As most of you know, I am doing some preliminary research for a book I am thinking about writing which would revolve around the various moral panics that began in the summer of 1947 and continued through the 1950s. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m not interested in writing a textbook (nor do I have the ambition for the kind of granular research it would require), so I want to tell the story in a more impressionistic format, using the lives of real people to illustrate broader themes. I settled on making the life and afterlife of James Dean the central thread providing unity to the project. That, of course, involved learning about my subject to see how feasible that plan would be.
Now, as it happens, middle twentieth century history isn’t really my special area of interest, so I don’t have the instant command of the more obscure parts that I do for other time periods. So, while I’m sure a lot of this material is familiar to my older readers, much of it was unfamiliar to me, or only vaguely recalled from cultural osmosis. Frankly, I am more disturbed by how much of it I seem to have stored in the back of my mind from decades past, without any real memory of learning it. I can’t fathom how or why I knew any of it.
I always knew that after Dean died there was a weird death cult that sprang up around him, but I didn’t remember anything about the details. I was genuinely surprised to see the uncanny similarities between the Dean death cult and UFO culture, which both developed side by side in the same period. There is certainly some kind of thesis buried in there about the connections to mid-century American culture and perhaps also to cult/occult beliefs in general, but I haven’t quite worked through it yet. What follows are some notes and observations, but I don’t claim I’ve developed a full set of conclusions yet.
As should be obvious, there are major differences. The UFO movement, from its pseudoscientific side to its occult one, alleged that it was a logical outgrowth of actual contact with vehicles or beings from other worlds. Its spiritual component developed out of a supposedly scientific question that took on occult overtones. Its adherents were mostly adults. By contrast, the James Dean death cult was an emotional, quasi-idolatrous eruption of feeling largely among teenagers and abetted by capitalist ghouls who saw it as the birth of a new market demo. Despite these differences, however, there is a strong undercurrent of repressed emotion and discontent manifesting as a fixation on the unattainable.
The similarities, however, struck me more than the differences. Not to state the obvious, but in both cases the actual object of worship wasn’t there, and in both cases, unlike charismatic cults, the fascination and the idolatry arose upward from the masses mostly spontaneously rather than being imposed by a cult leader creating a belief system. The UFO types got their cult leaders eventually, but they sat on top of a wider belief system.
Both groups became enmeshed in conspiracy theories, and in both cases the tabloid media happily fed into the conspiracy theories to help keep the ball rolling and the believers buying. Everyone knows that countless articles pushed bizarre claims about space aliens, including conspiracies of cover-ups. Less remembered is the rash of tabloid stories alleging that Dean had survived the crash of his Porsche, articles relating supposed “insider” information about his whereabouts, along with conspiracies about how the deception was accomplished. So many of these articles are often indistinguishable in tone from UFO conspiracy pieces. Longtime readers know that one of my interests is the history of the Habsburg Monarchy, so my favorite of these conspiracies has to be the bonkers claim that Porsche salvaged steel from the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s death car and built it into the Porsche 550 Spyder Dean purchased, thus cursing whoever drove it. It makes as much sense as what Ancient Aliens broadcasts. (Literally: They did cursed objects.)
Anyway, the two groups made demands for what we would call “disclosure” today. The UFO disclosure claims are familiar enough. The demands for unreleased footage of Dean, the supposed “truth” about his alleged disappearance (or, later, imagined suicide), and other claims that Warner Bros., the government, or someone else was covering things up are less remembered but disconcertingly familiar. A steady stream of new revelations, lasting in drips and drabs for decades, was not terribly different than the slow accumulation of UFO claims.
Both phenomena also relied on sightings tinged with occult content. The more occult-oriented UFO believers searched the sky for spaceships, channeled aliens with seances and automatic writing, and wrapped their faith in Theosophical ideas, frequently conflating space aliens with deities. In parallel, the cult of James Dean shared sightings of Dean’s ghost, channeled him with seances, and, later, wrapped his legend in Theosophical-style ideas. Twenty years after his death, a major biography quite seriously argued that he had been an avatar of Lucifer, Osiris, and Dionysus. Forty years after his death, some of those who held seances still claimed to have been so powerfully moved by the experience that they felt they had breached the veil to the other side. For all I know, whoever is left still do. I guess I understand that a bit. The day Princess Diana died was the day the sewer backed up into the basement, and the twin experiences are forever entwined in my mind. Maybe it isn’t quite the same.
Both, too, had a “contactee” culture, where those who could claim contact with the object of worship, however slight, became celebrities, telling their shopworn stories decade after decade. The circus of conventions and gatherings shared more than a few similarities, with elements of an old-fashioned tent revival married to a street fair and a shopping bazaar. The merchandise follows familiar patterns, too, from books and films to clothing and kitsch. (Also: What was wrong with people in the 1950s? Why were people buying $30 latex masks of Dean’s face?) Both also inspired mainstream pop culture. UFOs’ influence on science fiction is beyond dispute, and we all can recognize the actors who imitated Dean. That he sparked the “dead teenager” song genre was morbid and strange, but I guess not really that far afield from alien-themed sitcoms on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum.
