The 1990s were a high-water mark for public interest in UFOs and alien abduction. Shows like “The X-Files” and Fox’s “alien autopsy” hoax were prime-time events, while MIT even hosted an academic conference on the abduction phenomenon.
But in the first decade of the 21st century, interest in UFOs began to wane. Fewer sightings were reported, and established amateur research groups like the British Flying Saucer Bureau disbanded.
In 2006 historian Ben Macintyre suggested in The Times that the internet had “chased off” the UFOs. The web’s free-flowing, easy exchange of ideas and information had allowed UFO skeptics to prevail, and, to Macintyre, people were no longer seeing UFOs because they no longer believed in them.
Data seemed to back up Macintyre’s argument that, when it came to belief in UFOs, reason was winning out. A 1990 Gallup poll found that 27 percent of Americans believed “extraterrestrial beings have visited Earth at some time in the past.” That number rose to 33 percent in 2001, before dropping back to 24 percent in 2005.
But now “The X-Files” is back, and Hillary Clinton has even pledged to disclose what the government knows about aliens if elected president. Meanwhile, a recent Boston Globe article by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie suggests that belief in UFOs may be growing.
She points to a 2015 Ipsos poll, which reported that 45 percent of Americans believe extraterrestrials have visited the Earth.
So much for reason.
Why does Western society continue to be fascinated with the paranormal? If science doesn’t automatically kill belief in UFOs, why do reports of UFOs and alien abductions go in and out of fashion?
To some extent, this is political. Even though government agents like “Men in Black” may be the stuff of folklore, powerful people and institutions can influence the level of stigma surrounding these topics.
Sociologists of religion have also suggested that skepticism is countered by a different societal trend, something they’ve dubbed “re-enchantment.” They argue that while science can temporarily suppress belief in mysterious forces, these beliefs will always return – that the need to believe is ingrained in the human psyche.
A new mythology
The narrative of triumphant reason dates back, at least, to German sociologist Max Weber’s 1918 speech “Science as a Vocation,” in which he argued that the modern world takes for granted that everything is reducible to scientific explanations.
“The world,” he declared, “is disenchanted.”
As with many inexplicable events, UFOs were initially treated as an important topic of scientific inquiry. The public wondered what was going on; scientists studied the issue and then “demystified” the topic.
Modern UFOlogy – the study of UFOs – is typically dated to a sighting made by a pilot named Kenneth Arnold. While flying over Mount Rainier on June 24, 1947, Arnold described nine disk-like objects that the media dubbed “flying saucers.”
A few weeks later the Roswell Daily Register reported that the military had recovered a crashed flying saucer. By the end of 1947, Americans had reported an additional 850 sightings.
During the 1950s, people started reporting that they’d made contact with the inhabitants of these craft. Frequently, the encounters were erotic.
For example, one of the first “abductees” was a mechanic from California named Truman Bethurum. Bethurum was taken aboard a spaceship from Planet Clarion, which he said was captained by a beautiful woman named Aura Rhanes. (Bethurum’s wife eventually divorced him, citing his obsession with Rhanes.) In 1957, Antonio Villas-Boas of BRAZIL reported a similar encounter in which he was taken aboard a ship and forced to breed with a female alien.
Psychologists and sociologists proposed a few theories about the phenomenon. In 1957, psychoanalyst Carl Jung theorized that UFOs served a mythological function that helped 20th-century people adapt to the stresses of the Cold War. (For Jung, this did not preclude the possibility that UFOs might be real.)
Furthermore, American social mores were rapidly changing in the mid-20th century, especially around issues of race, gender and sexuality. According to historian W. Scott Poole, stories of sex with aliens could have been a way of processing and talking about these changes. For example, when the Supreme Court finally declared laws banning interracial marriage unconstitutional in 1967, the country had already been talking for years about Betty and Barney Hill, an interracial couple who claimed to have been probed by aliens.
Contactee lore also started applying “scientific ideas” as a way to repackage some of the mysterious forces associated with traditional religions. Folklore expert Daniel Wojcik has termed belief in benevolent space aliens as “techno-millennarianism.” Instead of God, some UFO believers think forms of alien technology will be what redeems the world. Heaven’s Gate – whose members famously committed mass suicide in 1995 – was one of several religious groups awaiting the arrival of the aliens.
You’re not supposed to talk about it
In 1966, the Air Force tapped a team of University of Colorado scientists headed by physicist Edward Condon to investigate reports of UFOs. Even though the team failed to identify 30 percent of the 91 sightings it examined, its 1968 report concluded that it wouldn’t be useful to continue studying the phenomenon. Condon added that schoolteachers who allowed their students to read UFO-related books for classroom credit were doing a grave disservice to the students’ critical faculties and ability to think scientifically.
As religion scholar Darryl Caterine explained in his book “Haunted Ground,” “With civil rights riots, hippie lovefests and antiwar protests raging throughout the nation, Washington gave its official support to a rational universe.”
While people still believed in UFOs, expressing too much interest in the subject now came with a price. In 2010, sociologists Christopher D. Bader, F. Carson Mencken and Joseph O. Baker found that 69 percent of Americans reported belief in at least one paranormal subject (astrology, ghosts, UFOs, etc.).