How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Get Along with the Gray
Issue #51, October 2000
You lie in bed. Bright light — so bright it hurts your eyes — floods through the windows. You try to get up, but it feels like you're paralyzed. The only thing you can move is your eyes and you're starting to wish you couldn't. You note that three or four figures are standing around your bed. They're short, frail and have enormous eyes, eyes that seem to hold you pinned, sweating, to your bed.
The light focuses to a single vector and you are carried upward and outward, through the walls of your home and into a vessel impossibly hovering, rotating above. Strapped to an examination table, surrounded by uncanny homunculi, all grimace and staring eyes, your fear seems boundless. The phrase "I didn't know whether to shit or go blind" suddenly makes a lot of sense.
Your mouth and throat are filled with a clear viscous fluid. You can't breathe, but you can. The examination proceeds. The creatures make incisions, send skeletal metal armatures traveling up your rectum. They manipulate your genitals, bringing you unwillingly to orgasm. They touch your mind directly, as if it were there on the table before them — like a machine to be tested, examined, run through its paces. They flood your perceptions with images and scenarios by turns surreal, intimate, comforting and apocalyptic.
Much later you are returned to your bed. You've been told you'll remember nothing. You awaken in the morning sore and disoriented. The skin of your face and forearms is chafed and red as if sunburned. In the weeks and months to come, you feel strangely unbalanced, prone to fits of weeping and paranoia. One afternoon while driving, the sight of a deer with wide staring eyes sends you spiraling downward into panic. You sleep fitfully if at all. Something is terribly wrong.
This nightmare scenario is the basic template of the now classic tale of alien abduction. This account has passed through literally thousands (estimates range into the millions) of iterations since abductions first came to public attention with the Hill case. On September 19, 1961, Betty and Barney Hill, a Boston area interracial couple actively engaged in the civil rights movement, experienced an encounter in which they sighted a UFO and were taken aboard. This case of abduction layed out the basic elements of the abductee narrative: medical examinations, lost time, repressed memories, and hairless para-human beings with gigantic eyes. The Hill case is most memorably recounted in John Fuller's 1966 book Interrupted Journey. The case also received attention in a series the Boston Traveler ran in October 1965. The Hills were remarkable in that they were unremarkable: he worked at the post office, she was a social worker.
Public awareness of abductee encounters has grown in the past 35 years via films, television, novels and non-fiction accounts. As a result the alien presence and the phenomenon of abduction have become core myths of the contemporary imagination. This can also be attributed both to the massive number of abductee reports in these years and to the effectiveness of the "gray" as a distinctively late-modern monster. The "gray", the term given by UFO watchers to the short alien being with the tapered figure and liquid, wrap-around eyes, has come to embody the myth of UFO encounter and abduction. It has also increasingly become a startlingly pervasive visual motif. Paraded across our visual field as plush toy, yo-yo, t-shirt and party hat — the gray is seemingly ubiquitous. How and why is it that a figure so fraught with terror and revulsion shows up, with increasing regularity, as visual flourish and tag line? In short, wherein lies the passage from space demon to fin-de-siècle smiley-face?
This essay examines the cultural moment when the gray both emerges as a broadly recognized public figure and begins its journey into the banal. Certainly, the preeminence of the gray is to some extent the result of Steven Spielberg's films, specifically Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The former film was the first to draw its representations of alien life from the world of abductions and encounters and not from the catalogue of science fiction imagery. The archives of ufology, not H.G. Wells, provided Spielberg's source material.
I remember, as a child, coming out of the theater after seeing Close Encounters . Stationed at the exit was a news crew asking emerging patrons to compare the film to Star Wars. I remember silently preparing a response (one which I was never called upon to give) — "There's no comparison," I was going to say. "They're totally different kinds of movies." I knew that much at the time, even if I didn't know precisely how they were different. Star Wars was a space-opera in the old style that presented the perennial battle between good and evil. Close Encounters drew its narrative power from an emerging, ongoing set of bewildering phenomena. The name itself, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, introduced an analytic structure into the public vernacular originally developed by ufologist J. Allen Hynek. Hynek classified a UFO encounter where the witness sees a vessel less than 500 feet away as a close encounter of the "first kind." The "second kind" refers to sightings in which some physical effect is manifested by the vessel, such as scorched earth, flash burns suffered by witnesses, or mechanical failures in the proximity of the UFO. In close encounters of the "third kind" witnesses actually see the occupants of the vessel. Abductions have come to be classified as close encounters of the "fourth kind."
For Close Encounters Spielberg effectively drew on the wealth of detail provided by the twenty-five years of the post-W.W.II boom, especially the abduction stories that exploded after the publication of the Hills' story. In the film flash burns are suffered by witnesses, there are episodes of lost time, poltergeist-type activity, alienated and withdrawn witnesses, and there are characters that represent an underground network of ufologists (the so-called "Invisible College"). While Close Encounters includes such details and does convey some of the anguish experienced by eyewitnesses of UFO phenomena, said realism and anguish is dissipated in the final scene. The secret government installation, with its intimations of paranoia, danger, and malevolent power, and the appearance of the mother ship, with its intimations of terror, displacement, and being engulfed, re-frame the first contact between gentle, inquisitive creatures from afar and a wise, benevolent military/security apparatus. Any terror or sense of grave misgiving, any sense of profound strangeness, is dissolved by the wonder of the collaboratively composed chorale performed by the military/security types and the contingent of ufologists. It is the sublime with all of the joy but none of the terror. No sweaty paralysis here. No anal probe or endless night terrors. No forced insemination or continual harassment, just the dulcet tones of intergalactic baroque and wide-eyed wonder. Luna Park without the slaughterhouse. The aliens of Close Encounters are domesticated by way of its shared musical forms, a use that implies a love of music and thus culture and a sense of beauty. The domestication of the Other proceeds via anthropomorphism.
