28 October 2014

UFOs: The Hyperreality Model

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

How UFOs came to occupy a realm between fantasy and reality in the popular imagination...

“Hollywood fills the gaps in our knowledge of the world.” 

– Ken Russell

The literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin saw in the cinematic medium a “unique faculty to express by natural means and with incomparable persuasiveness all that is fairylike, marvellous, [and] supernatural.”1 Benjamin died in 1940, seven years prior to the birth of the modern UFO phenomenon. Had he lived to experience the age of the flying saucer and of saucer movies, his observation would likely have been extended to include the “alien.”

The transcendent, actualizing power of cinema has been similarly noted by the artist Valie Export, who suggests that films are “expansions of our structures of time and space, of our experiential structures... they are expansions of our reality and our independent consciousness.”2 Through cinema, says Export, “the past is made visible, space and time can be transported... the boundaries between artificial and natural reality, between actual and possible reality... between man and object are transcended.”3

The spectacle and the hyperreal

Aliens in the hyperreal age: news media use
fictional cinematic imagery to anchor 
factual stories. The distinction between fact
and fantasy remains, but is meaningless.
The social theorist Guy Debord spoke of the ‘spectacular society,’ in which “the real world changes into simple images... and the simple images become real.”4 In our spectacular society, said Debord, “the image matters more than the object, in fact, much more so than mere objective truth.”5 The image replaces the truth – it is truth, it is reality. The resultant state, in postmodern theory, is hyperreality. 

By its most popular definition, hyperreality is “an inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality, especially in technologically advanced postmodern societies... [it is] a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins.”6 Something that is hyperreal, then, is simultaneously real and unreal, fact and fantasy.

The key words in the above definition are “technologically advanced.” Technologies of reproduction (mechanical and digital) have ushered in the age of the hyperreal; an age where, in the language of Jean Baudrillard, simulations of reality threaten to dissolve the boundaries between ‘fact’ and ‘fantasy,’ between ‘true’ and ‘false,’ ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’.7 It is my contention that cinematic simulations of UFOlogical history have all but consumed the history itself through the process of replication – just as humans were consumed and replicated as ‘pod people’ in genre classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

The power of cinema

Cinema has an essential mystical ability to completely detach us from our physical environment and transport us to another –more vivid– realm of perception; a realm where everything is at once illusory, yet strangely real.

In film studies, anything that exists within the world of the film is known as diegesis. The cinema screen separates their fictional world from our ‘real’ world. But, actually, the diegesis seeps through the screen into our world, into our subconscious. It becomes part of our reality.
Key to cinema’s power is that movies, in their slick, neatly packaged, self-contained way, serve to narrativize and contextualize the events, debates, and processes that constitute our frustratingly non-narrative world. Life rarely makes sense, but movies usually do, and in that we take comfort – and therein lies the problem: movies, no matter how realistic they are in the events they depict, are not real life. They are, at best, reflections of our reality, snapshots of it, simulations of it, skewed and distorted through the ideological framework of those who have made them.

Sharing a common memory.

Movies masquerade as the final word on a given topic. No matter what the subject, and regardless of how much that subject has already been written about and debated, once it is committed to film –once it has received the full Hollywood treatment– it is embedded firmly and forever into the popular consciousness. Imprinted on our psyche. Plunged into the deep wells of memory and imagination. 

Martin Scorsese has suggested that the appeal of cinema stems from our subconscious desire “to share a common memory.”8 I’m particularly interested in how easily we’re able to separate our cinematic memories from our everyday reality. And this seems like a crucial question when it comes to UFO beliefs.

UFO reality

When it comes to UFOs, it is important to state that Unidentified Flying Objects are real, which is to say they exist independently of cinema, and of pop-culture more broadly. UFOs have been investigated by governments around the world for more than six decades. What the phenomenon represents is open for debate, and various theories have been propounded – from secret military aircraft, to natural phenomena, to otherworldly intelligences and even untapped human potential. The point is that even in a world without movies, people would continue to report UFOs. People were reporting UFOs –and flying saucers specifically– long before Hollywood got in on the act.

