The Influence of the Media

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The Influence of the Media

Since many Americans learn their history through the dramatic presentations provided by motion pictures and television, it is rapidly becoming generally accepted "history" that a secret branch of the U.S. government has conducted a massive cover-up since the Roswell incident of 1947 so scientists could work unhindered to employ knowledge gained through alien technology to accelerate the pace of human scientific accomplishments. The fact that a poll conducted in 1998 by CNN/Time, a major news-gathering agency, found that as much as 80 percent of the U.S. public believed that an organized government conspiracy has attempted to cover up the truth about UFOs demonstrates that such long-held and oft-repeated accusations by thousands of researchers and witnesses of aerial phenomena have grown deep roots in the mass consciousness.

While numerous science-fiction films and television series have used the theme of alien invaders, certain motion pictures and series seem to have impressed the mass psyche of their audiences far more than those with simple plots dealing with bug-eyed monsters terrifying the inhabitants of Earth. In 1951, Howard Hawks's The Thing from Another World told the story of a small group of U.S. Air Force personnel and scientists stationed at an isolated outpost near the North Pole who must deal with an alien that needs their blood in order to survive. The film was a thriller that steadily built tension and frighteningly portrayed how helpless humans might be at the hands of a single powerful alien life-form.

In that same year, Robert Wise released the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), which presented a wise and peaceful alien who came to warn Earth's politicians and scientists that they must cease their experiments with nuclear power or risk annihilation from extraterrestrials who will not tolerate unbridled human aggressiveness. Actor Michael Rennie's portrayal of the soft-spoken alien "Klaatu" provided a model extraterrestrial emissary for generations of UFO contactees.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

In the character of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), director Steven Spielberg expresses the dilemma faced by an ordinary man who experiences a close encounter with a UFO and is given a mental summons to meet with the aliens at a future time. The film explores the range of emotions and inner stresses faced by a UFO contactee, including the confusion of his family, the reluctance of the authorities to recognize his experience as genuine, and the obsession of the contactee to respond to the "invitation" that the aliens have somehow impressed in his psyche.

Forced by an inner compulsion to seek reunion with the aliens atop Devil's Tower, Wyoming, Neary must leave his tearful and distressed wife (Teri Garr) and children behind as he continues his rendezvous with space intelligences. He is soon joined by an ally (Melinda Dillon), whose son was abducted from their farm home, who also is receiving telepathic messages about where he will be returned to her.

Spielberg claimed that he had adapted many actual stories of UFO contact for the screenplay, including accounts from the files of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the astronomer who had been employed by the U.S. Air Force in its official research of the UFO mystery, Project Blue Book. Hynek was even given a cameo in the film, and he can be seen among the scientists gathered to welcome the aliens when the massive mothership sets down on Devil's Tower. In numerous interviews, Spielberg said that he had always been fascinated by the subject of flying saucers and alien contact, and he liked to remind interviewers that he was born in 1947, the first year of the modern era of UFOs.

The alien beings, when they are at last revealed on screen, appear to be childlike, benevolent entities, seemingly so innocent as to be incapable of interstellar travel. And when Neary is selected to return with them to their world, many moviegoers were touched vicariously and felt their spirit prepare to lift off with them.

Such a positive portrayal of alien life-forms as that depicted in Close Encounters of the Third Kind was in sharp contrast to the monsters and the invaders that had populated so many science fiction motion pictures, and the way was paved for the arrival of Spielberg's E.T.The Extraterrestrial (1982).

In this film, an amphibian/reptilian entity so lived on the love vibration that audiences could not resist its charm. The evil alien appeared banished from the screen and television sets, and talk of government cover-ups was forgotten by all but a small number of diehard UFO investigators. Even those aliens who looked human, such as Robin Williams on the series Mork and Mindy (197882), were not at all threatening.

