The X-Files: The Real UFO History Behind The Iconic Series

The X-Files took believers seriously and mined UFO myths to play off our fears and suspicions.

Anyone driving across a barren interstate freeway at night has likely looked up into the sky and wondered about the possibility of witnessing the unexpected. For people who have held beliefs in extra-terrestrials or alien craft, the entire history of the UFO phenomenon is an obsession that goes beyond mere fascination. 

Books, movies, and television help alien seekers conceptualize what an encounter could potentially look like. Perhaps no show has flown as close to the sun with depicting real-life accounts of the UFO phenomenon than The X-Files, the seminal sci-fi series from Fox and Chris Carter. 

When Carter’s series made its return to Fox for a revival in 2016, it honed in on a new extra-terrestrial threat for the digital age. Ever since they successfully blurred the line between fiction and real world events when the pilot debuted in 1993, The X-Files has depicted triangle-shaped crafts, or disc shaped crafts of various sizes, or even more recently in the new episodes, ARV’s – Alien Reproduction Vehicle’s. But the series drew from real world belief in the phenomenon, as well as the belief in global conspiracies. 

The Basis for The X-Files

Chris Carter’s pre-pilot research revealed something startling. He read a Roper Organization survey stated that three percent of the U.S. population believes they have been abducted by aliens. When Carter would later direct the “Duane Barry” episode, a fill-in crew member revealed his brother-in-law believed he had been abducted. Carter’s persistent mantra in the early years was that the show had to be “scientifically plausible.” This meant that a lot of the research was pulled from real UFOlogy archives. 

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One key plot element in the series has been the Roswell incident, which the Deep Throat character first mentioned in season one’s final episode “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” when he comments that “Roswell was a smokescreen.” It was a comment that would be mirrored by the old man in “My Struggle I” from the new event series.

The Roswell incident from 1947 in New Mexico has remained the holy-grail source for the subject, touching on most of people’s concerns. As The X-Files heavily played up in the first episode of season 10, “My Struggle,” they showed the military retrieving wreckage from an unidentified craft, and using intimidation, misdirection, deniability, or direct threats to hide from the public secret military technology, or the existence of extra-terrestrials. What is known about the incident is that an event took place in July of 1947. The public might not have known about it had it not been for a military press release on Tuesday, July 8th that confirmed a disc-shaped object that “landed” on a Ranch, just outside of Roswell Army Air Field.

“Are They Really A Hoax?”

The Roswell story caused a sensation for hours in the press before a second story was released that the wreckage of a weather balloon was recovered. Major Jesse A. Marcel was the head of 509th Bomb group intelligence office at the time of the incident. But the story of a landing wouldn’t jive with one of the eyewitness accounts of a foreman named William Brazel, who was working for rancher J.B. Foster at the time. 

William and his son Vernon claimed to have come across an area strewn with unfamiliar material that was part of some collected wreckage. In a matter of days, Major Marcel and Captain Sheridan Cavitt of the Counter-Intelligence Corps contacted them and took the materials. In spite of residential eye witness accounts by the Wilmonts, the flying saucer story was debunked by the Roswell Dispatch by July 9th. Interest in the story was revived by the late ‘70s, but most of the eyewitnesses had passed away by then. 

Many UFO believers regard the incident as a key moment, pointing fingers at segments of the military, whom they say created smokescreens to cover up alien technology, or secret military aircrafts. Original witnesses had offered conflicting stories; some had described a crashed disc, with two hundred yards in diameter that formed a long, thin strip some three quarters of a mile long, between two hundred to three hundred feet wide, and at one end was a deep gouge in the ground, ten feet wide, and five hundred feet long. That account would have indicated a significant amount of debris. 

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Some of the wreckage recovered had “I-beams” which Marcel’s son described as having hieroglyphic-type characters. These first accounts would describe something fairly mundane, and likely a crashed experimental craft in development near Roswell Army Air Field, or a shot down foreign craft. 

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The mythology of Roswell became evident here. There were no initial reports of an intact craft or alien bodies recovered. In 1974, TV researcher Robert Carr put out comments about a craft, and frozen alien bodies being held in Wright-Patterson AFB, related to a crash in 1948 that was later debunked. 

Despite the falsehood, it triggered interest in the UFO research community, and the Roswell case started to be taken seriously. Other figures have elaborated the story with greater claims, such as Frank J. Kaufman, Glenn Dennis, Jim Ragsdale, “Pappy” Henderson, Mr. Rowe, and Major Edwin Easley. Several figures even claiming there were two crash sites, which has only complicated the narrative about what was found. 

Some theories suggest that a Japanese Balloon bomb from World War II was recovered, or a V-2 rocket that veered off course, as part of the MOGUL project, a project developed with sensitive instruments and high altitude balloons to monitor soviet nuclear test activity. 

Roswell’s Rumble is Chris Carter’s Treasure

What The X-Files did do well was add fragments from the known history to create an unsettling agenda in the series’ mythology. Carter and Co. borrowed much of the tone of the 1960s ABC sci-fi series The Invaders, which starred Roy Thinnes, a future X-Files acting alumnus who played the character of Jeremiah Smith.

In The Invaders, Thinnes played David Vincent, a man who witnesses a flying saucer land with alien beings intent on taking over the Earth. Over the course of the series, Vincent manages to gather a small circle of people who believe him, and eventually the invaders change their plans.

The series had an obvious parallel to the plight of the X-Files iconic villain. “We had a perfect conspiracy with an alien race,” The Cigarette Smoking Man ominously intoned in The X-Files season six episode, “One Son”; “Aliens who were coming to reclaim the planet and destroy all human life. Our job was to secretly prepare the way for their invasion. To create for them a race of human-alien hybrids. They were good plans, right plans. Kept secret for over fifty years, ever since the crash at Roswell.” 

