Earlier this month, Vox featured a video essay on its website examining “Why we imagine aliens the way we do.” Vox tells us: “We often imagine extraterrestrials to look a certain way because we’ve encountered them in books, films, or TV shows, which means that when we’re thinking about aliens, we’re usually thinking about the product of someone else’s imagination.” Vox is suggesting that we conceptualize aliens as we do almost entirely because of science fiction, in the form of books, movies, TV shows, etc. As I’ve shown in my own work, it’s not quite as simple as that. Vox’s video essay is interesting, but what it neglects to consider is the tremendous influence of the UFO subculture—a subculture sprung from what would appear to be an ontologically real phenomenon. 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. UFOs have been investigated by governments around the world for almost seven decades. What the phenomenon represents is open for debate, but the point is that, even in a world without movies, people would continue to report UFOs. People were reporting UFOs comfortably before Hollywood got in on the act. Indeed, the first reports of flying saucers in the modern UFO era pre-date Hollywood’s first feature film about UFOs by three years. It was in 1947 that pilot Kenneth Arnold’s famous sighting gave rise to the “flying saucer” term, but it wasn’t until 1950 that Hollywood produced The Flying Saucer, a cheap attempt to cash-in on the UFO hysteria then sweeping America—a hysteria incited not by cinema, but by numerous reports nationwide of disc-shaped objects intruding upon America’s airspace.
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