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Roswell, New Mexico – Each summer, thousands of people descend upon the town of Roswell, New Mexico, for the annual UFO Festival, an event commemorating the anniversary of a supposed alien spacecraft crash and government cover-up that occurred nearby in the summer of 1947.
For four days and nights, this otherwise sleepy, conservative town in southeastern New Mexico is transformed into a carnivalesque scene of food carts, costume contests, light shows and booths brimming with extraterrestrial-themed collectables.
This year, a 20ft blow-up alien presided over the festivities on Main Street as a steady procession of visitors, some dressed in alien-themed garb, made their way towards Saturday’s costume contest at a nearby auditorium.
“It’s like Mardi Gras, but with aliens,” says Janet Jones, proprietor of the Roswell Space Center, one of six permanent stores selling UFO and alien merchandise.
Jones was born and raised in Roswell, a town consumed by the otherworldly. Here, light posts are shaped like alien heads, coffee shops sell ET-themed lattes, McDonald’s restaurants are shaped like flying saucers, and the biggest draw in town is the International UFO Museum and Research Center.
“It’s hard to imagine what we would be without the crash,” says Jones. “We have the mozzarella factory and the pecan orchards, but this is the biggest game in town.”
The omnipresence of the UFO in Roswell began in the 1990s as a calculated attempt by the city to capitalise on a niche tourist economy centred around the 1947 incident, considered by most to be the seminal moment in UFO folklore.
“This is the place,” says Mike Alvarez, who has been coming to Roswell from his home in Texas since 1997 and, like many believers, considers Roswell to be something of a sacred destination for UFO enthusiasts.
“The most important cover-up in history,” he says, noting the commonly held belief that the United States government withheld information about the true nature of the crash.
The undisputed facts (though much remains disputed) claim that, in 1947, a rancher named Mack Brazel came across unidentifiable debris on his ranch and hauled the wreckage to the nearby army airfield. There, an air force officer issued a press release claiming a “flying disc” had been recovered. On July 8, 1947, the Roswell Daily Record ran a tantalising headline: “RAAF [Roswell Army Air Field] captures flying saucer on ranch in Roswell region”, and the story was picked up across the country.
Public interest in the crash soon waned after the air force released a statement saying that the debris was from a weather balloon. However, in the 1970s, the Roswell incident was resurrected by ufologists claiming that the balloon crash was a cover-up and that the government had discovered alien bodies at the crash site.
“Roswell is the mother of all cover-ups,” says Kim Carrier, standing behind his booth, The Martian Collectible Store, and sporting a tinfoil hat on his head.
“Anyone with sense knows something happened here.”
“Prior to 9/11 it was the granddaddy of all conspiracy theories, a cosmic Watergate,” says William Dewan, a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, who wrote his doctorate dissertation on the UFO phenomenon.
“The contemporary climate is key to understanding these events,” says Dewan, noting the public mistrust of the government that has, in part, fuelled the conspiracy theories surrounding UFOs.
In the 1990s, the government revealed that what had crashed years earlier was not a weather balloon, but one used for surveillance, part of a top-secret US Air Force project to detect nuclear weapons explosions. This omission led to further controversy and conspiracy theories, increasing the interest in the incident among sceptics and believers alike.
Nick Pope, a former employee at the British Ministry of Defence, was involved in investigating reports of UFO sightings, including the Rendlesham Forest incident, among the best-known reported UFO events in the world. He told Al Jazeera: “I think it’s beyond dispute that something crashed in Roswell. That’s pretty much the one point on which believers and sceptics agree.
“However, while the idea that the object that crashed was an extraterrestrial spacecraft has become firmly embedded in popular culture, there’s no conclusive evidence that that’s what happened,” says Pope, one of numerous UFO researchers and lecturers speaking at the festival this year.
“We have definite evidence that they are [there], even if we don’t know what they are,” says David Marler, a UFO researcher, lecturer and author who has conducted numerous investigations into alleged UFO sightings.
“My passion is the history, and a sense that there must be something behind all of this,” says Marler, speaking to Al Jazeera at the festival.
“Roswell is ground zero for this subject [of ufology],” says Pope, noting that while circuitous debates over the truth or fiction about the UFO visitation at Roswell continue, no one can doubt its role in the media and public fascination that continues today.
“The fact that we’re talking about it 65 years later says a lot,” says Marler. “Whether it’s fact, fiction or folklore, everyone has to agree UFOs are part of our culture.”
The modern UFO phenomenon in the US can be traced to 1947, when pilot Kenneth Arnold reportedly saw nine objects flying near Mount Rainier in Washington state. Fearing that what he saw was a foreign weapon, Arnold reported the sighting to a local paper. His description of the UFOs moving “like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water” was misquoted. Numerous headlines such as “Supersonic flying saucer sighted by Idaho pilot” ran on front pages across the nation.
