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?'