Fugitive Lights: The Renaissance of a Cold War Phenomenon in the 21st Century
MMXX, 2020. A year seared into the public conscience for any number of reasons: the tragic death of George Floyd sparking widespread protests, the final year of a tumultuous presidency, the zenith of the COVID-19 pandemic, the list goes on. Yet, for a smaller, more niche corner of the popular imagination, the year shaped up to be one of the most memorable of the new millennium for an entirely different—but no less notorious—reason.
In April 2020, perhaps the most turbulent month of the coronavirus epidemic, as businesses were shutting down and nationwide stay-at-home orders were being put into effect, the Department of Defense officially released three short videos. These videos depict US Navy encounters with what spokesperson Sue Gough called “unidentified aerial phenomena” (UAP). Quietly confirming what had already been released by the private company To The Stars Academy of Arts & Sciences and subsequently acknowledged by the Navy, the Pentagon finally recognized, at least in part, the spate of unidentified flying object (UFO) sightings in recent years.
There is long-standing joke that has come about with the advent of cellular technology, one that goes something like this: “With everybody having cell phones nowadays, why aren’t there more UFO sightings?” Well, according to data compiled by the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC), it turns out there actually are more sightings with accompanying photographic evidence than one might initially think—and that number has seen a steady increase since 1990.
Now, one would be remiss to not point out that numbers alone prove very little by way of fact. Steve Hudgeons, of the civilian-led Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), is unafraid to challenge any number of these so-called “sightings” using common sense and logic. Many “funny lights” turn out to be airplanes or satellites, nothing out of the ordinary. Yet the reports still come in, and MUFON retains volunteer “field investigators” for this very reason, suggesting that the popular imagination remains as transfixed as ever by these strange, fugitive lights darting back and forth in the skies, the subject of James Fox’s game-changing 2020 documentary, The Phenomenon.
The modern UFO phenomenon began in earnest during the Cold War, with the story of pilot Kenneth Arnold’s encounter with “supersonic flying saucers” (as the headline read in the June 26, 1947 issue of the Chicago Sun). In early July, the legendary events that transpired in Roswell, New Mexico hit the airwaves, and the ensuing UFO craze lit up the public imagination with a fiery intensity that would burn for the next twenty-some years.
Watergate and the Vietnam War would bring a renewed sense of skepticism and mistrust to the public proceedings. But, by this point, the marriage of the UFO to the concept of the “extraterrestrial” was firmly planted in popular mind, thanks in no small part to the much-debated “extraterrestrial hypothesis” (ETH), which posits that most of these UAP are best explained as actual spacecrafts containing alien life forms. This hypothesis was first defined by nuclear physicist and quantum mechanics pioneer Edward Condon in 1969, during the presentation of the Condon Report. His well-known report came as the result of a study carried out by the University of Colorado from 1966 to 1968, funded by none other than the United States Air Force. The report’s conclusions debunked most of the phenomena and concluded that there was actually little evidence to support the hypothesis.
In an odd way, I think that my interest in the not-easily-explainable is probably the very thing that led me to Christ in the first place.Nevertheless, between widespread media attention and the swath of “alien invasion” films like Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) pumped out by B-movie producers in the fifties, the UFO and the alien entity became inseparable. And the seventies marked a noticeable shift in the public disposition towards this phenomenon from a creative standpoint as well. Spielberg’s 1977 science fiction epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind presented a more grounded take on the lives of those who actually claimed to have seen a UFO—and, in some cases, made contact with the vehicle’s occupants—and Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking Alien (1979) turned the inscrutable extraterrestrial entity into a lethal killing machine stalking its prey in the black void of space.
The game would change yet again with Chris Carter’s brilliant and paranoid staple of nineties television, The X-Files (1993-2018), featuring the UFO-obsessed FBI agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and his skeptical partner Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). For nearly ten years, the agents peeled back the layers of a sinister government conspiracy revolving around extraterrestrials. This award-winning television series represented the perfect marriage of the new, cynical attitude toward the UFO phenomenon and widespread government mistrust, and those “unidentified aerial phenomena” reached their pop culture zenith.
