Aliens have been in the news a lot recently—regardless of whether you think they are, or have ever been, anywhere else.
A group of former Congressmen convened at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. earlier this month to hear impassioned eyewitness testimony on everything from the Roswell “incident” to more recent, unexplained lights in the sky. Vanity Fair this month published a lengthy profile of Harvard psychiatrist John Edward Mack—a man who believed, implausibly, in alien abduction.
Meanwhile, the “world’s first comprehensive” UFO exhibition recently opened in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where organizers promise 200 artifacts ranging from replicas of the Easter Island statues to “authentic video and audio recordings of people reporting alien encounters.”
“Myrtle Beach is a hot spot for sightings,” one organizer points out in a not-quite-skeptical account of local sightings on CarolinaLive.com.
What is it about UFOs that drive so many people to believe they exist despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary? According to a 2012 National Geographic poll, 36 percent of Americans believe aliens have visited earth. And yet, as a concerned acquaintance wrote to Harvard’s Mack in 1994, such visitations “contradict virtually all of the basic laws of physics, chemistry and biology on which modern science depends.”
Researchers at the Universities of Westminster and Vienna have identified a proverbial host of factors that appear to correlate to belief in UFOs: Gender, politics, religiosity, intelligence, fantasy proneness—even certain psychological disorders, like schizophrenia.
Studies and polls have found, for instance, that conservatives and religious people believe in UFOs far less than their liberal or less religious peers. Men are more likely to believe in aliens than women. (But women, interestingly, are more likely to believe in ghosts.)
The children of believers, of which there were several at the hearings in D.C., are also more likely to spot extraterrestrial life, according to parapsychologist Harvey Irwin.
“When it comes to the Roswell incident, I believe my father and grandfather,” concluded Denice Marcel, one of the hearings’ primary Roswell witnesses, and the descendant of other Roswell truthers.
But the enduring power of UFOs doesn’t seem like something we can explain away as delusion or demographic proclivity. It seems to spring from someplace deeper—the same place, psychologists like C.G. Jung have argued, that forced early humans to make up myths to explain the weather. These stories explain things we don’t, or can’t, understand. (“I was dealing with a phenomenon that I felt could not be explained psychiatrically,” the Harvard psychiatrist who believed in alien abduction once said.)
Without these stories, psychologist Stephen Diamond explains in an essay on UFOs and the “cry for meaning,” we have to accept the fact that some things mean nothing, and others are totally beyond us—a strange, frightening and ultimately deflating thought.
In fact, it’s arguably easier to believe the universe is full of life, even hostile life, than to believe the universe holds no meaning at all. In that respect, a belief in UFOs answers many of the same questions as a belief in God—explaining, perhaps, why the religious tend to not believe in them. Both things convince us, in Diamond’s words, that we are:
“… still capable of experiencing something that lifts us out of our everyday, mundane, ordinary, banal, often seemingly purposeless lives, and [they also remind us], if only momentarily, what it means to be fully, ecstatically alive in a universe filled with beauty, mystery, terror, danger and wonder.”
The alternate narrative isn’t very compelling, which explains why conferences and museums on existentialism, if they existed, would draw far smaller crowds than Myrtle Beach’s “UFO Experience” and D.C.’s recent UFO hearings. It also accounts for the flood of Hollywood features on UFOs—500 since 1947, according to IMDB—and the relative lack of movies on the vast, dark emptiness of the unfeeling universe. (Also worth noting: according to Irwin and others, more alien movies = more UFO sightings.)
Perhaps viewers want to feel what Roy Neary felt in the 1977 hit “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
“I know this sounds crazy, but ever since yesterday on the road, I’ve been seeing this shape,” Neary says after seeing a UFO. “Shaving cream, pillows… Dammit! I know this. I know what this is! This means something. This is important.”