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Some of the events in the series that speak of a clandestine meeting between the Colonists and the Syndicate in 1973 revealed in “One Son” mirror a rumored alleged clandestine meeting in February 1954 at Muroc, now Edwards, air force base, with on-going contact between Extra-Terrestrials and eminent people, including Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

Related: Everything We Know About The X-Files Season 11

Which has also lead to the argument with some UFOologists that recovered technology from Roswell was “reversed-engineered,” and lead to developments like the current laser, transistors, microchips, Velcro, and microwave ovens. It has also been argued that such “reverse-engineering” gave the United States leverage with such contact. Deep Throat certainly suggested the Military use of “reverse-engineering” in season one’s second episode. 

In The X-Files season five episode “Redux,” Michael Kritschgau offered up an counter explanation regarding Roswell as a cover, a red herring for other agendas. 

“The Military saw a good thing in ’47 when the Roswell story broke. The more we denied it, the more people believed it was true. Aliens had landed – a made-to-order cover story for generals looking to develop the national war chest.” 

Kritschgau further noted that such official investigations as Grudge, Twinkle, Project Blue Book, and Majestic 12 fed into the belief in UFOs, Kritschgau also noted that the first supersonic flight was in 1947, after which, every experimental flight was considered a U.F.O. All of these points are part of the historical lore.

The new X-Files episode, “My Struggle” depicted a version of the Roswell Crash, while also citing several other events, including the Kenneth Arnold sightings from June 24, 1947, near Mount Rainier, Washington.Other events noted were the Maury Island sighing from June 21, 1947 near Tacoma, Washington, as well as the 1952 UFO flap over Washington D.C.  

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The Arnold sighting is notable. A pilot was commanding his own light aircraft to Pendleton Oregon from a job at Chehalis Air Service, Washington State, when he found himself near a location where an aircraft had vanished. At an altitude of 9,200 feet (2,760 m), he saw a bright flash, which he described as a “screwy formation… a chain of nine peculiar-looking aircraft” flying north to south at approximately 9,000 feet (2,790 m) elevation and going in a definite direction at an angle of 170 degrees. 

The objects approached Mount Rainier at a very high speed, some of them changing or dipping direction. He realized they were moving much too fast to be a flock of birds. Upon landing in Yakima, Arnold described what he had witnessed to his fellow pilots. He would later describe them as half-moon-shaped oval in front and convex in the rear. At first, the news of his sighting was treated as a hoax, but Arnold’s impeccable record and integrity prompted people to take him more seriously. Arnold had assumed it was some sort of secret weapon or Soviet aircraft invading US airspace, an idea that was reinforced in private by a former USAF officer, that it was some rocket-powered jet, skeptics have suggested he witnessed a flock of pelicans, but this ignores the little known fact that Arnold had another sighting in the same area five days later at La Grande Airfield, Oregon.

Another key sighting that was visually referenced in the “My Struggle” teaser was the Maury Island incident. Harold A. Dahl, a harbor patrolman at Tacoma, was on his boat with his fifteen-year-old son, his dog, and two crewman on the 21st at around 2 p.m. when they saw five doughnut-shaped objects with rows of portholes circling around a sixth object. They estimated it was about 2,000 feet (600 m) above the water at the Puget Sound. They estimated that the objects were about 100 feet wide with a 25-foot hole in the middle. 

While landing on the beach of Maury Island, Dahl took several photographs. One of the ships appeared to be trying to repair the other ship. There was a thunderous explosion, and the entire object emitted dark, almost molten, rock-like material and sheets of an extremely light metallic substance. Being directly under the shower, Dahl’s dog was killed, his son’s arm was injured, and the boat was damaged. After the UFOs headed out to sea, Dahl tried to get help via his radio, but it was dead. Dahl and others collected sample evidence and took it back to Tacoma to his boss, Fred Crissman. Soon, Kenneth Arnold was investigating the incident, and within days had his own encounter.

Lastly, there was the incident in Washington from 1952. As the nuclear age developed through the ‘50s, the ratio of UFO activity seemed to increase. In June of 1952, there were reports of UFOs over the skies of the east coast of the United States. Starting in Quantico, Virginia, there were various accounts of witnesses from Pan American Airline and National Airline crews spotting crafts through July, seen on radar at the Air Route Traffic Control. At Washington’s National Airport, the sightings near the capital reached such a degree that B-52s and F-94s were dispatched to intercept but to no avail. 

These cases would evolve and become more complicated, and many themes were cited and explored on The X-Files. UFO abductions, the alien-human hybrid hypothesis as first cited in “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” UFO cults cited in episodes like “Red Museum,” or Ancient Astronaut Theory first cited in “Biogenesis,” or animal experimentation as cited in “Fearful Symmetry.”

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Such real life incidents fed into the story arc’s of The X-Files, and often acted as a starting off point for the writers imagination. What is also to be noted is the point that writers would attend conventions about the UFO phenomenon in the early years, which would lead to the invention of characters like The Lone Gunmen, or other UFO investigators, there’s even accounts of the series writers enjoying cooperation from some government agencies. This cross pollination helped to shape the science and speculation that detailed the series.

Chris Carter and The X-Files took subjects that had been discussed in whispers and brought them into the mainstream, hence the popularity of Ancient Aliens for the History channel, or NASA’s Unexplained Files for the Discovery channel. Indeed, The truth is often stranger than fiction.

Den of Geek’s X-Files correspondent Matt Allair is a writer, freelance filmmaker, musician, and the webmaster of The X-Files Lexicon. He lives in San Francisco, CA. This article originally ran in November 2016.