Ufologist Robbie Graham wrote the book Silver Screen Saucers, a book about UFOs in the movies, and regular readers will remember that he holds a bizarre conspiracy theory that musician Tom DeLonge is a disinformation agent acting at the behest of the Deep State as part of a vast mind-control experiment. Anyway, Graham has a new article at Mysterious Universe where he attempts to argue that Vox magazine was wrong to attribute the way modern American culture imagines space aliens to their depiction in science fiction. He believes that the influence goes the other way around.
Two weeks ago, Vox posted a five-minute video exploring the question of how we imagine aliens would look. You can watch the video below.
Graham takes issue with the suggestion that science fiction is responsible for the way we conceive of aliens:
It is a common misconception that Hollywood pulls its alien imaginings out of thin air; in reality, the movie industry has been drawing creative inspiration from UFOlogy—from real-world reports of otherworldly encounters—for decades. Unidentified Flying Objects are “real,” which is to say they exist independently of cinema, and of pop-culture more broadly.
This is an eminently debatable proposition and one that deserves much more than an assertion in support of it. Arguably, it is the fictional form that proceeds its real-world counterpart, though the relationship is probably better described as interdependent. For example, early astronomers speculated that blotches on first the moon (Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, 1824) and then Mars (Percival Lowell, 1895) were evidence of an alien civilization, and science fiction followed these speculations with imaginative fare like the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 and The War of the Worlds in 1897. The notion of using a ship of some kind to travel from world to world began with Lucian’s True History in Classical times and was raised to high art by the fantastical fictions of Theosophy, in which silvery disks transported Venusians to the early Earth. When similar interstellar vessels showed up in Richard Shaver’s purportedly “true” accounts of the wonders of Lemuria, published in Amazing Stories beginning in 1945, science fiction had anticipated the elements of the UFO myth.
Graham claims that the UFO itself emerged from real life, not Hollywood, because the first flying saucer sighting occurred in 1947, three years before the first UFO movie. This is a terribly cinema-centric view of popular culture that neglects the essential role played by Golden Age science fiction in the pulps and the comics.
When Kenneth Arnold claimed to see flying objects in 1947, there was no particular reason to assign them to space aliens—for they could have been anything, or nothing—except that Amazing Stories editor Ray Palmer thought it would help him sell more magazines and raise the profile of the Shaver Mystery. We know this is the case because the FBI was kind enough to collect all of the relevant documentation for us. “There’s more to this than the newspapers and the ‘experts’ have made of it,” Palmer wrote to Arnold in July 1947, but it took him another month to craft a narrative around the ambiguous concept of “flying disks.” In August, Palmer told Arnold that “You see, you aren’t the first to see them. They’ve been known for nearly forty years, and I have ample proof of that.” He added that Arnold’s sighting helped him to figure out exactly what they were. Palmer was at the time under scrutiny by the FBI over his interest in the discs, and he was also in contact with Richard Shaver, coaching him on what to say about the discs. It was in these weeks that the three men developed the story that the discs were spacecraft going to and from other worlds. As the FBI dryly reported in September 1947, “It should be noted that Raymond Palmer, Arnold’s employer, was from the start ‘exploiting’ the appearance of the flying discs, possibly to enhance the appeal of Shaver’s stories. It is possible, therefore, that the entire flying disc theory was conceived by Palmer and Shaver” (redactions filled in).
Indeed, the government UFO files of the era did not find the alien motherships of popular lore but rather tiny little flying discs, some the size of literal saucers, as news accounts influenced what people claimed to see in the sky. It was only later, when science fiction and pulp media had gotten hold of the story that the tiny discs grew into the flying saucers of 1950s fame.
So when Graham argues that our view of aliens is not the result of a similar science fiction influence, I must object. Consider, for example, the fact that the first “aliens” reported on Earth, the Nordics from Venus of the 1950s, are carbon copies of the Lords of Venus from Theosophy half a century earlier. Graham argues that the “Grey” alien in particular appears in contactee accounts before science fiction.
In fact, descriptions of what we now call Grays were surfacing in real-world abduction accounts reported to Budd Hopkins and other researchers in the 1970s, and alleged abductee Travis Walton had described such entities as early as 1975. It wasn’t until two years later, in 1977, that Hollywood produced its first fully crystalized cinematic image of the Grays in Spielberg’s proudly UFOlogical Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Grays in the movie were based directly on first-hand testimonies gathered by Spielberg’s production designer, Joe Alves.
The trouble with that is that Close Encounters of the Third Kind gave a semi-official form to a floating set of “alien” traits that were already widespread in popular culture. The aliens’ short stature, for example, is a stereotype going back to the “little green men” of the 1950s, and the bug-eyed Marvin the Martian of Looney Tunes fame is but the friendliest avatar of this particular trait. The Greys’ distinctive eyes are drawn from the accounts given by Betty and Barney Hill in 1964, when they reported to a hypnotist the events of their supposed 1961 abduction in the backwoods of New Hampshire. As I have pointed out, the actual origin of these wraparound, bug-like eyes is much more likely to be two episodes of The Outer Limits that aired only days before the 1964 hypnosis sessions, episodes in which these exact eyes appeared on space aliens, some of which were busy abducting humans in the backwoods.
All of these depictions, in turn, were influenced by H. G. Wells’s First Men in the Moon (1901), where the highest-ranking greyish space aliens were described as having “larger brain cases (heads?) and very much shorter legs” (parentheses in original). The 1964 movie version’s aliens resemble stereotypical Greys except for their smaller eyes. Similarly, a widely reproduced drawing made for Wells’s 1893 essay “Man of Year Million” shows a bulbous head on a short, thin grey body with large hands and large eyes, the ultimate outcome, Wells thought, of evolution on the human body of the modern age.
The point is that Graham limited himself just to UFO movies and thus missed about 90% of the culture swirling around the development of UFO myths. But I will give him credit for being stubbornly persistent in his conviction that the interplay between Hollywood and ufology originates in fact, not fantasy:
In Hollywood’s UFO movies, broadly speaking, art imitates life. If the opposite were true, then following the release of James Cameron’s Avatar, the highest grossing film of all time, we might reasonably have expected thousands of people to have begun reporting ten-foot-tall blue aliens. This did not happen; just as Hollywood’s forceful projection of the “little green men” meme has failed to result in mass sightings of little green men (although reports of such entities do lightly pepper the UFO literature).
Graham underestimates the power of art to influence, but not to direct, subconscious perceptions. Avatar’s story didn’t involve blue giants invading Earth; it was cartoonish and hardly frightening enough to create intense mental associations between its creatures and fear. The aliens utilized no great mental archetypes the way Greys resemble evil toddlers. Art that has a lasting impression must have potency and relevance, not simply popularity. The human mind takes elements of stories and remixes them project a story that can explain what the mind thinks it sees. Hollywood and ufology have fed upon one another, most certainly, but in nearly every case, new elements appear first in art before diffusing to what passes for real life.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.