Aliens in America: A History of UFO Storytelling

Starting with War of the Worlds all the through Roswell, New Mexico, pop culture has been captivated by aliens and UFOs.

Aliens in America: The War of the Worlds

This feature is presented by Roswell, New Mexico.

Orson Welles’ 1939 radio play adaptation of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic, The War of the Worlds, is the stuff of entertainment legend. 

The hour-long program for The Mercury Theatre on the Air on the CBS radio network was nothing if not innovative. Welles designed the narrative to play out as a series of breaking news bulletins that interrupted the typical evening programming. Authoritative-sounding news men described the events of the novel as though they were happening in the moment. The trustworthy voices described an unidentified flying object crash on a farm in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. The newsmen described police and various onlookers as they witness that cylindrical object open, Martians emerge, and start killing people with a heat ray. 

You can watch our video about the history of UFO storytelling right here, or keep reading for a more in-depth look!

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Despite a clear disclaimer that the radio show was a drama, plenty of radio listeners were unaware and flooded local newspapers and emergency services with frightened correspondence. The Trenton police department reported receiving 2,000 calls within two hours. 

Modern historians and observers have since theorized that the extent of the public’s panic was overblown or perhaps even exaggerated by CBS or Welles himself. According to a C.E. Hooper survey of 5,000 households conducted the night of the broadcast, only two percent of homes even listened to The War of the Worlds

Still, sometimes the legend is more important to understanding how we understand ourselves than the reality. We have always imagined that Orson Welles was such a titanically talented artist that he could summon a riot through a mere hour of good dramatic storytelling. Or perhaps even we imagine that those silly folk from 1938 were so gullible and uncultured so as to be fooled by radio waves. There’s no way that a more modern audience would be fooled like that. 

read more: New UFO Sighting Not So Far from Roswell

Except that a more modern audience was fooled like that… at least twice, according to another fantastic hour of radio storytelling, Radiolab’s “War of the Worlds” episode. In 1949, Leonardo Paez, the director of art for Rádio Quito in Ecuador, wanted to try his own Spanish language radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds.  

On Saturday, February 12, 1949, Paez ran a version of the story designed more directly to trick the listener than Welles’ ever was. This time there was actual pandemonium. People took to the streets in a panic, which quickly changed to anger once they discovered they had been duped. An angry mob set the radio station on fire. Six people died in the inferno, including Paez’s girlfriend and nephew. 

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In 1968 Buffalo station WKBW tried out its own War of the Worlds broadcast. Buffalo police claim they received 4,000 frightened phone calls that night. 47 newspapers covered the story. The Canadian military even dispatched troops to the Peace Bridge, which connects Buffalo to Fort Erie, Ontario. 

The story of The War of the Worlds, the H.G. Wells original and all of the various radio adaptation that followed it, isn’t just the story of artistic brilliance or human gullibility, though those both play are certainly part of it. The story behind The War of the Worlds and the reason for its longevity is that humanity is fascinated by aliens, UFOs, and the untold mysteries of the universe

The War of the Worlds model of sci-fi storytelling keeps on popping up over and over again because aliens are some of the most complementary pieces possible in our storytelling. Aliens and the UFOs are the perfect combination of science and fiction. The scientific side of the human brain can appreciate that the universe is so big that there certainly must be other intelligent living beings within it. The fanciful, superstitious side of the human brain can imagine those beings living on Mars and wielding heat rays to destroy us all. 

Not only that but if one of the basic tenets of storytelling is “us vs. them” who could possibly be a better “them” than the little humanoid creatures who live way, way, way, way, way out there?

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Aliens and UFOs may seem a bit more en vogue now that The CW is launching its new series Roswell, New Mexico this month. The truth though is that aliens and UFOs never really went away. They are always there in the back of our subconscious waiting for the moment we need a particularly satisfying “them.” 

With that in mind, here are five more alien invasion, abduction, and visitation pieces of pop culture that have debuted between Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds and The CW’s Roswell, New Mexico. Each one has something slightly different to say based on the era from which it comes but also something timeless about humanity’s relationship to the alien.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Jack Finney’s 1954 sci-fi novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers can give H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds a run for its money in terms of influence. While The War of the Worlds led to many radio adaptations (and a pretty good mid-2000s Steven Spielberg movie), Invasion of the Body Snatchers led to three direct film adaptations, two of which are all-time classics.

read more: The Legacy of Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The first, Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is perhaps the best. In the film, alien plant spores have fallen to Earth from space and have grown into large seedpods. Each pod will eventually create a replacement copy of each human on Earth. When fully developed, that pod will then “assimilate” the person nearest it.

Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers captures the theme of the novels brilliantly. If the classic alien story is “us vs. them,” Body Snatchers takes the “them” and turns them into “us.” 

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind puts a fascinating twist on the classic alien invasion story. Whereas previous incarnations of aliens and UFOs have mostly wanted to dominate Earth and the humans who occupy it, the aliens of Spielberg’s film seem to want something more complex…and far less dangerous to humans. 

read more: Close Encounters of the Third Kind and its Pre-Release Secrecy

Richard Dreyfuss stars as Roy Neary, an unassuming electrical lineman in Indiana who has a fateful encounter with a mysteriously celestial object one night and soon after becomes obsessed with UFOs. Before he knows it Roy is sculpting weird shapes out of mashed potatoes and dreaming about Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. 

