When we were dressing the original set for Agent Mulder’s office on “The X-Files,” I came up with the poster with a U.F.O. on it that reads “I Want to Believe.” And I think that’s where most people come down on the whole extraterrestrial business. Not quite there yet, but waiting for a sign.
The universe is just too vast for us to be alone in it. Carl Jung wanted to believe, as did Carl Sagan. Both wrote books on the subject. Now videos from Navy aircraft tracking unidentified aerial phenomena (as they’ve been relabeled) suggest that maybe we have seen them. Based partly on the videos, a much-anticipated government study on the topic landed in Congress on Friday. Answers were promised. But answers are always promised.
I have never seen a U.F.O. or an alien, as much as I’d like to. But as a result of “The X-Files” I’ve met many people who claim they have. I have seen grainy videos of gray aliens on someone’s back patio. I know an award-winning movie director who told me straight-faced he’d seen a U.F.O. when he was in college. Annie Jacobsen, the author of the terrific book “Area 51,” introduced me to a man who worked at that top secret facility for many years and saw strange craft coming and going on the air base. For a decade I became a magnet for this stuff.
The plot of “The X-Files” was built on a conspiracy theory: The government is lying to you about the existence of U.F.O.s and extraterrestrials. Do I believe the government lies to us? Absolutely. I’m a child of Watergate. Do I believe in conspiracies? Certainly. I believe, for example, that someone is targeting C.I.A. agents and White House officials with microwave radiation, the so-called Havana syndrome, and your government denied it.
Can the new report, or any government report, give us clear answers? I’m as skeptical now as I’ve ever been.
In 1996 I was invited to the clinic of the Harvard psychiatrist John Mack to witness the regression hypnosis of a self-professed alien abductee. I first met Dr. Mack, who studied and ultimately believed in alien abduction, when he came to Fox Studios to discuss his work. I had used a Roper survey he was involved in (a poll of 6000 Americans on their belief in the existence of extraterrestrials) to sell “The X-Files” as a TV show in 1992, and later read his book, “Abduction.” So I knew something about what I was going to see. I went in doubtful, unprepared for the drama of a woman sitting next to me in tears and in terror over the encounter with aliens that she described, on a beach in Mexico. The experience turned out to be powerful and not a little unsettling.
Years later I attended a conference in San Mateo, Calif., that focused on a purported underground government program. Attendees believed that this program used, among other things, reverse-engineered technology from captured U.F.O.s to weaponize space. By outward appearances, these were respectable and accomplished professionals, including former government officials and lawyers. Some of them also believe that the military has hidden bases on the dark side of the moon and meet secretly there with reptilian aliens.
This radical element has bedeviled high-minded “ufologists” for decades and colored the public’s perceptions of the phenomena. Many people are afraid to admit they believe for the real fear of being laughed at. (Fear itself may be the reason some of us refuse to believe that aliens exist at all.)
We are living in times of uncertainty, where truth may be unknowable. I don’t have to tell you this has bred a universe of rampant conspiracy theories. From the Covid conspiracy documentary “Plandemic” to the idea that we’re living in a black hole created by the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider when we discovered the Higgs boson. Darin Morgan, a writer on “The X-Files,” calls this the “Post Conspiracy Era.” PoCo — the industrialization of conspiracy theories. Rigorous science and scientists are castigated and vilified. Rigorous journalism is decried as fake news.
“The Truth Is Out There,” “Trust No One,” “Deny Everything” went the provocative catchphrases on “The X-Files,” but that was in the ’90s, when we had a relatively shared reality. The slogans are now a fact of life.
In addition to the Navy videos, the reason U.F.O.s are getting their big moment is due to a bombshell 2017 article in this paper. The piece exposed a secret program inside the Department of Defense searching for the truth about U.F.O.s. The combined evidence engendered the government’s recent report.
But for me, the report on U.F.O.s was D.O.A. Ordered up by a bipartisan group of legislators during the Trump administration, the interim report revealed nothing conclusive about U.F.O.s or their extraterrestrial origins. And the portions that remain classified will only fuel more conspiracy theories.
This is “X-Files” territory if there ever was any. But it’s also cause for some important questions.
How did the Defense Department keep a budgeted project — sponsored principally by Senator Harry Reid in 2007 — secret for 10 years? Why, when Mr. Reid sought even higher security — and asked to see physical evidence of U.F.O.s — was he denied? And why only a $22 million budget when looking for answers about sentient life visiting us from worlds far away? (That’s roughly the cost of three episodes of the Netflix series “Stranger Things.”)
Ardent disbelievers have explained the latest Navy videos as tricks of the eye — even though the fighter pilots describe the unidentified aerial phenomena, or U.A.P., in great detail as having no flight surfaces, no exhaust plumes, and the ability to perform impossible maneuvers at hypersonic speeds. This opposition, scientific and not, dates back to the 1940s, when a pilot, Kenneth Arnold, saw nine “flying disks” over Mount Rainier.
But the prosecution raises a good question: Where is the Deep Throat of the U.F.O. world? Why no credible deathbed confessions? As Enrico Fermi’s famous paradox asked, if aliens are out there, why haven’t we seen them? Could the government actually be telling the truth that it really doesn’t know what to make of the phenomena? Or is the truth above top secret?
Curiously, Barack Obama, who once joked sarcastically about U.F.O.s on late night TV, is now admitting there are objects in the sky that can’t be explained. Even Donald Trump, under whose aegis the latest study was cooked up, admits there may be something to it.
I think in all likelihood this report will come and go, and with it the mainstream chatter around U.F.O.s, until definitive proof is exposed. A planet that can’t come together on climate change or a global pandemic might not pay much attention even if wreckage or an alien corpse is discovered. The culture wars alone might eclipse it, so rabidly are we in their grips.
But what if we had direct contact? With actual alien beings from an exoplanet who’ve traveled light years to seek us out? Who have answers to every question we’ve ever asked?
The result would unquestionably change the course of mankind. But would it change us?
I want to believe.
Chris Carter is a screenwriter and director who created the TV series “The X-Files.”