“In their haste to get the story out, the reporters got it wrong, but it created a new reality,” says sociologist Robert Bartholomew, who has written extensively about the sociological underpinning of UFO sightings throughout history, noting the explosion of mysterious sightings that followed the incident. Thus, according to Bartholomew, “the words ‘flying disc’ and ‘flying saucer’ were soon born”.
UFO sightings soon became entrenched in popular culture.
In response, the US government, the air force and then the CIA began investigating UFO claims. They, along with many in academia, worked to explain the phenomenon, placing it at the very periphery of society. According to Bartholomew, early believers were often painted as insane, and their experiences seen as a product of individual or collective psychopathology.
“Scientists says these things do not exist, or there is no conclusive proof. Yet, all these people keep seeing these things,” says Bartholomew, noting how despite the scepticism over the validity of sightings and experiences, the persistence and prevalence of UFO experiences cannot be denied.
Numerous polls conducted from the 1950s onwards show that belief in UFO sightings may not be the norm, but they are anything but peripheral.
These polls have consistently shown that roughly one in three Americans believe in the existence of UFO visits with extraterrestrial origins. A 2013 Huffington Post and YouGov poll found that nearly half of Americans believe that UFOs have visited earth at some point.
“Not since the belief in fairies, which are no longer plausible, has there been such a powerful, yet plausible symbol,” says Bartholomew, explaining that while no incontrovertible alien artefact or other verifiable evidence has ever officially been presented to the public, the UFO remains a compelling possibility.
In recent years, the scientific and empirical validities of UFOs have become less important to some than what sightings, experiences and representation of aliens and UFOs say about how we see ourselves and our world.
Aliens are, according to Dewan, “funhouse mirror distortions of ourselves. If you look at pop culture, they’re either saviours or destroyers. The narratives of aliens speak to very terrestrial concerns.”
“The UFO phenomenon is specifically born out of Cold War politics and paranoia,” says Dewan. “Communism and nuclear Armageddon were the two things on Americans’ minds. These fears were manifested in the skies above them,” he explains.
“This was a product of the Red Scare,” says Bartholomew.
“[It] coincided with a period of heightened Western fear over the rapid, global spread of communism and the potential threat of atomic warfare and secret weapons,” says Bartholomew, noting the proliferation of UFO sightings over military bases, weapons labs, and test sites.
This argument for the correlation between UFO sightings and military and nuclear sites is maybe most evident in New Mexico, a state involved in numerous prominent cases that go well beyond the Roswell incident.
“New Mexico’s position as a state associated with the UFO phenomenon is inextricably linked with Roswell, but the fact that it’s also home to Los Alamos, the White Sands Missile Range, Holloman AFB and Kirkland AFB is also relevant,” says Nick Pope, noting the state’s centrality to both the US nuclear and weapons complex. “All these sites are associated with US technological progress during or after the Second World War, and all of them have been linked to UFOs in some way.”
“Where you see cutting-edge nuclear technology, you see these things,” says Marler, speaking to Al Jazeera from his home in Albuquerque, the walls of his “study” covered with original newspaper headlines from the various UFO events, many of which occurred in the state.
Marler’s residence is part living space, part museum. Two rooms and most of the garage house thousands of documents, books, news clippings and magazines that make up an impressive library on the subject of UFOs, a collection which he will bequeath to the University of New Mexico’s Center for Southwest Research upon his death.
Going back to the early days, regardless of your take on the Roswell crash story, the debris was found outside Roswell, which at the time was the only atomic bomb facility in existence. This was not that far from the Trinity test site where the first atomic bomb was detonated in July 1945.
Also, after Roswell, there were high concentrations of UFO sightings above and around Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation’s premier nuclear weapons lab, according to Marler. The sightings, he says, are outlined in numerous declassified documents that recount these sightings by military, security personnel and scientists there.
“New Mexico lies at the heart of the military industrial complex. It is also obviously the home of the Trinity site. The very fears a legend like Roswell speaks to are embodied by this historical presence,” says Dewan, who says the conspiracy theories surrounding UFOs can provide a telling lens into our culture and society.
“There is a tendency to blame the individual in conspiracy theories,” says Dewan, “but that is missing the point.
“The question is: Are Americans rightly paranoid? How much of our history in recent decades is in part a state secret?
“We live in a climate of compartmentalised knowledge and classification at various levels. That kind of climate will produce paranoia, and these stories speak to a very real underlying fear of what is being withheld from them.”
Back at the festival in Roswell, families line up along Main Street to watch the parade of lights, the last evening event of the UFO Festival.
“We have come for the past three years,” says Marie, who came to enjoy an unusual event with her family. “It is just a good time.”
“Am I a believer? That depends on what day you ask,” laughs Jones, who, as proprietor of her store in Roswell, meets a range of people from sceptics to believers or the simply curious.
“Who can say for sure? We don’t need Roswell to know the government isn’t telling us everything,” says Jones. “What’s clear is that there is something else out there.
“It’s a big universe. It’s silly to think we’re alone.”