For those of you interested in my discussion of Christopher Loring Knowles’s claims about H. P. Lovecraft and Theosophy, Reddit has a very interesting point-by-point rebuttal of Knowles. Despite the author’s less than kind words about me (disparaging my Cult of Alien Gods and denying a connection between Lovecraft and von Däniken because von Däniken never read Lovecraft--pace Jacques Bergier), the rebuttal is an excellent explanation of every point where Knowles went terribly wrong. Knowles will now have a new place to direct his wrath.
Let’s move on to another topic… the end of UFOs. At least that’s what New York Magazine writer Mark Jacobson suggested after attending MUFON’s conference on media coverage of UFOs. According to Jacobson, only 400 people attended the New Jersey conference, a marked decline from the thousands who attended MUFON events in the 1970s. Most attendees, he said, were over the age of 50. As a result, Jacobson believes that the UFO phenomenon is toast.
Ufology, he says, “has apparently lost its grip on the public imagination, and has been demoted to a neo-cult status.” He cites the rise of the alien abduction movement as evidence that traditional ufology is over—something that’s been true for thirty years, but really does not say anything about how many people believe in alien visitation.
Jacobson therefore is both right and wrong. The problem with abstracting from attendees at a conference is that, well, it’s only one data point. The “Contact in the Desert” UFO and ancient astronaut conference, held this past week, attracted 4,000 attendees, roughly equivalent to the MUFON conferences of the past. But more to the point: 400 or 4,000 is too small a sample to say anything about the imagination and beliefs of a country of 300 million people. One more important measure is what the media thinks the American people believe. The History Channel, H2 channel, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, Science Channel, Destination America, American Heroes Channel, and Syfy all program UFO-related content. And they all attract anywhere from 500,000 to 4 million viewers per program. The ratings for any one show are still low relative to the population, but collectively their audience is in the tens of millions, even after accounting for audience overlap. And this does not even count the fictional aliens that appear in movies or on TV, from Falling Skies on TNT to the upcoming HBO ancient astronaut drama.
If UFOs aren’t as mainstream as they were in the 1970s, when the occasional TV special on one of the three networks or PBS would attract tens of millions of viewers, they are more integrated into the daily media diet than at any time in the past. If UFOs are no longer a phenomenon for elite journalists, they are now simply a given for much of the audience. The percentage of Americans professing a belief in ET visitation and/or ancient aliens has remained steady for at least the past four decades, ranging from around 24% to 48% depending on how the question is asked. The only thing that has changed is where Americans go to get their UFO fix; it isn’t broadcast networks or elite media (which care only when a Hollywood studio partner has a new alien-themed product to sell) but cable TV and, especially, the internet. In the 1970s, believers would go to conferences because that was how you networked with other believers. That isn’t necessary today thanks to the internet. It is hard to argue that something about one-third of all Americans profess to believe in is “over” unless your definition of culture is limited only to elite publications and the uppermost income quintile. Aliens are not “over” as much as déclassé.
But Jacobson, who claims to have seen a flying saucer in 1989, is right that the 1950s-style flying saucer is in decline. That’s certainly true; but no truer now than it was in the 1980s. He comes close to identifying the key issue at play but just misses: “With voracious proliferation of vampires, New World Order conspiracies, and the unprecedented rise of evangelical Christianity, the simple flying disc from far, far away has become a quaint, almost nostalgic specter.” But he then decides that Neuromancer destroyed the UFO by relocating the province of the unknown in cyberspace rather than outer space—that is, that technological changes refocused human anxieties.
Here, I think, he misses the opportunity to see that the old UFO movement has been subsumed within the broader conspiracy culture, particularly in the “ancient astronaut” form, which has almost entirely absorbed what used to be called ufology. The conspiracy of UFOs is the element of importance, not necessarily whether the flying saucers are alien spacecraft. Hence today white separatists like John de Nugent can speak of exo-Nordics as though their Neo-Nazi audiences will already know and believe in them, while others can propose that UFOs come from an ancient race of velociraptors that live under the earth, or time-traveling future humans warning us about the environment. The specifics are less important than the existence of the conspiracy, which has overtaken the “nuts and bolts” approach to ufology.
UFOs haven’t declined; their stories have transformed.
Oddly enough, that ends up leaving Giorgio Tsoukalos the odd man out on Ancient Aliens, the current nexus for the paranoid version of ancient astronaut conspiracies. He favors a “nuts and bolts” version of ancient astronautics—his famous “misunderstood technology”—but his views are overwhelmed by the quasi-spiritual and conspiratorial versions offered by David Wilcock, William Henry, and others.
The fact of the matter is that Jacobson misses the connections between ufology, ancient astronauts, and conspiracy culture. Similarly, Greg Akers of the Memphis Flyer gushed over the “genius” of Ancient Aliens last week because he also did not look beyond the surface “fun” of the program to the darker undercurrents. Akers responded particularly to Giorgio Tsoukalos:
Ancient Aliens is joyously assembled like a mystery in reverse being solved by an attention-deficit detective: There are clues to the enigma everywhere, and the relevant ones can be seized upon and arranged at will, because there's only one whodunit: Aliens. The detective-in-chief on Ancient Aliens is Giorgio Tsoukalos, a Swiss-born, spray-tanned, wild-haired talking head who in real life is the director of von Daniken's Ancient Alien Society, editor of Legendary Times Books, and — this can't be made up — a former professional bodybuilding promoter. Tsoukalos is the perfect messenger for Ancient Aliens' theories: He's a charming, intelligent, glint-eyed rogue who slyly tries to convince you to believe he's right while also letting you know it's okay if you don't. Tsoukalos serves as an excellent counterbalance to the fully committed von Daniken, the serious and maybe borderline angry ancient astronaut theorist David Childress, or even the declarative narrator, Robert Clotworthy.
Here we have a perfect example of the way presentation affects audience reception. Erich von Däniken has expressed wildly racist views about black people. Giorgio Tsoukalos has promoted the work of an anti-Semite. Even Ancient Aliens guest Nick Pope declared the ideas behind the show “borderline racist.” But if you don’t look beneath the surface, you will see only the “joy” and “fun” and get sucked into a world of conspiracies.
When I wrote The Cult of Alien Gods (2005), I thought that it was an epitaph for ancient astronauts. They seemed deader than a doornail a decade ago. I never expected that they would become the new face of ufology, or the nexus of a conspiracy culture that stretches from anti-Semitic neo-Nazis to anti-government activists to religious discontents.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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