UFOs, flying saucers and alien abductions

Why do we enjoy conspiracy theories and where did they come from?
02 January 2017

Interview with 

Dallas Campbell, science writer and broadcaster


Dallas Campbell paints Graihagh Jackson a picture of an alien abduction...

Dallas - You’re out walking the dog.  It’s late afternoon and getting dark. In the sky, you see a bright light. Is it moving - you think so? You try and think what it might be starting with the most likely: aircraft landing lights, Venus, foil balloon reflecting the light, iridium satellite flare, could it simply be floaters in your eye. You’re close to the nearby military base, perhaps it’s an exotic aircraft or one of those drones we hear so much about these days.

Suddenly it dawns on you. Of course, it must be an alien scout craft from the Zeta Reticuli star system piloted by three telepathic greys with the tacit approval by the clandestine majestic twelve U.S. government group. It can only be a matter of moments before you’re abducted, after which you’ll experience a feeling of paralysis, suffocation, missing time, and pain around the genitals. You will retain no memory of the event except during regression hypnosis, after which you’ll discover a small metal implant on the nape of your neck.
It’s bound to be one of them. Your dog barks excitedly at you in agreement.

Graihagh - Dallas Campbell…

Dallas - Science broadcaster, television presenter, reluctant writer.

Graihagh - Perhaps not so much a reluctant writer when it comes to conspiracy theories, though! The segment Dallas read is from his chapter in a new book called Aliens in which he charters where it all began…

Dallas - As long as human beings have been roaming the Earth there’s been conspiracy theories. The point is, I think we are all conspiracy theorists just at various different degrees. We all have, probably, irrational beliefs that we justify in the secret ways that we justify beliefs. But the modern story of flying saucers began in the 1940s.

Graihagh - What happened in the '40s - what was this initial spike in interest?

Dallas - The beginning of the modern UFO phenomena. Kenneth Arnold was a civilian pilot who was out flying above the mountains in Northwest America. He thought he saw something and reported seeing bright flashing lights which he described a being like a saucer if you skipped it across the water, and the press picked up on this. And, of course, this is during the cold war; general paranoia about the Soviets, and suddenly this term “flying saucer” was cottoned onto.

Graihagh - What was it? Well, nobody quite knows - it was investigated by the air force at the time and their report is a bit of an oxymoron - they concluded than Kenneth Arnold was both a credible witness, but that what he has seen was a mirage.

The pandemonium wasn’t limited to the States, though - 3 years later, the UK Ministry of Defence’s UFO Project set up one of the best-named scientific studies around - the flying saucer working party! The MOD’s chief scientific advisor, Sir Henry Tizard, insisted that UFO sightings should not be dismissed without scientific study.

Their report, published in 1951, argued that all phenomena could be explained by balloons, birds and blimps; Illusions, delusions and hoaxes; Oh, and weather!

They concluded:

“We accordingly recommend very strongly that no further investigation of reported mysterious aerial phenomena be undertaken, unless and until some material evidence becomes available.”

...from then on it went crazy. People starting seeing flying saucers everywhere. And, of course, from 1947 we have Roswell, which was the modern culture today is still post child of flying saucer conspiracy theories, that and Area 51.

Graihagh - I know Independence Day, that film was based at Area 51, or based around that area and I remember seeing this - I think I was aged about 12 or 13 at a sleepover. And I was so frightened by the scene where, I think, an alien gets pressed up against the glass, or they press up a dead person against the glass, and I vomited straight into my lap and was sent home.

Dallas - No you didn’t - seriously? I watched The Exorcist aged about 12 or 13 and I remember having a similar reaction at the moment where she vomited in The Exorcist. And I had a similar reaction but not at Independence Day! Quite tame Independence Day.

Graihagh - I think it’s only a 12 as well!

Dallas - I think so. Maybe you had a stomach bug as well. Maybe it was the combination.

Graihagh - Or too many sweets maybe at a sleepover.

Dallas - Or maybe you've been abducted and the memory has been repressed and somehow that triggered a feeling.

Graihagh - Maybe.

Dallas - Could it have been that?

Graihagh - Possibly. I do have this lump at the back of my neck come to think of it. Could it be a metal chip?

Dallas - It could be a metal implant. I’ve been to Area 51 a few times, and there’s a wonderful sign as you approach. It’s called Groom Lake Road - you go off from the main 375 highway and you drive down about 30 miles on this dead straight dust track. You get to a turn in the road and there’s some hills, and beyond those hills is the actual base. You can’t actually see the base but you come to a sign and, of course, the exciting bit about the sign is it just says “Use of Deadly Force Authorised.” And if you go past that line in the road you are quite within their rights to shoot you if they want to and nobody will have to answer any questions or justify it. And then, of course, you want to go past the line.

The exciting this is, just on the hills at that junction in the road you can see these white Jeep Cherokees and they’re just sitting there watching you with binoculars waiting for you to go past. The reality is though, if you do go past, what tends to happen is they come out and stop you and give you a hefty fine and send you on your way. I don’t think anyone has actually been shot but it’s all the technology that goes with it. It’s the motion sensors, it’s the drones, it’s the Jeep Cherokees, the exotic signage. All that adds to this wonderful conspiracy theory story that behind that line lurks the aliens.

Graihagh - Did you dare cross the line?

Dallas - Yeah, no. Well, I’ve always been really interested in UFOs just from a sort of cultural point of view. I like the UFO folklore and the subcultures that surround these stories. Of course, people see things in the sky all the time. Are they aliens for out of space? No. I think, with a high degree of certainty, we can say that they’re not that. 

Graihagh - Having said that, some do believe it’s true. In fact, had she won, Hillary Clinton had pledged to open up any government UFO files. What does Dallas think we would have seen?

Dallas - I think that the reality, we like to think… well there’s a lot of files that have been released. There’s been big chunks of files that have been released and, of course, there’s nothing in the them. The exciting thing about unopened files is the fact that they’re unopened. As soon as you open the box and you realise that they’re actually really, really boring and there’s actually no evidence of aliens whatsoever, and the fact that Area 51 is just a secret military base where they test exotic aircrafts, everyone will be very, very disappointed. That’s the reality, unfortunately.

Graihagh - Would you want to know, that being said? I mean it’s mystery that we enjoy in itself and all the stories that go round. I’m thinking of knock-on effects in culture. You mentioned Roswell and I’m thinking of the 90s I used to watch a TV series called Roswell High. There’s all that enjoyment that surrounds it.

Dallas - You’re absolutely right. It’s the not knowing, it’s the fact that you will never know because it’s untestable, unprovable, it’s unfalsifiable. You can never prove the ET hypothesis and that’s exactly right, it’s what makes it so tantalizing the fact that you can never disprove that aliens landed at Rendlesham Forest, or Roswell, or Area 51. It’s untestable and, of course, that’s what people like. They love that sense of mystery, that excitement that there is agency beyond what we know. It’s that feeling that - yeah, I’m right -  that sense that we have of something else being out there is all wrapped up in those stories and it’s great for popular culture. Exactly, the Roswell has spawned a zillion TV shows, and episodes of The Simpsons, and throughout popular culture.


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