The untold truth of Roswell

Whether they're little grey dudes with big heads, slobbering beasts, or towering tripods, aliens are one of the definitive cultural symbols of the last century. Let's be honest, every time you look out at a starry sky, you're secretly hoping that a UFO is going to whiz by so you can finally earn your badge in the local "I want to believe" club. If you're really lucky, you might even be able to snap a photo of one and score the best Instagram post ever.

Let's back up a bit, though, because aliens weren't always such a cultural zeitgeist. Once upon a time, some strange events set off the UFO craze as we know it. In order to track America's alien obsession all the way down to its glowing green roots, we're going back to the 1940s, on the day when a bizarre crash landing forever redefined Roswell, then just an everyday city in New Mexico. Here's the full story.

The discovery

The year is 1947. Truman is president, the Cold War is on, and people are paranoid as hell. Can't blame 'em, considering it'd only been a few years since mankind invented a bomb that could blow entire cities off the map. On June 14, something radical and weird happened. As Jonathan and Martha Kent were driving down a lonely highway, they saw that little alien spaceship rocketing down into a cornfield, carrying the last child of Krypton…

Oh, wait. Wrong story. Really, there was this rancher named W. W. Brazel, though his friends called him "Mac." According to the Smithsonian, Mac and his son Vernon were just driving along their ranch land, northwest of Roswell, New Mexico. During their drive, Mac and son made the unpleasant discovery that some bizarre, metallic flying thing had crash-landed from the sky, slamming right into Mac's property. Whatever the thing was, its remains resembled shredded, metallic fabric. Understandably weirded out by the whole thing — he had no idea what it was — Mac left the wreckage on his property for a few weeks, maybe hoping it would blow away. When it didn't, he collected the scraps and brought them to the local sheriff, George Wilcox.

Well, Wilcox was just as confused by it. So the sheriff alerted an Army colonel, who passed the word on up, and this whole chain of head-scratching continued until news of the discovery finally reached Army intelligence.

The cover-up

They always say "it's not the crime, it's the cover-up," and the Roswell Incident is no exception. According to History, once word got out about the little metallic crash site, soldiers swarmed Mac's field, gathered around the wreckage, and drove the evidence away in armored trucks … a scene which, yeah, probably inspired every sci-fi film of the last 70 years. Then this exciting news got out to a local newspaper, the Roswell Daily Record. Want to guess what headline they ran with?

"RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell." Mic drop. History is made.

Understandably, this got people pretty fired up. The next day, the Air Force "clarified" the matter, by publicly announcing that that term "flying saucer" was a misnomer, and the wreckage was really just the debris of a fallen weather balloon. The problem was that anyone who'd seen the debris — or the photos of it that got printed in the newspaper — could easily tell that whatever this weird thing was, it wasn't a weather balloon. Observers figured that the Air Force was probably covering something up, but what?

Well, considering the first headline said "flying saucer," it's not surprising that people jumped to alien conspiracies. Back then, UFO sightings weren't a cultural staple like they are now, but Roswell lit the fuse. According to the Smithsonian, by the end of 1947, there had been 300 new UFO sightings. Thanks to Roswell, the Age of Aliens had begun.

A shady little document called Majestic-12

Though Roswell ignited the UFO craze, theories surrounding Roswell itself were fairly quiet until a few decades later. According to author Kathryn Olmsted, the years of whispers transformed into a colossal shout in the 1980s, when a small group of outsiders presented a weird document called "Majestic-12" to the Iran-Contra investigating committee.

As told by Slate, this whole thing started when documentary producer Jaime Shandera got a weird letter in the mail, postmarked from New Mexico, containing photographs of what appeared to be a classified document called Majestic-12. This bombshell report detailed a "true story" of what had happened at Roswell, claiming that amid the wreckage of an alien spaceship, the government had also recovered the humanoid corpses of four alien bodies! The document then explained that after the crash, President Truman assembled a superhero squad of scientists, experts, and military officers called the "Majestic 12," whose solemn duty was to handle all top-secret alien shenanigans from that point on.

Don't get too excited, Marvel Comics fans. Majestic-12 conspiracies were popular for a while, but analysts soon poked the documents full of holes, pointing out all the problems, inconsistencies, and inaccuracies. How did the FBI respond to these allegations? Well, from the looks of it, the whole thing pissed them off pretty bad. When the FBI went through the report, they literally wrote the word "BOGUS" in giant letters on most pages. Classy.

