TV Shows and Why We Can't Shake the ET Hypothesis
I recently watched an episode of “UFOs: The Lost Evidence”. For the uninitiated, it is a resurrection of the typical UFO TV show, with the main differentiator being that many of the cases, images, videos or audio “have never been seen before on television.” It’s your typical UFO ‘expert’ interviews blended with recreations and stock footage.
As I was watching the show, I began to consider other cable shows regarding the UFO question (Hangar 1, UFOs Declassified, UFO Hunters, etc.), as well as the general Ufological ideologies present among those outside of the UFO discourse who look in from time to time. These shows, along with various other forms of popular media, typically revolve around the UFO phenomenon being caused by aliens from another planet. The extraterrestrial hypothesis basically pervades the UFO question to those in the mainstream. In other words, those who do not actively engage in UFO discourse regularly, but are ‘tourists,’ have a coerced notion that the UFO debate primarily concerns otherworldly aliens.
UFO discourse and Ufology paint themselves, to the broader culture via TV shows and other mainstream media, as being primarily the study of a phenomenon caused by aliens from another world. While some in the UFO discourse also share similar ideologies, there are many others who oppose a hypothesis regarding a physical ET from another planet who travels about in interstellar craft.
The UFO discourse is a small field made up by a collection of fringe dwellers, who, in order to pull in future community members and to bring awareness of the topic, require these shows to act as bridges from mainstream culture to the subculture. The bizarre twist here is that these shows portray an oddball subculture of ‘believers’ in aliens, which further pushes the discourse itself into the outer edges of popular culture. These programs enshrine the concept that the UFO topic is a fringe one, yet are required by the UFO discourse to spread its message beyond the current subculture.
To add to this ‘catch 22’ is the addiction to the ET hypothesis which is not really representative of the UFO discourse as a whole. The UFO discourse requires these shows, and continues to impress upon them an ideological construct that aliens are somehow involved in the phenomena. However, some of the most respected members of the UFO discourse, such as Vallée, would argue that the extraterrestrial hypothesis is not the answer to the UFO question.
We arrive at a cultural oddity. An assortment of television shows that solidify one hypothesis within UFO discourse, and all the while, continue to enshrine the topic as one for the outer rim of social and cultural ideology. However, these shows ensure the survival of the discourse. They maintain the UFO topic within the mainstream cultural milieu.
This begs a question; why do cable networks and TV producers focus only on the ET hypothesis, when the UFO discourse is a chorus of many different hypotheses as to the ‘source’ of the phenomenon?
One can imagine the hesitancy of many TV show producers to engage in a show concerning the more metaphysical or mystical sides of the UFO debate. Aliens are already a cultural icon, an aspect of our shared mythos, archetypal, and generate a deep seated anxiety. From a cultural perspective, dealing with mystical beings, and non corporeal intelligences that exist in some metaphysical ether is difficult to consume and process. They are not visible. They do not exist physically like we do, and they do not generate discomfort among broader society and culture. Extraterrestrials, on the other hand, do.
The aspect of a physical being, or an intelligence that can take on physical form, and interact with humans on a one on one level plays at every instinctual fear we possess. Within the physical alien is the human self, the ultimate Other, the chaos of humanity that exists outside of the cultural norms of a given terrestrial society. They are like us in that they have some form of agency. Everything else is different. They are unreadable, unknowable, and they force us to dive deep into our own psyche and extract those pieces of us that we find frightening. It is not that ‘they’ are evil or good (by human standards), it is that they live outside of that duality, and that is scary.
It blurs the line in our minds as to whether we are the predator or the prey. It challenges our place in the world, the place we know and can easily negotiate, and throws all that out the window. It puts into our collective mind the question of, “do we actually have the power in this situation?” It dispels the illusions that humanity is the sole proprietor of its own destiny, agenda, and environment.
The beauty of anxiety is that it is typically addictive. We enjoy the feeling of fear. This is why movies like Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998), and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) are so popular. Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Stekel posited that we all possess a ‘death drive.’ We all fear our own demise and loss of power, but we fettishize it too. We are drawn to the idea of it.
If we really examine the constant tropes of Ufological television shows, they carry with them tones and motifs that push a feeling of anxiety. As the narrators often ask, “what do these UFOs want?” This question is essentially the same question the ET hypothesis asks, “what do they want and why are they here?” If you really think about it, the answer is significantly less frightening than the question.
Finally, the ET hypothesis establishes a clear dichotomy; us and them. It retains ‘the self’ as a social subject within the mechanisms of a capitalist global culture and framework. The ET hypothesis allows us to continue dwelling within our collective cultural illusion. While a public and open ET arrival may shift our cultural landscape to something totally different, that has yet to happen. The mystical approach to the UFO question challenges our current ideological framework regarding power, economics, and politics. It identifies the illusion, and informs its followers that the status quo ideological reality is a falsehood. Mainstream culture is not interested in radical change, and the media, television included, is designed to propagate culture, not challenge it.
The thought that these TV shows are a fundamental part of UFO discourse is undoubtedly making many within the UFO community gag. When these shows air for the first time, Facebook is typically riddled with negative comments. There are concerns over the use of debunked evidence, criticism of the ‘experts’ chosen to be interviewed, and even disapproval for the various UFO incidents and events that get selected for (re)examination (I’m looking at you Roswell…).
That being said, the UFO discourse often demands to be accepted into mainstream culture without success. The cable shows ironically are the only method to achieve that goal. However, with every episode, UFO discourse moves farther and farther away into the cultural fringe.