You are here

The Truth Is Here: Strangers in Roswell, New Mexico

Media such as television, film, and narrative are handled at a safe distance. The Roswell incident, on the other hand, can be interacted with because Roswell is a physical site.

Marguerite Helmers

Issue #54, March 2001

Setting: The Land of Enchantment.

In the summer of 1947, sheep rancher W. W. "Mac" Brazel found mysterious pieces of metallic debris on his land, a stretch of sage, snakeweed, and cactus in the desert of southern New Mexico. The debris was unlike any metal that Brazel had seen before. He waited a few days, then, at the suggestion of his friends, contacted the sheriff of the nearest town, Roswell, about 70 miles away. Initially, the debris was proclaimed to be wreckage from an extra-terrestrial ship, but very quickly it was officially announced instead to be the remains of a new type of weather balloon. The remains were cleaned up and taken away, perhaps studied, perhaps classified, perhaps destroyed.

The debris and the stories constructed around it have become iconic in American culture, making possible the modern memory of aliens. Contemporary cultural icons are constructed from absence, loss, and speculation. As Richard Dyer says in Stars about celebrity "stars," their reputation includes "what people say or write about him or her, as critics or commentators." An icon is a "complex configuration of visual, verbal, and aural signs" and thus the Roswell incident, as the sequence of events taking place in July 1947 has been titled, holds the same status in popular memory as the death of Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedy assassination, or the departure of "The King" Elvis Presley. It has developed an independent life consisting of accumulated stories, testimonials, and experiences. Aliens fascinate because they are strange.

The subject of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) is familiar to Americans in the twentieth century. A variety of media have depicted space travel and alien visitations since H. G. Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898. As the name "science fiction" suggests, the tales of space engage truth and story, fact and fantasy, summoning the audience into negotiations between belief and interpretation. Yet media such as television, film, and narrative are handled at a safe distance. The Roswell incident, on the other hand, can be interacted with because Roswell is a physical site.

The central feature of the tourist culture in Roswell is the International UFO Museum and Research Center (IUFOMRC). The IUFOMRC is located in an old Main Street movie theater, which enticingly complicates its claims to truth and the separation of fact from fiction, while at the same time heightening the need to display and show evidence. Among its exhibits are reproductions of news articles from July 1947 that document the events surrounding the Roswell incident, art created by "ufologists," a display on crop circles, and a display of "authentic" and fake UFO photographs. The IUFOMRC employs both strategies of ufology: telling the true story of the Roswell incident and presenting artifacts that verify the existence of extra-terrestrial beings. It authenticates itself as a place of truth by employing a gesture of museum spaces from the Smithsonian to the British Museum: chronological arrangement supplemented by interpretive text.

Unlike other museums, though, the IUFOMRC is compelling because of the uncertainty that surrounds its subject. For centuries, travelers have been warned that monsters lie at the corners of the world — the far reaches of human experience. Roswell fits this paradigm. It is located on the frontier, the mythic West of the American imagination. It is a border town, both physically and imaginatively. Lincoln County, the home of Billy the Kid, is just over 40 miles to the west and Roswell was once the home of Billy's nemesis, Sheriff Pat Garrett. The US border with Mexico is 200 miles to the southwest. The discovery of this frontier — "the final frontier" — compels the traveler. It tempts with what Sigmund Freud in his essay The Uncanny called the "unheimlich", the fascinatingly "un-homely" or "not homelike." Jodi Dean notes in her 1997 article for Theory and Event that stories of aliens are "stories of border crossings, of everyday transgressions of the boundaries that demarcate the limits that define reality." At the same time, the confrontation of known reality with the imaginative is uncanny and unsettling. "[W]hen borders are crossed," cautions Dean, "... they no longer provide boundaries."

Roswell is a city of memory. Visitors are asked to look not at the city as it is presently configured, but at the events of the past. Roswell is a town based on stories that border between truth and fiction. Even WalMart sells an alien emblem. Tourists are enjoined to participate in a pleasurable conundrum: is Mac Brazel's story true? What does it matter? Visitors can assume any role from true believer to ironic voyeur. And they can ponder, Does the town itself believe? In Roswell, the stranger is both the feature and the observer, and both engage in a dialectic between fear and pleasure.