Project Mogul: the true conspiracy?

It took almost 50 years for "the Man" to finally admit that the weather balloon story was as real as the Tooth Fairy. According to the New York Times, the U.S. Air Force came clean in 1994, when they declassified a secret operation called Project Mogul.

Project Mogul was the product of Cold War paranoia. Back in 1947, the United States was petrified that the Soviet Union might create their own atomic bombs, so they crafted Project Mogul as a way to spy on Russia. Project Mogul involved sending out high-tech flight balloons carrying microphones, sensors, and radar reflectors. In the New York Times piece, William Broad described these contraptions as a "geometrical hash of lightweight sticks and sharp angles made of metal foil," probably a scary thing to see in the clouds. In their 1994 report, the Air Force officially stated that the Roswell crash was one of Project Mogul's secret spy balloons. In other words, the authorities were so uncomfortable admitting that they'd been spying on the Soviet Union that they instead knowingly allowed people to freak about about alien conspiracies. Hmm. Not sure how that's any less scary than the Majestic-12 conspiracy.

After this information dump, many Roswell theorists still weren't convinced. So in 1997, according to History, the Air Force made their Roswell-fatigue quite clear by releasing a second report, subtly titled "The Roswell Report, Case Closed." Thank goodness it's closed.

A lot of 1950s alien sightings were 'dummy drops'

All that Project Mogul stuff was pretty weird and uncomfortable, no doubt about it. However, there were other revelations within the Roswell reports that were even stranger. What's fascinating about these additional details is that while they don't directly pertain to Roswell, they do explain why so many people saw UFOs and aliens in the 1950s. Maybe.

According to CBS, the Roswell Report explained that many of the humanoid "aliens" seen by observers in New Mexico were actually anthropomorphic test dummies, used for top-secret "dummy drops." These tests involved sending dummies up in high-altitude balloons, letting them ride around in the sky for a bit, and then dropping them down to the ground like Wile E. Coyote.

Imagine you're just an everyday person in New Mexico, and you look up into the sky. You see some crazy metallic-looking thing with weirdly humanoid beings on it, and those beings (the dummies) then drop right out of the sky. Is it any wonder people thought these things were aliens? Particularly considering that every time one went down, the Air Force would suddenly drive in.

As far as flying saucers go, check out the "aeroshell" pictured above, in a photo that was also released in the Roswell Report. This aeroshell was from a NASA probe that hadn't yet launched. Considering that these aeroshells look exactly like flying saucers, it's not hard to see why people got suspicious.

Something might still be hidden

Whether you believe or not, there's some evidence supporting the notion that additional information about Roswell may be, perhaps, still under wraps. Take this as you will.

This evidence comes from some notable politicians. First up is Bill Richardson, former Governor of New Mexico. An archived CNN report describes Richardson sharing an old story from his days as a congressman (1982 to 1996), claiming he'd once asked the Department of Defense about the Roswell Incident — only for his request to be rejected because information about Roswell was "classified." However, it's possible Richardson might have made his inquiry before the Roswell Report was officially released.

Then there's John Podesta, President Bill Clinton's chief of staff. As reported by CNN, Podesta made a fiery argument on behalf of government transparency in 2002, publicly stating that the time had come for the Pentagon "to declassify records that are more than 25 years old … that will assist in determining the real nature of this phenomenon."

Since then, Podesta's story has gained a weird new wrinkle, according to Rolling Stone. Remember Tom LeLonge, the guitarist for Blink-182? In 2016, Wikileaks dumped a bunch of Podesta's emails onto the net. Among other controversies, these leaks showed that Podesta had received a number of emails from DeLonge discussing the Roswell Incident. It's unclear if Podesta shared any information with DeLonge, but still … interesting stuff, right?

What about that crazy 'Alien Autopsy' video that aired on TV?

If you watched TV in the mid-1990s, you probably saw black and white footage of a scarily realistic-looking alien on an operating table, right? Freaky stuff. Sorry to burst your bubble, but "Alien Autopsy" was a hoax.  

