UFOs: The Psychocultural Hypothesis

October 2000
by Steven Novella, MD

Millions of Americans believe that we are being visited by a spacefaring alien race. These aliens allegedly fly in saucer-shaped ships, they routinely abduct humans for some experimental purpose we can only guess, some believe they are responsible for such phenomena as cattle mutilations and crop circles, our government is aware of the whole thing and is engaged in a decades-long cover-up to keep this shocking truth from the public.

Or, perhaps not.

Those who espouse scientific skepticism as the best method of discerning the truth are often placed in the position of naysayers, by denying the claims of pseudoscientists or those with an anti-scientific world view. Countering such claims is a valuable and necessary enterprise, but is often painted with the brush of negativity. Further, just pointing out that a particular extraordinary claim is not likely to be true, although it may be correct, is often unsatisfying to the public. It is far better to not only counter an unlikely claim, but to also propose in its stead an alternate hypothesis. This is especially true when an alleged paranormal phenomenon grows to such large proportions that it demands some sort of explanation, as has certainly become the case with the UFO phenomenon.

Belief in UFOs is now widespread in our society. Reports of sightings and encounters of various kinds is numbered in the millions. The belief that the UFO phenomenon is the result of actual alien visitors to Earth is known as the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH). The standard skeptical belief is often stated in terms of rejecting the ETH due to insufficient evidence. But the size and scope of the UFO phenomenon has lead many to believe that something must be going on – where there is so much smoke, it is argued, there must be a fire.

Rather than simply refuting the ETH, therefore, the skeptical response is better formulated as an alternative hypothesis, what I will call the psychocultural hypothesis (PCH). The elements of the PCH are nothing new, and have been part of the standard skeptical response to ETH claims for years, but compiling these elements into a cohesive hypothesis allows us to compare the ETH and the PCH to see which one better fits the available evidence.

The UFO Phenomenon

In June of 1947, private airplane pilot Kenneth Arnold observed several unidentified flying objects while flying his small private plane. He radioed the local tower, describing the objects roughly as boomerang shaped, but noted that they appeared to be skipping through the air, like a saucer skipped across the surface of a body of water. A newspaper reporter covering the sighting keyed in on the saucer analogy, and dubbed the objects “flying saucers.” Arnold’s sighting, and the subsequent media coverage, launched the modern UFO phenomenon with the “flying saucer” as its chief icon. Since then there have been millions of reported sightings of strange objects in the sky.

In July of 1947, only days after the press flap over Arnold’s sighting, Rancher William Mac Brazel found some strange-looking debris on his ranch outside Roswell New Mexico. He called the local Army Air Force base to report that he had found “one of them flying saucers,” a report that was dutifully forwarded to the press by the base’s PR officer. On the heels of Arnold’s flying saucer story, the news that the US government may have recovered a crashed flying saucer confirmed in the public consciousness that flying saucers were a real and immediate phenomenon. After further investigation, however, General Ramey, the investigating officer, reported that the recovered debris was actually from a weather balloon (it was actually from a spy balloon called Project Mogul, but this fact would not become public until the 1980’s). Thus ended the Roswell Crashed Saucer event, until it was resurrected in the 1970’s by eager UFO investigators.

The 1950’s saw the next phase of the UFO phenomenon, known as the “contactees.” These individuals claimed not only to have seen a flying saucer, but to have been contacted by the pilots of the craft. The most famous of the contactees was a man named Adamski, who claimed to have been contacted by Venusians, who appeared as glowing beautiful humans.

In the 1960’s, the contactee phenomenon took the next logical step and evolved into the abductee phenomenon. Betty and Barney Hill, a New Hampshire couple, claimed they were not only contacted by alien pilots of a flying saucer, but they were actually abducted against their will and brought inside a ship where frightening medical examination procedures were carried out. The Betty and Barney Hill case also introduced a new element to the phenomenon – the Hills only remembered the details of their abduction under hypnosis. Apparently, the aliens were able to block their memory of the event, but only in an imperfect way that is easily circumvented by an amateur hypnotist. The Hill case was also the first time the little gray aliens with large dark eyes make their appearance.

