In July 1997, tens of thousands of Americans made pilgrimage into the New Mexican outback to Roswell, the most sacred shrine of the ufo phenomenon and the hallmark of government coverups regarding alien conspiracies. There they commemorated the incident of fifty years before, when, they believed, an alien craft had crash-landed and confirmed the existence of extraterrestrial life. In spite of one hundred– degree– plus temperatures, the pilgrims were in a festive mood, and Roswell entrepreneurs served up a cornucopia of treats. An “Aliens Welcome” sign decorated the Arby’s fast-food restaurant, while Bud’s Bar described itself as the “Unofficial ufo crash recovery site” and Church’s Fried Chicken promised “Best Alien Chicken in Town.” Owners of the crash site offered fifteen-dollar guided tours, and dirt bags from the debris field could be purchased for an additional $3.95. A stroll through town brought close encounters with vendors of assorted extraterrestrial knickknacks and shirts, one of which read, “I crashed on Earth and all I got was this crappy T-shirt.” More serious believers viewed crash dioramas at the International U.F.O. Museum and Research Center and its rival the UFO Enigma Museum. Meshing naturally and adding to the ambience were the pleas of street-corner evangelists who insisted that the aliens were “demonic beings” conspiring with the devil and ufo sightings fresh evidence of the approach of Judgment Day. An air of defiance was also palpable. On the eve of the celebration, the U.S. Air Force had launched a preemptive public relations strike to debunk the incident and deflate ballooning interest. This only heightened suspicion of government intentions and made believers more adamant in defense of their scenarios. At center stage of the Roswell encounter was a press conference scheduled for Independence Day, attended by reporters from twelve countries representing 220 news organizations and videotaped by crews from the abc, cbs, cnn, nbc, and fox networks. On screen was a slide of a metal chip that purportedly came from the spaceship. After careful analysis, Dr. Vernon Clark had concluded that the fragment was “both manufactured and extraterrestrial in origin.” Filmmaker Paul Davids, Clark’s colleague, said, “This is as rare as the shroud of Turin.” Although no chain of evidence linked the metal to the crashed saucer, Davids declared the Roswell “case closed” and the mystery solved. The men left the conference hall soon after, refusing to take questions from the press.
The commercialism and hype of the encounter masked Roswell’s significance. For believers the Roswell incident is the holy grail of all alien conspiracies, and many have joined the search, making it the most studied event in ufo history. The mystery begs solution, and a quest for truth and fame compels researchers, who have flushed out hundreds of witnesses testifying to things extraterrestrial. Enhancing the drama of this interpretation is the theme of conspiracy. As a researcher noted, Roswell has produced “a virtual mini-industry . . . paralleling in almost every respect that spawned by the Kennedy assassination.” Believers contend that a secret group within the federal government is engaged in plot weaving, covering up the evidence of extraterrestrial contact, and conspiring to discredit them and deceive the public. Roswell was, moreover, only the first instance of deception, setting the pattern for official denials about ufo sightings, abductions, cattle mutilations, crop circles, and even hidden alien bases. No famous men or women drive this challenge to government authority. It comes, instead, from the grass roots, raised by individuals with few resources and little reputation outside the ufo community. In mainstreaming their belief in a Roswell cover-up, the conspiracy-minded welcomed the embrace of the media. They relied heavily, as well, on the behavior of the authorities to prove their case.