This is the moment when the “modern flying saucer era” begins: In the summer of 1947, civilian pilot Kenneth Arnold was flying close to the Cascade Mountains when he allegedly saw them — nine silver disc-like objects flying in the sky. The phenomenon proverbially lifts to orbit one month later when a newspaper in Roswell, New Mexico claims a flying saucer crashed on a United States army airfield. Years go by, the tone of the conversation switches and settles into a quiet rumble — by the 1990s, the momentum around all this UFO-talk had dwindled.
“The Cold War was in a sense the oxygen of the UFO phenomena,” historian Greg Eghigian tells Inverse. “By the end of it in the early 1990s, the kinds of images and aspirations that came along with it had moved into a different direction.”
Eghigian, a Penn State professor, is the author of a new paper looking at this history. Published in the journal Public Understanding of Science, his work is a studied look at why people of different cultural decades respond differently to the idea of UFOs and what this means for the public perception of science.
Eghigian explains that while today aliens will show up on Discovery Channel shows or in tabloids, the public perception of extraterrestrial life around the 1950s was unique to the geopolitical situation of the time. With the possibility of nuclear war, there was a persistent feeling that doom was near. As people began to claim they had made alien contact in the early ’50s, the message was a peaceful one: The aliens weren’t here to hurt humans, they were here to warn us from destroying ourselves.
As time went on, Eghigian says, “the people who gravitated to the contact narrative started drawing inspiration from new cultural markers.” As PTSD and “recovered memories” began to enter American vernacular in the 1980s, the notion of alien contact changed. Instead of exchanging pleasantries, Americans reported abductions — horrible situations of abuse.
It’s hard to quantify if people began to report these incidences less or if media organizations ignored them more, but by the end of the Cold War things had definitively changed. Through archival research, Eghigian determined that prior to the 1990s, there were more than 40 UFO-related headlines annually on newspapers across the United States. Now, in a sample of 25 papers, there are fewer than 20 a year.
“What you see is a lot of interest in aliens being replaced with, as we get in the 2000s, are vampires and zombies,” says Eghigian. “And vampires and zombies really work well as a metaphor for terrorism — in today’s world we are much more obsessed and concerned with punctuated terrorist attacks than the Americans in the Cold War era.”
Our historical relationship to UFOs is a fascinating one, and Eghigian is surprised that not more historians are curious about recording it. It’s likely similar to the dismissiveness mainstream scientists have treated ufologists — those who study UFOs. Ridiculed by scientific institutions from get-go, ufologists created their own parallel journals and conferences — which basically shot them in the foot because the separation caused academics only to distrust them more.
From here bred a stereotype that those who believed in UFOs were also ignorant of science — a perception that Eghigian says, based on his interviews and research, is entirely untrue.
Landing squarely between ufologists, civilians, and skeptical natural scientists are the academics who are looking for alien life but are quick to disassociate themselves with flying saucers. It’s been a long road — when SETI was first established, Carl Sagan was warned he was sounding too much like “those people.” Today, senior SETI astronomer Seth Shostak tells Inverse that their work — the search for alien life — is taken more seriously by the public than ever before.
It helps that our growth in technology has been expansive enough to convince us that being alone in the universe is unlikely, but also advanced enough that we’re pretty sure aliens aren’t here with us on Earth. Also helpful — we’re not projecting our hopes and fears on them anymore.