An Open Letter to the Producers of UFO TV Shows and Documentaries
To all television show producers and documentary filmmakers who create and produce content concerning UFOs; I am officially putting you on notice. Like it or not, you are the cultural gatekeepers to the discourse that surrounds the UFO phenomenon. The consistent ideological push for extraterrestrials and aliens from other planets as being the source of the UFO phenomenon is old, tired, and, much like a Hopkinsville goblin, needs a good shotgun blast to head. To all you folks at the History Channel or OLN, or any production company for that matter; it might be time to explore other avenues, as your work does not adequately or properly portray UFO discourse, nor the phenomenon itself.
In previous posts, I have explored the construct of the extraterrestrial hypothesis when it comes to the UFO question, and attempted to posit a few philosophical points which problematize it. I wish to explore the construct of the ET hypothesis further, and the inherent issues which are generated by its constant use in media, primarily, UFO documentaries and reality television shows.
To begin, we must appreciate that the vast majority of people who exist outside of the UFO subculture have not done appropriate research or investigations of UFO sightings or events. Those within the mainstream cultural milieu only experience the UFO phenomenon via television or film, and apart from being occasional tourists within UFO community circles, consume the messages within those programs wholeheartedly without further reading. In other words, “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”
The women and men who produce and create these programs, such as Ancient Aliens, UFOs: The Lost Evidence, Hangar 1, and UFO Hunters, just to name a few are, in effect, the gatekeepers of the phenomenon to the broader popular culture. Their messages permeate the mainstream cultural fabric and generate the ideological illusion that the people who study, research, and investigate the UFO phenomenon all believe that aliens are visiting Earth in their technologically superior space ships. Any producer or editor worth their salt should know this is an oversimplification of the phenomenon and the discourse.
The German philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his essay, The Stars Down to Earth, explores the influence of belief in the paranormal upon modern society. While his focus is on astrology, New Age beliefs, and occultism, it is easy to bootstrap the extraterrestrial hypothesis and the belief in aliens to his philosophical framework. He suggests that modern day belief in the supernatural, and by extension, extraterrestrials, is a “secondary superstition” (49). He writes,
“They [the public] participate largely through the mediation of magazines and newspapers...and frequently accept such information as reliable sources of advice rather than pretend to have any personal basis for their belief. The type of people we are concerned with take astrology [or UFOs and extraterrestrials for that matter] for granted, much like psychiatry, symphony concerts or political parties; they accept it because it exists, without much reflection, provided only that their own psychological demands somehow correspond to the offer. (49)”
In other words, the vast majority of people interpret the UFO phenomenon in a ‘secondary’ way, not directly, such as seeing a UFO or having a close encounter, but via documentaries, television shows, YouTube channels, etc. that portray those events.
“...the individual’s own primary experience with the occult, whatever its psychological meaning and roots or its validity, rarely, if ever, enter the social phenomenon to which our studies are devoted. Here the occult appears rather institutionalized, objectified and, to a large extent, socialized....people responding to the stimuli we are here investigating seem in a way ‘alien’ to the experience on which they claim their decisions are based. (49)”
Adorno points out that the effect of mediating the paranormal via popular media sanitizes the phenomenon. It becomes part of the social and cultural system of ideologies, and simplified in order to be consumed by popular audiences.
The problem lies in this process of negotiation into mainstream ideologies. While many would argue that it is good to bring the message to the people, that is a flawed argument. The UFO phenomenon as presented via popular media, particularly on television, is inauthentic. It is an altered message, removed from its genuine state, washed and stripped of its originality, and sanitized for palatability. The result is that mainstream culture interprets the UFO phenomenon, and the subculture which studies and engages that phenomenon, as being ‘alien.’ It becomes a sideshow of freaks, rather than a portrayal of human beings who have experienced something anomalous and strange.
Furthermore, and perhaps more problematic, is that this oversimplified message only pushes UFO discourse further into the fringes of culture, reinforcing the already established taboo. Rather than portraying the UFO subculture as a community of people with varying beliefs, hypotheses, and rationales that continuously debate with one another, the media presents a single interpretation; an interpretation that forces the mainstream public to assume all who are interested in the topic believe in alien beings from other planets. Much like any group of people with disenfranchised belief systems, the mainstream ‘alienates’ the members of the UFO subculture. It paints them with the brush of the “Other.”
It is easier to taboo and alienate an idea when it appears unified. Take, for example, the all too common, and discriminatory, portrayal of Islam in the media. The current ideological bend is to portray the entirety of the Islamic religion as being linked to fundamentalism and terrorism. This ‘othering’ of Islam creates an attitude, a feeling, an ideology, within mainstream society that all Muslims are somehow linked to extremism. This is obviously an absurd and abhorrent construct purposefully designed to dehumanize a certain group for political and economic gain (primarily to justify continued military and corporate footholds in the Middle East).
This tactic is ultimately used on many groups, and while the severity of Islamophobia, and other religious and racial based discrimination is much greater than the alienation of the UFO subculture, the end result is the same.
It leaves the UFO subculture having to defend itself against a powerful ideological mechanism. The power of TV networks and production companies greatly outmatches the individuals within the community who interpret the phenomenon from varying places. In other words, the voices of actual members of the UFO community, and the people who have had authentic experiences with the phenomenon itself, are unable to have their voices heard when it counters the ideological framework portrayed by producers, editors, directors, and the corporate production companies that fund them.
