You probably don’t exist. Or perhaps you did once, but it was billions of years ago in another arm of the Milky Way. Or maybe you will appear a few million years after our sun dies. Or maybe you are around, but in another galaxy, and so if you sent a radio signal around seventy thousand years ago to for whatever reason that tiny corner of the universe where we are, we might be lucky enough to get it before our civilization self-destructs.
All that given, you should know that quite a lot of us are pretty sure you’re here already. Ask David Fravor the Navy pilot who in 2004 saw the thing people interested in this world have come to call the “Tic Tac,” a strange oblong object the US military has stated it cannot explain. We’ve got video of that one. Or ask David Grusch, an Air Force officer and Pentagon whistleblower who, in June 2023, claimed to have seen evidence that the U.S. government has a secret crash retrieval program that has recovered craft of non-human origin. But all we have are video, and Grusch, like other past whistleblowers, has not tangible evidence. We are always, it seems, half a step behind you.
I guess because of that you might find our fascination with you a little curious. Our movies have helpfully narrowed down what you look like, though, even though we can’t decide if you’re coming to probe our crevices for inexplicable reasons, blow us up, or help guide us into an environmentally sustainable future. Probably your motives would be somewhat more confusing even if you did show up, as they are in Wes Anderson’s new movie Asteroid City. There, you pop in, steal an asteroid, and vanish. Of course, you drop it back in place forty minutes later, but your reasoning is entirely obscure, and ultimately it doesn’t matter quite as much as the grief flourishing around you.
In fact, it’s perhaps more useful to us were you not to show up at all. All that debate that we’ve been having about where you are, and what you’re doing and what exactly it is that you want has thrown out a lot of (a LOT of) suggestions, and a fair number of them seem to have a bit more to do with us than they have to do with you. If you listen to the early-fifties California coast hippie progenitors like George Adamski, you are blonde and have nice teeth and are from Venus and want us to give up nuclear war and embrace the sort of international cooperation only the most starry-eyed peaceniks would think possible. (And there were a fair number of those sorts around then—after all, it’s when we got the United Nations.)
The Air Force, though, well. From whatever it was zipping around, flashing lights in the sky, and drawing anti-aircraft fire from jumpy Angelenos in the Battle of Los Angeles in 1942 all the way through the bogies over the White House in 1952, the Air Force seemed worried that you were some sort of Soviet plot. Of course, what with the Cold War and the Soviets developing a nuclear missile in 1949, this sort of paranoia was on everybody’s mind. When they set up Project Sign (which turned into Project Grudge, which turned into the more famous Project Blue Book), the military seemed to be taking all of this very seriously indeed. No time for George Adamski here. You were indeed, after all, unidentified flying objects in the most literal sense of the term. And the last big thing that came out of the sky most Americans in the early fifties remembered was in Japan in 1945.
By the time we got to the eighties—the era of recovered memory and the Satanic panic and pop hypnosis and lurid movies about how weird multiple personality disorder was—it’s no wonder that you started to stealthily, silently glide into people’s bedrooms late at night, and to stop them as they drove down dark and isolated roads, sometimes freezing them in place with a beam of light, sometimes disembarking to capture them, and drawing them upward, stricken, into the strange confines of an alien vessel, to return not the same. How much those victims might remember of these things varied wildly, but what they were left with: anxiety, trauma, nightmares, well. These things were the stuff of the age of therapy, after all. Were you also, or were we simply using whatever tools we might have to grapple with your weirdness?
You probably know of Jacques Vallee and John Keel (in fact, you may even have met John). Neither is quite comfortable with the rather mundane word “aliens;” it conjures up, after all, the bumbling rubber-costumed figures of early Star Trek rather than the essentially primal weirdness of whatever it is you actually are. That is to say, neither believes you came here on a spaceship (though both believe you are actually here). Rather, if you ask them, you are far more ethereal, flickering in and out of our reality in the same elusive way ghosts and fairies do—and indeed, they’d say that’s a better match for what you are than the things that clamber off a spaceship and beep “Take me to your leader” at the B-movie stars in front of them.
Who knows, then, what you might really be. But that very elusiveness makes you, paradoxically more comprehensible. It makes you into a mirror. And that might be, I think, why we can’t let you go.
Matthew Bowman is associate professor of religion and history and Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. His books include The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. He lives in Claremont, CA.