The abduction phenomenon has increased in the last 30 years, and now dominates the UFO phenomenon. Many books have been written on the subject, by such authors as painter turned UFO investigator, Budd Hopkins, Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, and science fiction writer Whitley Strieber. Together they claim that millions of Americans are regularly being abducted by little gray aliens, many right out of their bedrooms.

The “U.S. government recovers crashed saucer cover-up” phenomenon began on the heels of the modern UFO phenomenon, with the publication of Behind the Flying Saucers, written in 1950 by Frank Scully. Beginning in the 1970’s, and culminating in 1980 with the publication of The Roswell Incident by Charles Berlitz and William Moore, Roswell once again came to prominence and became the focus of crashed saucer conspiracy theories. The government, it is claimed, has been engaged ever since 1947 in a massive conspiracy to keep hidden from the public the fact that a real flying saucer crashed in Roswell, NM and remains in government hands. In fact, the government has been engaged in a conspiracy to keep the entire truth about alien visitors from the public. The usual justification offered for this conspiracy is to prevent widespread panic and social destabilization. In the mid 1990’s, promotor Ray Santilli sold to the Fox network a film of an alleged typical gray alien undergoing an autopsy at the hands of military physicians. The alien autopsy film, as it has come to be known, was evidence to many believers that aliens, Roswell, flying saucers, and the government conspiracy were all true.

Today, a casual search on the internet can yield hundreds of photographs and even video of unidentified flying objects, offered by believers as evidence of flying saucers. There are constant accusations of secret documents referring to government knowledge of aliens (such as the MJ12 documents), hidden bases harboring captured flying saucers (such as Hanger 18 and later Area 51), ongoing abductions involving a secret alien breeding program, and countless sightings of UFOs. The flying saucer and the little gray alien are icons of our culture, as well recognized as Mickey Mouse or the Empire State Building.

Regardless of what we make of all this, there is clearly something happening – something which requires an explanation.

The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis

Believers who accept claims of aliens espouse what is known as the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH). Simply stated, the ETH says that there are real aliens visiting the Earth. Evidence suggests that these aliens are 3-4 feet tall, gray in complexion, with a small mouth, nose, and ears, and very large oval black eyes. Some reports also indicate that there are much taller gray aliens, who appear to be the leaders of their shorter counterparts. These aliens travel primarily in saucer-shaped ships, although other descriptions have been given as well. At least one, and perhaps more, such saucers have crashed and have been recovered by our government.

As evidence for the ETH, believers put forward the many millions of eyewitness accounts of flying objects that seem to defy ordinary explanation. Many people report seeing lights traveling at speeds and performing maneuvers impossible for conventional aircraft. In addition, there are many individuals who report, most under hypnosis, that they have been abducted by aliens who performed unspeakable examinations on them. Some even claim to have been impregnated by aliens and to have given birth to alien-human hybrids, their offspring then taken away from them by the same aliens. Heavy weight is placed on the fact that there is a great deal of similarity of detail between different eyewitness accounts. Some of the more rationale ETH proponents admit that not all such accounts are believable, but even if most are discounted, there remains a credible few which demand the ETH as explanation.

Another important source of evidence is photographic and video evidence. Everyone has seen by now blurry images of saucer shaped objects, or video of bright lights moving through the sky. The recent case of the lights over Pheonix is a good example. Again, even if some of these photographs can be explained as photographic artifacts, mistaken ordinary objects, and hoaxes, there remains a few which defy such explanations.

A recent addition to the abduction phenomenon is the alien implant phenomenon. Many abductees claim that small objects were implanted in them by their alien captors. These objects have later been removed, and in some cases it is claimed that the objects are made of mysterious materials.

Still, proponents of the ETH must defend the fact that despite the vast number of alleged alien sightings and contacts, there is no single piece of evidence which undeniably establishes the ETH. There is no recovered artifact which is unambiguously alien, no video or even photograph which shows an object which can be nothing else other than a spacecraft, and which survives careful analysis designed to detect fakery. In short, there is no smoking gun of the ETH. Proponents, however, have several answers to this problem. The first is the aliens themselves. Clearly, the aliens do not want us to know of their existence, or else they would have made themselves openly known to us. The aliens, therefore, make an attempt to cover their tracks. Therefore, implants are disguised as bits of glass or metal, abductees are treated in such a way as to obscure their memory, and ships never hang around long enough to allow for a clear photograph or video.

