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According to the government, Roswell, New Mexico, is an uninteresting place. They want you to believe the city (population 48,754) is little more than the birthplace of John Denver and the location of Leprino Foods, one of the largest mozzarella factories in the world. The men in black want you to forget that sometime during the first week of July 1947, a UFO crash-landed in a rancher’s field, that the U.S. military captured extraterrestrial life forms, and are, still to this day, hiding the secret in Area 51. They want you to believe it was a downed weather balloon!
Every Fourth of July weekend the city of Roswell (in defiance of the military-industrial complex) organizes the UFO Festival, a celebration of all things extraterrestrial. This year, to mark the 70th anniversary of the crash, thousands of people descended on Main Street to eat alien-themed food and buy T-shirts with aliens saying “Ship Happens.” It’s county fair meets Comic-Con meets academic conference. There are turkey legs, a steampunk costume contest, and four days worth of lectures and book signings put on by the International UFO Museum, prestigiously located in the center of it all.
I was visiting friends in Roswell and had no idea the festival was on. My hosts, who, like most of the locals, have never associated themselves with anything more alien than occasionally eating at Roswell’s flying saucer-shaped McDonalds, were mortified that I should see their city at its weirdest. I chased down a press badge, which was surprisingly difficult to get. An organizer apologetically explained to me they were forced to keep certain believers at bay, those “on a whole other level.” One woman had called to say she needed access to one of the event speakers, saying he had promised to surgically remove the alien implant in her neck. “He said he would operate after it had been there for five years and it’s been seven,” she explained.
I headed straight for the museum to try to unravel the Roswell incident. There I learned the story: Rancher W.W. Brazel said that he and a ranch hand, Billy Proctor, had ridden out to check on the sheep after a thunderstorm when they discovered scattered metal debris and a long trench gouged into the ground. They took some of the pieces to show Billy’s family, who realized that they had found a UFO. Brazel reported the incident to the sheriff, who informed an intelligence officer at the Roswell Army Air Field. Big mistake. When witnesses tried to visit the crash site, they were stopped by military personnel engaged in clearing the wreckage.
Under obvious pressure, Brazel changed his original testimony to agree with the laughable weather balloon explanation. But as the local paper reported, “Considerable Scotch tape and some tape with flowers printed upon it had been used in the construction.” Which doesn’t sound like any weather balloon I’ve seen. The museum fits inside what used to be Roswell’s movie theatre, the displays are organized on painted pegboards, and costumed mannequins surround an alien on the operating table.
I joined a small group of people in a dimly lit auditorium to hear author Tom Kirkbride pitch his sci-fi book series, Gamadin (“The fate of the galaxy now rests with a couple California surfers!”). The Q&A portion made me realize that aliens were just the tip of the Illuminati pyramid. Though slightly out of vogue since the early 1980s, aliens remain the Rubicon of conspiracy theories. In talking with his audience, Kirkbride was free to range from truths about the IMF to the Catholic Church since he was among friends ‘in the know.’ Let’s move on to the big stuff. Exactly how many aliens are living under the Denver airport?
I spoke with Karen from Colorado Springs, Colorado, who has believed in aliens since she was a little girl stargazing with her mother. “We used to lay in the backyard and watch everything moving in the sky, and she would say ‘There goes a shooting star—and that’s an alien ship!’” Karen believes extraterrestrials are walking among us partially because of how quickly technology has advanced, including my smart phone recording our conversation. Karen also believes cancer is a hoax, a problem that could be easily solved if it weren’t such a moneymaker for Big Pharma.
The UFO Festival is a family event, and I spoke with several mothers and fathers who had stopped in Roswell as part of their vacation plans. Even those who, like me, were surprised to find themselves hobnobbing with Derrel Sims, the Alien Hunter, were convinced by documentaries they’d seen on the History Channel. “The universe is such a big place that it’s silly to think we’re alone,” was a common refrain.
Ryan from San Antonio, Texas, told me that he’s been dreaming of attending the festival for years. All of his friends in high school agree with him on the issue of intelligent life, and only his grandmother, “who believes in Jesus,” thinks he’s crazy. He’s believed in aliens ever since he first saw the movie Aliens (1986), “which is when it clicked in my head that hey, they’re out there colonizing new worlds.”
The people I met at the UFO Festival were just as weird as I hoped they would be. Someone told me Marilyn Monroe was killed because she overheard JFK talking about aliens in his sleep. Still, they weren’t always who I expected.
It was only when I interviewed the event’s keynote speakers, Donald Schmitt and Thomas Carey, who have investigated the Roswell incident for a combined 50 years, that I better understood the festival. Both men explained to me in hushed tones that all of their colleagues in ufology (the study of UFOs) were unanimously liberal. Within the last few years, however, their audience has become conservative.
“I live in one of the most conservative counties in the country, Washington County outside Milwaukee, we’re talking 75 percent Republican, and I love it because I can talk about UFOs and I have never had anyone ridicule me or the topic,” Schmitt explained. “I can go to church on Sunday and my pastor asks ‘what’s new, Don? How’s the investigation going?’”
As they’ve watched their believing audience become conservative, today’s skeptics have turned aggressively liberal. “We run into very few left of center people anymore,” explained Carey. Instead of engaging with the research, “all the left is interested in is forcing their agenda, and they see everything through a political lens.” Looking over his shoulder to make sure we wouldn’t be heard, he explained to me that their colleagues and skeptics “use the exact same playbook, and resort to the same tactics … the same smear attempts and name calling.” They would describe their audience as ‘conservative,’ but only as a way of saying they are ‘not liberal.’ Most of them are neutral on specific policy, but generally concerned by the state of their country.
The believers I met have a healthy distrust of the federal government, and staunchly refuse to align with mainstream thought. They are intelligent people who have attended to the facts and made their own conclusions, however loony, regardless of what the New York Times says, which ran with the headline “Wreckage in the Desert Was Odd but Not Alien” (1994).
Actually, they share an awful lot in common with the average Trump voter, the people Yuval Levin described in Modern Age as “a coalition of the alienated.” The pun makes the point. Not only is the president an accomplished conspiracy theorist in his own right, but expresses, as Levin explains, “The idea that there is something fraudulent about our social order and its institutions … directed at the media, the legal system, the IRS, and the FBI.”
Outside the reverence of the UFO Festival, Roswell is the punchline to alien jokes. My friends are wearily resigned to their town’s reputation, and brace for impact when they tell people where they live. Every president who has visited the city since the 1970s insists on joking about aliens. Hillary Clinton did the same, jokingly promising throughout the campaign to finally “get to the bottom of it” once she was in the White House. Only this time, it seems, people are tired of being laughed at.