The 10 Most Influential UFO-Inspired Books, Movies and TV Shows

Popular Mechanics/February 20, 2009

By Erik Sofge

Purists will claim that the UFO craze officially started sometime around 500 B.C., when reports surfaced that a guy named Ezekiel had seen a flaming wheel descend from the sky.

But the modern era of UFO culture began in the late 1940s, when a pilot's account of a midair encounter with mysterious aircraft triggered a rash of similar reports across the United States. By the late 1950s, the occupation of pop culture was complete, and the old clichés have been warmed over and reinvented ever since. The flying saucers evolved into light-studded triangular mother ships, piloted first by interstellar conquerors, then kidnappers, and finally government collaborators. And just as mob movies have shaped the identity of the real-life Mafia, the fictional saucers and bug-eyed visitors in books, movies and TV shows have impacted real-life sightings.

The veritable menagerie of aliens described through the decades, from furry dwarves to naked, luminous blonde humans, were replaced by the tiny-bodied, swollen-headed "Greys." The bumbling government, making excuses to preserve our delicate sensibilities, has become a sinister cabal, either working with the Greys or cannibalizing technology from their crashed spacecraft.

Today, interest in UFOs appears to be surging again, thanks in part to last year's widely reported sightings in Stephensville, Texas, as well as a new wave of shows on cable following the exploits of UFOlogists. But the culture of UFOs is no longer a work-in-progress. The mythology is fully-formed. Here are the books, TV shows and movies that helped create it. These aren't the best, or the worst, but the ones that made the most impact on the prevailing American superstition of our time.

War of the Worlds

H.G. Wells' Victorian-era vision of interplanetary war bears little resemblance to the paranoid fantasies that blossomed a half-century later. But War of the Worlds was the first true appearance of alien invaders. These weren't demons or specters attacking the Earth but an invading force of Martians, decimating armies and armadas with three-legged tanks, heat rays and merciless chemical warfare. Descriptions of corpse-strewn cities reduced to rubble had more impact than the narrator's theories about blood-sucking, leathery Martians who evolved into little more than brains with tentacles. The message is the carnage, and the aliens are winning because of unprecedented offensive technology, including weapons of mass destruction.

Aside from pioneering the concept of hostile extraterrestrial contact, War of the Worlds inspired a 1938 radio broadcast that terrified thousands of listeners, and was itself the source of persistent conspiracy theories. Narrated by Orson Welles, the show was presented as realistic news bulletins of a Martian attack on New Jersey, with occasional disclaimers reminding the audience that it was a fictional story. If the novel planted the alien invasion meme in Western pop culture, Welles' broadcast was arguably the beginning of a distinctly American strain of UFO panic.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 movie)

Not exactly the first appearance of UFOs in movies (the somber, low-budget Man From Planet X was released earlier in 1951), this sci-fi classic featured an iconic flying saucer with an equally iconic passenger-Gort, a menacing robotic bodyguard. The visiting craft also carries a somewhat preachy, square-jawed alien, who warns of humanity's impending nuclear self-destruction.

UFO Impact

The movie is a surreal plea for peace at a time when Cold War tensions were taking on apocalyptic dimensions. That's all well and good, but it also had a very exciting-looking flying saucer and a space robot that could melt tanks with its eyes. By the time this movie came out, there had been countless illustrations on magazine and book covers of the saucer-shaped craft described by pilot Kenneth Arnold in 1946. Experts have pointed out that Arnold actually described the flight of the UFOs he encountered in midair as similar to a saucer skipping across water, while the craft themselves were more elongated than circular, with some sort of flight-control element. The Day the Earth Stood Still helped banish all nuances, turning a garbled quotation into an indelible, powerful image of what you, the UFO eyewitness, should be looking for.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1958 movie)

By 1958, the flying saucer frenzy had peaked, and the volume of reported sightings across the country was in decline. Hollywood, however, wasn't quite done with UFOs, and with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, stop-motion special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen delivered the most ominous and realistic flying saucers yet. The movie is almost bold in its simplicity-aliens in flying saucers attempt to make contact with humans, if only to advise us to surrender unconditionally. After a few misunderstandings and one-sided skirmishes, the saucers descend on Washington D.C., where a new kind of truck-mounted magnetic device is deployed to knock the marauding spacecraft out of the sky.

Similar to the Day the Earth Stood Still, the real legacy of this movie is its flying saucers. The dome-topped, counter-rotating vessels (the top panels spin in one direction, and the bottom another) were so impressive, subsequent movies used licensed footage from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers for their own saucer scenes. The movie's prologue is a now-familiar presentation of the UFO phenomenon as undeniable evidence of alien contact, by way of the sheer number of sightings around the world. The film also features mysterious glowing lights hovering in midair, which one character calls "foo lights," after the foo fighters reported by pilots during WWII. These turn out to be spies for the saucers-one of the many theories assigned to the strange lights, often called orbs, that show up in modern digital snapshots. No matter how many experts reproduce these blobs of light, either through lens flare or by using a flash when there's fog, snow or dust in the air, the orb invasion remains one of UFOlogy's unexplained mysteries.

