Nearly everyone who's looked up at the night sky has asked him or herself at least some form of the very same question: Are we really, truly alone in the universe? The only thing that's certain is that we definitely don't want to be. Maybe that explains why we keep seeing UFOs in the sky... and why they're always one of three types.
The idea that humankind is pretty much the end all be all as far as intelligent life goes is a pretty depressing thought. It's only natural, then, that we'd grasp on to pretty much anything as a sign of alien contact -- seriously, anything. History is rife with reports of UFO sightings, but if you take a second to stop and think, nearly all of them come with perfectly reasonable explanations -- and not one of them extraterrestrial.
Consider this: It would take one of our space ships 60,000 years simply to reach the edge of our solar system alone. Now, that doesn't bode well for an extraterrestrial playdate. But this hasn't deterred the hoards of people willing to swear until their dying day that they have seen, interacted with, touched and/or been probed (anally or otherwise) by creatures of a world beyond our own. And, sure, the thought that we're not alone is an exciting if not slightly unsettling one, but these little claims and subsequent "proofs" of alien life on Earth almost always fall into one of three categories: military exercises gone wrong, acts of nature, and of course, man-made hoaxes.
Ever notice how UFO sightings tend to conveniently happen on or around military bases? Yeah, that's not a coincidence. Be it weather balloon, aerial spy cam, or rogue aircraft, people are more than happy to assume that the mystery circling overhead is alien -- rather than military-made -- especially during times of national paranoia.
The Battle of Los Angeles
Times of paranoia like, say, WWII, for instance. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the country's sense of security was shattered. So three months later, when a weather balloon went casually wafting over Los Angeles in 1942, hysteria naturally followed suit. What's a terrified city to do? Why, conduct a massive military airstrike against the interloper, of course -- resulting in this iconic photograph of what was later dubbed The Battle of Los Angeles.
Initially the shadow in the sky was thought to be another attack coming over from Japan, but at a press conference shortly after the incident, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox quickly put that rumour to rest, calling it a "false alarm". Which then left media personnel free to publish all sorts of "reports" of extraterrestrial coverup. And remember -- after WWII, people were shaken. They were ready to believe anything.
The Battle of Los Angeles acclimated civilians to the notion that alien sightings were not only plausible but likely. It allowed for a more comfortable way to explain away their fears, and the instances only picked up speed.
The Roswell Incident
One of the most notorious alleged UFO sightings (and the inspiration for a criminally underrated television show), Roswell, all started in July of 1947 when local ranch foreman William Brazel stumbled upon a giant ditch hundreds of feet long and filled with debris -- namely rubber strips, tin foil, paper, scotch tape and toughened sticks.
Since the bizarre mess was on the property where he worked, Brazel promptly reported it to the authorities, and the account eventually made its way over to the Roswell Army Airfield base. The base's commander denounced the mess to be nothing more than a weather balloon gone wrong, encouraging everyone to forget about the mini-dump and go about their business. So of course, conspiracy theorists decided it was the perfect time for a good, ol' fashioned UFO rabble-rousing.
Stanton Friedman, a physicist and amateur ufologist (it's a word), was one of those noble crusaders for the alien origins explanation -- it's just that he decided to wait a good 30 years before weighing in because, well, no one really knows why. After interviewing Major Jesse Marcel -- one of the site's original inspectors -- in 1978, Friedman got what he was looking for. Marcel claimed that the entire event was a military coverup of an alien spaceship. Bingo!
Glenn Dennis, a mortician, also piped in (another 11 years after that) and claimed that dead bodies had been removed from the site and taken to an airbase. But apparently, these people weren't totally insane (or at the very least, totally wrong).
Because there was so much controversy over what actually happened, two separate official government investigations took place -- one in 1994 and the other in 1995. The first confirmed that the cause had indeed been a weather balloon; the military was testing them in a classified program that used sensitive lights to try to detect Russian nuclear tests. The second cleared up that whole "dead bodies" issue; the test had used dummies during parachute testing, dummies which then had to be removed.
After Roswell, interest in potential alien spacecrafts skyrocketed, with almost 800 sightings occurring in the weeks that directly followed. As with the Battle of Los Angeles, the international climate probably played a role; this was mid-Cold War, when Americans were well-primed for a little extra paranoia and perpetual fear. While photographs of UFOs are now are relatively rare and met with considerable scepticism, back then, the claims were accepted in droves. Each UFO sighting was merely another log tossed on top of an already hefty pile of anxiety-inducing fodder.
The Mysterious Lubbock Lights
In August and September of 1951, the small town of Lubbock, Texas enjoyed its own brief stint in the UFO spotlight. The Texas Technical College professors spotted a group of 20-30 some-odd lights floating overhead the night of August 25. The next week, student Carl Hart noticed a similar phenomenon in the sky and snapped photos, which the local newspaper then published and eventually sent nationwide.
Lieutenant Edward Ruppelt from the Air Force's Project Blue Book (the government agency set up for the express purpose of UFO investigations) analysed the images and ultimately declared them not to be a hoax -- but he didn't believe them to be of alien origin, either. Rather Ruppelt believed that the vision had been nothing more than streetlights being reflected off the underbellies of a flock of plovers. Witnesses in the area supported this explanation, agreeing that they had in fact seen large flocks of migratory birds and had even her some squawking.
