by Michael Lauck
One of the common arguments used by skeptics and debunkers is that UFO witnesses are actually inserting pop culture imagery into their memories or interpretations of an event. For example, they will state that abductees see “Greys” because the Grey alien archetype was prominently featured on book covers and in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Of course this argument completely (and conveniently) overlooks the fact that the creatures depicted on these book covers and in the film were based on descriptions of experiencers who had not seen the movie or books. Nonetheless, the argument is still put forth confidently and is often not even questioned. How can this assertion be derailed?
The argument is based on the idea that people are, whether purposely or subconsciously, superimposing popular imagery into experiences. The quickest way to disprove this argument is to prove that over the years the most popular images and representations of aliens are not found in UFO reports. In the years before Kenneth Arnold’s sighting ushered in the modern era of UFOs, aliens were presented in pulp magazines, books and comic books. One of the best known aliens from before the modern age of UFOs is Superman, or Kal-El, the last son of Krypton. Although Superman looks like a human being (albeit a very muscular one), he is not human and has several powers such as strength, leaping abilities (later flying) and x-ray vision. Although more research could certainly be done on early sightings, I do not believe that there are many reports of Kryptonian style powers being exhibited.
Another pre-modern era story of an alien encounter is HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. The Martians landed in cylinder shaped ships, not saucers, and traveled around the Earth on large tripods equipped with death rays. Neither of these images seem to have found their way into early or modern UFO reports, even though the idea of cylinder or bullet-shaped craft that were little more than projectiles was repeated in many stories. It is sometimes even claimed that the large, dark eyes of the Martians may have played into the image of the Greys. This ignores, though, the fact that Wells’ Martians were large, described as bear-like, and had v-shaped mouths surrounded by tentacles!
As we approached and even entered the modern era of the UFO, there were several established science fiction characters having space adventures. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Civil War veteran John Carter streaked through the skies of Mars, or Barsoom, in yacht-like sky ships. Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, who had migrated into space from future Earth, both traveled the stars in horizontally aligned rocket cruisers, often sporting elaborate tailfins that would eventually influence automobile design. These types of spacecraft did not seem to have been reported, though. The foo fighters and ghost rockets of the World War II era (and shortly thereafter) were balls of light or more akin to German V-2s. Even after the Kenneth Arnold sightings and the Roswell press release describing a flying disc, most of our space heroes used rocket ships. Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, the Space Patrol and Rocketmen From the Moon all featured rockets, not saucers.
True, three years after Arnold’s sighting The Day The Earth Stood Still depicted aliens landing in a flying saucer. It is important to note, though, that the original story (Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates) written over ten years earlier described a curved, ovular craft. Later in the 1950s flying saucers were depicted in Forbidden Planet and Earth vs The Flying Saucers, but there films were made after “saucer-mania” had taken hold. It seems that art imitates life, not the other way around!
Skipping ahead to the 1970s, the idea of alien abductions was a little more common after reported incidents such as the Betty and Barney Hill encounter, Travis Walton case and Pascagoula Incident. All of these episodes included descriptions of aliens. The Hills described large headed and greyish skinned aliens that were more human than the typical Greys. Walton described Greys and the aliens reported in Pascagoula were strange creatures with three cone shaped appendages on their heads. Although the descriptions of the Hills and Walton may have contributed to the alien design in Close Encounters, they had little to draw from themselves. Some claim an episode of The Outer Limits may have influenced the Hills, the alien portrayed was more akin to The Creature From The Black Lagoon than the aliens described by the couple.
Reports of the Greys became more and more common as the 1970s progressed but the alien images on television had not yet caught up. In the United States, the most popularly recognized aliens were probably from Star Trek and then Star Wars. Trek aliens by and large are almost human. Some. like the Vulcans, have a distinctive (but not terribly distracting) physical difference. Star Wars brought various strange races to the screen but neither seems to have greatly affected UFO sightings. Vulcans did not flood abduction reports, not did walrus faced aliens or laser crossbow wielding Bigfoots! Granted, there have been reports of aliens preaching of a interplanetary alliance for good that was trying to guide us without direct interference that sound reminiscent of Star Trek’s Federation and its Prime Directive. However, those type of stories go back to the contactee stories of Space Brothers that started over a decade before the Enterprise ever went to warp speed. Similarly, in the UK I am not aware of a spike in UFO encounters that include rasp-voiced rolling death machines like Doctor Who’s Daleks despite the fact that they were so popular (and have remained popular for the last 5 decades) that they spawned chart topping pop songs, toys, merchandise and even two theatrical movies (starring Peter Cushing).
To truly destroy the debunkers’ argument that popular imagery surrounding aliens fuels and shapes reported encounters, a careful survey of aliens in media (print, radio, television and film) must be made and tracked against reported encounters. Perhaps some reader out there who has been trying to figure out what they could contribute to the field of UFOlogy can undertake this quest. We need someone to undertake a search for Spock… at least in the UFO reports since Star Trek characters became household names. Perhaps I am very wrong and the skeptics and debunkers are right; perhaps there will be a correlation between media representations of aliens and those reported in UFO sightings. I do not think that will be the case, though, and then UFOlogy will have one more example of the flawed arguments posed by debunkers.