The UFO Incident (1975 Made-for-TV movie)

In the '60s, the focus shifted from UFOs to their alien pilots. There were reports of individuals who communicated with aliens face-to-face, and occasionally visited their homeworlds in a friendly interspecies courtship. But by the '70s, the aliens turned to crime-mutilating cattle, gouging arcane symbols in farmland and kidnapping unsuspecting humans. The first reported abduction was back in 1961, when Betty and Barney Hill claimed to have been plucked from a New Hampshire road. Fourteen years later, James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons starred as the Hills in a surprisingly sober TV movie, The UFO Incident. Crippled by anxiety, and unable to remember what happened that night, the couple gradually reveals the details of their abduction while under hypnosis.

If The UFO Incident were a completely original story, it would have been a portrait of a marriage in crisis, with realistic dialogue, brilliant acting, and some great metaphoric use of alien symbology. But its "based on a true story" approach, and an ending that highlights the supposed veracity of a star map Betty drew while under hypnosis, delivers it into the hands of UFOlogists. The movie's biggest impact may have been the appearance of the alien abductors. Their heads are big, their eyes are elongated, and their skin is a wan shade of grey. For mainstream America, the "Greys" had arrived. In previous decades, the aliens described by eyewitnesses were a diverse bunch, from Smurf-size creatures to towering robots. But during the '70s and '80s, the Greys began to dominate the reports, eventually even edging out reptilians as the sole type of visitor. This was an American trend, though-Greys are much less common in other countries, and in Russia, the most widely described alien is a tall creature with a tiny head, an inverse of the big-headed, frail-bodied image.

In Search Of... (1976-82 TV series)

his documentary series, narrated by Leonard Nimoy, covered a wide range of paranormal topics. But it always came back to UFOs, with multiple episodes devoted to investigating the claims of credible witnesses around the country. Farmers showed off crop circles and abductees sketched their tormentors, while Nimoy lent a surreal sci-fi gravitas to this completely new breed of TV newsmagazine.

In Search Of... never actually found what it was looking for, but its sober, 60 Minutes-like tone and open-ended findings helped feed the nation's resurgent interest in UFOs. This wasn't one of many competing paranormal documentary series-In Search Of... was the only game in town, a presentation of raw UFOlogy, unfettered by Hollywood script doctors and nerd-baiting special effects. The fact that Nimoy was famous for playing a fictional alien didn't seem to get in the way, either. The show inspired a new generation of believers, and paved the way for the UFO-chasing series and specials now making a comeback on cable networks.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977 movie)

A half-decade before he made aliens cuddly with ET, Stephen Spielberg tapped into UFO paranoia. The result is the mother ship of all UFO movies, which somehow makes psychic visions, child-stealing tractor beams and a fleet of alien spaceships all seem perfectly plausible. Maybe it's the lack of villains, or any real threat-the aliens just want to talk, and so does the Pentagon. Or maybe it's the unexpected finale, where no death rays or magnetic cannons are fired, and our only secret weapon is a bunch of light bulbs and speakers, allowing humans to communicate with the aliens via lights and tones.

Close Encounters depicted two key elements in UFO culture: a massive government cover-up and more of those top-heavy Greys. When the Feds learn that people around the country are being drawn to a particular mountain in Wyoming, they use a fake story about a massive nerve gas leak to evacuate and seal off the surrounding area. The notion that the government would not only react to alien contact with lies and a carefully orchestrated media blackout, but would have been prepared for such an event for years, is one of the tentpoles of UFO-related conspiracy theory. But the more lasting impact of Close Encounters is that final act appearance of the Greys. In a movie that seems committed to a sense of realism, the depiction of these aliens is both a reflection of the rising popularity of Greys in eyewitness reports, as well as a potential factor in the reports that followed. Just like the Day the Earth Stood Still and Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers gave the public an object to look for, The UFO Incident and Close Encounters established the players in any alien encounter. The Greys were here to stay.

The UFO Phenomenon (1988 book)

For decades, the culture and mythology of UFOs were scattered and turbulent. Were the aliens here to help, or hurt? Why did they stop buzzing military aircraft in nuclear-powered rockets and start prowling rural America for experimental subjects? By the 1980s, the collective story of alien contact had been written-now, the challenge was editing it into something cohesive. So while movies and TV shows like V were consciously avoiding the tired realism of UFOlogy, Time-Life released its 33-volume book series, Mysteries of the Unknown. Like In Search Of..., the books promised a serious investigation of a wide range of paranormal topics. But the commercials, which ran for years on the major networks, included UFO-related phenomena. There were sketches of Greys, photographs of saucers and the nagging question-in the face of all this evidence, is there any doubt?