There is something almost kitschy in saying that the events of September 11, 2001 changed the way people looked at something. It seems most every discussion of public perception regarding any topic at the turn of the twentieth century must inevitably suggest that said perception changed in the aftermath of 9/11. Depending on the topic, I suppose, such a claim is valid. And I believe that to be a valid claim when discussing the UFO phenomenon in the public conscience.
By 2002, The X-Files had been cancelled after airing consistently for the better part of a decade. In the years immediately following 2001, UFO films and their ilk became scarce. And when science fiction television series returned to the fore with a vengeance, with shows like Ron Moore’s astounding reimagining of Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), there were far fewer extraterrestrials involved. The threats of home, it seems, became far more important to the gatekeepers of pop culture, than the threats of whatever might be “out there.” This sentiment continues to pervade pop culture in the numerous deconstructions of the genre.
When The X-Files returned in 2016, Carter and company pulled perhaps the boldest storytelling move I’ve ever seen by blowing up the very mythology they spent years developing. This new spin suggested that the seemingly sinister aliens of the original series were actually benevolent beings, who had come to help mankind save itself from destruction, only to be taken advantage of by a shadow government. The story of The X-Files had, for over a decade, been one of the constant threat of an impending alien colonization of earth. By the time the revival series ended in 2018, the story had become one in which evil humans planned to colonize them. Hardly is there a better picture of the way that widespread sentiment has shifted in its concerns for the UFO phenomenon and what it represents in the public imagination than this.
Despite the changing tides in the broader public conscience and continued social stigma, though, people continue to report seeing strange lights in the skies. And, apparently, with increasing frequency. Perhaps people are less inclined to chase after the extraterrestrial hypothesis for an explanation as to what these objects actually are; nonetheless, there remain legitimate questions that even the United States government has finally gotten around to admitting stumps them.
Now, before you panic, rest assured that I am not about to wrap up this short survey of UFOs and pop culture by telling you what I think is “really” going on—I’m not. I don’t think aliens are behind the coronavirus, and I’m really not interested in giving yet another “hot take” on this phenomenon. As something of an amateur ufologist—yes, it’s a real term—I simply think the evidence speaks for itself. And just because we cannot slot every last one of these real-world happenings into a quick and easy frame of reference doesn’t mean we should dismiss every single one of those thousands of reports each year out of hand.
Yes, I am still a Christian who depends every day upon the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ as affirmation of my right standing with the Father. No, I do not think fugitive lights are the work of little devils zooming around in flying cars made of hellfire and brimstone. I just find all of the evidence interesting—plain and simple. And all that means is that while most people lie in bed at night watching YouTube videos, I’m likely doing the same thing—except the videos I’m watching are probably of Navy pilots trying to figure out just what on earth they’re looking at, and instead of scrolling through Facebook, I’m usually scrolling through the latest report from NUFORC or MUFON.
In an odd way, I think that my interest in the not-easily-explainable is probably the very thing that led me to Christ in the first place. Fantasy and science fiction both played key roles in getting me through a childhood that I didn’t realize was unconventional until I actually started to meet people who had normal ones. Spending time hunting for Mothman in Point Pleasant, West Virginia (a great vacation spot, by the way), or hoping to glimpse Bigfoot on the occasional hunt with my father are childhood memories that linger, palpable and powerful. And few things still exist in the world with a sense of mystique and mystery; after all, we are the people who have successfully managed to demystify sex, a truly staggering accomplishment.
My point is that whatever is in me that makes me keep printed files—that’s right, hard copies—of the actual declassified FBI documents concerning UFO phenomena on hand for quick reference is probably the same thing that keeps me searching the pages of Scripture, or perusing any number of the commentaries sitting on my shelf next to binders full of reports of UFO sightings.
All this to say, in perhaps a very strange way… well, no it’s probably best not to say it. It wouldn’t be kosher for someone with two degrees in Christian theology to say. Then again…
You know what? I’ll say it.
UFOs led me to Jesus.
How’s that for an ending?