These fears can be focused on the monster at the center of the IUFOMRC exhibit space, the "original prop" of an alien body used in the 1994 film Roswell. One of the persistent stories about the Roswell incident was that the military discovered bodies among the wreckage on the Brazel land. These bodies were autopsied secretly (the autopsy itself spawning a "sequel" of sorts titled Alien Autopsy [1997]). The alien prop rests on its back on a gurney, is behind glass, and is the central visual feature of the museum as one enters the museum. It is also strangely familiar: large eyes, distended cranial area, thin ribcage, long arms, of the bug-eyed schema called "Grays." Posters and photographs from the film surround the prop, verifying its existence within a web of narrative. Visitors are reminded that this prop is not a representation of a prop, but an "original": in other words, its viability depends on the uncanny abilities of the dream factories of Hollywood to re-present the real.

Initially, then, the stranger to Roswell is confronted by Freud's "unheimlich." Freud described the unheimlich as that which is the opposite of "familiar," but the unheimlich has another, more ambivalent quality, which describes the eerie feeling one has when that which has been kept hidden comes to light. At this point, the familiar or "heimlich" coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. We recognize that which is strange — the prop — as familiar because we have seen it in a film, yet we are uncertain whether its referent — the formerly alive alien body — is secreted in a military hospital, perhaps in Area 51. Freud cites this very fear at the root of the uncanny, doubts about "whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate." Our fears that this is in someway a "real" alien are assuaged with the reassurance that this is merely a "prop," but at the same time our desire and pleasure are heightened because the prop has been created by an "authentic" source, one that we also recognize, Hollywood. Bearing the imprimatur of a "real" studio, we can cast the rest of the museum in the same favorable light. We are mere observers, bearing no official status in viewing the prop. Our own strangeness, especially if we are disbelievers or non-abductees, is reinforced by our place outside this exhibit.

One of the claims about postmodern culture is that citizens have been numbed by technology and video. Travel to Roswell disproves this thesis. A visit to the IUFOMRC ratifies the narratives of the television series The X-Files and offers a participatory experience that could parallel the experiences of the fictional FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, who investigate cases that cannot be explained by conventional science, but which provide evidence for inductive reasoning, or storytelling. By entering Roswell, the visitor can enter the texts of The X-Files, or Star Trek, or even the newest television series, the eponymous Roswell. The UFO Museum evens borrows from Agent Mulder's claim that "the truth is out there," by confirming in its promotional brochure that "the truth is here." Their claim serves to reassure us that we have, in fact, arrived somewhere, at the central location: the location of the truth. Jodi Dean claims that "We want to believe it's real": This experience of the willful suspension of disbelief is hardly new. We have done it ever since we learned to tell, and listen to, stories.

Yet the IUFOMRC's efforts to document the story of Roswell offers only replicas and representations. The museum always foregrounds the unresolvable dichotomy between fact and fiction. It displays "real" UFO photographs alongside ones that have been manufactured. It draws attention to the questions about crop circles by asking in the exhibit space: Phenomenon or Hoax?

crop circles: phenomenon or hoax? iufomrc, roswell, new mexico, 2000

The truth is still "out there," visitors conclude, because "out there" (Area 51, Washington DC) is where the conspiracy network of scientists, politicians, and psychiatrists has secreted it. By seeking the truth, visitors to Roswell participate in a symbolic pilgrimage. In this pilgrimage, the church with its truths about life, existence, and the presence of a world beyond the corporeal has been replaced by testimonials that life beyond the four corners of the earth is spectacular. If the old maps told us that monsters inhabited the uncharted regions of the earth, the IUFOMRC tells us that the unheimlich inhabit the regions beyond the atmosphere — as well as the house next door. They may be the Grays of popular imagination, or the threatening "Smoking Man" of X-Files government life.

If a museum can be considered a rhetorical space that persuades us to adopt its attitudes and belief systems for the duration we are within its walls, then the IUFOMRC provides a test-case for studying the effect of place. Obviously the visitors are strangers to the city. Unlike other museums, however, the IUFOMRC asks these strangers to believe and thus to become part of a community of believers. The subtexts of the museum are "us" versus "them," the ufologists versus the critics. In her study of ufology, Jodi Dean comments that the discourse of ufologists claims to be reasonable, "but everyone else finds what they are saying incomprehensible." To the outsider, the discourse is strange, representing hidden psychoses and illusions, or perhaps a truth that they do not have access to.

