On the origins of a modern myth …
I stumbled across this rather non-spectacular picture of a “Grey alien” the other day and I kept thinking: What does this remind me of? It looks so familiar, all naked and creepy-like. This means something! This is important!
And then I realized it was Buffalo Bill from the movie The Silence of the Lambs. The alien’s naked, creepy pose and the camera angle are identical to the scene where Buffalo Bill tucks his cock between his legs and dances with manikins to the song Goodbye Horses.
See what I did there? … “This means something! This is important!”
That quote is from the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It is from the scene where Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) plays with his mashed potatoes during dinner, freaking out his wife and kids in the process. If you aren’t familiar with the movie, it begins with various individuals around the world having brief “close encounters” with alien ships. After their encounters, these individuals have visions of a shape and they feel compelled to reproduce the shape in paintings, drawings, and sculpture, and it was these visions that motivated Roy to spontaneously sculpt a large pile of mashed potatoes one night at dinner. After awhile, Roy notices that his wife and kids are staring at him in horror and he breaks down sobbing: “This means something! This is important!”
What it meant was apparently Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. A number of people in the movie, including of course Roy Neary, eventually make this connection, but only after seeing the mountain in news reports of a train wreck near the mountain that released toxic nerve gas. This was of course a scare story cooked up by the government in order to clear people from the area.
As conspiracy theories go, Grey aliens are rather passé now, but they were all over the place in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The Grey alien myth is widely presumed to have it’s origins in the Roswell UFO incident (1947) and the Betty and Barney Hill abduction claim (1961). I don’t think so, however. I think the Grey alien myth originated from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It is the first movie (that I know of) to feature aliens of the “Grey alien” variety. Although there may have been a previous movie that I’m not aware of, Close Encounters was certainly the first hugely successful blockbuster film to feature them. This movie had a very broad impact.
Contrary to popular myth, there were no aliens in the original Roswell story. In fact, the incident itself wasn’t particularly spectacular. From the interview with rancher W.W. “Mac” Brazel in the Roswell Daily Chronicle, July 9, 1947:
Brazel said that he did not see it fall from the sky and did not see it before it was torn up, so he did not know the size or shape it might have been, but he thought it might have been about as large as a table top. The balloon which held it up, if that was how it worked, must have been about 12 feet long, he felt, measuring the distance by the size of the room in which he sat. The rubber was smoky gray in color and scattered over an area about 200 yards in diameter.
When the debris was gathered up the tinfoil, paper, tape, and sticks made a bundle about three feet long and 7 or 8 inches thick, while the rubber made a bundle about 18 or 20 inches long and about 8 inches thick. In all, he estimated, the entire lot would have weighed maybe five pounds.
And that’s pretty much all there is to the Roswell incident. It was a balloon, although a somewhat secretive military one used to detect Soviet atmospheric nuclear detonations. The story made a bit of a splash at the time because the term “Flying Saucer” had just been coined two weeks prior to the Roswell event and the country was in the midst of a UFO frenzy. But the story of Roswell was forgotten after a few weeks.
The Betty and Barney Hill abduction incident was even less spectacular, and considerably more hokey. The couple claimed in 1961 to have encountered a UFO crewed by humanoid-looking guys in shiny black uniforms which they observed through the windows of the ship using a pair of binoculars. Weeks later, Betty began having dreams in which she “remembered” various details of being inside the ship. Does a story like this really merit any attention at all? Do their descriptions of the aliens they claimed to encounter sound like the Greys?
How is it then that these two stories came to be regarded as the catalysts for the Grey alien legend? And how did the story of the Roswell UFO become so huge and so out of touch with the original, long-forgotten facts?
