like those that became fashionable in the 1980s.
The X-Files (1993) television show came to define UFOs in the ’90s, but most viewers were unaware of the source of the stories. The alien content on the show was “ripped from the headlines,” but from tabloids and crackpot UFO magazines about those dark, dubious ’80s encounters. An early and enduring UFO conspiracy belief was that the truth about aliens would shock and panic the populace, but the public could adjust gradually to the idea as introduced through entertainment.
Independence Day (1996) incorporated a stew of lore, the Roswell incident, the government UFO cover-up, abductions, and more, with the fight against the aliens based at Area 51. Some imagined that Hollywood’s UFO movies and The X-Files were part of the acclimation program. To them, seeing an old story resurface on screen was “confirmation” that it was genuine.
Men In Black (1997) was also based on an old UFO legend via a little-known comic book. The MIB were first made famous in Gray Barker’s 1956 book, They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, and further embellished by John Keel. Thing is, the MIB were made up by Barker and his friends to exploit the paranoia of many UFO buffs who thought that the government was operating a “Silence Group” to cover up UFO reports.
In 2008, The History Channel brought us UFO Hunters, but had far better success with Ancient Aliens. It was based on the second- and third-hand notions popularized by Erich von Däniken, that extraterrestrials were the gods of myth, and that there is abundant alien evidence in archeological remains. The success of the show served to demonstrate that the public’s interest in UFOs and aliens remains strong. However, recent incidents that make for good evidence – or good entertainment – are quite rare. They literally had to dig up the past for story material.
The UFO concepts have become so familiar, they blend in, nestled almost unnoticed into the premises of hit movies such as The Transformers or Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers series. Recently, UFOs themselves as a central topic have made a comeback, both in the news and on the entertainment screen, with several movies, documentaries, and TV shows in production. You can expect AMC’s 10-episode docudrama, Blue Book, starring Aidan Gillen as J. Allen Hynek, to continue the circle on TV screens soon.