This creepy "autopsy" footage aired on Fox in 1995. The whole thing looked so insanely real that popular culture went crazy for it, according to Time, with one showing drawing in nearly 12 million viewers. The grainy 17-minute clip shows a few government scientists in hazmat suits operating on an alien corpse, which has a big head and a little beer belly. The footage had supposedly been leaked by a retired military cameraman and the alien being autopsied was supposedly one of the corpses recovered from the Roswell crash. Hello, Majestic-12 theories! To be fair, the footage was convincing.

Then in 2006, the truth came out when the man behind the whole thing, Ray Santilli, admitted it was staged. However, he claimed it was based on "real" footage of an alien autopsy and that the only reason he'd remade it was because the original footage was too damaged by the time he bought it. As for why it looked so realistic, it turns out the extraterrestrial corpse was a prop made by John Humphreys, a talented sculptor who also did work for Doctor Who. That's pretty cool, considering these days they probably would've just used (bad) CGI.

Roswellian syndrome

The Roswell Incident is a modern legend. Even many skeptics and non-believers have studied this conspiracy's strange history to gain insight about how such myths are born, with some of the most notable students being Joe Nickell and James McGaha. These two have used Roswell as the centerpiece of their theory about conspiracy theories. According to History, they call their theory "Roswellian syndrome." The duo wrote a lengthy feature about this concept for the Center for Inquiry. Using Roswell as a basis, they explain how strange, unexplained incidents can grow to become cultural myths, breaking down the process into five stages: Incident, Debunking, Submergence, Mythologizing, and finally the Reemergence and Media Bandwagon Effect. Put together, this creates Roswellian syndrome.

When applied to Roswell, the "Incident" stage would be the incident itself. This was then followed by the "Debunking" stage, which was the military's weather balloon cover-up. Next came "Submergence," where the Roswell story largely went underground for a few decades. This led directly to "Mythologizing," in which all the craziest conspiracy theories are quietly born and nourished. Finally, along comes the "Reemergence and Media Bandwagon Effect." For Roswell this was the 1980s, when the alien stories exploded back into mainstream consciousness.

McGaha and Nickell believe that this progression will play out throughout history for many similar events, so keep your eyes open for the syndrome.

Roswell is now the UFO capital of the world

True or false, myth or reality? It's all up for debate, but one thing that absolutely can't be questioned is that all of this alien business has put Roswell, New Mexico, on the map in a big way. Anyone who likes aliens knows they need to hit up Roswell at some point. Luckily, those fans will find their paradise in this desert city, which has embraced its extraterrestrial reputation with open arms. Alien coffee mugs, alien T-shirts, and alien magnets can be found all over town. The architecture of the local McDonald's is shaped like a UFO, as seen on Atlas Obscura. There's a gift shop called The Alien Zone, and you can guess what it sells. Best of all, the local baseball team proudly calls itself the Roswell Invaders.

Roswell is also the home of the International UFO Museum and Research Center, a must-have bucket list item for true believers. Any extraterrestrial enthusiasts currently trying to schedule their voyage to the promised land should definitely keep an eye on the dates for the annual Roswell UFO Festival, which is basically Comic-Con for UFO enthusiasts.

Believers still believe

It has now been a few decades since the FBI's Roswell Report officially closed the case, but all these years later, interest in the Roswell Incident has never ceased. Aliens are still all over the entertainment landscape, from video games all the way to Academy Award-nominated films like Arrival. In 2017, Deadline reported that the CW would reboot the popular Roswell TV series from 1999. Meanwhile, in the real city of Roswell, the infamous crash is commemorated every year. At these celebrations, major UFO figures like nuclear physicist Stanton Friedman still give talks and debate theories, according to the New York Times. And why not? A town can acquire all kinds of reputations, but being known as North America's favorite alien hotspot is pretty cool. 

And yes, many people still believe that there are more details to be uncovered about whatever fishy business happened in 1947. As seen on the Huffington Post, new theories pop up all the time, with some sources arguing that there were actually two crashes instead of one. As time goes on, new wrinkles will inevitably be added to the patchwork quilt that is the tale of the Roswell Incident. Once upon a time, even Project Mogul would've seemed like something out of a thriller novel: who knows if there's some other key detail just waiting to be unearthed?

In the meantime, take a trip to Roswell, pick up an alien T-shirt, and keep your eyes open for the next twist.