The US had a wave of UFO sightings

18 mins read

A flying saucer is evident in the Nope trailer for Jordan Peele’s new horror movie, even if it barely appears briefly. It’s difficult to tell whether it’s genuine or false, whether it’s from the Earth or from space, based on the twists and turns in Peele’s previous movies, Get Out and Us, but that tantalizing sight of flashing silver is intriguing. Maybe, just maybe, Nope will be a true flying-saucer film, honoring one of the most recognizable and shiver-inducing forms in pop culture history.

By the end of the 1950s, that specific form had evolved into a shorthand for “spacecraft operated by aliens from another universe,” according to Andrew Shail, senior professor in film at Newcastle University. Uncountable movies, TV shows, books, comics, and even hit recordings have depicted flying saucers as representing enigmatic visitors from Mars and beyond, from Mulder’s I Want To Believe poster in The X-Files TV series to the well-known children’s picture book, Aliens Love Underpants. The iconic Unidentified Flying Object and design classic, the flying saucer. Nevertheless, it didn’t really take off until the 1950s, when everyone became flying-saucer mad.

75 years ago, everything changed. Commercial pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine “flying discs” racing through Washington State in the US in June 1947 while traveling at 1,200 mph. The Associated Press received this completely untrue report from the editor of the East Oregonian daily, and on June 26th, Hearst International sent a press statement that featured the fateful phrase “flying saucers.” The news travelled far more quickly than 1,200 mph around the world. Soon, hundreds of further sightings were recorded, one of which was of flying-saucer debris near Roswell, New Mexico. Some of these tales were obviously fabrications; if you had a hubcap, a frisbee, or some pizza on hand, you could easily manufacture a picture of a saucer.

According to Shail, other sightings included “cloud formations, Zeppelins, weather balloons, and experimental aircraft being constructed by the US Air Force as part of the Cold War.” Additionally, just to be open-minded about it, perhaps some of the sightings were Martians flying over sparsely inhabited areas of Earth for fun. However, one thing was certain: the saucer craze had started.

In 1953, Donald H. Menzel’s book Flying Saucers, which examined this frenzy, provided three justifications. “First, it’s rare to see flying saucers. We’re all accustomed to routine. The uncommon inherently evokes intrigue in us. Second, everyone here is anxious. Our environment has abruptly turned hostile. Many people worry that we are headed for a battle that will destroy us because we have unleashed forces that we are unable to control. Third, some folks seem to be relishing the scare. They appear to be a component of an intriguing science fiction story.”

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Seventy-five years ago, in July 1947, crashed flying-saucer debris was found in Roswell, New Mexico (Credit: Getty Images)

Menzel outlines a number of reasons for her anxiety. One was the race between the US and the USSR to launch a satellite into orbit, which the USSR won with Sputnik 1 in 1957. According to Katharine Coldiron, the author of the Midnight Movies Monograph analysis of the infamously bad flying saucer film Plan 9 from Outer Space, “interest in flying saucers surged up at the same period it seemed probable that humans might enter space.” “When something like the space race drastically excites it, the human imagination shoots out in all kinds of directions. The same thing is happening with climate change, in my opinion. All types of artists have been inspired to create works that explore the potential extinction of our species.

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Other concerns for Americans included unemployment, inflation, the fear of a Soviet invasion, and, most significantly, the chance that atomic bombs similar to those that had obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 may destroy their own cities. One method of overcoming all that anxiety was to concentrate on flying saucers, which, according to award-winning science-fiction author Jack Womack, were “strange and fascinating, but not necessarily menacing, unlike the potential for nuclear Armageddon.”

The fact that so many people published memoirs about the saucer encounters was almost as amazing as all of them. Flying Saucers Are Real! by Womack, which contains passages from Those Sexy Saucer People, Flying Saucers and the Scriptures, and Round Trip to Hell in a Flying Saucer, is a compilation of these memoirs. I Rode a Flying Saucer by George W. Van Tassel, which was released in 1952, is a prime illustration. The space brothers advised that he give his work a more commercial title, but he is sincere enough to admit that he didn’t truly ride a flying saucer, claims Womack. Though many of these apparently non-fiction works were absurd, others of them had insightful theses.

Flying saucers had already completely swept across popular culture by this point. Unsurprisingly, there were a ton of saucers in comics. The 1954 Weird Science-Fantasy special edition of EC Comics bragged, “EC Challenges The US Air Force With This Illustrated, Factual Flying Saucer Report.” In the realm of animation, Marvin the Martian was first presented in 1948 by Chuck Jones’ Haredevil Hare Bugs Bunny short. When Marvin visited Bugs on Earth in The Hasty Hare in 1952, he had traded down to a flying saucer from the Buck Rogers-style rocket ship he was operating on this particular occasion.

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The first flying-saucer picture was a low-budget independent called The Flying Saucer (1950) (Credit: Alamy)

Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer is a jazzy song that Ella Fitzgerald recorded in 1951. It was written by Arthur Pitt and Elaine Wise and is a parody of human nature as seen through the eyes of the little green men in the song’s title: “During their mission / Heard a politician / Making speeches as they traveled by / But they departed / Faster than they started / Because the hot air blew them sky high.” (The song has now been condensed into a counting song for preschoolers.) However, no media was more obsessed with UFOs than film.

The Flying Saucer, the title of the first flying saucer movie, was released in 1950. Its star, Mikel Conrad, wrote, produced, and directed this low-budget indie thriller, which was advertised as possibly being based on real events. What are they? read the slogan on a poster. “From where are they? Do you have any experience with UFOs?” The next year, 1951, saw the debut of two genuine flying saucer masterpieces from Hollywood. One was The Day the Earth Stood Still by Robert Wise, in which Michael Rennie played Klaatu, an extraterrestrial emissary who tells the human race to “live in peace, or follow your present course and risk obliteration.”

