You don't have to look very far for evidence of a cultural cacophony about extraterrestrials. In the minds of many, UFOs constantly zip through our skies carrying mysterious visitors who take a huge interest in certain humans. Yet, you do have to be a little careful with opinion polls. If I was asked, "Do you believe that the universe is full of extraterrestrial intelligent beings, and do you think it possible that some of them are now on Earth, or have been in the past?" I think I'd check the "yes" box. If the question was "Do you believe that reported UFO sightings are alien spacecraft and that aliens walk among us?" I'd have to check "no."
I think we sometimes confuse interest with belief and overestimate the extent and danger of public gullibility on this issue. I like reading my daily astrology message but that doesn't mean that I think it "works." Everyone who collects alien books and conspiracies is not necessarily a true believer.
Some people take the profusion of stories itself as evidence pointing to an alien presence. Certainly the intensity and ubiquity of the interest tells us that the subject taps into a deep well, but is this well fed by visitors or by desire?
"Flying saucers" were actually born of journalistic distortion. In June 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold, flying near the Cascades in Washington State, saw something strange—nine brightly glowing lights, moving in a series of jumps. Arnold described this motion as "like a saucer if you skip it across water." A reporter from the Associated Press picked up on this and described the sightings as "flying saucers." Arnold never said they were saucer-shaped, but ever since then dishware-shaped flying objects have filled our skies. Waves of saucer sightings often correlate with prominent media reports of sightings or human space activities. One of the largest was provoked by Sputnik, which got everyone looking up, scanning for new machines.
Among those looking skyward as Sputnik orbited overhead in 1957 were "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night."* Today's New Age interest in alien friends descends from beatnik mysticism, which morphed into hippie psychedelic cosmic consciousness and the boomer yearning to be members of a special generation who would set themselves free. When the revolution did not materialize as planned and everyone aged past thirty, trust in the coming transcendence was often placed in creatures from beyond this Earth.
The alien symbol—the little green guy with the big black eyes—ubiquitous in the nineties, will soon go the way of other saturated cultural icons like the sixties' peace sign and the seventies' smiley face. Which is to say that it'll never really go away.
UFOs and abductions have become a modern American folk mythology in the tradition of Paul Bunyan; tales that grow taller as they are retold. Some take the stories more seriously than others. As pluralism
*As Ginsberg wrote in Howl.
Image unavailable for electronic edition was fertile ground for social commentary in Voltaire's irreverent eighteenth-century interplanetary sagas, so today saucer and abduction myths are rich fodder for satire, as seen in the raunchy cartoon South Park. * In the pilot episode, "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe," third-grader Eric Cartman is abducted by aliens and given some kind of an implant. Cartman thinks he just had a nightmare, but his pals suspect it really happened, because they have heard about the mysterious "visitors" who are probing humans and abducting cattle. Cartman angrily insists that it was just a dream, until a few days later when an eighty-foot radio antenna suddenly sprouts out of his ass.
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