It is my observation that UFOlogy informs Hollywood more than Hollywood informs UFOlogy, which is to say that Hollywood engages with UFO lore in a parasitic fashion, feeding on the rich veins of a seventy year old subculture. The industry grabs hold of fringe ideas and popularizes them through the science-fiction genre: “Men in Black,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” of the “Fourth Kind,” “Area 51.” Hollywood didn’t create these terms – they were all part of the common language of UFOlogy decades before Hollywood lifted them. This perspective contrasts with the popular assumption that the UFO subculture feeds on –and thrives as a result of– images projected by the entertainment industry. This is not quite the case.

In Hollywood’s UFO movies, broadly speaking, art imitates life. If the opposite were true, then following the release of James Cameron’s Avatar –the highest grossing film of all time– we might reasonably have expected thousands of people to have begun reporting ten-foot-tall blue aliens. This did not happen; just as Hollywood’s forceful projection of the ‘little green men’ meme has failed to result in mass sightings of little green men (although reports of such entities do lightly pepper the UFO literature).

When it comes to UFOs, Hollywood produces depictions –albeit not entirely faithful ones– of what people actually report. This is not to say that what’s reported is necessarily true or accurate, but merely that Hollywood sees dramatic potential in these reports. Examples of Hollywood drawing from UFO lore are plenty enough to fill a book; indeed, they do just that in my forthcoming Silver Screen Saucers. My position is this: Hollywood draws extensively from fact-based discourse on UFOs – a phenomenon whose existence is already rejected by consensus reality. The presentation of this UFO discourse onscreen (and particularly within the context of the sci-fi genre) serves to blur the boundaries between UFO fact and fantasy.

UFOs and the Hyperreal process

Cinematic simulations of UFOlogical history (UFO movies and TV shows) simultaneously actualize and fictionalize the underlying subject matter – it becomes hyperreal: both real and unreal. We can unpack this concept into what I see as the three phases of UFOlogical hyperreality: 

Phase One:
In which a film or TV show is produced that reflects a basic UFOlogical reality.
Phase Two:
In which the basic UFOlogical reality is screened as spectacle for mass consumption – and is masked and perverted through the cultural value of the medium (in this case film or TV, but we could also extend it to video games, comic books, etc.).
Phase Three:
In which reality and simulation are experienced as without difference, or rather the image has come to mean more to us than any underlying reality.

Essentially, then, the hyperreality of the UFO phenomenon has arisen primarily through processes of mass media simulation. The blurring of true and false, real and imaginary, through that most mystical of mediums (cinema) and within the context of that most fantastical of genres (science fiction) engenders our acceptance of the UFO as just that: a fictional media construct with little or no grounding in our lived historical reality. And yet, thanks to their permanent residency in the popular imagination, UFOs are no less real to us as a result.

It boils down to this...

In our hyperreal world, a world where Roswell is better understood as a plot device, and Area 51 is a tourist attraction –a UFOlogical Disneyland– debates surrounding official ‘Disclosure’ of UFO reality (whatever that reality might be) are meaningless. How does one Disclose what is already hyperreal? The hyperreality of the UFO phenomenon in the popular imagination nullifies its potential to be either real or unreal, because it is now, and perhaps always will be, both.

Of course, this hyperreality model does not offer a solution to the UFO enigma, because it does not address what UFOs are at an ontological level. But it does, I believe, go a very long way towards explaining why UFOs continue to defy acceptance within our consensus reality.

1. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ 1936, Marxists Internet Archive. Available at: http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm
2. Valie Export, ‘Expanded Cinema as Expanded Reality,’ Senses of Cinema (May/June 2003).
3. Ibid.
4. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967, Marxists Internet Archive.
5. Ibid.
7. See: Jean Baudrillard, ‘Simulacra and Simulations,’ in Mark Poster, ed. Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings (Stanford University Press, 1998), pp. 166-184.
8. Martin Scorsese, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies, 1995. Directors: Martin Scorsese, Michael Henry Wilson. DVD, BFI.

14 October 2014

Disclosure movement RIP

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

It meant well, and it did its best, but the Disclosure movement is dead.

The problem with the Disclosure mindset was that it declared an end to the UFO enigma. It said, in essence, we know what ‘they’ are: extraterrestrial spacecraft. End of story. And then the movement looked to officialdom –a sort of unfair parent figure– and it tugged incessantly at the leg of power, saying ”daaaaaadddd, TELL US!” And dad said, patiently as ever: “not now kids, run along and play with your friends.”

