NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O n May 16, 1999, Fox aired the sixth-season finale of The X-Files, Chris Carter’s TV show about a fictional FBI division investigating unexplained phenomena, including possible extraterrestrial life on Earth. The show regularly had around 15 million viewers per week, sometimes nearing twice that. Its most famous catchphrases, “The truth is out there” and “I want to believe,” permeated pop culture. Just a few weeks after the sixth-season finale, the pop-punk band Blink-182 released its album Enema of the State. With loud and catchy power chords, quick tempos, and playful yet moody lyrics about young adulthood, it quickly became a touchstone of the genre, selling millions and earning the band worldwide fame.
These paragons of late-’90s culture shared more than mere chronological proximity. One of the lesser-known songs on an album whose hits — “What’s My Age Again,” “Adam’s Song,” “All the Small Things” — quickly became the background music to summer pool visits, high-school dances, and late-night drives for teenagers nationwide was called “Aliens Exist.” It sure sounds like a Blink-182 song, if you just listen to the music. But the lyrics, as sung in a famously nasally tone by lead vocalist Tom DeLonge, aren’t exactly in keeping with the rest of the album. DeLonge frets about “the creatures from above,” wonders “What if people knew that these were real?” and says “I wish someone would tell me what was right.” The punks and skaters who played Enema of the State until their CDs started skipping may or may not have known it at the time, but DeLonge was already deep into the conspiratorial world that shows such as The X-Files also explored. In an interview around then, bandmate Mark Hoppus said that DeLonge was “pretty straightforward. . . . He hangs out with his girlfriend, and he believes in aliens.”
Plenty of celebrities have weird beliefs, of course. But time proved that DeLonge’s interest in UFOs was more than just a weird, passing phase. During the 2016 presidential campaign, when WikiLeaks released the emails of Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, her campaign’s chairman, DeLonge’s name emerged among the latter’s correspondence. He was apparently hoping to work with Podesta, also a longtime UFO enthusiast, on efforts to force the government to disclose what it supposedly knew about UFO activity. About a year later, the New York Times made public the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), an apparent government effort to investigate sightings of mysterious “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Simultaneous to the Times report, a new UFO-disclosure enterprise spearheaded by DeLonge called “To the Stars Academy” released some almost-incredible videos seeming to show Navy pilots encountering craft lightyears more advanced than anything known to earthlings. Last September, the Pentagon confirmed that the videos were legitimate, without touching on their content. In late April, it officially released them itself. And in a Rolling Stone interview on May 7, DeLonge claimed credit for the disclosures. “They’re like, ‘Alright it’s time to start talking about it because Tom and his rascals are putting our feet to the fire,’ you know?” he said.
It’s a lot to take in. But one person who might not find it all that surprising — at least, not anymore — is Sarah Scoles. As a reporter for several mainstream science publications, Scoles has also closely followed the gradual emergence of the latest wave of UFO disclosures in all of its strange turns. Her new book, They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers, benefits from and adds to the work she has already done on the topic. It is a surprisingly personal work, sometimes in ways that help her narrative and sometimes in ways that do not. And it boldly attempts to answer some broader questions about the UFO phenomenon, though in a manner that inevitably proves somewhat unsatisfactory.
Scoles’s book is an excellent crash course both for those seeking to understand recent happenings in the strange world of UFOlogy and for those wondering where this surprisingly prominent subculture came from in the first place. Reporting on recent UFO news for Wired, she found herself drawn into the subject, somewhat against her better judgment, because she was “intrigued” by “the people obsessed with UFOs,” who “spent so much time on a phenomenon that they weren’t even sure was a phenomenon.” She ends up writing on a fascinating and diverse cast of characters across the country. Some of them are famous: DeLonge features prominently — lyrics to “Aliens Exist” are the book’s epigraph — and former senator Harry Reid pops up as the primary political force behind the once-secret government program investigating UFOs. But there are also less-famous figures: residents of remote southwestern towns whose economies depend on UFO tourism, attendees of alien-themed conventions, everyday folk somewhat sheepishly admitting to their own UFO sightings. Theirs is a disparate group united by just one thing: aliens.
And they are not alone, even if we might be. According to a 2019 Gallup survey, 16 percent of Americans have witnessed something in the sky that they could not identify; a third of Americans believe that UFOs are, in fact, proof of extraterrestrial life. Scoles endeavors to take the subculture most strongly attached to these views seriously. She succeeds for the most part, thanks to some excellent reporting that takes her down Internet rabbit holes, through some of the foundational moments of modern UFO culture, and to some of the culture’s Meccas: the outskirts of Area 51; Sunspot, N.M., a telescope town mysteriously shut down late last year; Roswell, N.M.; and more. She emerges with a somewhat sociological yet also somewhat sympathetic regard for UFO believers. Many are, in her view, adherents of “a New Age religion,” for whom interest in aliens is “not a science [or] . . . a hobby [but] . . . a faith system.” Yet even for those who don’t take it that far, conspiracies are the product of a natural human desire for explanation, and the U.S. government’s public pronouncements on the subject of UFOs over the years have left a lot unexplained. Whether they’re actually from beyond Earth or not, Scoles writes, it seems obvious that “there are things the government doesn’t want you to know about UFOs.”
That said, one of the things that keeps UFOs in such murky ambiguity is the stubborn subjectivity and unreliability of the evidence. Though there were more than 121,000 reported UFO sightings in the U.S. from 2000 to 2015, it’s rare for any one sighting to be backed up with credible proof. Thus we are left with eyewitness accounts, only as reliable as the eyewitnesses themselves. At times in Scoles’s work, there is a similar problem, in which the presentation of information is hamstrung by the presenter. Sometimes her choice of words is distractingly strange, as when she coins the phrase “by virtue of your stuckness.” Sometimes her descriptions are unhelpfully weird, as when the titular creature from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is described as “hippoesque.” Sometimes there are unnecessarily meta intrusions by the author into the work, as when she recounts doing something because it “will make a great scene in this book.” These defects are most glaring when she uses her subject as a jumping-off point for meandering introspection or somewhat flighty and abstract speculation. At one point she calls Christianity “a lot more absurd than belief in UFOs,” at best a distracting assertion and at worst a quite contestable one that invites unnecessary speculation about her own lapsed faith. It may be inevitable that subjectivity would cloud a book on UFOs, which are themselves a topic hopelessly clouded by subjectivity. But it is still a bit unfortunate.
It may also be inevitable that a book about UFO culture would have an unsatisfying conclusion. No, neither Scoles nor I buried the lede; despite the book’s title, she does not arrive at definitive proof that extraterrestrials have visited Earth. Such proof may never come, even if Scoles’s reporting suggests that today’s UFOlogists think the tide is “turning in a different direction” at the same time that she raises worthwhile questions about the latest revelations. Yet what keeps this subculture alive is, in a sense, that very uncertainty. Somewhat immune to reason, those who believe in UFOs-as-aliens hold out hope. For, as Scoles notes, “a single sighting — just one! — could change everything (not to be dramatic).” Even if every UFO sighting or proclaimed alien encounter in history existed somewhere on the range from misunderstanding to hoax, it would only take one inexplicable event to change humanity’s self-conception forever. We may all know that conspiracies are dumb, as DeLonge sang in “Aliens Exist.” But many of us still believe that the truth is out there, and still want to believe.