The terror that the gray usually represents retreats even further with Spielberg's E.T. Once again the title of the film serves as a vehicle for the introduction of ufological terminology into the public lexicon. And the form of the gray is altered to send it further up (or down, depending upon your perspective) the ladder of neoteny. Neoteny, as explained by Stephen Jay Gould, is the process by which facial features become more infant-like. In Gould's discussion he points to the shifting visage of Mickey Mouse. While Mickey clearly started off as a rodent when first drawn, his face has slowly morphed into a more recognizably human form. His wedge shaped proboscis has flattened to a tiny bulb and his eyes have expanded from tiny beads to grow wider and wider. Mickey slowly, but surely, has assumed the form of a cute 'n' cuddly human baby, a form genetically and culturally calculated to induce a sense of paternal concern and care. While the gray, in its "natural" form, already clearly evidences infant features (over-sized head, large eyes, vestigial nose, mouth and ears), Spielberg's E.T. pushes even further, presenting us with the alien as the innocent abroad — wise, frightened, subject to human counsel and love.
Spielberg's two films function in a manner much like the larger cultural phenomenon of merchandising the gray. Close Encounters of the Third Kind makes the figure of the extra-terrestrial banal by cleansing it of potentially threatening qualities while maintaining a mass of surface detail. E.T. furthers the process by squashing the figure down to child size and providing it with facial features that simultaneously give the impression of infancy and ancient wisdom: E.T the dinosaur baby, the wise child, the cute 'n' cuddly Other.
The image that became the center of marketing for the film and ultimately the trademark for Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment is well worth noting. It was not the figure of E.T. itself that became the privileged image, but rather the figure of E.T. carried in the bicycle basket of Elliot, the film's boy hero. This image of the lost, soulful E.T. being rescued by a child renders the terror of the unknown into a figure that is innocent and non-threatening. The alien has become dependent upon the shelter and aid of the child. The loss and abjection invoked by the E.T. in its "natural" form helps to clarify the otherwise murky relationship between human beings and extraterrestrials. The infant-like E.T. defines our role — we are to the E.T. as the parent is to the child. The relation between the children in Spielberg's film and E.T. casts the E.T. as a reflection of that which we hold most dear about ourselves. He is innocent, but also wise. The fact that he must be cared for by children illustrates that such wisdom and innocence does not fare well in the adult world. It must be nurtured and sustained in a world where faith and imagination hold sway: the world of the child. The image of E.T. borne aloft on the handlebars of Elliot's bike encapsulates all the pleasant connotations of the extra-terrestrial — the dream of flight and the presence of true wisdom. This is the double moment when the Other both provides us with knowledge and is utterly dependent upon our better selves.
Spielberg has come to specialize in making us feel better about things that maybe we shouldn't feel better about. His bid to humanize the Holocaust in Schindler's List is perhaps the clearest example of this tendency. Spielberg's account manipulates its audience, showing them brutality but maintaining a vision of the possibility of hope, innocence, and heroism. The audience leaves the theater feeling melancholy but reassured — any sense of trauma is assuaged. Let's be clear about this. There is nothing ennobling about systematic mass murder. How shall we remember the death camps? With gauzy visions of little girls in red dresses and acts of minor subversion (are you listening Roberto Benigni?) or with the indelible images of hulking piles of eyeglasses, human hair, and corpses? It is the latter that is closer to the truth.
As with the legacy of the holocaust, the cultural concerns manifest in tales of the gray need be addressed frankly and directly rather than effaced. In the process of making the gray banal, Spielberg and the mass marketing of the gray implement this very effacement. What we need is not comforting distance structured through familiarity, but rather the strength to look critically and consciously at that which most unnerves us. When we do that, we give ourselves the opportunity to reflect on the fantasies and anxieties that permeate our everyday lives.
Our ongoing cultural encounter with the gray is, at the very least, emblematic of fault lines in the contemporary culture. Part of the promise of the gray is the opportunity to fantasize about shedding our collective skin and moving toward a post-human future. This opportunity is both welcomed and shunned in the context of emergent terrestrial technologies. The E.T. is, at least in part, the phantasmic vision of humanity's cyborg future. In the grays' collection of tissue and reproductive samples from abductees our fears of the power represented by exhaustive genetic mapping play themselves out. Even fears about the erosion of race and gender-based difference are manifest in the very face of the gray. In short, the gray functions as both condensation and elaboration of some of the deepest fears and desires of the present cultural moment, and thus deserves our sustained attention. Making the gray the object of mass marketed sentiment is, however, the wrong path to take when exploring the cultural meaning of our alien fears and fantasies.
How are we to understand the cultural trend in which a figure consistently reported as terrifying, manipulative, and repellent gets recast as a catch-all visual motif, a motif rendered banal if not benevolent? A paranoid person who is willing to entertain the possibility that the grays exist, and have a plan, might say we're being conditioned to willingly accept the presence of an alien host. A less paranoid and more skeptical person might simply think that in the constant search for fresh images and signifiers in the worlds of advertising and marketing, the gray functions as a highly flexible (and non-licensable) source for image making — kinda hip, kinda weird clip art. Regardless of your reading of the significance of the proliferation of the gray as commercial image, it's clear that it involves a highly perverse importation. The powerful visage of the happy li'l alien that haunts our visual landscape effectively belies the profound dread that underlies it. So next time you're at the fair and you see a pre-teen stroll by with her gray-shaped beverage container and her alien t-shirt, just remember: You lie in bed. Bright light floods through the windows — so bright it hurts your eyes ...
Mark Harrison is a doctoral candidate in media studies at the University of Pittsburgh. His ongoing project concerns the figure of the extraterrestrial in American culture from the late 19th century on.