The aliens also have help in their track-covering task from the governments of the world, who also do not want knowledge of aliens to be widespread. The world governments, especially the US, send in special agents to gather up and hide away any traces of aliens whenever they are encountered. Therefore, there is a large amount of smoking-gun evidence, but it is all in the hands of government agents whose job it is to conceal it from the public. These special agents are believed by some to be the Men in Black, so named because they dress in all black clothing, allegedly to appear nondescript. There are also reports of black helicopters or black cars in association with UFO sightings, apparently the vehicles of the Men in Black. Between the aliens themselves and the powerful governments of the world with their secret agencies, it is no wonder diligent investigators cannot get the evidence they would need to clinch support for the ETH.

Believers, however, still propose the ETH as the best explanation for the UFO phenomenon. You may not be able to prove the ETH, they argue, but you can infer it from all the collective evidence. The only alternative, they argue, is to deny the ETH in the face of millions of individuals who have had some type of experience with aliens or flying saucers. How can so many people be wrong?

The Psychocultural Hypothesis

Despite the size of the UFO phenomenon, and the copious amount of evidence offered for the ETH by proponents, the scientific and skeptical communities remain…well, skeptical. Every argument has been countered, every piece of evidence found wanting, and every claim debunked. Although there is a large volume of evidence, it is all low quality and insufficient to establish the ETH. The skeptical position, therefore, is that the ETH is currently rejected for insufficient evidence. Among the general public, however, the response to this position is almost always the same – then how do you explain all the eyewitnesses, all the abductees, all the photographs, all the government lies, etc.?

There is, in fact, an answer to these questions, but it involves a separate explanation for each component of the ETH. Someone not well versed in skeptical philosophy and the various mechanisms of self-deception might be left with the sense that UFO skeptics would find some trivial problem with any evidence that was offered in support of the ETH, and that they really don’t have a good explanation themselves, just a lot of doubts. I do not believe this is true, but the shear size and complexity of the UFO phenomenon is bound to create this perception, and in fact this has been a tremendous public relations problem for UFO skeptics.

The solution is to find a way to formulate the skeptical position in terms of a positive explanation, an alternative hypothesis to the ETH, rather than merely a rejection of the ETH. I have dubbed such an alternative hypothesis the Psychocultural Hypothesis (PCH). The PCH attempts to understand and explain the UFO phenomenon as a cultural phenomenon rooted in human psychology – a modern post-technological mythology. The PCH is really nothing new, it is simply a synthesis of the skeptical position with an emphasis on explaining the UFO phenomenon, rather than just denying the ETH. The strength of the PCH is that it looks at the entire UFO phenomenon as it has evolved historically, not just in its current form. Taking such an historical view is very instructive, because looking at how the UFO phenomenon has changed provides clues as to why it has changed, and in fact why it began in the first place.

According to the PCH, belief in UFOs as a real phenomenon developed out of a pre-existent fascination with the concept of space-flight and aliens. It is to be expected, in fact, that such a mythology would emerge on the heels of the dawn of human space flight, amid a cultural background awash in science-fiction stories of space aliens and flying spacecraft.

The UFO phenomenon then evolved as any cultural narrative might evolve. The villains in this story are the governments and government agents who have been fighting to keep the truth about aliens hidden. The heroes are the UFO believers, struggling to expose this truth to a largely deceived public. The aliens themselves also have evolved over time, beginning first as just glowing humans – a somewhat unsophisticated and almost childish view by later standards – then evolving into the standard small gray alien type.

Aliens represent both our greatest hopes and our greatest fears, as mythological icons usually do. At times they are here to save humanity, usually by offering simplistic advise about the threat of nuclear holocaust or environmental irresponsibility. At other times they are cold and sinister, performing invasive and frightening experiments for their own mysterious and dark purposes.