By this standard, Roswell the place is itself incomprehensible, a place where the questions of truth and belief remain unanswered. In its dependence on sharing a community, building a network of support, and transfiguring the experience of the visitor and stranger, Roswell bears more of a resemblance to pilgrimage sites than to, say, the Smithsonian. Of course, a significant difference between Roswell and other pilgrimage sites is the overwhelming aspect of consumerism that pervades both the IUFOMRC and the gift shops that surround it on North Main Street. The Barnumesque, snake-oil salesman has always depended on the testimonial to make his claims credible. At the gift shops, the tourist can purchase T-shirts, door mats, refrigerator magnets. Images of Grays — or little green men — can be appropriated in order to tame the wild, fearsome, unknown. Are these the Holy Relics of post-Christian experience? The Grays who pack ray-guns and wield pelvic probes at the height of their mythology are here reduced to a consumer product, a "novelty" inflatable plastic doll. How comforting to know that we have more power. We can deflate him. Roswell provides the ultimate American response to strangers: commercialize them.

In UFO culture, there is a complex, ever-present interplay between aliens and their human substitutes, immigrants. The connection is amplified as one moves south to the border of the United States and Mexico, where fears of illegal immigrants or "aliens" are assuaged and reinforced by the presence of the military. The 1996 film The Arrival was an obvious realization of the pathological fear of the Other / Mexican / Alien in American society. In the film, grasshopper-like strangers from outer space take the guise of Mexican workers in order to colonize the world. Defined always by the nearness of Mexico to its borders, the town of Roswell participates in this fear and fantasy.

One of the fixtures of the southwestern tourist experience is the presence of Native American and Spanish or Mexican artifacts. Silver jewelry, kachinas, and painted pots authenticate the experience by providing a connection to the history, lifeways, and people of the area. Visitors traveling by car notice the presence of these tokens immediately: they are sold at roadside attractions and in gas stations, as well as in finer "galleries" in the cities of Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos. In Roswell, the shops that surround the IUFOMRC manage the multiple border identities of the town. Kachinas dance on shelves next to alien figurines, juxtaposing in commodified space the authentic with the fanciful, and the spiritual with the profane.

alien streetlights roswell new mexico, 2000

Immediately across from the museum, the gift shop pictured above ambivalently announces the duality of the Roswell experience. Its advertisement for "Indian jewelry, Mexican imports, and Alien gifts" can be read horizontally or vertically. Traveling vertically down the wall, Indian-Mexican-Alien are aligned in a sinister, white-supremacist equation.

The tourists who literally "buy into" the myths purveyed by the gift shops have long been associated with the undesirable. They are the Others of travel, bringing the taint of commerce and commodity with them, poisoning any authentic sense of place with the venom of novelty. In the late twentieth century, as a result of the over-commodification of society and the denigration of the tourist trap as a legitimate area of exploration, a new type of tourist has arrived at the Gracelands, Stuckeys, and Disneyworlds of the United States, the ironic tourist. The ironic tourist treated the tourist trap not as an authentic space, but as a copy of the real.

alien streetlights, roswell new mexico, 2000

The ironic travelers revel in the copy as a copy and enjoy the well-traveled paths, the waysides, the shops. Roswell is their carnival of experience. It is the world turned upside down, in which that which we are supposed to fear becomes what is celebrated. Like the constructed Frontierworld of Disneyland, even the Roswell street lights have been "themed" so that their globes become, at night, glowing alien faces. Roswell is a city that looks back with nostalgia on its notorious past. It is a town in which the fictional and the fantastic have become the economic reality.

Marguerite Helmers is Associate Professor of English and Provost's Leadership Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where she teaches courses in criticism, writing, and literature. Her essays appear in Kairos, Enculturation, and College English.

Copyright © 2001 by Marguerite Helmers. Photos copyright 2001 by Marguerite Helmers. All rights reserved.