Sinister aliens didn't return to the general public consciousness until stories began circulating of humans claiming to have been abducted by extraterrestrial crews for purposes of undergoing bizarre medical examinations. In 1986 Whitley Strieber (1945 ) told of his abduction in the best-selling book Communion and later translated the work into a motion picture in 1989, with Christopher Walken portraying the author. UFO investigator Budd Hopkins (1931 ), who earlier had authored Missing Time (1981), produced Intruders (1987), expanding upon the theory that aliens were abducting Earth men and women for the purpose of creating a hybrid mix of ET and human DNA. In 1992 Intruders became a television miniseries starring Richard Crenna, Mare Willingham, and Susan Blakely. The television version of Hopkins's book chillingly portrayed military and political figures covering up the truth about alien abductions while issuing official denials that such events were taking place. Once again, aliens and the entire UFO mystery were things to be feared, and thousands of people around the world began to recall abduction scenarios that allegedly had been repressed until such scenarios as those presented in Intruders and Communion caused terrible memories to surface.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Regardless of whether or not this film was ever acknowledged as the source of numerous UFO contactees' messages from outer space, it seems likely that at least on the subconscious level, the stately, silver-suited figure of Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his warning to earthlings to cease their aggressive behavior and live in peace was echoed in countless sermons from alleged space intelligences. As the film opens, a flying saucer does, indeed, land near the White House lawn, in a baseball field in Washington, D.C. Within minutes, the craft is surrounded by armed military personnel and armored tanks. Klaatu emerges, and as he holds up a gift he has brought for the president, he is shot and wounded by a soldier who misinterprets the alien's gesture as a hostile movement. At this point, Gort, Klaatu's eight-foot robot, leaves the spaceship and fires a kind of laser beam at the assembled military and instantly melts all weapons and armaments. Klaatu halts Gort before it destroys anythingor anyoneelse, and the alien's peaceful intentions convince the officers that he has come in peace. Klaatu is taken to a military hospital where his wound can be treated and he can be placed under guard.

Klaatu makes it clear that he has come as an ambassador from an intergalactic federation of planets that has been keeping Earth under surveillance for centuries. Now that Earth's science has advanced to the nuclear age and the planet's influence may soon be extended beyond its own atmosphere, he has been sent to deliver a message of utmost importance to all the heads of state. When Klaatu perceives that his request will be refused, he escapes from the hospital and moves anonymously into a rooming house, posing as a man named Carpenter.

The alien emissary becomes friends with Bobby (Billy Gray) and his mother, Helen (Patricia Neal), and the boy leads him to Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), a physicist, who is impressed, rather than frightened, by Klaatu's superior knowledge. The scientists in the film are depicted as dedicated individuals who are trying their best to live outside the political bickering and backstabbing of the Cold War era and who are willing to arrange for Klaatu to address an international assemblage of the leaders of world science. Realizing that Earth's heads of state are too chauvinistic to set aside their petty differences and listen to his message, Klaatu arranges a demonstration that no one on the planet will be able to ignore: He shuts off all power and machinery on Earth for one hour.

Considered a threat to national security, Klaatu is killed by the military and his body placed in a cell. Before he was shot, however, he advised Helen what to do if anything should happen to him. She approaches the massive Gort and speaks the order, "Klaatu Barado Nikto," a command that enables the robot to restore life to Klaatu and brings the film to its conclusion and the alien ambassador's final message to all of Earth: "It is your choice. Join us and live in peace or face obliteration." The unsettling implication made by Klaatu before he leaves in his spacecraft is that it really doesn't matter that much to the aliens what earthlings decide. His mission is completed. Earth has been warned.

The admonitions of Klaatu were subsequently repeated in the channelings of the UFO contactees for decades to come. Some critics have made comparisons between Klaatu's mission to Earth and the messages and ministry of Jesus (c. 6 b.c.e.c. 30 c.e.). Both came from "above"; Jesus was a carpenter, Klaatu chose the alias of Carpenter; both were killed and resurrected by a power beyond Earth's knowledge; both returned to the "heavens" when their message that humans must repent and change their ways had been delivered.

War of the Worlds (1953)

In War of the Worlds, George Pal adapted H. G. Wells's novel of alien invasion and transformed it into a cinema classic. The film follows the struggle of two scientists (Gene Barry and Ann Robinson) as they attempt to help Earth survive a devastating attack by Martians. The suspense is intensified by their own narrow escapes, and the reality for motion picture audiences lay in seeing the major cities of Earth lying strewn about in heaps of rubble. Although the horror of seemingly unstoppable aliens was a frightening theme, the film won an Academy Award for its special effects. While Earth is saved by the motion picture's end, the devastation rendered by the extraterrestrial invaders left unforgettable images in the minds of the audience.