Still, others maintained that the lieutenant was simply attempting to cover up the training exercises of the Air Port's new flying wing. Whichever the correct explanation might be, however, certainly doesn't include aliens.
Acts of Nature
These little alien scares down't necessarily have to come from the hand of man, though. Our world is fully capable of creating its own absolutely beautiful, stunning phenomenons that can pretty easily terrify any witnesses who don't understand what's going on in the sky above them. Generally, as science advances, we have fewer and fewer instances of people reporting suspicious, potentially otherworldly activity in the wake of a natural occurrence. Still, it's curious how quick we are to jump to the conclusion that a phenomenal vision came from some alien being when, in fact, it just came from our very own phenomenal world.
Portugal's Miracle of the Sun
In 1917, 30,000 people in Fatima, Portugal supposedly witnessed the "Miracle of the Sun," an event that was supposed to predict the appearance of the Virgin Mary. Crowds gathered to find themselves staring at a cloudy sky for hours. But when the clouds finally did part and the sun came bearing down, everybody simultaneously experienced radiating, multicoloured lights that came spiralling downwards. And cue collective panic... now.
Understandably, though, and to this clearly devoutly religious population, the bright, shiny lights could very well have seemed like a sign of the End Times. Nearly 100 years later, we're aware of the fact that staring at the sun for such a long of a period of time has the potential to directly induce mass hysteria and hallucinations. But hey, they were looking for a little excitement; at least they got what they came for. The severe retina damage was just a bonus.
The Lights of Wales
In January of 1974, people in the mountains of North Wales reported seeing odd lights in the sky, which was directly followed by a violent shaking of the ground beneath their feet. Today, you might understand this phenomenon to be what we like to call "earthquakes." The Berwyn Mountain locals, however, knew better; there were only two possible explanations: massive meteorite explosions or alien attacks.
Unfortunately for those Welsh sensationalists, science (the notorious enemy of aliens and well-known buzzkill) says otherwise As the Earth's crust comes under stress before seismic activity, (what are presumed to be) electromagnetic lights will often be reported appearing in the sky. And wouldn't you know it, the British Geological Survey determined that a 3.5 magnitude earthquake had graced North Wales with its presence that very same night. What a coincidence.
Sometimes, though, the innocent observer will walk away spouting these seemingly outrageous claims without any hope of discovering a reasonable explanation. Not because actual extraterrestrial life has visited our planet, mind you, but because the perpetrator was nothing more than a bored, admittedly clever prankster.
Roswell Alien Autopsy
In 1995, the topic of Roswell once again ignited conversation across the country when entrepreneur Ray Santilli claimed to have in his possession of a 17-minute, black-and-white film of an alien autopsy recovered from the site. A documentary quickly accompanied the shoddily filmed video, with many if not most of the individuals interviewed stating firmly that they believed it to be fake. Not wanting to hurt ratings, of course, the television stations showing the documentary later admitted to censoring the portions that called the autopsy's validity into question. Once the film aired, the documentary's director also claimed that he believed the film had to be bogus.
Of course, soon, nearly everyone with any sort of connection to the event began claiming that it had to be a hoax. Santili, then, admitted that most of the "original footage" was of such terrible quality that he just had to have portions reshot by reenacting the supposedly actual events -- a sort I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant except instead of babies you have E.T.'s entrails. Eventually, artist and sculptor John Humphreys also came clean, admitting that he'd constructed two extraterrestrial bodies and filled them with a tasty little mixture of sheep's brains, jelly (flavour unspecified), chicken entrails, and knuckle joints. You know, alien stuff.
Despite all these admissions and the evidence to the contrary, Santilli continues to maintain that the film is a 100% accurate reconstruction of the original, conveniently-degraded-beyond-repair footage.
Morristown, New Jersey
But it's not just our gullible, less-jaded grandparents that fell for UFO scares. As recently as 2009, the residents of Morris Count New Jersey spent January and February mystified over five strange lights that consistently appeared in the night sky. Even workers in control towers couldn't figure out where the lights were coming from -- nothing showed up on their radars. So of course, the next logical conclusion was aliens.
However, on April Fools' Day, two young men admitted to perpetrating the hoax. Attaching simple lights to helium balloons, they had sent the faux-spacecrafts on their way above the town in an effort to show how easy it is to incite a UFO scare. And it certainly worked.
Since we know for 100 per cent certain what actually happened in this case, the extent and variety of people's reactions proved just how unreliable and inconsistent people's accounts of alien sightings can be. Though there had been nothing more than a few hovering lights, some people claimed to have never seen anything quite so scary in their lives; some outright refused to believe the cause had been balloons; and one man even insisted that he had seen nine, scattered lights eventually come together in a line and start communicating with one another. So no matter how sincere the story may sound, people are absurdly unreliable narrators when it comes to an alien encounter.
Still, even if you can check off most supposed sightings as military aircrafts, bizarre cloud formations, weather balloons, meteorites, satellites, planets, festive Chinese lanterns, or hoaxes, there will always be at least some unsolved mystery that seems to carry with the promise of alien contact. Even if it's just the smallest of possibilities, that's all some people need to get the conspiracy train rolling. Which means these supposed UFO sightings won't be going away anytime soon.