Inside Roswell's Competing UFO Festivals

Believers and skeptics converge at two UFO Festivals in a small New Mexico town.

Newsweek/July 7, 2007
By Nathan Dinsdale

This is what happens when a flying saucer crashes in your town: the little green men are, well, little and green, but also purple, blue, yellow and black. Some wear dark capes and rubbery masks. Some hold Super Soakers in lieu of death rays. Others wear diapers instead of pants. One is dressed like a ballerina. Another just turned his Halloween costume inside out.

These extraterrestrials are children participating in an "alien costume contest" inside a McDonald's in Roswell, N.M., as part of the city's 2007 Amazing Roswell UFO Festival. "Everybody," says George Byrne, a longtime Roswell resident, as he watches his grandchildren prance around the McDonald's playground in their alien costumes, "needs a gimmick."

This city has a good one. This year's edition of the city's annual four-day festival, which began July 5, commemorates the 60th anniversary of the Roswell Incident, in which military officials from nearby Roswell Army Air Field announced that a "flying disc" had crashed into a local field, a bombshell that was quickly followed by an official dismissal of the initial report. The episode was largely forgotten until 1978 when "Ufologist" Stanton Friedman interviewed Maj. Jesse Marcel—a former Army intelligence officer stationed at RAAF—who alleged that the military had covered up the recovery of an alien spacecraft and crew.

In the nearly 30 years since, the mystery surrounding what actually occurred in July 1947 has only heightened. Whatever the object was, the crash has become the biggest thing to hit Roswell, a town of less than 50,000 people in the barren corner of southeastern New Mexico.

This year's festival includes guest speakers, costume contests, an Alien Motorcycle Rally, Alien Disc Golf tournament, Alien Chase 10K run, air show, skateboard exhibition and Alien Encounter Haunted House. Scores of vendors sell everything from "alien jerky" and "aura readings" to UFO key chains and I BELIEVE bumper stickers inside the Roswell Convention Center. In addition, there are celebrity appearances from the likes of actress Chase Masterson ("Star Trek: Deep Space Nine") and actor Dean Haglund (Langly from "The X-Files") and a concert headlined by Alan Parsons and War.

Still, like any good "X-Files" episode, the truth is both out there and in dispute. After the city and Roswell's UFO Museum reached an impasse over the direction of this year's festival there are now two festivals: One, the official 2007 Amazing Roswell UFO Festival, operated by the city and another, The 2007 Roswalien Experience, run by the International UFO Museum.

"We brought the city to this dance," says Julie Shuster, the museum's executive director. "There was no tourism industry in Roswell before the museum. But when we saw who they were bringing in this year we just couldn't be affiliated with it. They're making a circus out of it and we have credibility that we refuse to jeopardize."

Many Roswell residents hadn't even heard about the crash-let alone thought to capitalize on it-until the International UFO Museum and Research Center opened its doors in 1992. The museum-which now averages more than 12,000 visitors from 35 countries and all 50 states every month-quickly became popular and, in 1996, it held the first UFO Festival. But it wasn't until the following year that the festival floodgates opened, drawing nearly 50,000 people.

Shuster is not your average true believer. A photo on the wall of her office—alongside autographed pictures of Larry King and Dee Wallace Stone (Elliott's mom in "E.T.")—shows Shuster standing beside Lt. Walter Haut. Haut, now deceased, was the former Army public-relations officer who was ordered to write the initial press release claiming that the military had recovered a flying disc in 1947. Haut later co-founded the UFO Museum in 1991.

He was also Shuster's father. But despite the family ties, Shuster had never even heard about the crash until she read the 1980 book "The Roswell Incident," one of the first major efforts to document the alleged alien crash and subsequent cover-up. Even then, she was unconvinced. "I read it and I thought that my father had lost his ever-loving mind," Shuster says. "But then I read it again and I realized how valid this was. My father was a real person and he wasn't crazy. All the people involved were real, I knew most of them, and they weren't crazy either. The Roswell Incident happened and it was not of this earth. Those were my father's words and I believe that very strongly."

The difference between the two festivals is mostly clearly seen in the lectures. The titles of the city's fare ("UFOs & The Murder of Marilyn Monroe," "The Latest in Alien Implant Surgery" and "Reptilian Overlords, Military Abductions, Masonry, Mind Control and the New World Order") tend to be a tad more sensational than the fare at the Roswalian Experience ("Forensic Methods for Collecting Evidence of Alien Abduction," "Crop Circles and Fractal Alien Geometry" and "Alien Implants—The Fact, The Mistaken & The Fiction.")

Several high-profile lecturers—such as Stanton Friedman, Dr. Bruce Maccabee and Freddy Silva—opted to speak at UFO Museum events rather than engage in the more commercial atmosphere eight blocks away. "You just have to accept that sort of thing as part of humans being," Silva, considered one of the world's foremost crop circle experts, says. "People who want to discover the truth will come here. People who just want to have a good time will go elsewhere."

While planning for the future may lead to further contention between the city and the UFO Museum-the museum is planning a new $25 million facility and the city is considering building a UFO-themed amusement park-visitors to this year's festival(s) appear to be having the best of both (if not more) worlds.

"It's fantastic," Joel Lutenberg, a 37-year-old computer technician from New York, says. "In some respects, it's a typical convention. But there are other things here that add to the flavor. And just the fact that it's Roswell, which is so well-known, just adds to the appeal." Still, even an avid science fiction fan (and veteran of various "Star Trek" and "Twilight Zone" conventions) like Lutenberg isn't easily convinced.

"Essentially the jury is still out for me," Lutenberg says. "I certainly am not the type of person who would rule out the possibility of UFOs but, at the same time, I'd want more physical evidence to be convinced that there's life on other planets."

Steve McLaughlin needs no convincing. The 49-year-old from Indianapolis says he's confident that The Roswell Incident was of "alien origin." But he's still getting used to the idea of the UFO culture that has emerged in the 60 years since. "I'm kind of new to all of this," he says. "At least as far as attending these kind of events. But I've had other experiences with this sort of thing … I've had contacts since I was 8 years old."


"Abductions," McLaughlin clarifies, matter of factly. "To me, it was always like a curse. It's only been the last 10 years or so that I've been able to embrace it and turn it into more of a blessing. But I still don't really fit in with the average UFO person. I mean, some of the people that come to these things are kind of strange."

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