While I do not have an answer on how to fix this, I would begin by asking those production companies to adjust the message and look carefully at the stories they tell. However, this is like asking the fox to watch the chicken coop. Rather, the UFO community should push its own members who appear on these programs to tell authentic and varying stories. This is no easy task. As with any field of study, one has to deal with ego and the desire for one to ‘make a name for themselves.’ However, it must be made perfectly clear that there are no ‘experts’ in the UFO field, and those who sit on their Ufological pedestals are only there because the community has placed them there. As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes reminds his readers, the collective is the true “Leviathan” ready and able at a moment's notice to depose anyone who opposes them.
Philosophy aside, one must ask themselves what truths they create by the stories they tell. When producing a television show or documentary about the UFO phenomenon, or anything for that matter, are these men and women duty bound to tell the whole story, no matter how nuanced or complex, or just a piece of it? Is omission a lie in this case?
This is not easy, I understand that. However, I challenge those behind these programs to explore the many variations of the phenomenon, and that the subculture that generates the UFO discourse does not wholeheartedly buy into one single theory. I challenge the production companies to tell these other stories, and to push for honesty rather than the lining of corporate pockets. Finally, I’d ask that the directors, writers, and creators of these programs do their research, and actually have a legitimate desire to understand the content of the discourse, and the people who engage with it. UFO discourse is complex, awkward, absurd, rich, and beautiful.
On a personal note, these shows are what got me interested in UFOs as a teenager, and I know they are necessary. If you are spending significant time and treasure in the production of a program to explore the subject, you must do so with love and honesty, otherwise, stay the hell away from it.
Continue the conversation below. What do you think of current UFO TV and Documentaries? What would you rather see? Are we running over the same old ground, or are these shows essential to the survival of 'Ufology?'
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.
The last few days has seen the explosion of an internet meme where participants post three pictures of fictional characters that they believe describe them best. Ufologists, UFO investigators, researchers, and many others involved in UFO discourse who have a life on social media have also played along, and you probably guessed it, Fox Mulder from The X-Files was a popular choice. There seems to be a recurring theme in the UFO subculture, a discursive element, that links those who explore the UFO phenomenon to television's most famous paranormal investigator. As an active field investigator with MUFON, researcher, writer, and blogger- I am not, nor ever will be, Fox Mulder. Nor will you. It is interesting, however, that many in the UFO discourse think they kind of are…
The agents of UFO discourse, the men and women who make up the various ranks, cliques, and groups, tasked with debating and examining the UFO question carry a sort of mystique, a mythological sense of self that heals some of the wounds caused by the discourse itself.
The new Ghostbusters trailer has been out for a few days now and the reviews from the fans have been pretty critical. The "die hards" are wondering if Ghostbusters really needs a reboot.
I loved the Ghostbusters films, and I watched the cartoon as a kid; let's be honest though, to most young people, the Ghostbusters franchise has been pretty irrelevant since the nineties. In fact, most of the kids going to see this movie have no idea of the franchises' long and respectable heritage. So who cares if it's different- it's not like the franchise is going to die. It was dead, for 20 years, and now it's being resurrected by two brilliant comedic actresses and two of Saturday Night Live's best and brightest.
Overall, I'm happy with the trailer and the concept. It's simple, fun and has a powerhouse comedy cast. It's Ghostbusters. Relax. Many voices bashed the recent Star Wars trailers when they first came out; fools are allowed to have their opinions, so let them howl into the night if they want, no one is really listening anyway.
- M. J. Banias
For those who read the last blog post, I made the claim that there will be a correlation between the re-boot of The X-Files and an increase in UFO sighting submissions. For more information, please click here to read the specific post.
World famous ufologist and co-blogger, Chris Rutkowski, disagreed with my claim and suggested that there would be no increase in sightings reported due to show being relaunched.
As a respectable (not respected) academic, I took the only course of action available to me - "Yeah!? You wanna bet?"
In an article written for GeekWire.com, Alan Boyle, makes a fundamental connection between the upcoming X-Files mini-series and the "renewed attention" UFO's will be given by the general public.
Interestingly, he interviews a few names that pop up pretty regularly in the ufology field, including Seth Shostak of SETI and Peter Davenport of the National UFO Reporting Center. Boyle presents Davenport's "laissez faire" attitude towards shows like The X-Files. Boyle writes, "What Davenport can’t figure out is why it takes something like The X-Files to get the broader public interested in UFOs."
Davenport can not figure it out because he does not value the fundamental desires present in our collective cultural consciousness; that is, the broader public is interested in UFOs because of something like The X-Files.
Although the X-Files TV show went off the air in 2002, interest in the series has continued unabated. There have been books, a spin-off TV series and several graphic novels. A “tenth season” done as a comic book continued the series until 2015, and “season 11” has just started. But the X-Files fanbase was part of the reason that helped encourage the miniseries revival that will air beginning January 24, 2016.
The X-Files followed the exploits of “believer” Fox Mulder and “skeptic” Dana Scully as they investigated otherworldly events (not all of them related to aliens) and battled a secret group trying to prevent their discovering “the truth.” The X-Files partially drew on case reports of tens of thousands of UFO sightings worldwide and the widespread belief that aliens are visiting Earth, abducting humans and working in secret with government agencies desperate to cover-up the “truth.” Among the memes and themes recurring often in the series are the following...