Watch the commercials online, and they seem like pure kitsch. But in the less media-savvy '80s, these ads were chilling vignettes, codifying the imagery and themes of UFO culture. The actual UFO-related volume, The UFO Phenomenon, was a deft, kid-friendly synopsis of the more prominent myths. With relatively few sightings or abduction stories in the news, this is where a new generation learned of the insidious "men in black," the monstrous Greys the photos and eyewitness accounts of UFOs that the U.S. Air Force's Project Blue Book could never explain away.

Communion (1988 novel)

Abductions, Greys, repressed memories-all old news when Whitley Strieber's autobiographical novel came out. Still, the book became a bestseller and later a movie starring Christopher Walken, and it remains one of the most respected and widely-believed stories of alien contact. The familiar, almost boring elements of the story are part of its genius. Communion is Betty and Barney Hill all over again, this time with a writer visited by Greys. He forgets the experience, then remembers, and the only tangible result is that Strieber becomes a permanent fixture in the UFO world.

Communion is still referenced by UFOlogists as one of the few in-depth primary sources on the nature of alien contact. It's not that Strieber has any substantial answers as to who they are, or why they drop in on humans at random. From the illustration on the book's cover to the aliens Strieber describes in the very first chapter, the purpose of Communion is to bear witness to the Greys, in an account that's as credible and emotionally honest as possible. What Strieber created is, to many, an irrefutable piece of evidence. That he's also a writer of science fiction doesn't seem the slightest bit suspicious.

Fire in the Sky (1993 movie)

The formative years of UFO culture were all but over when Fire in the Sky was released. Recounting the reported 1975 abduction of Travis Walton, the movie takes the once-popular nightmare scenario out for one last spin. Only this time, the special effects are top-notch, and the details of Walton's own account of his five-day imprisonment are amped up for dramatic effect. Instead of a relatively simple prodding, along the lines of the Hills, Walton finds himself in a gooey, vaguely biological ship, where at least one human corpse is rotting away, gravity appears to be warped, and the merciless Greys stick a huge needle in his eye. The authorities don't buy it, but before the credits roll, a title card explains that Walton, as well as the friends who reported seeing the UFO that abducted him, recently passed lie detector tests about the incident.

By garbling fact, supposed fact and outright fiction, the movie is a historical document for the modern UFO age. If the only interesting scenes in the movie, the ones related to the abduction, had all been tweaked for effect, what actually happened? And what about that lie detector stunt? The tests were arranged by the studio to generate publicity for the movie's release. Does that erase the failed and inconclusive tests administered by authorities at the time? Fire In The Sky is not a very good movie, but it's the last of its kind-an effective work of UFO propaganda.

X-Files (1993-2002 TV series)

With the debut of the X-Files in 1993, the UFOs had finally won. The rules had all been written about what these meddling, unearthly creatures looked like, how they got here and what role the government played in all of it. With the Internet, the mentality of conspiracy theory was roaring back into the mainstream. What better time to cycle through every UFO myth, from the crashed saucer at Roswell to the chips implanted in abductees' heads, and the hybrid babies in their wombs? Most of the time, FBI agents Scully and Mulder were as helpless as any eyewitness, buffeted by a conspiracy that dissected some aliens, collaborated with others and assassinated both JFK and Martin Luther King Jr.

At its mid-series peak, the X-Files was a masterpiece of all-consuming paranoia, and a catalog of all the fears and hopes that comprise UFO culture. The show didn't invent or publicize anything new-it surveyed the full pantheon, occasionally chasing some random genetic mutation or act of sorcery, but always returning to the aliens. For the uninitiated, it was a primer on the concept of extraterrestrial menace, and the general language and pursuit of UFOlogy. For the hardcore believers, it was a champion of the cause, a dramatized validation of countless pet theories and agendas. When Mulder is momentarily convinced that UFOs are nothing but a disinformation campaign created to smoke-screen even more heinous government schemes, the show captured that most elusive quality of conspiracy theorists-that anything, and everything, could be a cover-up, including the cover-up itself. It's the closed-loop logic of schizophrenics and Mobius strips, and it illustrates why UFO culture will never die off. Since the X-Files first aired, there have been plenty of aliens and aliens spaceships in movies, books and TV shows. But these are recycled stand-ins, the first-generation immigrants from Men in Black, or the mindless conquerors from Independence Day. The ideas have all been parsed, the old myths debated and refined, the mantle fully cooled. What's known, once and for all, is the identity of UFOs, and the aliens that fly them. Now, if someone could just produce one.

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