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A Sociologist Unpacks Our Fixation With Aliens

Photo: Benjamin Bours

Joseph O. Baker, associate professor of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at East Tennessee State University, is the co-author of the 2011 book Paranormal America, an exploration of the belief in UFOs, ghosts, Bigfoot, and beyond. Here, Baker explains where our schema of aliens comes from.

Why, when we think of aliens, do they all look the same — three feet tall, gray or green, big black eyes?
It didn’t used to be that way. UFO narratives became much more popular in the 1950s and ’60s, and during that era the descriptions of the aliens would be almost humanlike in form. If you see drawings that some of the so-called contactees made, the aliens almost look like Swedish people — very attractive blond types with shining eyes. Now, if I’m in class, and I ask a student to go draw an alien on the board, they all draw the little gray abductor. The abductee narrative really took over pop culture in the 1970s and 1980s, and after that, there’s this homogenization of the public perception.

What happened in the 1970s and 1980s that made the little gray abductor such a dominant trope in these fantasies?
The short answer is media — stories, TV, movies about abductions. Those came partly from people’s experiences — in particular Travis Walton, whom they made Fire in the Sky about. That was a really influential movie. That representation diffused that narrative more widely. Betty and Barney Hill are another pair of famous abductees who put their story out there. As far as why these folks were putting their stories out there then and not reporting them earlier, that’s hard to say.

In terms of why that caught on, I think there is something to be said for a lack of faith in government and institutions in that era, and that coincided with UFOs’ rise in popularity. The lack of trust in the government, and the idea that the government knows something about this — those two things went together, and you can see it in the public reaction post-Vietnam, to Watergate, all that stuff. That’s speculation, though; it’s hard to prove that.

Even those little gray abductors look pretty human, when you think about it — four limbs, heads with eyes. Why do we have such a hard time imagining radically different forms of life?
We’re the people doing the projecting here. Much the same way people do with God — people anthropomorphize God, when really what sense does it make for a supernatural entity to have a gender or be humanoid? I think it’s a reflection of the fact that humans are the ones doing the imagining, so they’re making this in their own image typically. Anthropomorphized supernatural entities tend to be more compelling to us.

On the topic of abduction, is there a reason so many of these stories feature “probing”? Is probing a predominantly male fantasy/story? Is there an equivalent female trope?
Women report being probed in various ways too. A lot of times in these stories there is a sexual element. Men will report having sperm extraction, and women will report having eggs extracted. It kind of goes both ways.

The probe part of the abduction narrative took over in some sense because it tends to be the most salacious aspect of these stories. It’s become almost become shorthand for alien abduction. But the stories of abduction among believers are really diverse, and usually probing is only one small part of it. There are still more people who claim positive forms of contact than claim negative forms of contact, despite the fact that the negative abduction narrative is the one that predominates in popular culture.

What do some of those positive abduction narratives sound like?
They tend to be akin to religion in some ways. Inside the UFO subculture, a lot of times contactee narratives fit this enlightenment model, in which beings of higher enlightenment show people the errors of humanity, or help them reach a higher plane of consciousness. They oftentimes have a religious feel to them. In contrast, the abduction narratives are usually perceived as a negative experience, and when people talk about those, they’re mainly trying to prove to other people that their trauma is real.

Are there any conclusions you’ve been able to draw about the type of people who believe?
Men are more likely to believe and people with lower levels of income are more likely to believe. Interestingly, though the stereotype is that it’s tinfoil-hat wearers, that doesn’t hold at all. We don’t really find strong patterns by education, and if we do, there’s usually a slight positive effect. It’s not ignorance, and it’s not low education.

One of the other strongest predictors is not participating as strongly in forms of organized religion. In some sense, there’s a bit of a clue there about what’s going on with belief — it’s providing an alternative belief system. If you look at religious-service attendance, there will be a strong negative effect there for belief in UFOs.

I’ve heard that sightings are way down in the smartphone era, when people presumably don’t take a story as proof enough — what do we know about the prevalence of belief in UFOs and aliens? And about the frequency of sightings over the decades?
There are only a few surveys that asked subjects about witnessing UFOs in the ’80s and ’90s, but as far as I’ve seen, rates of reported sightings and rate of belief have been pretty stable. The 2005 Baylor Religion survey found that 26 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Some UFOs are probably spaceships from other worlds.” The 2014 Chapman Survey of American Fears found that 42 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Some UFOs are really spaceships from another planet.” In the CSAF survey, they didn’t offer a neutral/“don’t know” option, so that drove up the numbers there. My sense is that stability is actually the answer once you remove question-modifier effects.

It’s true that it’s easier to hoax things now than it used to be. I would think that an increased availability of videos, if it was going to do anything, might lead to more belief, but from most of what I’ve seen, it looks more like stasis.

Most alien-encounter stories give aliens one of two motives — either they want something from us, or they want to kill us. What does that say about us?
It shows that we have a high level of perceived self-importance. The idea that in this vast universe, these beings sought us out in this tiny corner of the spiral arm of the Milky Way to come learn something from us is a bit flattering. So it also serves the role for us of saying we’re an important part of the universe. In some of the more negative stories, aliens treat us like we’re in a zoo, and I suppose that downplays our importance some. The standard abduction story subordinates us and makes us feel inferior.

I wonder if part of the reason the most popular image of an alien is three feet tall is so it feels less threatening.
If you see the way people describe the grays, they’re sadistic little bastards. They may be little, but you probably don’t want to trifle with them.

That said, one of the strongest predictors you can find for believers is their extreme distrust of the government. To the extent that Trump undermines the legitimacy of the government, that might actually increase belief in UFOs. If more people distrust government, that’s only going to be a boon for UFO subculture.

*A version of this article appears in the March 19, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

A Sociologist Unpacks Our Fixation With Aliens