In the 1940s and 50s reports of “flying saucers” became an American cultural phenomena. Sightings of strange objects in the sky became the raw materials for Hollywood to present visions of potential threats. Posters for films, like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers from 1956 illustrate these fears. Connected to ongoing ideas about life on the Moon, the canals on Mars, and ideas about Martian Civilizations, flying saucers have come to represent the hopes and fears of the modern world.
Are these alleged visitors from other worlds peaceful and benevolent or would they attack and destroy humanity? The destructive power of the Atomic bomb called into question the progressive potential of technology. Fear of the possibilities for destruction in the Cold War-era proved fertile ground for terrestrial anxieties to manifest visions of flying saucers and visitors from other worlds who might be hidden among us in plain sight.
Aliens Among us and Fears of the Other
If UFOs were visiting our world, where were these extraterrestrials? Could they be hidden among us? Comic books and television illustrates how the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors reflected anxieties of that era.
The 1962 comic There are Martians Among Us, from Amazing Fantasy #15, illustrates the way fear of extraterrestrials could reflect Cold War anxieties. In the comic, a search party gathers around a landed alien craft, but it can find no sign of alien beings. Radio announcers warn those nearby to stay indoors. The action shifts to a husband and wife as he prepares to leave their home despite a television announcer’s warning to remain indoors. As he waves goodbye he reminds his wife to stay inside. The wife however decides to slip out to the store and is attacked and dragged off.
The husband returns home and finding it empty runs towards the telephone in a panic. In a twist, the anxious husband reveals that he and his wife are the Martians.
The fear that there might be alien enemies in our midst resonates with fears of Soviets and communists from the McCarthy era. Ultimately, in this story, the humans are the ones who accost and capture the alien woman. The shift in perspective puts the humans in the position of the monsters.
UFOs as Contemporary Folklore
Aside from depictions of UFOs in media, UFOs are also part of American folk culture. Ideas of aliens and flying saucers are a part of the mythology of America.
You can find documentation of these kinds of experiences in folk life collections. An interview with Howard Miller about hunting and hound dogs, collected as part of Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia collection, documents an individual’s experience with a potential UFO sighting.
In A mysterious light, a segment of an ethnographic interview, Miller describes a strange light he saw once while hunting with his dogs in 1966 “All at once it was daylight, and I looked up to see what happened. There was a light about that big, going up, drifting up the hill. When I looked and seen it just faded out. I’ve been in the Marines, and know what airplane lights look like, and it was too big for that.” When asked if he knew what it was he offered, “I don’t know what it was” but went on to explain, “If there is any such thing as a UFO that’s what that was.”
This unexplained light on a walk in the woods is typical of many stories of these kinds of encounters. It’s not only the media that tells stories and represents these kinds of ideas, documentation of the experiences and stories Americans tell each other is similarly important for understanding and interpreting what UFOs meant to 20th century America.
Skepticism of UFOs and Alien Encounters
Scientists and astronomers express varying degrees of enthusiasm for the possibility of intelligent life in the universe. However, scientists generally dismiss the idea that there are aliens visiting Earth. In Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, Carl Sagan reviews the possibilities of alien visitors to Earth, and suggests that there is good reason to be skeptical of them. Much of Sagan’s work focuses on debunking folk stories and beliefs and tries to encourage more rigorous and skeptical thought. He similarly discussed criticism of beliefs in alien visitors in his earlier book, Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
This zealous criticism of belief in UFOs from Sagan, who was well known for his speculative ideas about the likelihood of alien civilizations, might seem to be a contradiction. Sagan himself had even speculated on the possibilities of visits by ancient aliens in his essay from the early 60s Direct Contact among Galactic Civilizations by Relativistic Interstellar Spaceflight.
How do we reconcile Sagan the skeptic with the imaginative Sagan? Far from a contradiction, these two parts of Sagan’s perspective offer a framework for understanding him and the interchange between science and myth about life on other worlds. Skepticism and speculative imagination come together as two halves of the whole. It’s essential to entertain and explore new ideas, however strange, while at the same time testing and evaluating the validity of those ideas.
Original publication in the Library of Congress