Well, dad never had the answers. He still doesn’t. Sure, he may have a few more pieces of the UFO puzzle at his fingertips than do we, but he’s ashamed to tell you that, try as he might, he just can’t make those damn pieces fit. Despite appearances and the power of his ego, in a universe that’s 13 billion years old, he’s just a monkey like the rest of us, flailing around for answers in the early years of the 21st century on a planet whose dominant trend is war. So, no, dad doesn't understand what he’s dealing with. He can’t even comprehend it; and it doesn't help that UFOs go far beyond the physical, beyond the merely extraterrestrial. He’s dealing with a coalescence of impossible phenomena. He’s dealing with consciousness itself.
"Tell us!"
And so what can daddy possibly tell the kids without appearing ignorant and confused, without losing a huge weight of his authority as a parent; as a leader. It’s better to stay silent and let the kids believe he has all the answers, that he’s all-knowing.

It’s for this reason that should officialdom ever “come clean” about the UFO issue, we should all be immediately and extremely suspicious, because UFO truth by way of official power structures will not be truth at all. We all know this. It will, by necessity, be whatever truth least vilifies and incriminates the secret-keepers, whose primary concern is not to bring about world peace through the disclosure of cosmic secrets, but rather to avoid at all costs being lynched by angry mobs for having withheld from the public incomprehensible data concerning the nature of our reality, and to maintain our existing global system – a system in which the activities of the privileged few are concealed from the distracted masses. This is the system we vote for, year after year, decade after decade. The illusion of democracy.
Fear the angry mob!

If and when the day comes that the layers of our reality are peeled back and humanity collectively finds itself in a new world, it will not be for one signature too many on a Disclosure petition. Disclosure, if we must insist on using the term, is a slow process of personal awakening on a mass scale. When I say personal awakening, I most certainly do not mean the simple acceptance that we are not alone in the universe. I mean a continuing process of inner exploration. 

The ultimate irony of the Disclosure movement is that it deeply distrusts officialdom, while simultaneously looking to officialdom for the truth. And by imagining all answers to the UFO mystery to be out of public reach, deep in the bowels of the national security state, the Disclosure movement actually places power into hands of officialdom, while disempowering the individual.

I certainly don’t have a fast track to UFO truth. I don’t believe there is a fast track to UFO truth.

All too often on the UFO scene audiences are content to hear what they want to hear; to have their existing beliefs confirmed by self-proclaimed experts who know full well that their personality cult is guaranteed by telling the crowds –dare I say ‘followers’– only what they want to hear: that Disclosure is just around the corner, and that a brighter tomorrow will follow that day.

But the kind of revolutionary change we hope will be triggered by UFO disclosure can only ever occur from a bottom-up level, and over a considerable expanse of time. Enlightenment is earned slowly by the individual; it is not handed to him on a saucer-shaped platter. But then, it’s easier to demand of a faceless bureaucracy than it is to demand of ourselves.

I should clarify I do not take issue with the Disclosure movement in itself. The efforts of Steve Bassett and others undoubtedly have brought the UFO phenomenon (whatever it might represent) to the attention of many thousands of people around the world who previously were indifferent to the issue. That’s not a bad thing. What does concern me, however, is that Disclosure has become the focus of the UFO community, its alluring offer of a fast track to UFO truth marginalising the more esoteric approaches to the phenomena. In short, in the age of Disclosure and Exopolitics, the pursuit of UFO truth is political, rather than mystical. If the day ever comes when humanity can claim an understanding of the UFO phenomenon, I’m very confident that politics will have played almost no role in this enlightenment.

We should see UFOs, then, not as a call to pressure governments to unlock their files – officialdom has nothing left to offer us on UFOs, nothing we can believe or accept. And free energy technologies, if they exist, will not save our world, because they will not miraculously change human nature. So let’s take officialdom out of the equation altogether; let’s shift the focus onto ourselves and to our own relationship with this phenomenon. Let’s see UFOs as a call to look within, with the aim of unlocking our true mystical nature, our latent psychic and spiritual potential, because, in so doing, we might actually begin to understand all forms of extraordinary and impossible phenomena. Perhaps all that is required on our part is a recognition –or rather a profound acceptance– that the distinction between an individual and the invisible beyond that surrounds her is entirely illusory.