It’s interesting that whenever somebody reports seeing something unusual, suddenly everybody starts seeing the same thing. Often, the process begins with a movie. For example, shortly after the movie Jurassic Park came out, somebody reported seeing a pterodactyl flying around. Then another person saw one, and then two people saw pterodactyls, and so on. After awhile, a pterodactyl invasion seemed to be underway. And then the excitement sort of fizzled and the reports went away. It happens like that. In June of 1947, pilot Ken Arnold reported seeing multiple “saucer-like” objects flying at supersonic speeds near Mount Rainier, Washington. World War II had ended less than two years prior to Arnold’s sighting, and the only objects then known that were capable of the speeds that Arnold reported were German V-2 rockets. Naturally, Arnold’s sighting, which coined the new term “flying saucer,” peeked the interest of the period. Before long everybody was seeing flying saucers, including the “flying saucer” that was purported to have crashed in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico just two weeks after Ken Arnold’s report. After a year or so, the UFO stories disappeared, much as did the pterodactyl stories which were spawned by Jurassic Park.
Flash forward thirty years now to 1977-78. The widely successful movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released in November of 1977. Also launched in 1977 and very popular was the TV show In Search Of, hosted by Leonard Nimoy. In Search Of featured stories on a wide variety of mysterious phenomena and historic events. Episode 49, UFO Captives, aired in September, 1978. Episode 97, UFO Cover-Ups, aired September, 1980. Finally, in 1978, author and UFO researcher Stanton Friedman interviewed Major Jesse A. Marcel, who was the Intelligence Officer at the Roswell Army Air Force base in 1947 when the Roswell “Incident” occurred. By the time of his 1978 interview, Marcel seemed to be a little bit “off,” and remembered all manner of crazy details that were never part of the original story.
Those are the key events of the 1977-78 time frame that awoke the beast known as Roswell. Up until the time that Stanton Friedman interviewed Marcel in 1978, the Roswell story was unknown. For thirty years, it was forgotten! Friedman knew little to nothing about Roswell and had no idea who Marcel was when when the idea of interviewing Marcel was first suggested to him in 1978. In fact, although In Search Of began airing in 1977 and had a number of UFO related episodes during it’s first years, even they didn’t get around to covering Roswell until Season Five! And even that episode (UFO Cover-Ups) doesn’t mention Roswell in the description, instead focusing on Hangar 18 of Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind rekindled America’s interest in UFO’s, and Stanton Friedman fanned the flames. Before long, witnesses were appearing right and left. The descriptions of alien wreckage grew wilder with each passing year. The Roswell crash now had resulted in a huge crater, with scattered burning wreckage that had to be cleaned up quickly by the government agents. And there were alien bodies and this and that, and various things that had to be carted away to secret government facilities at Area 51 and Wright-Patterson. Stanton Friedman catalyzed a Roswell UFO orgy that lasted well into the 21st century and still lingers in 2014. But the story became so insanely complicated, with various new twists and witnesses added every month, that going back and trying to piece the history of the myth together is complicated as hell.
As the story evolved, the Roswell incident became not one crash site but two or three. One of my favorite witnesses was a truck driver from Carlsbad named Jim Ragsdale. He is one of the main witnesses to have allegedly seen alien bodies in wreckage. His story is about a crash site about 35 miles away from the original Roswell crash site, and his testimony begins as follows:
We (Jim and his girl friend, Trudy Truelove) were lying in the back of my pickup truck, buck naked, drinking beer and having a good ‘ol time when all hell broke loose.
No, I’m not making that up. Those are Jim Ragsdale’s actual words in 1993. As his story goes, he and girlfriend Trudy Truelove (I’m not making that up either) were going at it late at night in the pickup truck when an object sailed overhead and crashed into a hill about a mile away. They went to investigate and found a ship stuck in the side of a cliff. But the batteries of their flashlights were failing, so instead of driving into town for help, they decided to go back to their original campsite and have more sex and to return in the morning. The next day, they saw some wreckage and alien bodies, and gathered up some unusual material from the site (the strange indestructible Mylar-like material that virtually every Roswell witness seems to collect as a souvenir but can never produce). But then, Jim and Trudy had to run and hide when a convoy of military police arrived, gathered up all the debris and bodies, and raked the ground clean so that nobody could tell anything had ever crashed there.
Regarding Jim Ragsdale’s sample of the magical aluminum foil, Mylar-like substance that seems ubiquitous to the Roswell story:
Unexplained to this day is the disappearance of the material. My friend (Trudy Truelove) had some in her vehicle when (many months later) she was killed hitting a bridge and it was gone when the wreckage was brought into town. My truck and trailer was (sic) stolen from my home, again with material in the truck, never to be heard from anywhere. My home was broken into, completely ransacked, and what was taken was the material, a gun and very little else of value.