Support for belief in aliens is gathered by the faithful from every ambiguous and unreliable source possible, without a single piece of hard undeniable evidence. Sightings are often of points of light, or of unusual but otherwise unidentifiable objects. Photographs are ambiguous or blurry. Testimony is also tainted by fuzzy details, or compromising circumstances, such as waking up from sleep. Or testimony is “recovered” during hypnosis, which is much more likely to manufacture false memories than reveal true but hidden memories. Some testimony is unambiguous, but it is never substantiated by corroborating evidence, or is later discovered to be fraudulent. Alleged implants are never demonstrated to be actual alien devices. The Men In Black remain as elusive as ever.

To summarize, there is a tremendous amount of noise, or random events and stimuli, in the world, and UFO believers mine this noise for any anomaly that can be interpreted as an alien phenomenon. Belief, the PCH argues, drives the UFO phenomenon, not aliens.

Added to this are the occasional outright hoaxes. Individuals, looking for their 15 minutes of fame, or for some complex psychological reason, decide to construct elaborate hoaxes of space aliens. The most celebrated such case is that of Billy Meier, a Swiss farmer who perpetrated a many year hoax of repeated encounters with aliens. He has submitted as evidence video of a classic flying saucer, which is clearly swinging like a pendulum from a string. He also claims to have been taken into the future by his alien hosts, and submitted a picture as proof, however, the picture turned out to be a drawing taken from a science fiction magazine.

The ETH vs the PCH

How can we tell which hypothesis is most likely to be true, the ETH or the PCH? Well, an important criteria of any scientific hypothesis is that it makes predictions which can be tested. What predictions, then, do the two hypotheses make, and how do the predictions fare when tested? We can generate, mainly from common sense, a list of characteristics that a psychocultural phenomenon should have, and compare this to a comparable list of characteristics that a genuine alien phenomenon should have, and then compare each to the UFO phenomenon to see which hypothesis fits better.

Physical Evidence

If the ETH is correct, then it is possible to obtain physical evidence as proof of the ETH. In other words, if aliens are truly visiting the Earth and interacting with humans, then it is possible to obtain something physical that is demonstrably alien. One might argue, therefore, that the ETH predicts the eventual discovery of a genuine unambiguous alien artifact. To be inclusive, I will count as an alien artifact either an alien themselves, a technological object created by the aliens (such as a spacecraft or implant), or even a photograph or video of an alien or alien object which is of high quality, unambiguous, and survives careful scientific scrutiny.

The PCH does not allow for any such alien artifact, and the presence of even a single such artifact would falsify the PCH, at least as the sole explanation of the UFO phenomenon. The presence of a demonstrable alien artifact, therefore, seems like a pretty good test to distinguish between the ETH and the PCH. The evidence test, however, is much more significant when positive then when negative. In other words, the presence of a single alien artifact definitively favors the ETH, and ends all scientific debate. The absence of such demonstrable artifacts, however, is not definitive and does not end the debate, the reason being that ETH supporters can argue that the evidence is too hard to come by (what with government conspiracies and all), and as a matter of logic the absence of current evidence cannot prove that no such evidence exists.

All skeptics, and even most believers, admit that no definitive “smoking gun” evidence exists, at least that is in the public domain. This lack of evidence favors the PCH, but the point of contention between ETH skeptics and believers is to what degree. Admittedly, the current lack of definitive physical evidence is not and can never be conclusive, but it does strongly support the PCH and increasingly so as time goes on. Here the enormous size of the UFO phenomenon works against ETH proponents. As the size and duration of the phenomenon grows, it becomes increasingly unlikely that the ETH can be true without some physical evidence surfacing. Eventually the aliens and the government agents have to slip up, UFO researchers will get lucky, and a piece of real and undeniable evidence will fall into the public domain. Each generation of UFO enthusiasts profess that such evidence is right around the corner. The fact that this has not yet happened is a very strong point in favor of the PCH over the ETH.