While the film version of Wells's novel is highly regarded by science-fiction and cinema buffs and was successful upon its release, the impact it had on mass consciousness cannot be compared to the effect of the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds on the day before Halloween in 1938. At that time, CBS's "Mercury Theatre" presented Orson Welles and a talented cast simulating a live news broadcast of an invasion of Earth by mechanized Martian war machines. Because the account of unstoppable alien beings landing in the New Jersey farmlands was depicted so realisticallyand because many listeners tuned in after the Mercury Theatre production was already in progressthe greater part of the nation was in panic over the invaders from Mars.

Invading aliens continued to be a popular theme in a number of motion pictures throughout the 1950s. Invaders from Mars (1953) remains in many moviegoers' memory as the single most frightening film of their childhood. Perhaps what made the film so terrifying to young people was the premise that one's parents, teachers, and friends could be taken over by alien life forms and work toward a nationwide conspiracy. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) developed the theme of aliens possessing family and friends to a high degree of paranoia. While in Invaders from Mars the extraterrestrials attached themselves to their victims' body, in Invasion of the Body Snatchers they brought strange pods with them from their world which grew into likenesses of those humans whom they replaced.

Critics analyzing the lasting effects of these two films often point out that they were released during the paranoia of the Communist hysteria provoked by Senator Joseph McCarthy (19081957) and the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the 1950s. Other social historians argue that the UFO craze began when the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union hung like a black cloud over the world and many people were desperate to believe that some force from the skies could appear and deliver Earth from nuclear annihilation. Still other scholars suggest that it may have been the U.S. government itself that began the rumors of flying saucers in order to divert public attention from the development of its own secret weapons. Perhaps such a prevailing atmosphere of national distrust contributed to the horror of films about UFO invaders, but the unsettling concept of aliens slowly taking over Earth through the possession of human bodies became firmly implanted in the psyches of millions of men and women who now looked even more suspiciously at the skies above them.

Such television series as The Twilight Zone (195964) and The Outer Limits (196365) occasionally featured episodes concerning alien invaders, but My Favorite Martian (196366) portrayed extraterrestrial visitors as friendly and funnyespecially if one over-looked the antenna that sometimes sprouted from the top of the Martian's (Ray Walston) head. It was a series aptly named The Invaders (196769), starring Roy Thinnes, that focused on the paranoid concept that evil aliens might be living undetected among humans and conspiring to conquer them. Thinnes was David Vincent, an architect, who happened to be the only human witness of a UFO landing. No one believed his account, so once he discovered that the extraterrestrials had arrived with the sole intent of taking over the planet, it became his mission to stop them, alerting and enlisting whomever he could to assist him. Vincent's task became all the more difficult because whenever he managed to kill one of the invaders, their physical body disintegrated, leaving no evidence to convince the authorities that aliens were walking and plotting among them. When the series ended in 1969, Vincent had not been able to stem the tide of alien invasion, and the stories of extraterrestrials posing as humans had received more substantiation from a television series that many insisted was telling the truth disguised as a fictional presentation.

The X-Files (19932002)

In 1993 Chris Carter, creator of the television series The X-Files for Fox, fashioned a blend of UFO mythology, increasing public distrust of the U.S. government, and a growing interest in the paranormal that over its nine-year run usually finished as the second-most popular drama among young adults. During its peak season in 1997, The X-Files attracted an estimated 20 million viewers per episode. In 2002, shortly before the last episode of the series, Sandy Grushow, the chairperson of Fox Entertainment, said that The X-Files had made in excess of $1 billion for the company.

At the 1996 Golden Globe Awards, the categories for Best Television Drama, Best Actor in a Television Drama, and Best Actress in a Television Drama were all won by Fox network's The X-Files, in which FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) regularly pursued UFOs and declared to their audience that "the truth is out there." However, because the truth was being covered up by an ultra-secret and exceedingly ruthless government agency, they must "trust no one."

