It was hard to know what to expect in the run-up to last week’s mega-viral "Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop All of Us" event. It was obvious that most of the 2 million people who’d said they’d be showing up to raid the remote military base were just kidding, but beyond that, nothing was clear.
All the available information suggested it was probably going to be a nightmare. The BBC reported that as many as 50,000 people were expected to turn up. An Air Force spokesperson hinted that they would definitely kill you if you attempted to enter the base. The town of Rachel, Nevada, which was going to be home to a tie-in event called Alienstock, posted a message on their website, warning that there wouldn’t be sufficient food or water or lodging available, and that they "expect riots." The Federal Aviation Administration announced that the airspace around Area 51 would be closed off. The local sheriff said they would be bringing in hundreds of additional paramedics and police from across Nevada. There were warnings that there would be no phone signal, and that the two-lane highway that serves the area would be clogged, and that the nearest gas station, almost 50 miles away, would probably run out of gas. The phrase "Fyre Festival 2.0" was thrown around a lot.
The doomsday predictions didn’t stop brands from trying to get in on the act, with everyone from Funyuns to Durex condoms to Kool Aid to a Jonas Brother sucking every last drop of joy out of the jokes surrounding the event through Area 51-themed marketing. Arby’s and Bud Light announced that they would be in the area giving out limited edition products.
With this in mind, I made sure I took enough water and food to survive for a week, and pepper spray and a knife in case everything went Mad Max. I was imagining myself spending hours and hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic, ducking the bullets from police as they tried to defend a depleted gas station from looters. I pictured myself turning up my car radio to drown out the screams of PR people from Arby’s and Budweiser as they were murdered by mobs for their limited edition Area 51-themed food and drinks. I saw myself looking on in horror as teen after teen got vaporized by the military for stepping over the boundary of Area 51 for the sake of a TikTok video.
The reality was a little less dramatic.
When I arrived in Rachel, pretty much everyone I encountered was covering the event. I was approached by a man from a local news channel who asked if he could interview me. I declined, telling him that I was also a journalist. Not long after, I asked a guy if I could interview him, and he told me he was there writing an article. He said almost everyone he’d tried to interview was there covering it, too.
There were also a lot of YouTubers filming stuff. From what I overheard, they seemed to speak only in references to the Storm Area 51 meme, repeating the same few phrases about "clapping alien cheeks" and "seeing dem aliens" like extremely online Hodors. Eventually, more civilians started to trickle in.
Some were there to party. Some were there to sell shirts or bumper stickers from their car trunks. Some were there because they were hoping someone might be dumb enough to actually storm the base and they wanted to see what cool top-secret weapons would be used to kill them. Some were there because they’re deeply, deeply into alien stuff. One woman showed me some printed out security camera stills that she said showed real aliens playing blackjack in a casino (I’m fairly sure they were actually just bald men, who I sincerely hope are not aware that their image is being used as proof of alien life). Another woman handed me a flyer for an organization called Snow Stone Studio, who believe that Area 51 is hiding the second coming of Jesus as part of an Illuminati plot to destroy China (or something).
It’s hard to say how many people were there in total because everyone was spread out between Alienstock, another festival called Area 51 Basecamp 20 miles down the road, and the various Area 51 entrances around the area. Most reporting on the weekend seems to have attendance at between 1,500 and 2,000—low enough that Area 51 Basecamp was canceled after the first of its two scheduled days.
On the actual night of the raid, nobody seemed sure what was going on. The main confusion was around where everyone was supposed to be, exactly. The complex that houses Area 51 is approximately the size of Connecticut, and the Facebook invite didn’t specify which entrance everyone should meet at.
At 3 a.m., the event’s scheduled start time, around 75 people gathered at the gate nearest to Rachel. The raid never materialized. It was mostly people taking photos of themselves Naruto running, and then being interviewed by some of the many journalists and YouTubers that were there to capture the proceedings.
According to the cops I spoke to, several people actually stepped over the boundary of the base and were either arrested or given a stern talking to. A Canadian guy was also arrested for indecent exposure after peeing on the base’s fence. No one was vaporized (or if they were, the CIA did a really good job of covering it up).
There was also some confusion as to when 3 a.m. on September 20, the date and time listed on the Facebook invite, actually referred to, so a similar number of people turned up at that same gate the following night. They also did not storm the base.
The morning after the raid, I spoke to a YouTuber called Reckless Ben who was sitting at Alienstock, editing his video of the previous night. He said he’d come out to the event even though he’d broken his neck while attempting an acrobatic trick at an EDM festival a few days earlier (“I should definitely be at a hospital right now. But I’m here”).
I asked him if he’d gone up to the gates for the raid. “Yeah,” he said. “We just went there and were like '3 o’clock!’ and then everyone pulled out their cameras.”
"People were too busy vlogging to actually storm," he added with a sigh, before returning to his edit.