The lack of unambiguous photographic and video evidence of aliens or alien spacecraft is also increasingly unlikely, if the ETH were correct, as video cameras, and now digital video, are increasingly available. The ubiquity of such video has even spawned a new genre of television programming, so called reality TV. Such programs feature video of unexpected dramatic events, such as crashes, animal attacks, disasters, and extreme weather. The video is typically reasonably well in focus with adequate lighting and close enough to clearly show the events. By comparison video of UFOs show nocturnal lights, blurry objects, and ambiguous images (much like alleged video of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, and other dubious phenomena).

Those occasional pictures and video which are unambiguous as to content, such as the alien autopsy film, tend to have two features in common: the originators or discoverers of the video wish to remain anonymous, and the video does not survive close scrutiny designed to determine if it is a hoax. The justification for anonymity is usually fear of persecution, but such shyness seems to only come up for video which appears to have been hoaxed. Some video, such as the Mexico City footage and the Billy Meier footage, are of classic flying saucers which can clearly be seen to be teetering as if hanging from a wire. After much controversy, and almost universal support among UFO enthusiasts, the alien autopsy footage has definitively been shown to be a fake.

As digital technology advances, so does the quality of such hoaxes. However, to date, no such footage has ever passed skeptical inspection.

Cultural Antecedents vs. Discontinuity

Another feature of a truly alien phenomenon is that it should contain elements which are genuinely alien. When European societies first encountered the cultures of the Far East, for example, this resulted in the introduction into Europe of the products of a foreign (alien) culture. The Asian languages, for example, were more different and distinct from all European languages then any two European languages were from each other. There was also the introduction of new foods, new technologies, and new cultural ideologies. No European fiction writer could have (or did) dream up a culture as alien to European culture as Asian culture in fact is.

If the Earth were contacted by an alien spacefaring race, a species that is the product of evolution on a different world with a completely independent culture, technology, and world-view, then we would expect such contact to produce a significant cultural discontinuity. The aliens and their spacecraft should look like nothing dreamed of in previous science fiction (in all probability, barring an extreme cosmic coincidence). They might also bring new or unique information to the human race.

The ETH, therefore, predicts that the UFO phenomenon should be accompanied by cultural discontinuities, whereas the PCH predicts that the UFO phenomenon will have no such discontinuities, but rather will evolve from demonstrable cultural antecedents.

Let us first look at the aliens themselves. Many scientists and science fiction writers have noticed that the little gray aliens look incredibly human. As one writer put it, “aliens have no business looking so human.” The probability that an alien race, the product of a completely separate evolutionary history, would look even vaguely humanoid is vanishingly small. The aliens, however, do not just appear as humans, they appear like humans with those traits we psychologically associate with intelligence exaggerated. If, for example, we compare humans to apes we can observe that humans have larger relative craniums, smaller faces with more gracile features, and less hair. If we take a human and then increase the cranium size, make the face smaller and all features more gracile, and take away the hair, you end up with a typical gray alien.

Rather, if true aliens were ever encountered they would likely look like nothing as yet conceived of in science fiction. Following such contact, all science fiction would instantly become dated and campy, and the many species of humanoid “aliens” which populate human fiction about aliens would look suddenly silly. I predict that science fiction fans in a post-contact world will look back on pre-contact science fiction and shake their heads, asking, “How could people back then have thought that aliens would look so human.” I hope I live to see if my prediction comes true.

The aliens sometimes have names as well (see article by Sheila Gibson in this issue with a list of names on page 9 for examples). Alien names should be alien, and likely would not sound like any human tongue. Some of the names listed are obviously meant to be English translations, but most of the others are simply names. It is very telling that the aliens do not just have human sounding names, but most of them have European sounding names. Also, those encountered by people from Hispanic cultures have Hispanic sounding names. They are not even as different from European phonetic structure as human names from other cultures, such as Asian or African. Truly alien names should, however, be more different from any human language than any two human languages are from each other.

To analyze this a bit further, all languages have a certain phonetic structure – consonants that are more common than others, a certain ratio of consonants to vowels, unique phonemes, characteristic inflections and placement of accents. These elements make up the character of a language – how the language sounds. This is why it is possible, even easy, to recognize a language that someone else is mimicking even if they are speaking in jibberish and made up words.

