In 1996 something strange happened in the UK. From out of nowhere our fair island was swarmed with reports of strange lights in the sky, mysterious craft and flying saucers. The Ministry Of Defence's UFO desk was inundated with almost six times as many sightings as the year before.
Was it an invasion? Was E.T. finally here? Well, no... it was Will Smith.
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“Popular culture informs what we see in the sky, and then how we interpret it,” says UFO expert Dr. David Clarke, “You can’t help but absorb it.”
“We’ve grown up with science fiction movies like ‘Independence Day’, and no one can divorce themselves from it. Not that people were seeing that one movie, and then going out to look for UFOs - It simply raised their awareness, and they became more likely to report things,” he says.
David is a Sheffield based journalist, folklore expert, and official consultant to MOD’s Classified UFO files at The National Archives. Think Fox Mulder with a South Yorkshire accent.
Roland Emmerich’s alien-invasion spectacular ‘Independence Day’ was 1996’s summer blockbuster and it sent the world extraterrestrial mad. “Newspapers even began running UFO campaigns,” says David, “and the figures leapt from 117 sightings in 1995 to 609 in 1996”
“People would write in with sightings from decades before, encouraged to do so by the craze. It’s the power of popular culture.”
This phenomena of a film affecting UFO reports led to the coining of endearing term “The Will Smith Effect”, but it’s not all down to the Fresh Prince.
“The biggest spike was around 1977/8 - around the time we got ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’,” says David, “But there are also anomalies: 1982 for example, when ‘E.T.’ was released was a particularly quiet year.”
“You couldn’t look at it scientifically and say ‘Right, this film is coming out – therefore we should expect this many sightings’. It doesn’t work like that. But by-and-large there is a strong relationship between aliens on screen, and UFOs in our skies.
“It’s not mass hysteria, and it’s not just movies - TV, books and comics contribute too - it’s just a zeitgeist. When UFOs are popular, people see them.”
To David, explaining UFO sightings is all down to trends: “People’s descriptions alter with time,” he says. “In the 50s it was all flying saucers, and right now it’s big black triangles. Largely influenced by Stealth aircraft sightings. That’s then echoed in our media, and people largely begin to see only what it’s popular to see.”
There’s two explanations for this, says David: “Either aliens are very fashion conscious and move with the times, or people interpret their experience through what’s going on around them.
“Quite often we see what we believe, and not believe what we see.”
A man dedicated to explaining the unexplainable, David doesn’t stop with the crafts themselves - he says there’s a problem with cinema’s depiction of aliens too:
“The image of the little grey alien with the big black eyes seems to be endemic in our culture,” he begins, “but there’s lots of other types of ‘aliens’ that people see. There are reptilians, and even cat-people. But the interesting thing is how prevalent that one image is in the West. If you go to parts of South America, they tend to have very different ‘aliens’. Their experiences are a mix of their own indigenous beliefs, and parts of Western cinema.”
“Ever since H.G Wells' early work, we’ve had this idea of the big-headed, big-eyed, tiny-bodied creature. Cinema picked it up, and it’s never changed.”
He summarises: “There’s not a single story in the current UFO literature that hasn’t been anticipated by science fiction, somewhere along the way.”
To David, the very nature of the word “alien” shows the problem with how the movies do it: “The fact that we’ve evolved like we have, with a body, two arms, and a head, is an outcome of a billion different chance-like things. And the probability of those same chances occurring on a different planet, with a different set of rules and conditions, in another solar system…. It just wouldn’t happen.
"I’m completely open to the prospect of life on other planets,” he adds, “but the movies tell it a different way. And they change how we think about aliens. There are more genuine experiences out there, but they tend to be so un-generic and weird, that they get forgotten. They just don’t fit with the Hollywood ideal.
“The bottom line is, there’s just too many extra-terrestrial experiences for them to all be true,” says David. “In reality, in all of human history we might expect one single visit. If we’re lucky. But in the absence of evidence, there are far more rational explanations in human belief, psychology, sociology, folklore and culture."
David, whose favourite movie is actually ‘Close Encounters’, has of course faced criticism for his seemingly skeptical approach, and even accusations of “government collaboration” - but as he points out, even the movies that he singles out come under fire from conspiracy theorists:
“Some people genuinely believe that Hollywood is doing the bidding of the US Government,” he says, “and that blockbuster sci-fi is actually a slow drip-feed of alien exposure, to get us all used to the idea…
“There’s this great anecdote about President Ronald Regan, who was a great believer in UFOs himself. Regan invited Steven Spielberg to the White House for a special screening of ‘E.T.’ – then halfway through the movie, he turned to the director and said: ‘You’ll never believe this Steven, but there are people in this room, who know that all the things in your movies are perfectly true…’”
You can find out more about David's work on his blog, here - and for more information about The National Archives' UFO files, visit their website here.