24 July 2014

Messengers and Harbingers: Sneaky Owls in Fantastical Movies

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

Owls and UFOs. To those with no interest in either the two might seem like chalk and cheese, but these ‘phenomena’ – one assumed to belong exclusively to our world, the other thought to originate ‘elsewhere’ – often go hand-in-hand; that is, at least, according to the testimonies of countless UFO experiencers the world over.

In has long been theorized in the UFO research community that the sighting of an owl or owls shortly prior to, during, or immediately after a UFO close encounter is a strong indication of a repressed abduction experience, with the image of the owl acting as a screen memory for the traumatised abductee. The logic here is that the large, penetrating (and sometimes glassy black) eyes of an owl closely resemble those of the archetypal alien ‘Grey’. Owls also swoop from the skies – the domain of the UFO.
In his fascinating and deeply personal essay Owls and the UFO Abductee, Mike Clelland considers the possible psychological function of owl imagery in abduction reports, but ultimately ascribes it a more profound and mystical meaning, concluding – or, rather, confidently speculating – that the owl in these circumstances may be “part of a shamanic initiation,” a wake-up call from the universe itself for those who suspect but refuse to acknowledge their lifetime of hidden experiences with intelligences beyond the realm of everyday perception.

Mike's essay -- which is now slowly working its way toward a book -- is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the abduction phenomenon or in the otherworldly beauty of the owl.

All of this may seem slightly off-topic for this blog, being, as it is, so tightly focused on Hollywood. But there is indeed a Hollywood connection, albeit a fleeting one, so far as I can tell (and I would welcome more input on this if anyone can offer other examples similar to those presented below).

Owl imagery was used prominently in the 2009 movie The Fourth Kind in an overtly alien context, and again more recently in the children's adventure film Earth to Echo (2014), but right now I’m more interested in how owl imagery can be used very subtly, even subconsciously by filmmakers.
Owl imagery in the 2009 abduction movie, The Fourth Kind.
A couple of months back, not long after having chatted with Mike Clelland on Facebook, and having owls on the brain as a result, I switched on the TV. The 1986 movie Short Circuit was playing. A high-concept, family-friendly sci-fi flick, the movie follows the adventures of Johnny 5, an escaped experimental military robot who gains sentience – and apparently even a soul – after being struck by lightning.

The scene that happened to be playing was a pivotal one in the movie: Johnny 5’s first meeting with the character of Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy). The scene is shot to resemble a distinctly Spielbergian 'close encounter' event, with Stephanie under the impression that Johnny 5 is not a robot, but an extraterrestrial. As Stephanie steps outside her house one night to investigate a disturbance, she sees a mysterious glow emanating from her van. “Hey, get outta there!” she yells, nervously. It is at this point that we cut to a close-up of an owl perched atop Stephanie’s personalized mailbox. The bird turns its head to her, almost expectantly.  

As Stephanie approaches her van, its side panel flips open vertically to reveal an alien-looking Johnny 5, bathed in misty light. We then cut once more to the owl, which turns its head to Johnny 5, and, in that moment, one can’t help but draw a visual parallel between the robot and the bird – both having large, round, yellow and black eyes harshly accented by a ‘frown’ (metal eyebrows in Johnny’s case, and ‘ear’ tufts in the owl’s).
Short Circuit (1986)

It is now that Stephanie exclaims: “Oh, my God! I knew they would pick me, I just knew it!” perhaps indicating that she expects – and even wants – to be abducted. “Welcome to my planet,” she says, excitedly.

