Episode 31: Extraterrestrial Lifeforms Aren't Colonizers!: Aliens & UFOs in Pop Culture, Pt. 1
Famous Fat Guy, Jacked Guy Preamble
OK…before we get into the famous FGJG Preamble, I want to put you on the spot: what is your favorite alien or UFO related story? Could be a movie or show or novel…#1 favorite.
I think, if you’re friends with me or have paid even a little bit of attention to what we’ve been talking about on this podcast, you probably already know I’m a little fascinated with science fiction. Not in the like traditional nerdy ass way, per se…like I’m not in the fandoms of space-related media or anything like that, but I do enjoy it. I definitely count Men In Black, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Event Horizon, The Abyss, Contact, Edge of Tomorrow, Arrival, and Alien among my all-time favorite movies, and I love Octavia Butler’s and Ursula K. Le Guin’s works. I’m also a big X-Files head, which actually would maybe be a fandom I’d be part of if I had more time and energy to devote to that kind of lifestyle.
Unlike some of the other stuff I’m interested in, it’s really hard to pinpoint where the fascination comes from. I mean, as far as I know, I’ve never seen a UFO, and I haven’t had any alien encounters either. I wish I did. I wish that’s where this was going. But sadly, like the ghosts, these experiences have completely eluded me. I grew up watching E.T. and Mac & Me, and Gremlins and Coneheads like most people our age, and you know, as you get older, you graduate to watching the alien invasion thrillers like The Thing, Predator, Alien, and The Faculty and alien invasion comedies like Mars Attacks!, Starship Troopers, and Galaxy Quest. And the alien-related dramas like Contact, The Fifth Element, and Independence Day. Of course, there’s also so much alien media made for kids, too, so if you’re in your 30s, you grew up with The Iron Giant and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and Space Jam. Shit, even the Muppets went to space at one point (and that movie bangs, too). Unsolved Mysteries also ruled, and it ruled when Netflix brought it back, also.
What I’m getting at is that there’s a lot of media out there created with 1 simple question in mind: are we the only living beings in the universe? To be completely honest, this, to me, is one of the most boring questions ever. A normal thinking person with a brain that works for the most part can easily see it’s kind of ridiculous to assume that humans are the only living beings in the universe. It almost feels anti-intellectual to say we are. The universe is fucking huge! And there’s so much shit out there. BUT I can’t lie and say it hasn’t created some of the most interesting responses.
I think, mostly, when I was a kid, I looked around and thought: “This simply cannot be it.” Especially after Y2K, you know? Everything really sucked after that. As much as I love us and fight for us, there’s still a little part of me saying every day, “Humans are trash.” I’ll admit it, I’ll cop to that, I just also believe we can be better if/when we want to be. I know that alien narratives, especially in popular culture, are MIRED in imperialist and white supremacist narratives. There’s a lot of fear of the other, fear of losing control, fear of INVASION, which of course is so easy to translate to racism and xenophobia. All of that makes sense, and I’m sure that when I was younger, to some extent, some of those messages did impact the way I thought but if you pay attention to alien-related media, you can see also how those narratives shift based on what’s happening in our culture. It often feels like the obsession with UFOs and with aliens is a very American thing, or at least it seems like a capital-W Western thing but it’s hard to fully confirm that. You’d think actually that alien narratives would be a bigger part of the art of the parts of the world where they were once colonized and then fought for their independence. Obviously, the true story of colonization is much scarier and much more harrowing but it’s interesting when you think about it. Colonizers and settler colonial nations like the U.S. seem to have more fascination with the concept of being obliterated by an alien species. Almost as if that would be some kind of cosmic karma for the wrongs we’ve done, or maybe it’s connected to what we discussed in the ghost episode…that subconscious guilt and shame about our violent history just lurking around all the dark corners of our minds. Or maybe part of us roots for the aliens to wipe everyone out in the same way some people are still rooting for white people to take everyone out. We’ll definitely swing back to this but first I think we should just talk some basic UFO and aliens in pop culture context because that’s what we’re fuckin’ here for after all.
History of Alien-related shit
Y’all can probably guess this but the concept of other worlds is ancient as hell. Many indigenous cosmologies have built into them the idea that there are other realms that humans or the human spirit can travel in and out of, so that’s basically always been a thing. BUT specifically in the 2nd century and then later in the 10th century and then during the Medieval period, we see narratives coming along that are placed within our actual universe…people going to the moon and there being other people who lived on the moon and what not.
In the 17th century, we get our boy Johannes Kepler out here talking about how the orbits of the planets and expanding on Copernicus’s theory. He ALSO published a book called Somnium in 1634 about a character who is taken to the moon via demons. Now for me, this where alien shit really amps up because obviously Kepler was just doing what he could with what he had. He didn’t have aliens so he said demons. Demons and aliens are kind of the same thing in the way they operate in our cultural consciousness anyways, so it’s easy to make that connection. Somnium also does incorporate some witchcraft elements but again, it does seem to me like he was trying to make sense of an idea that there are other beings on other planets and we’re not alone in the universe.