And let’s not get started on comparing the sacred relics trotted out. The aliens have their fake pieces of crumpled metal and their ersatz implants, and the others had dubious locks of hair and patches of blue jeans. I can’t help but compare the allegations of crashed saucers to the crashed Porsche that went on a national tour so gawkers could pay to sit in it. Surely there must be something symbolic in envisioning crashed Phaeton’s chariot vouchsafing the divine. Do the gods become more real when they fall to Earth?
But what really got me was the way both movements intertwined reality with media, absorbing and rebuilding beliefs around media images and imagining them to be the truth. The UFO movement’s close relationship with science fiction need not be explained here. Within days of Kenneth Arnold’s sighting in 1947, science fiction stories served as the template for interpreting flying saucers. Raymond Palmer purposely grafted the Shaver Mystery onto them, and tropes from science fiction stories movies moved back and forth between fiction and nonfiction promiscuously, sometimes to the point that it wasn’t possible to determine who first started using them. When Barney Hill built his alien abduction narrative under hypnosis in 1964 from raw material he saw on The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone (ironically enough, in episodes knocking off James Dean), it was merely the apotheosis of the fusion of science fiction and the UFO myth.
Hollywood helped both myths to flourish. Movies and TV shows canonized a particular set of UFO tropes and helped to popularize flying saucers and alien abductions, to the point that movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the TV movie about Betty and Barney Hill in turn became templates that later members of the UFO community would draw on in their supposedly nonfiction experiences. Similarly, Hollywood canonized a particular version of James Dean, one that bore only a partial resemblance to the real person, expurgated and flattened into an icon. The screen version was rewritten into an analog of Rebel’s Jim, recast as vigorously heterosexual, and sanitized for middle America. Decades of TV movies and documentaries, as recently as only a few years ago, promulgated the story. In memory, he became the great lover, a new Valentino, despite that being neither true on screen nor off. The transformation was amazingly successful and had remarkable staying power across pop culture. To take a ridiculous example: As late as 2013, the band The Summer Set included this bizarrely inaccurate lyric in their song “Boomerang,” referencing creative romantic collaborations like Jay-Z and Beyoncé and Leonardo da Vinci and Mona Lisa (!): “If I was James Dean, you’d be my Audrey [Hepburn], Breakfast at Tiffany’s for two.” (It can’t escape notice that in casting about for artsy heterosexual romances, The Summer Set managed to pick two men better known today for their interest in other men.) The song apparently referenced Sleeping with Sirens’ “If I’m James Dean, You’re Audrey Hepburn” from 2010, whose unconnected title posits a great lover who never existed, though that is neither here nor there. Mourn for forgotten George Peppard, replaced in memory by a fictitious version of a ghost.
When two German girls too young to have remembered Dean in life killed themselves in Dean’s name the same year Barney Hill told tales of communing with space aliens, it wasn’t the real man they hoped to meet in the afterlife. Instead, as fact and fiction intertwined, they were in love with a movie character. The actual young man had been replaced with a hybrid, abstracting the outlines of the original’s biography and a few anecdotes and stories and grafting them on to the screen image, particularly the character of Jim from Rebel without a Cause, all the easier since they shared a name. So thorough was the merging that one still stands for the other. This can perhaps best be seen when trying to imagine how he spoke. The pop culture image is of halting, spare mumbles.* The real person—the well-read, somewhat nerdy young man who would reference Demosthenes, The Golden Bough, and metaphysics in conversation—was gone, and a mumbling doppelganger stood in his place. (Not much audio survives to prove the point, but an example can be heard here. Although no Demosthenes, so to speak, his easy references to theory and purposeful mashing of high and low language in the same sentence are a marked contrast from the screen version.)
Experts who care much more than I will quibble on the biographical details (Dean, for example, was actively creating his own semi-fictitious media image, though it wasn’t quite the one imposed after death), but the condensing of a complex real person into a flattened screen image reminds me not a little of the formation of the UFO myth from a wide diversity of original claims into a familiar, repetitive narrative mediated through canonization in books, movies, and TV. All the many ways “aliens” were experienced in the early 1950s distilled down to specific patterns a decade later, as stories congealed into myths. The many different types of sightings reduced down to familiar tropes, and even the descriptions of the aliens themselves grew more similar over time.
Only one of the two had real staying power. The aliens are forever new, always ready to become whatever we need them to be, promises of revelations always coming and never arriving. The teenagers of 1955 eventually grew up and grew old, and nearly all of the original celebrities of the movement are dead. The death cult shrank for lack of new recruits, though to my surprise it is not yet wholly extinguished. It’s hard not to think that the teenagers who shared Dean conspiracy theories graduated to Kennedy conspiracy theories as young adults, and certainly the Dean death cult repeated itself as farce when Elvis died and took up residence in a 7-11 and in the tabloid pages of the National Enquirer, an absurd parody of the previous iteration.
I have gone on far too long, as I tend to do when I am working through an idea whose outlines I can see but whose details I haven’t yet processed. Regardless of whether my imagined book makes it to completion, the above is at least an interesting example of how the same process unfolded in two very different contexts. There is certainly some sort of connection there, though I’m not sure exactly what yet.
* I removed a reference to the 1982 song "Jack and Diane" after finding that the line referencing James Dean included a direct quote of the verbal filler he actually used, as given by his friend and biographer William Bast.
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.
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