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His sleek, windowless spaceship is the pinnacle of extraterrestrial simplicity. The Thing from Another World by Howard Hawks, in which an alien spacecraft is retrieved from the Arctic ice, was the second 1951 classic. The spaceship is “like a submarine… 280 feet long and 45 feet in diameter” in the original material, a short tale by John W. Campbell, but in the movie it’s a saucer, and its lone surviving crew member is a gigantic predator. According to Michael Stein in Alien Invasions, “Each of these movies portrayed the dark undercurrent of societal dread that beset America in their own particular manner”! The Evolution of Alien Culture. “One addressed the horror of world devastation, while the other conjured the terror of subversive invasion.”

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Hollywood released two classic saucer films in 1951 – Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still and Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (Credit: Alamy)

It will be interesting to watch what flying saucers stand in for in Nope given how frequently they have been as stand-ins for more terrifying earthbound threats. Up until now, Peele’s brilliant horror films have mostly focused on racism against black Americans while also making sharp social commentary. Will Nope carry on this pattern? According to Mark Bould, editor of the Routledge Film Guidebook to Science Fiction, “Peele’s decision to produce a UFO movie is expected because there has always been a racial aspect to reports of flying saucers and extraterrestrial abduction. The aliens were sometimes characterized in the late 1940s as being overly, excessively white humans. African-American science fiction and afrofuturism commonly go back to this horrible historical rift because African Americans are the descendants of abductees, the victims of technologically superior, pale aliens who suddenly emerged from a great distance. Nope is only the most recent illustration of the mothership relationship.

The end of the saucer craze

Flying saucer movies didn’t always deal with such serious social and political issues in the 1950s. They featured The Atomic Submarine (1957), This Island Earth (1955), Forbidden Planet (1956), Devil Girl from Mars (1954), and (1959). Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, a classic Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animated film from 1956, was one of the best. Plan 9 From Outer Space, which was stated before, was one of the less impressive ones (1957).

The saucer was what they all shared. This classic spaceship was a blessing for filmmakers since it was quite simple to build and shoot. It could change course unlike a conventional rocket without having to prove that it was doing so. It was also really attractive.

According to Bould, “the nice thing about flying saucer design is that it is basic to the point of abstraction.” “Its flawless symmetry asserts that it is not a natural phenomenon, and the lack of any traditional flying signifiers—such as wings or engines—suggests that it is an extremely sophisticated technical artifact. In the western mythology of development, it claims its position as being far ahead of us.”

The saucer wasn’t wholly extraterrestrial, though. Its sleek, curving exterior, which concealed a tangle of intricate wiring and valves, mimicked the sexiest washing machines, vehicles, and ovens of the post-war era. “According to Bould, the flying saucer arrives amid a time of covert new technologies, mostly military in nature—including the atomic bomb—but also a flurry of domestic consumer technologies, the workings of which are becoming more and more obscure to the typical housewife. Both impulses appear to be combined in the flying saucer, which dominates American skies.”

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The big sci-fi hit of the 1950s was not an alien invasion movie, it was Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Credit: Alamy)

The flight was short in duration. When the 1950s came to a conclusion, there were fewer confirmed sightings and films featuring flying saucers. According to Mark Jancovich, the author of Rational Fears: American Horror Genre in the 1950s, the horror films about flying saucers performed better than the serious ones. “And the horror ones could be produced fairly affordably. What took occurred was that science fiction horror entered the market’s low-cost, low-budget segment. Studios also realized that Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, not an alien invasion film, was the really major science fiction blockbuster of the 1950s. Then came this wave of historical science fiction movies, including The Time Machine, The Curse of Frankenstein, and The Lost World (with Michael Rennie as Klaatu). In contrast to flying saucers, which plummeted in class as the 1950s went on because of their Victorian settings, gothic horror movies seemed respectable.

In the actual world, Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth in 1961, the same year that President John F. Kennedy declared the objective of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Flying saucers were so prehistoric in compared to actual space flight. Project Blue Book, the US Air Force’s investigation of reports of flying saucer sightings, came to an end in 1969 with the release of a Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects. “Nothing has come from the research of UFOs in the previous 21 years that has added to scientific understanding,” was its harsh conclusion.

Of course, reports of UFO encounters continued until the 1970s and beyond. Unexplained aerial phenomena, or UAPs, were the subject of a public congressional hearing in the United States last May, despite the fact that Scott Bray, the deputy director of naval intelligence, emphasized that the military had not discovered “anything non-terrestrial in origin.” One may contend that flying saucers have also persisted in popular culture. When a flying saucer is blown up, it resembles the motherships in Independence Day and District 9, whereas when it is turned on its side, it resembles the ominous monoliths in Arrival. The USS Enterprise is a flying saucer with a body and legs attached to the back, similar to the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars and the Millennium Falcon from Star Trek. However, it is increasingly uncommon to see old-style, plain flying saucers in the sky or on television. According to Womack, “the phenomena in its original form just run its course” like any craze.

Flying saucers are now considered a part of classic 1950s Americana, along with the checkerboard floor of a roadside café and the tail fins of a gas-guzzling convertible. Because of their retro appeal, they are frequently utilised in contemporary science-fiction blockbusters like Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! and Men in Black. Considering how sensitive to America’s historical injustices Jordan Peele is, perhaps that is how he will utilize them as well. The flying saucer once appeared to be crashing from the terrifying future; today it is a remnant of the reassuring past.

Nope is released on 22 July in the US, and on 12 August in the UK.

Courtesy of the BBC culture page


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