On June 24, 1947, private pilot Kenneth Arnold claimed that he saw a string of nine shining, unidentified flying objects during a clear-skied summer flight over Mt. Rainier. These reflective flying discs – which he estimated were traveling upwards of 1,200 mph – marked the first of many sightings to follow.
Naturally, there are reported cases of flying objects throughout history. For centuries they were usually attributed to ghosts, angels, and other supernatural beings. But as science fiction grew as a genre, the idea of these flying objects being of an extraterrestrial nature was more broadly accepted.
In 1938, Orson Welles caused mass hysteria with his Mercury Theatre On the Air radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds – an adaptation of the novel by H.G. Wells. The radio play was structured as a normal evening of programming with news bulletin interruptions to provide updates on the fictional alien invasion in New York. The Mercury Theatre program was generally not subject to commercial breaks, adding to the realism of these news bulletin “interruptions”.
In the late 1940s – after WWII had subsided – the public was more tuned in to dangerous technological developments and the power they held. They all knew the mantra of “watch the skies”. They’d heard stories of the mysterious “foo fighters” seen by fighter pilots flying over Germany. So when Kenneth Arnold came forward with his report of a strange sighting, newspapers plastered his tale across the front page with a serious, even-handed tone.
The phrases “flying saucer” and “flying disc” entered the English lexicon, and a new fascination was formed. Science fiction had incorporated aliens as a threat in pulp novels and comics, but the complex ideas hadn’t shifted to the silver screen.
The fiendish monsters that haunted horror films in the 1940s were winding down in popularity, so the horror genre embraced science fiction, the Atomic Age, and their new audience; teenagers.
As teens piled into their cars and flocked to the drive-ins, films were made to cater to their pop culture preferences; fast-paced and violent with snappy dialogue and wild fantasy. Tired of melodramatic movies and TV nights at home, this new generation wanted new ideas.
Aliens and space invaders accepted that challenge. They provided new ideas that capitalized on the public interest in UFOs and abductions while lending their themes to social allegory. Films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1959), It Came From Outer Space (1953), The Blob (1958), and Invaders From Mars (1953) struck fear into the hearts of their audiences while subtly reflecting on McCarthyism and the Red Scare.
These films are now iconic in the genre. Even Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958) – though less successful with critics – has earned its place as a cult classic.
The interest in mysterious beings and unknown monsters fused into 1950s creature features as well. The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), The Thing from Another World (1951), The Alligator People (1959), and an adaptation of the aforementioned The War of the Worlds (1953) featured strange new creatures with otherworldly origins.
Humans get a charge from fear – we thrive on it – which is one of the reasons that horror as a genre is so popular. We like to feel scared. In a post-war era, the public didn’t have to stand on guard for a potential Earthly threat, so they followed the extraterrestrial lead as both a source and outlet for their anxieties. Sometimes, when you’ve spent so long “watching the skies” for potential danger, it’s hard to look away.
For more on extraterrestrial fears, click here to read about the 1957 abduction of Antonio Vilas-Boas.