It goes without saying that owls have always been a permanent fixture in the iconographic landscape of the horror genre. But Short Circuit is a sci-fi, not a horror, and, while Johnny 5 isn't actually an alien, in this crucial scene, the filmmakers have gone out of their way to present him as alien-like and as a potential abductor. Also seemingly significant is the positioning of the owl directly on top of Stephanie’s mailbox, which clearly bears her name, as if the bird has come for her specifically (just as Mike Clelland feels the owls in his own life are communicating something to him on an intensely personal level). We might expect an owl to be perched on a tree branch, but here the owl prefers a mailbox – a ‘message’ box, a communications receptacle. In Western culture, owls are often associated with knowledge and wisdom, and so it is fitting that, in the very same scene, the first thing Johnny 5 demands of Stephanie is “input.” She’s delighted: “That’s information,” she replies, “I’m full of it!” As an aside here, while writing this post I was reminded by an owl-loving friend of mine that Harry Potter’s beloved owl Hedwig was also a messenger, serving Harry faithfully for six years by delivering his mail to him.

The prominent inclusion of the owl in Short Circuit was, in all likelihood, little more than an effort to enhance the ‘spooky’ atmosphere of Stephanie’s introduction to Johnny. Nevertheless, in the implied context of the scene (a close encounter with an alien entity), as well as in the context of Mike Clelland’s essay, the presence of the owl assumes a deeper meaning, whether or not it was consciously intended.

The 1997 movie Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan, also features a curious owl cameo. Early on in the film, a young Ellie Arroway (Jenna Malone) -- who as an adult makes direct contact with an alien intelligence -- asks her father (David Morse) a crucial question: "Hey, dad, do you think there's people on other planets?" At the very moment the question is spoken, the observant viewer will notice a picture on little Ellie's wall...

The mystical connection between owls and otherworldly entities presents itself again in a very different film – the 1982 inspired-by-real-events domestic chiller The Entity, starring Barbara Hershey. 
This disturbing film follows the plight of Carla Moran (Hershey), a young mother of three, who, for all intents and purposes, is single (her boyfriend spending most of his time on the road). One day, without warning, Carla is viciously beaten and raped in her bedroom by a powerful but invisible entity. In the days and weeks that follow, Carla continues to be sexually assaulted by the entity and, fearing for her sanity, seeks help, first from a skeptical psychotherapist, and later from a team of parapsychologists. All the while, the entity is relentless in its aggressive sexual pursuit of this traumatised woman.

In many respects, The Entity certainly can be classed as a horror movie, but it also flirts with science fiction. It constantly defies genre expectations; perhaps, in part, because it is based on a true story – the rigidity of genre rarely applying to life as we live it.

The film’s sci-fi element is particularly identifiable in onscreen debate surrounding just what the entity actually is, and where it comes from. In the third act, the team of university-employed parapsychologists devises a plan to capture and kill the entity for scientific study. Their weapon of choice: liquid helium.

One of the parapsychologists explains:

“What we’re seeking is to determine if this entity has mass. If in fact this is the case, then we should be able to freeze it, verify its objective existence, and prove that it isn’t just a psychic projection, but rather an independent force from some other level of reality that has never been isolated.”

Spoken about in these terms, the entity seems to have less in common with the traditionally supernatural (ghosts, for example) and more with the interdimensional trickster intelligences theorized by the likes of Jacques Vallee and John Keel.

The interdimensional hypothesis posits that UFO entities might exist beyond space-time and can flit in and out of our reality at will, assuming a multitude of forms – from the faeries, goblins, and incubi of ages past, to the UFOs and aliens of modern times. This theory is explicitly brought to mind in The Entity during a scene in which Carla’s psychiatrist, Dr Sneiderman (Ron Silver), attempts to dispel her ‘irrational’ belief in the literal existence of her invisible tormentor, showing her old drawings of goblins, demons, and faerie folk: “They were supposed to abuse people sexually,” he tells her, “they were supposed to impregnate people. Do you think these things really existed then!?”