Throughout the 17th and 18th century, we have some stuff written mostly by poets about other worlds and traveling to other worlds that are peopled by human-like beings. But obviously, shit really kicks into gear when H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds is serialized in Pearson’s Magazine. I also just want to put a trigger warning here for all our British-averse listeners: I see you. I hear you. I understand. Unfortunately, I must talk about British stuff right now.
War of the Worlds is a SMASH hit, as we all know. People are still making adaptations of this goddamn novel. Both Wells and the novel are very controversial and problematic, which I’m not going to get into too much detail about here because that’s an episode on its own. If you don’t know the plot of War of the Worlds, it’s pretty simple…a hostile alien species attempts to colonize Earth starting in England and there’s a family trying to survive at the center of it all. War of the Worlds is probably one of the most popular and enduring alien stories, and it’s not hyperbole to say that when it came out and eventually became serialized on radio, it really changed things for science fiction and for alien-related media.
If we could just…………..fast forward and jump continents a little bit to post-WWII U.S. Alien fever really didn’t pick up until the 1940s. The idea of aliens ACTUALLY coming to Earth, not just in fiction but ACTUALLY coming, really began in 1947 “when Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot from Idaho, reported seeing nine circular objects flying at supersonic speed near Washington’s Mount Rainier.”
It’s not hard to see where this is going from here, the Cold War began almost immediately after World War II, in 1947 (officially) and we don’t have time on this podcast to get into all the wild, secretive weapons developing and testing bullshit the U.S. government was doing during this time. HOWEVER, we do have time to talk about some interesting things happening concurrently.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, UFO sightings and stories of alien abductions began to pick up. Obviously so much so that Hollywood began to take notice and a whole new subculture was born. People all over the world started getting more and more into ufology and started going on trips just for the opportunity to see UFOs. In 1955, the U.S. Armed Forces opened the Homey Airport, also known as Area 51, in Lincoln County, Nevada opened up after “President Dwight Eisenhower asked for a secret location in which to start a high-altitude reconnaissance program.”
In her book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base Annie Jacobsen writes, “They discovered the perfect fulfillment of the presidential request which was a secret base centered around a dry lakebed in the middle of Nevada that happened to be located in an already classified facility where the government was exploding nuclear weapons. There was no way that anyone was going to try to get into this facility, especially because nuclear bombs were being exploded there.”
But here’s the thing….people are annoying as hell! And if you’re doing some secret ass shit that involves a lot of high tech flying objects, nuclear bombs, and weird surveillance technology, they’re going to wonder what the hell is going on. So, a lot of rumors start swirling around about Area 51, and of course, there are whole towns near the base—like Rachel, for instance—that really give into the whole UFO sighting and alien visitation lore of southern Nevada. It doesn’t really stop there, though. If you look at the lists of reported UFO sightings online (and I mean the legitimate lists, the ones where many people have basically corroborated the story and the government has investigated), you’ll notice that the sightings are all over. Of course, many of them were reported from rural areas, but there are a few on those lists that were reported from high population, metropolitan places. I mention this because I think that UFO sightings and alien abduction stories often get shoved off as a result of classism and sexism, sometimes racism also, and I want to be clear that the kinds of people who have reported sightings and abductions over the years come from literally every walk of life you could imagine.
Let’s get back to Area 51 for a second, in a Vox article from 2019 on the subject of Area 51 and why people wanted to storm it in 2019, the writer said that these conspiracy theories about Area 51 didn’t really enter mainstream consciousness until the early 1980s: “The publication in 1980 of The Roswell Incident by Charles Berlitz and William Moore. The book examined the 1947 incident in Roswell, New Mexico, when a mysterious object, cheekily covered by the media as a “flying saucer” but disavowed by the military as a weather balloon, sparked mild, but not wild, public interest. In 1994, the government ultimately revealed the object to have been a nuclear surveillance balloon. Berlitz and Moore’s 1980 book, however, tapped into the ’80s zeitgeist of occult paranoia by alleging a complex government UFO cover-up, and while they didn’t explicitly mention Area 51, rumors of vast, labyrinthine underground military compounds in the desert began to take shape.”
This is interesting to me, you know, because what it means is that it took the specific cultural context of the hyper paranoid 1980s to actually put alien and UFO related interest and the creation of media showcasing aliens and UFOs into overdrive. This is the “Stranger Things” era, right? The time when it didn’t take much to get people to believe and BELIEVE they did. Mostly, they believed that the government was up to something, but many people did and still do believe that aliens and UFOs are frequently not only coming to Earth but are also often checking us humans out in various ways.
By 1996, a Gallup Poll reported that 71 percent of the United States population believed the U.S. government was covering up information regarding UFOs. A 2002 Roper Poll for the Sci-Fi Channel found similar results, but with more people believing UFOs are extraterrestrial craft. In the 2006 Roper poll, 56 percent thought UFOs were real craft and 48 percent that aliens had visited the Earth. Again, about 70 percent felt the government was not sharing everything it knew about UFOs or extraterrestrial life.
There’s so much more to get into here that I haven’t even scratched the surface on but as this episode is supposed to be on the role that alien and UFO stuff plays in our larger culture, I want to leave some time now for us to talk about it.
After all that, what are you thinking about, brother? Why do you think we’re so obsessed with this? I have some theories, but I feel like we’re on the same page with this…