Truly a relic of the spiritual ‘70s, Close Encounters of the Third Kind leans hard on the supernatural, mystical nature of alien life. In that sense, the aliens of Spielberg’s Close Encounters aren’t that different our perception of God. They’re out there somewhere and they have answers for us. Pray that they share them.

Communion: A True Story

Communion: A True Story (1987)

So much of the popular perceptions and myths surrounding alien abduction come from this 1987 book by Whitley Strieber. Strieber is an American writer best known for his horror novels The Wolfen and The Hunger. Communion, however, is purported to be non-fiction. 

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In Communion, Strieber describes his experience being abducted by aliens and there are plenty of familiar tropes. For one, Strieber experiences lost time and can only recover his memories of abduction via hypnosis. Through hypnosis, Strieber recalls being abducted from his cabin in New York state by humanoid alien beings. The aliens resemble what are now best known as “grays,” though Strieber compares them to the Sumerian goddess Ishtar. Communion would be adapted into a 1989 film of the same name starring Christopher Walken.

Communion and similar alien abduction stories of the ‘80s mark an important milestone in pop culture’s relationship to aliens. Rather than interacting with humanity on a grand scale like in The War of the WorldsBody Snatchers, or Close Encounters, aliens are perfectly happy to deal with human beings on a one-to-one basis. Here the concept of communication starts to play an increasingly important role in stories of aliens and UFOs.

The X-Files

The X-Files (1993)

The X-Files was one of television’s first honest-to-goodness science fiction spectacles. Science fiction had always had a home on the smaller screen dating back to The Twilight Zone but Fox’s The X-Files proved that sci-fi could perform for mass audiences. Thanks, aliens! 

The X-Files wasn’t purely about aliens and UFOs. Each of the shows nine seasons (eventually 11) featured FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigating all manner of paranormal phenomena. The show’s central mythology, however, was often reserved for exploring life outside of Earth.

The thing that made Fox Mulder a “believer” was the childhood abduction of his sister by aliens. Mulder would come to be abducted himself in the show’s seventh season. The aliens of The X-Files were in many ways continuations of the Close Encounter brand of aliens. These beings had answers to some questions that humanity simply didn’t.

Aliens in America: Signs (2002)

Signs (2002)

M. Night Shyamalan’s third filmSigns, tackled another popular aspect of the alien phenomenon: crop circles. Crop circles are mysterious symbols that appear in farmers’ fields overnight. Upon their popular arrival in the ’70s, many posited that the symbols were created by and meant for aliens. After all, who would have greater need of messages etched onto the Earth’s surface than a UFO?

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read more: Ranking the Films of M. Night Shyamalan

Of course, the original crop circles and pretty much all that sprung up after them were eventually revealed to be a hoax. That doesn’t stop Signs from asking the question: but what if they weren’t? In Signs, the Hess family in rural Pennsylvania must deal with the sudden appearance of a crop circle in one of their fields over night. Then the “signs” of an oncoming alien invasion begin to mount. Signs takes a very singular and humanist approach to the alien invasion trope. What matters more than the aliens and what they are trying to communicate is the Hess family and how they will deal the sudden encroachment of a higher power on their lives.

Fargo Season 2

Fargo Season 2 (2015)

Fargo’s second season features one of the most recent pop culture iterations of UFOs but the show, itself is set in a far earlier, more alien-friendly era. Season 2 of Noah Hawley’s sort-of anthology series takes place in the upper Midwest in March, 1979 (just two years after Close Encounters of the Third Kind hit theaters). 

The season follows Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson), a Minnesota State Patrol trooper who finds himself in over his head when local crime family the Gerhardts run afoul the Kansas City mob and set off a chain of violence that affects the organized crime world and genteel Minnesota communities as well. If that doesn’t sound like a particularly science fiction concept, that’s because it isn’t. Fargo Season 2 is as grounded as it comes…except for this one thing. Periodically throughout the season, a UFO just suddenly appears, casting a light down upon the fresh northern snow. Several times characters see the thing, and in one notable instance, Lou’s life is saved when the UFO appears, distracting would-be murderers. 

The show never fully explains the UFO’s presence or why it’s there. The closest it comes to doing so is in the season’s fascinating final scene. Lou’s wife, Betsy approaches her father Hank (Ted Danson) with some trepidation because she’s seen a disturbing room in his home that’s absolutelyfilledwith crude child-like drawings. He seems to have gone mad but Betsy gives the old man the benefit of the doubt and asks him what the pictures are all about. Hank answers that he’s seen violence all his life, from war in Korea to petty crimes in his role as police officer. It made him think about miscommunication and how it can be the root of all conflict. It all comes down to language. So his simple drawings were an attempt to create a universal language of pictures. 

If anything, the inclusion of the UFO seems to be Fargo Season 2’s own meta commentary on miscommunication. We have no idea why it’s there or what it’s intentions are. And that’s not unusual for the human species among itself. Why should it be any different for celestial visitors? 

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Roswell, New Mexico premieres on Tuesday, January 15th at 9/8c on The CW.