It is notable that the true nature of the entity is never discovered in the movie, although there is no indication that it is anything so mundane as the lingering ghost of a deceased man; indeed, no indication that it was ever human at all. In the movie, the entity’s few physical manifestations take the form of dazzling lights, bright, fast-moving orbs, and electrical discharges – phenomena typically associated with UFOs. In one scene, when asked by parapsychologists to reveal itself, the entity appears literally as an unidentified flying object, a vaguely spherical green light that calls to mind (to this mind, at least) the green fireballs frequently sighted over US nuclear installations throughout the late 1940s and which lead directly to the formation of the USAF’s Project Twinkle. The stunned parapsychologists look on in awe in shots that wouldn’t seem out of place in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
"Show yourself!" The Entity (1982)
So where do owls come into this? Well, they’re onscreen throughout the movie as decorative wall ornaments. In the hallway, directly by Carla’s front door, we can see a board displaying five owls made from coloured felt. In Carla’s kitchen we can see a woven owl on the wall near the sink. At one point, in Carla’s bedroom, her dressing chair even appears owl-like. The camera never dwells on any of these images, but they are noticeable to the perceptive viewer. Why this owl motif pervades the film, and whether or not there was conscious purpose behind its inclusion is debatable. The Native American Hopi people traditionally associate owls with sorcery and evil. In Mesoamerican cultures, the owl is considered a symbol of death and destruction. In the Mayan religious text the Popol Vuh, owls are described as messengers of Xibalba (the Mayan “Place of Fright”). In these folkloric and religious contexts, owl imagery perfectly complements the nature and intent of the malevolent entity in the movie.

I could waffle on about all of this for quite some time without threatening to reach anything resembling a conclusion. So, for now, I’ll leave readers with some stills from The Entity. Make of them what you will, and, next time you watch a movie – any movie – keep your eyes peeled for sneaky owls... you never know where they might decide to put in an appearance.
Five owls stand watch over Carla's front door. Is their purpose to keep something out, or to keep her in?
Above and below: In these, some of the final shots of the movie, immediately after being shut in by the entity and subjected to shocking verbal abuse, Carla calmly but defiantly opens her front door...

... Before stepping out into an uncertain future.

Above and below: the 'owl' chair.

The woven owl in Carla's kitchen.

Strangely, Carla here seems to be smiling at the owl. This is never explained.

The owl is noticeably skewed on the wall as Carla feels the strain of her abuse.




7 July 2014

'Signs', wonders, and TV

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

Inspired by the crop circle phenomenon, the 2002 movie Signs draws broadly from the UFO mythos and, in one of its more comical scenes, has three of its characters huddled together in tinfoil hats, wracked by paranoia. Beyond such cliché, however, M. Night Shyamalan’s film exhibits a deeper – perhaps subconscious – awareness of the UFO phenomenon and of the effects of its mass-mediation in the post-modern world.

In the film, a Pennsylvanian farming family – headed by old-fashioned priest and widower Reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) – is thrown into turmoil when a crop formation appears overnight in their corn field. From blanket TV news coverage we learn that hundreds of similar crop ‘signs’ have appeared suddenly and simultaneously around the world, baffling experts. Graham is quietly concerned and seeks to distance his family from the inexplicable events unfolding around them by refusing them access to the media circus now spoon-feeding the hungry masses. “See, this is why we’re not watching TV,” says Graham, “people get obsessed.” For Graham, despite the undeniable physical reality of the sign in his corn field and his own gut instinct that something strange is afoot, it is only through their mediation by TV news reports that the bizarre events can assume a sense of the ‘real’.
Discussing Baudrillard’s notions of hyperreality, John Storey notes that, “Representation does not stand at one remove from reality, to conceal or distort it, it is reality”[i]; implicitly aware of this, Graham opts to sever his own access to media images, leaving him free to interpret the events outside as he chooses and to continue to inhabit his own secure, albeit emotionally stagnant, reality. It is only when Graham catches a glimpse of an alien in his corn field one night that he submits to his family’s desire to be mediated (“Okay, let’s turn on the TV”). It is Graham’s submission to television that plants him firmly in the “present age” to which Feuerbach refers in The Essence of Christianity: an age “which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence...” For Graham, the grieving widower and priest faced with an incomprehensible threat to his family, now, more than ever, “Illusion only is sacred, truth profane.”[ii]

As the family watch “live” footage of numerous UFOs over Mexico City, Graham’s brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) quips: “the nerds were right – a reference to the generic UFO believers he had mocked in an earlier scene. Shyamalan’s decision to have the alien craft arrive over Mexico City clearly is inspired by the real-life mass-sightings of UFOs over this same locale during the solar eclipse of July 11, 1991 when hundreds of people witnessed what appeared to be a number of hovering, metallic, disc-shaped objects. Signs again draws from the UFO mythos during a scene in which Merrill reacts with horror as the TV news runs grainy, daylight footage of an alien prowling the backstreets of Paso Fundo, Brazil. This is an oblique reference the famous ‘Varginha incident’ of 1996 in which three teenage girls claimed to have been traumatised by a daylight encounter with an unearthly entity in the Brazilian city of Varginha.[iii]  

