In 1970, at the age of nine, I saw something so terrifying my mother had trouble getting me to bed, and it gave me nightmares for a week.
I wanted more.
The 1953 film of H G Wells’ book War of the Worlds was the first ‘grown-up’ movie I’d seen featuring creatures from another planet. In 1938, the radio broadcast of the same story, adapted by Orson Welles, panicked thousands of Americans who thought the invasion was for real.
From interstellar viruses to little green men, the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life has impinged upon human consciousness for centuries. Countless books, films, television series, conventions and numerous websites have been dedicated to the possibility of the existence of alien species. Why are we so captivated by the idea?
A psychologist might say the reaction we experience from fear – the rush of adrenaline, the release of endorphins and dopamine – can be a pleasurable thrill, especially if it is a ‘safe’ fright framed in a fictional context. There can also be self-satisfaction in surviving a scary situation, even if it’s not real.
But not all aliens are frightening, and it wasn’t just the fear that attracted me; it was the concept that other lifeforms could exist somewhere out in space. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Soon after watching War of the Worlds, I became a fan of Doctor Who, Star Trek, UFO (I still have my UFO Interceptor), and thereafter Star Wars. Aged sixteen, Frank Herbert’s Dunewas the first novel to blow my mind and remains one of my favourites.
Is it human nature to seek order from chaos, to attempt to comprehend our place in the cosmos? One guy I spoke to said, “I’m desperate for that proof that we’re not alone in the universe”. Someone else referred to “the excitement of knowing for sure something else is out there … gets the tiny hairs on my neck standing on end. To say I’m open-minded would be an understatement”.
Since the intricacies of the Earth and nature are beyond our understanding, it’s no wonder that the mind-boggling complexity of the entire universe has inspired the development of multiple religions. Due to the decline in religious belief in recent times, it’s reasonable to assume that some people have been seeking an alternative, a reassurance that we are not the only intelligent beings in a purposeless universe. Despairing at the mess humanity is making of our planet, many folk really want to believe there is at least one alien race, particularly one more advanced than our own that might offer us guidance and wisdom. Not that I’m suggesting belief in aliens as such is a religion – though it can inspire religious fervour in some. Read the book of Ezekiel in The Bible and tell me that’s not a description of a ‘close encounter’; though I concede it’s also possible the person who wrote it had taken some pretty whacky mind-altering substances…
Erich von Däniken published several books claiming aliens visited Earth early in human history, describing ancient artwork around the world that portrays spaceships, astronauts and advanced technology. The fact that his books were translated into 32 languages and sold more than 60 million copies says something about our appetite for the subject.
Considering all this mystery and speculation, it is no surprise we wish to seek the truth. Some hope that, like in Star Trek: First Contact, advanced races are waiting for us to develop light speed before communicating. Others believe superior beings abduct people, ‘probe’ them and study them like lab animals.
Conspiracy theories abound (but just because it’s a ‘conspiracy’ doesn’t mean it’s not true…). Don’t we just love to think that those in charge are hiding things from us? Certainly, government agencies have a habit of concealing the truth; the existence of the Official Secrets Act is enough to arouse suspicion.
Many countries have a department cataloguing reports of UFO sightings. In August 2010, records were released that showed British wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill banned the reporting, for 50 years, of an alleged UFO incident because of fears it might create mass panic. Of course, these UFO sightings could be advanced military technology they want to keep secret…
More significantly, for several decades scientific bodies all over the world have dedicated themselves to the search for extra-terrestrial life, including NASA. The consensus is that life probably exists beyond Earth.
What do I think? To be honest, I don’t care whether or not we are the only living planet; I just love the multiple scenarios that have sprung from the human imagination inspired by the prospect of alien races. Nonetheless, given the size of the universe, I believe it highly likely, even inevitable, that some form of life has evolved elsewhere. Sadly, I doubt we will ever meet them because of the vast distances involved. Whilst I love the idea of spacecraft travelling at light speed and faster, it is, according to the theory of special relativity, a physical impossibility. But that’s just a theory, right? I’d be happy to be proved wrong. Like in all my favourite sci-fi movies, there could be technology so far beyond human comprehension that in comparison the level of physics we’ve reached would be like woodlice trying to understand the Hadron Collider.
But if aliens are out there, I just hope they’re more like Paul and not intent on a War of the Worlds style invasion. Hiding behind the sofa probably wouldn’t save us.
Geoff King is a self-published author and irregular blogger currently studying for an honours degree in Creative Writing at the University of the Highlands and Islands.