The influence of science fiction films on people’s subconscious minds particularly as it pertains to people’s images of the alien in UFO lore is one of those topics I’ve always found particularly interesting. It combines two of my favorite topics – the unexplained and old science fiction and horror and is a topic I’d like to write something on someday in a more in-depth fashion given a bit more research. The practical length of a blog post is limited, of course, so here I’ll concentrate on the very early days of the UFO age, up to and including the Betty and Barney Hill abduction in 1963 after which supposed alien encounters increase exponentially.
The science fiction genre is as old as cinema itself, and alien beings had inhabited science fiction films since the serial Flash Gordon was released in 1937, they remained human-appearing for years. In 1947, of course, Kenneth Arnold has his sighting of a “fleet” of UFOs near Mount Rainier in Washington State. Science fiction films took a few years to catch up, but by 1950 acknowledged the UFO age in The Flying Saucer.
The titular flying saucer was a machine built by a scientist, however, not an alien device. The film also may be the origin of the image of UFOs as disc-shaped: as of yet, I’m unable to determine an exact release date for the film beyond the year. The Flying Saucer was as much spy thriller as science-fiction film, as the scientist’s assistant attempts to broker a deal to sell the saucer to the Russians. Coincidentally, the lead character of the film is named Mike Trent; Paul Trent took the famous photographs of a disc-like craft in McMinnville, Oregon in May of 1950.
In September of 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still was released, featuring a human-looking alien which, although threatening, was actually benign. It has been noted that the film was the first to depict a benevolent alien, rather than one which was a hostile enemy; clearly an influence on the UFO contactees of the era. It is also significant that the early contactees encountered human-appearing aliens, which likewise mirrored the image early science fiction films had established; also that most of the “alien guides” of the contactees espoused a similar philosophy to that of Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Another film from 1951 began to develop the “flip side” of alien biology. The Thing from Another World was released five months prior to The Day the Earth Stood Still, and from what I’ve been able to determine I believe it was the first to feature a distinctly non-human (vegetable, in fact) alien. Although the overall design of the creature seems to owe a debt to Frankenstein, we see the beginning of development of a large cranium, a common feature of many alien reports.
Invaders from Mars (1953) featured two distinct aliens, both of which play into the development of the popular image of the alien in their own way. The appearance of the dwarfish overlord continues the development of the gigantic cranium as well as the stunted height of what will later become the “Greys”; the servitor mutants feature the large eyes which will also feature prominently in later cinematic and “real” aliens.
The War of the Worlds, also from that year, helps cement these developments. The spindly limbs associated with the “Greys” are here; the Martians combine the features of both aliens in Invaders from Mars in that we find both dwarfish height and overprotuberant eyes (or eye, in this case); in fact, the Martians’ heads are virtually all eye.
The next year, Stranger from Venus returned to the conception of an alien of human appearance, again with a more benevolent message; this time, less the foreboding warning Klaatu gave three years previous as a promise that should the military stand down we will receive access to some of the scientific research of the Venusians. Killers from Space has been described by some as the genesis of the “alien abduction” idea, though the abduction in this case is a bit different in motivation than what we would expect in modern times. The aliens in this case abduct the hero to make him a sort of “Manchurian Candidate,” using their overprotuberant, hypnotic eyes to manipulate him into stealing data on weapons programs.
1957’s Invasion of the Saucer Men is significant in that its aliens are almost spot-on the image of the “Grey” in popular alien lore of today. Huge craniums, large eyes, spindly limbs, dwarfish height: all are here. Also of note is that their “ears” are very reminiscent of those on witness sketches of the aliens that besieged the Suttons in their farmhouse near Kelly, Kentucky in 1955.
The saucer men are also able to inject people with alcohol to hide their appearances; likely a humorous nod to how drunkenness is often blamed for people seeing aliens (the Kelly encounter for one). That said, I suppose one could also draw a connection between the saucer men’s hypodermics (located in their fingers) and the activities often laid before the “Greys” in alien abduction scenarios.
The rest of the 1950s didn’t really feature any other movies that influenced the idea of the alien – in fact, the next real facet of early sci-fi to have a bearing on our alien conceptions and images appeared in 1963 when “The Outer Limits” began airing on television. Nearly every episode of “The Outer Limits” featured some variety of alien or another, several of which resembled “Greys.”
Betty and Barney Hill were famously abducted by a UFO near Lancaster, New Hampshire in 1961. The case was not disclosed, however, until 1963 and even then it was at small, local UFO research groups, remaining relatively unpublicized until the Hills underwent hypnosis in early 1964. The familiar “Greys” were first described by Barney Hill when he was under hypnosis on February 22, 1964.
In 1990, Martin Kottmeyer wrote an article in the magazine Magonia indicating that he felt Barney’s description of the aliens under hypnosis was influenced by the episode of “The Outer Limits” which aired on February 10, 1964, twelve days prior. The alien appearing in the episode, “The Bellero Shield,” commented that “all who have eyes have eyes that speak.” This statement mirrored one made in Barney’s sessions describing how the alien’s eyes “spoke” to him. Kottmeyer also noted some similarity between the appearance of the alien and the one described.
While this episode may have influenced this line of Barney’s, personally I feel that another episode of the series – “The Children of Spider County” which aired the very next week on February 17, 1964 (only five days prior to the hypnosis) may have influenced the physical appearance of the aliens more. Compare the eyes of Barney’s sketch with those of the alien creature of the episode:
I don’t doubt that the Hills indeed experienced something, but given that it has been noted by many researchers before how notoriously unreliable hypnosis can be, I do wonder to what extent these recollections – produced as they were three years after the event – may have been influenced by these television images.
So, in conclusion, it appears that film and television of the 1950s and 1960s did indeed have some influence on the development of what people expect to see in an alien encounter. Once again, I’m not doubting these encounters take place: but are the “Greys” being seen as abductors because that is indeed the appearance of the aliens, or because that is the appearance people are predisposed to expect?