“Must be aliens” has proven a popular explanation for everything we don’t understand since humans developed the ability to look up, but the population of sweaty guys with telescopes really exploded after the Roswell incident in 1947. A hasty press release regarding what the government has insisted ever since was the remains of a weather balloon kicked off a UFO craze that the residents of New Mexico have learned to embrace.

The UFO Craze of 1947

Chicago Sun flying saucer headline

(Chicago Sun/Wikimedia Commons)

People were primed to expect UFOs around the time of the Roswell incident because a few weeks earlier, an amateur pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported the first “flying saucer” sighting. In the weeks that followed, hundreds of people started reporting similar sightings in what the media has dubbed a mass hysteria event, but they’re probably in on it.

The Roswell Incident

Roswell in the '40s

(Don O'Brien/Wikimedia Commons)

That’s why, when W. W. Brazel found scraps of tin foil and rubber strewn about his New Mexico sheep ranch, he alerted the Roswell sheriff to the debris on July 7, 1947. We would hope aliens would use more sophisticated materials, but better safe than abducted.

The Roswell Army Air Field

The sheriff wasn’t really qualified to answer questions like, “Does this look like alien shit to you?” so he called in Colonel William Blanchard, who initiated an investigation at the Roswell Army Air Field, where he worked, to be supervised by Major Jesse Marcel. They soon became convinced that, indeed, this was some alien shit.

The Press Release

Roswell Daily Record

(Roswell Daily Record/Wikimedia Commons)

The next day, the Roswell Army Air Field issued a press release announcing that, “The many rumors regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the cooperation of one of the local ranchers and the sheriff's office of Chaves County.” The release was drafted by public information officer Walter Haut, but he insisted the order came from Blanchard, while other sources attribute it to Marcel. Basically, everyone pointed the finger at somebody else.

The Retraction

Imagine their embarrassment when, just as their statement was heading to print, experts at the Fort Worth Army Air Field, where the material had been sent for further examination, determined it was completely terrestrial debris from a crashed weather balloon. The next day, the Roswell Army Air Field declared, “Oops, our bad, nothing to see here, move it along,” which you would think would be when conspiracy theorists started getting suspicious, but that was the end of the story for 30 years.

UFOs Are Real

Jesse Marcel

(Roswell Army Air Field/Wikimedia Commons)

No one gave much thought to Roswell again until the late ‘70s, when Marcel admitted in an interview for the documentary UFOs Are Real that he believed the material he’d handled was “nothing from this Earth,” describing “a piece of metal about a foot and a half to two feet wide and you couldn't even bend it, you couldn't dent it, even with a sledgehammer it would bounce off of it.” This contradicted statements he’d made at the time, but he explained that he “wasn’t at liberty” to tell the truth, forced to “keep mouth shut” while his boss told reporters these weren’t the grays they were looking for. “Of course, we both knew differently.”

The Roswell Incident

Marcel with debris

(University of Texas at Arlington Library/Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, not a lot of people were buying tickets for a movie called UFOs Are Real. What really catapulted the event to the forefront of the minds of the nation’s weirdos was the 1980 book The Roswell Incident, whose authors claimed the material Marcel had been photographed with was only a “hasty substitute” while the real deal was being examined in Ohio. They were also the first to publish accounts from alleged witnesses who claimed to have seen alien bodies at the site of the crash.

Glenn Dennis

International UFO Museum

(TravelingOtter/Wikimedia Commons)

The cover-up theory was further signal-boosted by Glenn Dennis, a mortician who did work for the Roswell Army Air Field, who claimed in 1989 that he’d received some strange calls from the base around the time of the incident about how to preserve unusual bodies and met with an army nurse who flat-out told him she’d seen them aliens. Of course, there were several inconsistencies in his story, including the absence of anyone by the name of the nurse he gave from military personnel records, and he opened a Roswell UFO museum two years later, but none of that is any reason not to -- wait, no, that’s every reason not to trust him.

Are You a CUFOS or a MUFON?

By the early ‘90s, Roswell was a full-fledged industry, and “your book only going to sell if your charges more grandiose, more exaggerated, more powerful,” according to one historian. There were several different camps to which a conspiracy theorist could swear their allegiance, all pointing at each other and insisting, “No, that guy’s making it up.” There were even “several conferences … held to resolve the controversy.” It was like West Side Story but with fewer switchblades and more cystic acne.

Project Mogul

By this point, nearly 50 years after the incident, the government figured they should probably let people know what was really going on and held a press conference with their alien friends. Just kidding! They admitted that the “weather balloon” thing wasn’t true, but it really was a balloon, just one built for a secret operation to spy on the Soviets. Warning: This is not the last time the Soviets will come up.

Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?

In 1995, British filmmaker Ray Santilli released what he claimed was real footage of an alien autopsy at Roswell titled, in an act of serious creative drought, Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? It was watched by millions of people every time it aired on TV, but in 2006, Santilli admitted it was a “recreation” of footage he swears he saw “a year or so” earlier that had deteriorated by the time he got around to releasing it. You know how sometimes you leave world-changing media just lying around for a year. Besides, he did put a question mark at the end, and all headline writers know that means no one is allowed to get mad at you.

Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm

1997 Roswell report

(U.S. Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons)

Realizing that they must not have made themselves clear, the government again released a report in 1997 to clarify that, really, there were no alien bodies. The sightings, if they had any truth to them, were likely to be crash test dummies used in parachute testing, they said. That put a definitive end to the discussion, and no one ever made weird claims ever again.

Surprise Stalin

Joseph Stalin

(Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

In 2011, the weirdest claim yet -- that the Roswell incident was the result of a plot by the century’s worst Josef/phs, Stalin and Mengele, to panic the American people by dropping “alien-like” preteens in the country -- was published in the form of the comparatively innocuously titled book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base. When asked for comment, the U.S. Air Force basically said, “We don’t know her.”

Roswell Today

International UFO Museum

(AllenS/Wikimedia Commons)

If anyone in Roswell was mad about their town becoming the UFO capital of the world, they’ve either gotten over it or moved, because the city seems nothing but proud of their extraterrestrial legacy. Glenn Dennis’s museum is still going strong, the city celebrates an annual UFO Festival, and you can’t swing a dead alien without hitting a statue in his likeness.

The Real Aliens

Air Force firefighters in flash suits

(U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons)

In 2020, an Air Force official provided one last piece of the puzzle that may explain at least one alien sighting near Roswell. In the early ‘50s -- easily conflated with 1947 in later recollections -- two technicians on a mission to recover a downed military balloon wearing “radiation protective suits” that made them look like “a combination of Darth Vader and the Pillsbury Doughboy” were surprised to encounter a woman out in the desert. She was pretty surprised to see them, too, because she promptly fainted. After confirming that she didn’t appear hurt, they quietly tiptoed away before she came to, and she presumably lived a very weird rest of her life.

Top image: Frank Pierson/Wikimedia Commons

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