Close Encounters – The Truth is Still Out There

More in Arts: CCD Presents: Poetry by Cheryl Davis March 1, 2017 CCD Presents: Poetry by Donna Wallace February 16, 2017 CCD Presents: Waiting – ...

by Camel City Dispatch

By Michael A. Wiseman


It’s a known fact that art imitates life. Terrifying sometimes, and impossible to believe at others, but many of the things we read, watch, listen to, and generally ingest for entertainment-value have a real world origin.

close encounters
close encounters

Wait, you thought that Richard Gere’s cult-classic THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES was a strictly Hollywood phenomenon? Think again. “Based on true events” might be used all loosey-goosey sometimes (thanks, FARGO), but sightings of a giant moth-type being, who hails from a paranormal/extra-terrestrial background, have been around since the 1960s. That’s almost forty years before studio execs would hire Gere to start having his own visions of mother nature’s most terrifying butterfly cousin.

(For a comparative timeline, John Keel’s original, UFO-inspired ‘Mothman’ book was published in 1975, around the same time Gere was just making his Hollywood big-break, and still a full 15 years before he’d reinvent the rom-com with PRETTY WOMAN).

Parts of the stories are always true, as was the case with PROPHECIES. A crazy bridge-collapsing incident? Check. Paranormal visions? Yep. But a dashing newspaper reporter with a keen knack for future knowledge who heroically saves the day is what we’d classify “only in the movies.”

And that’s the case with a lot of 1800’s and 1900’s-inspired UFO entertainment. HG Wells, with his seminal ‘War of the Worlds’ (1897), described an alien race that evolved alongside humanity. Its origins weren’t attributed to one specific sighting, but it compiled much of the fear and mystique that had surrounded extra-terrestrials for generations. Orson Welles then turned ‘War’ into a bona-fide phenomenon when he scared hapless citizens senseless with his radio broadcast adaptation in 1938. While common belief is that everybody went crazy with pre-WWII hysteria thinking their farms had been invaded by little green men, the widespread-panic was mostly exaggerated by early Faux-News stations. Still, it was all Hollywood and nothing more.

The ‘Worlds’ radio incident did prove one thing, however: that people were genuinely terrified of aliens. Flying saucers, ray guns… anything that seemed other-worldly. And that fear meant that, obviously, they all started seeing foo fighters on a regular basis.

Of course, UFO sightings were recorded as early as 1870. But black-and-white footage in the mid-1940’s gave conspiracy theorists newfound ammunition. No longer did a person just see a flying saucer. They saw it, took pictures of it, and argued with their friends and family about their own personal E.T. encounters.


Alien hysteria culminated in the Summer of 1947. An airbone object – unidentified, unrecognized, and unexplained – crashed on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. Local citizens recovered debris they claimed was of an extra-terrestrial origin. The United States Military, however, denied any “flying saucer” talk and instead focused on the facts, saying it was nothing more than an experimental, high-altitude surveillance balloon. That appeased most people – at least until 1978, when a Major closely involved with the recovery efforts expressed belief in an alien cover-up. Witnesses then came out saying over 11 crash sites had been found, and a mortician even said he had carried out alien autopsies.

Not an ounce of evidence was ever proven. Still, from the 1940s onward, UFO conspiracy theory was the talk of Tinseltown. Have you ever heard of The Great Los Angeles Air Raid? Probably not.  CLOSE ENCOUNTERS’ director Steven “The Beard” Spielberg used it as the basis of his comedy 1941.  There’s no doubt you’re familiar with it by another name: the Battle of Los Angeles (which inspired the similarly-titled Jonathan Liebesman/Aaron Eckhart vehicle BATTLE: LOS ANGELES (2011), a movie best described as BLACK HAWK DOWN-meets-INDEPENDENCE DAY).

Don’t worry, though: United States military personnel confirmed that the Great Los Angeles Air Raid was nothing more than… a weather balloon.


plan 9
plan 9

And without 1940s alien-fever, we’d never been blessed with the Ed Wood masterpiece: PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1958). With drive-in stalwarts Vampira and Bella Legosi, it quickly became the prototypical MST3K film. But if terrible acting, nonsensical plot, jarring day/night time-shifts, and grandiose music ripped from the silent-film era wasn’t enough, it had zombies (“ghouls”), vampires, and grave robbers. One of the worst films of all time, maybe… then again, maybe the best excuse to grab some buddies and some beers on a Saturday night. After all, where else could you find classic lines like, “Future events such as these will affect you in the future!”

Even made-for-TV got in on the space-invaders gig. A full two-years before CLOSE ENCOUNTERS would tear up cineplexes (and seven before we’d see E.T. phone home), THE UFO INCIDENT (1975) introduced us to stranger-than-fiction abduction testimony. Get this – it’s never seen home video release (despite starring roles by Edward James Olmos and Estelle Parsons). But it detailed testimony from Betty and Barney who, on the way back from vacationing near Niagara Falls, stumbled across a terrifying hovercraft in the mountains of Montreal, Canada. They claimed to hear beeps and buzzes, and woke up with only vague memories almost 35 miles from where they began. Was it real? Well… in the aftermath, they had broken watches and ripped leather belts, but no other proof of their abduction. They claimed to draw a strikingly similar picture detailing what they saw that evening. Betty had terrifyingly realistic dreams replaying the encounter. They discussed it with their church, and even sought out hypnosis to help alleviate any symptoms. So it was obviously real to both Betty and Barney. But the alien trade routes Betty claimed to have seen, and the anal probing (seriously) Barney said he underwent, were ultimately chalked up to a singular psychological aberration. Which is either reassuring or terrifying, depending on how you look at it.


But Betty and Barney’s testimony would shape popular UFO media for decades after, perhaps most famously when Eric Cartman had a “little too close” encounter of his own kind. Alien abduction culture transcended from horror to comedy.

You can’t talk about popular alien media, however, without at least mentioning THE X-FILES. Spanning nine seasons, two feature films, and over 200 episodes, FILES would launch the careers of David Duchovney and Gillian Anderson, spawn two unique spin-offs, and give Vince Gilligan his first meth-free home.

But what made X-FILES successful extended beyond the cast and crew. It was a high-concept drama focusing on alien abductions and other worldly phenomenon, set in a present-day where conspiracies abounded. For those who believed their government was covering up Roswell, the moon landing, Watergate, and countless other historical events, the show was a revelation. Over its run, X-FILES would introduce viewers to the idea that not only did aliens exist, but they were preparing for a hostile takeover. For an upstart Fox network, it provided exactly the type of fringe-show viewership you couldn’t find anywhere else.

Unfortunately, alien-inspired creativity has dropped off in recent years, replaced by superheroes, zombies, dragons, and vampires. Science Fiction has shifted its focus to realism and human morale, while fantasy favors grueling warfare and high-stakes gamesmanship. Horror is more into bloodletting than it is suspense of the unknown.

Still, no other genre creation holds the American psyche like UFO abductions. After all – when’s the last time you heard eyewitness testimony of Nosferatu? Or saw your neighbor eat your other neighbor’s brains? Not recently, I’d imagine. And yet abduction stories are being reported even to this very day.


Reynolda House will be screening CLOSE ENCOUNTERS on the lawn Friday August 15th.  You can enter to win free tickets HERE and find out more HERE.



Leave a Comment