Writers of speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy) sometimes face the challenge of inventing alien cultures, including languages. One of the pitfalls of this endeavor is giving your aliens names that follow the linguistic characteristics of your native tongue (such as Xenu, the alien overlord invented by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard for his manufactured religion, Scientology). Experienced writers will try to manipulate the specific elements of language to create names with a genuinely alien sound. The price of not doing this is creating silly sounding names that have a campy 1950’s science fiction sound to them (“Klaatu Barada Nikto”).

When reviewing the alien names listed here, it is fairly clear that they conform to the linguistic styles of the cultures of the alleged contactees. To date, no truly alien language or names have come out of alleged alien contact. Again, we see a lack of discontinuity and the influence of cultural antecedents.

What about the aliens’ spaceships? The majority of UFO witnesses who describe an actual object (rather than just points of light) describe a typical flying saucer. The very concept of a flying saucer, however, was nothing more than a misinterpretation of Kenneth Arnold’s original description. The objects he saw were not saucer-shaped, but he described their motion as that of a skipping saucer. The press, however, reported that the UFO’s were flying saucers. Since then most eyewitnesses have seen flying saucers. Again, this is either an ironic coincidence of cosmic proportions, or we are seeing the effects of suggestion and wishful thinking.

We can also see the cultural antecedents of the flying saucer icon in the science fiction of the early 20th century. Although other images were also popular, such as rocket ships, the flying saucer was a staple of science fiction magazines before Kenneth Arnold’s famous encounter in 1947. The 1950s produced a slew of science fiction movies featuring classic flying saucers, solidifying this shape as the standard alien craft.

Some contactees or abductees have been given warnings by the aliens they have encountered. The most common such warnings are typically along the lines of alerting humans to the dangers of nuclear war or of destroying the Earth’s environment (well, duh). It seems that the aliens have similar global concerns to most Americans. The aliens so far have not brought us any information which is new or unique; they have warned humanity of nothing we didn’t already know.

This aspect of the abductee phenomenon also brings up an interesting question. If aliens visiting the Earth wished to give a warning to humanity why would they impart this warning to a handful of individuals with no authority or position, under circumstances in which they were likely not to be believed, and then wipe their memory so that the abduction, including the warning, could only be remembered in a hazy fashion under hypnosis? So far their warnings have not seemed to affect the course of human history one jot.

In a similar vein, other aliens have informed their abductees that their visitation is a prelude to the second coming of Christ, as Betty Andreasson reports in The Andreasson Affair (Fowler, 1979). All such abductees, however, had a pre-existence belief in Christianity and the second coming.

The aliens therefore appear to mirror the beliefs and concerns of their captives, and have brought no new or surprising information to humanity. Again, this represents a cultural continuity that is predicted by the PCH and demonstrates a lack of the discontinuity which is predicted by the ETH.

Some UFO proponents have offered as an explanation for the lack of biological and cultural discontinuity the speculation that alien visitors have in fact been visiting the Earth for many thousands of years, influencing our culture and perhaps even our biology. This strategy, however, does not eliminate the discontinuity problem; it merely moves it into the past.

The human species, for example, is part of the continuum of life on Earth. Biological and fossil evidence both strongly suggest that there is no biological discontinuity – homo sapiens evolved on Earth. There is also no evidence to suggest any cultural or technological discontinuity in the past of any human society.

Mythology or History

The ETH and the PCH also make different predictions about how the UFO story would develop and evolve over time. If the UFO phenomenon were real history, we would expect the storyline to have certain features, such as a core of consistency. Certain specific details, unexpected at first, would soon characterize genuine contacts. Media hype and science fiction would tend to follow in the footsteps of the phenomenon as we learned more about it. A cumulative (rather than revolving) body of evidence would accumulate.

The PCH, rather, views the UFO phenomenon as a modern mythology. Mythologies develop out of the popular culture, they are not imposed from without. The storyline of such mythologies is crude and simple at first, but then evolves over time as new elements are added. Details are at first scattered and disparate, but later consensus develops over time. Not all details are retained, only those which turn out to be most compelling and resonant. And the storyline will tend to be driven by the media and the fiction of the popular culture, rather than the other way around.