According to the mythos developed by Carter, the alien invasion had begun in prehistoric times and had been rediscovered by the U.S. military and a secret branch of the government in 1947 after the crash of a flying saucer at Roswell. Although Mulder and Scully made side excursions to investigate vampires, ghosts, and a wide variety of monsters, the UFO scenarios comprised the glue that held the series together and kept the fans returning week after week to chart the agents' progress in cracking the ultimate case that would force the secret government to admit the truth about aliens.

Mulder and Scully investigated the entire gamut of UFO phenomenaMen in Black, government cover-ups, alien assassins, abductions, contactees, missing time, and telepathic communication with extraterrestrials. Before the series ended in May 2002, both Scully and Mulder had themselves been abducted and Scully, earlier declared unable to have children, had borne a child under mysterious circumstances.

On June 19, 1998, the X-Files motion picture, Fight the Future, was released, allowing its small-screen paranoia about the government conspiracy to hide the truth about UFOs to spread to big-screen multiplexes across the nation. The film became number one the first week of its release, grossing $31 million. It has since brought in more than $100 million.

Often hailed as a cultural phenomenon and generally acclaimed as the most successful science-fiction series in the history of television, the influence of The X-Files on the mass audience's beliefs concerning such subjects as UFOs, abductions, and government conspiracies is incalculable.

The theme of Dark Skies, the lead television series in NBC's 1996 Saturday night "thrillogy," was that history as the viewers learned it in school was a lie. One of the "truths" that the series revealed was that in 1947 President Harry S Truman ordered an extraterrestrial spacecraft shot down over Roswell, after an alien ambassador had demanded the unconditional surrender of the United States. Subsequently, whatever resources could be recovered from the scraps of the demolished alien craft were doled out to various giants of American industry to be freely incorporated into the current technologyand a sinister and ubiquitous super-secret government agency known as Majestic-12 was created to monitor any undue alien interference in U.S. political and social structures.

Before the series was cancelled, viewers learned that the aliens had the ability to possess human bodies with their larvae, thus allowing them to pass undetected and to accomplish an incredible number of negative historical eventsfrom the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the conflict in Vietnam, from the murder of certain celebrities to popularizing the use of recreational drugs among young people.

The summer blockbuster Independence Day (1996) followed a War of the Worlds (1953) plot line in which aliens blow up half the nation, including the U.S. capital, and are about to destroy the world. A tough U.S. president (Bill Pullman) and two heroes (Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum) manage to pilot the spaceship that a clandestine branch of the government has been hiding in a secret under-ground base since the Roswell crash in 1947 and save the day. The Rock (1996) is a straightforward Hollywood action thriller that surprises audiences at the end of the film when the character played by Sean Connery reveals that forbidden knowledge about the Roswell UFO crash was among the reasons why he had been unjustly imprisoned for so long without a trial.

In 1997 the motion picture Men in Black took one of the most sinister aspects of UFO researchthe alleged strong-arm tactics performed on witnesses of aerial phenomena by mysterious men dressed in blackand transformed it into a special-effects comedy with Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith portraying agents of a secret government branch that keeps the aliens who walk among earthlings under surveillance. In the filmas inspired by real-life alleged victims of the Men in Black any ordinary citizen who happened to stumble on the truth about the government cover-up has all memory of the experience wiped out by a special brainwashing device.

It has been suggested that one reason why so many U.S. citizens are easily convinced that their government is hiding the truth about extraterrestrial contact is that so few people continue to trust the government after decades of cover-ups and scandals that were eventually exposed. According to a survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates for Pew Research and published in USA Today on September 12, 1997, only 6 percent of adults in the United States expressed trust in the federal government. The mantra of The X-Files has truly been put into practice: "Trust no one!"

Delving Deeper

Carter, Bill. "Truth Is Out: This Season Will Be Last for 'X-Files.'" New York Times, January 18, 2002. [Online]

Clarens, Carlos. An Illustrated History of the Horror Film. New York: Capricorn Books, 1968.

Douglas, Drake. Horror! New York: Collier Books, 1969.

Maltin, Leonard. Leonard Maltins' 1999 Movie and Video Guide. New York: Signet, 1998.

Pazsaz Entertainment Network. [Online]

Rovin, Jeff. The Great Television Series. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1967.

Stanley, John. Creature Features: The Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Movie Guide. New York: Boulevard, 1997.

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The Influence of the Media

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