Several scenes later, the whole family has succumbed entirely to the mystical power of their television as they stare passively at the numerous “lights” now hovering over Washington DC and over hundreds of cities worldwide. Such is the magnetism of their TV screen that, rather than driving to the nearest city in an attempt to see the lights for themselves or even simply stepping outside to glance up at the sky, the family considers it more natural to watch the events on television and, most importantly, to record them. “We have to tape this,” urges Graham’s son, Morgan, “this is very important... the history of the world’s future is on the TV right now,” telling his younger sister Bo (Abigail Breslin), “We need to record this so you can show your children this tape and say you were there.” Clearly, the Hess family understand that the postmodern media do not simply provide, “secondary representations of reality; they affect and produce the reality that they mediate,”[iv] and that, “all events that ‘matter’ are media events.”[v]

As the saucer-shaped lights twinkle overhead, the anchorman informs viewers that “This image has not been adjusted or enhanced in anyway. What you’re seeing is real. It’s unbelievable.” Later in the film, Graham asks himself, “Is this really happening?” Such dialogue points to an awareness on Shayamalan’s part that the literal existence of UFOs is difficult to accept; not because of what UFOs might represent (otherworldly intelligences), but because of how the phenomenon has been mediated (i.e. ridiculed) for over sixty years. Shayamalan’s concerns along these lines are expressed subtly in his decision to confine his UFOs and aliens securely to his characters’ TV screen as objects of media scrutiny for all but a few seconds of the film’s total running time.  

The extent to which the family’s perception of UFOs has been historically mediated is also effectively illustrated through their inability to envisage what horrors might be unfolding beyond the four corners of their TV screen. When both their television and radio cease to function as a result of the unseen invasion outside, in the total absence of media to guide their perceptions, the Hess family are lost, as demonstrated when a terrified Merrill asks: “What’s going on out there?” A question to which Graham can only respond: “I can’t even imagine.” Indeed, in an earlier scene, when Merrill does attempt to make use of his imagination, he can’t help but fall back on iconographic imagery conjured by classic UFOlogical fiction, describing the scenes on TV as being “like War of the Worlds.”
During the film’s climax in which an alien intruder holds Morgan hostage in the Hess family’s living room, Shyamalan again chooses to objectify the aliens through television – this time quite literally. When Graham finally sees the alien up close it is in the form of a reflection in his TV screen, and, again, when the creature is defeated and lies dying on the floor we see only its reflection in the glass of the television. Are aliens real, or do they exist purely as media constructs? In Signs Shayamalan seems to answer the question with a question: “in today’s hyperreal society, does it matter?”

Signs is an anomaly in the UFO subgenre. Consciously or not, it engages with the UFO subject through the intellectual framework of spectatorship and hyperreality. As a meditation on UFOs as a media abstraction (viewed most comfortably through the filter of television), the film serves as a reflection of popular attitudes towards the phenomenon today, demonstrating that, when it comes to UFOs, even Hollywood in its mass-mediation of the phenomenon is acutely aware that “There is no longer a clear distinction between a ‘real’ event and its media representation.” [vi]

[i]  John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction (Fourth Edition) (University of Georgia Press, 2006), p. 136.
[ii] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity: Translated from the Second German Edition by Marion Evans, 1890, xiii, in Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967.
[iii] Matt Moffett,Tale of Stinky Extraterrestrials Stirs Up UFO Crowd in Brazil,’ The Wall Street Journal, 12 July, 1996. Available at: http://www.anomalies.net/archive/cni-news/CNI.0060.html. For a popular accounting of the ‘Varginha Incident’, see Roger K. Leir, UFO Crash in Brazil: A Genuine UFO Crash with Surviving ETs (California: The Book Tree, 2005).
[iv] John Fiske, Media Matters: Everyday Culture and Media Change (University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. xv, in Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, p. 135.
[v] Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, p. 135.
[vi] Ibid.