Did I mention that Jim Ragsdale is a star witness in all of this? His story is a significant component to the myriad of post-Friedman books to be published on the subject, beginning with The Truth about the UFO Crash at Roswell (Randle and Schmitt, 1994).
Clearly, I will not be rattling through every twist and turn of the Roswell saga here, as that would fill a doctoral dissertation. I will, however mention one last book published in 2012 by scientifically illiterate author Anne Jacobsen. The book, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, was supposed to be about the true history of Area 51 and the early secret projects there that were only recently declassified. Indeed, the National Geographic documentary based on the book was factual and very well done. Jacobsen’s book, however, was an odd blend of fact and conspiracy theory that veered off course into a wild tale of a Soviet built UFO, manned by mutant humans created by exiled Nazi scientists, crashing at Roswell. I was so appalled by the book that I trashed it in an Amazon review:
The Air Force Flight Test Center known as “Area 51” obtained it’s spooky name from it’s grid location on a map: It is in area #51. This is well known and a competent writer/researcher ought to be able to get a simple detail like this right. In the book and in several promotional interviews, Annie Jacobsen repeatedly states that the name “Area 51” is derived from the year 1951. If she can’t get a simple detail like this correct, one is left to question the veracity of the rest of her book.
With the recent declassification of the A-12 Oxcart Project, a lot of guys (heroes) who worked on projects at Area 51 are finally able to talk about their work. Annie interviewed a lot of these guys for her book, yet she apparently also interviewed a lot of well known frauds and flakes (e.g. Lazar) and she tells the stories of these nutballs right alongside the true heroes of Area 51. She blends fact and fantasy at will, discussing the A-12 on one page, and little green men created by Nazis for Stalin on another. Annie Jacobsen treats truth like something to be whipped up in a blender … a dash of SR-71 Blackbird, a touch of secret Nazi UFO … blend it all up and serve with Teenage Mutant Ninja Martians. She acts like a complete novice who has pranced on the scene, picked up a few scattered bits of stories here and there, and recombined them into new stories in order to make a quick buck.
The true story of Roswell: The foreman of a ranch , Mac Brazel, found some scattered debris in mid-June 1947 which he later described as rubber strips, tinfoil, scotch tape, tough paper, and sticks. In other words, trash. It was so unremarkable that he left it and didn’t return to clean it up for over two weeks. When he returned on July 4 with members of his family, they spent time picking it all up and sticking it in bags. He estimated the debris all together weighed maybe five pounds. Testimony of his daughter, who had helped clean up the wreckage on July 4, includes some details (e.g. tape with flowers printed on it) but is otherwise consistent with Brazel’s story. That’s it! That’s the whole story! It was reported to be a weather balloon although it now seems likely that it was a balloon from Project Mogul to detect Soviet nuclear tests. Either way, that was the state of the story for over 30 years until people began to add magical details, other crash sites, and alien corpses in the 1970’s and onward. Annie Jacobsen has now added the next phase of this outlandish extrapolation of an otherwise simple story, by changing the aliens into Nazi mutants.
Anyone interested in meeting the real heroes of Area 51 should visit their site at Roadrunners Internationale.
Finally, I should point out that I have visited The International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico, and it is grand! The place may be different now, but when I visited in 2002 it was a feast for the eyes! They also allow you to bring dogs into the museum, or at least they did in 2002. But it’s okay, because I’m pretty sure none of the exhibits cost more than a hundred dollars or so to produce. 😛
- I mentioned earlier in this post that Jim Ragsdale “had to run and hide when a convoy of military police arrived, gathered up all the debris and bodies, and raked the ground clean so that nobody could tell anything had ever crashed there.” That made things very easy for Ragsdale, since he had an excuse why no evidence could be found to corroborate his story. It’s only fair to add though that such clean up teams do exist and have been deployed in real situations, one of which was described in the National Geographic documentary on Area 51. See the photograph and caption below.