If we look at the modern UFO story, it conforms to what we would predict by the PCH. In the 1940s and 1950s the UFO story had the character of the science fiction of the time, now obvious from the perspective of history. The contactees of the 1950’s described contacts with glowing humans from Venus, Moonmen, and Martians (isn’t that where aliens were from in the ‘50s?). Such stories seem ridiculous by today’s standards, but they were the beginning of the UFO story.

The aliens then changed over time, taking many different forms from hairy dwarves to giant insects. Eventually the little grey alien makes his appearance with the Betty and Barney Hill alleged abduction in 1966. For reasons described above, the image of the little greys resonated with the human psyche. They become increasingly reported until the 1970s, when they emerge as the “victors” and become solidified as the standard alien icon. Joe Nickell did a wonderful job of chronicling the “alien timeline,” demonstrating graphically the process of alien evolution over time (Nickell, 1997).

Once certain details become a standard part of the mythology, they are often then retrofitted into older stories. The famous Roswell Incident, for example, existed for almost thirty years, from 1947 until the 1970s, without any mention of alien bodies. It was only after the little greys emerged that testimony arose of witnesses seeing similar aliens in Roswell in 1947.

Terry Matheson examined the alien abduction literature in Alien Abductions: Creating a Modern Phenomenon (Matheson, 1998). He found that the literature conforms to the characteristics of mythology, as described above. He writes, for example:

“It will be found that more recent accounts tend both to respond to problems and answer questions created by older narratives, and also insert new elements, as if such elements are being tested for appropriateness. Conversely, aspects of previous narratives that do not somehow strike a cord with the public are often discarded. Further, earlier accounts tend to be comparatively simple and down-to-earth, while more recent ones (those of the 1990s) are more detailed and involve other areas of the paranormal similar to those frequently encountered in so-called New Age writings.”

Although Matheson states that he is not attempting to determine the truth of abduction accounts, he concludes that approaching the abduction narrative as a modern mythology is very instructive to understanding the evolution of the narrative and its place in modern culture.

So far we have examined the ETH and the PCH in light of features we expect each hypothesis should predict, based mainly on common sense. We do, however, have one excellent historical example which validates many of the characteristics of the PCH. In UFOs & Alien Contact (Bartholomew & Howard, 1998), Robert E. Bartholomew and George S. Howard describe the airship sightings of 1896-1897.

At this time there was great anticipation that flying machines were on the brink of being invented. This led to much speculation concerning government programs and lone inventors. Not surprisingly, it also led to sightings of unidentified lights or objects in the sky that were quickly interpreted as the expected airships. Bartholomew and Howard demonstrate through careful documentation that the airship fever contained many of the features of the modern UFO story, including credible witnesses, media hype driving sightings, contact and even abduction, and alleged physical evidence which always turned out to be wanting. Also, the airships themselves conformed to the quaint fiction of the 19th century (cultural antecedents), with flapping wings and bulbous fuselages, rather than the form real aircraft eventually took (unanticipated by contemporary fiction).


The UFO phenomenon remains a vast and controversial part of modern culture. Without definitive proof as to the cause of the phenomenon, we are forced to infer the best explanation. When the entirety of the phenomenon and all evidence are considered, I submit that the psychocultural hypothesis emerges as the best explanation to date. The extraterrestrial hypothesis, although compelling to many, remains without credible support.

The PCH also enables UFO skeptics to deal with UFOs and aliens as a real phenomenon deserving a serious explanation. The evidence points to a complex phenomenon combining modern mythology, literary narrative, popular culture, and human psychology. It also seems likely that this explanatory approach can be generalized and applied to a wide variety of modern paranormal and fringe beliefs.


Fowler, Raymond. The Andreasson Affair. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1979
Nickell, Joe. Extraterrestrial Iconography. Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 21, No. 5, 18-19
Matheson, Terry. in Alien Abductions: Creating a Modern Phenomenon. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998.
Bartholomew, Robert E., Howard, George S. UFOs & Alien Contact. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998.