With 1.5 million people RSVPed to the Facebook event "Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop All of Us," the idea of going to meet some aliens has become a quick internet sensation. While the idea to rush a guarded military base in the Nevada desert is clearly stupid, the creators of the meme event have managed to capitalize and commercialize people’s beliefs in UFOs, aliens, and government cover-ups.
Roughly 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Area 51, officially known as the Nevada Test and Training Range, is part of Edwards Air Force Base. Area 51 has been a household name since KLAS-TV reporter George Knapp interviewed alleged MIT physicist and Area 51 employee Bob Lazar, who said he worked to reverse-engineer flying saucers at the site. The base has since maintained the legend of being a warehouse for crashed flying saucers, reverse engineered alien spacecraft, and even housing dead and living extraterrestrials.
While more a million and a half people have clicked that they will be attending this event to “see them aliens,” on September 20th, the US Air Force has already warned people to stay away.
The UFO community has mainly found this internet meme to be nothing more than a joke and a waste of time. However, some overzealous believers have booked their hotel rooms and begun packing their gear for this raid party. Even Lazar himself has commented on it by telling his followers to remain at home as the idea is “misguided.” He even warned that the last person to try to access Area 51 illegally “was shot” and that there are better ways to go about getting information regarding the goings on there.
Embedded in the foolishness of this Facebook event lies the unfortunate reality that people are capitalizing on people’s desire to believe. The event page links to the “Official Storm Area 51” website, which not only sports the #StormArea51 hashtag, but also social media links to the creators of the event. With a promise that “Something Big Is Coming,” the popularity of the event has spawned its own line of merchandise. T-shirts bearing the large eyed alien grey and slogans such as “I Survived Area 51” and “I Saw Them Aliens” can be purchased for $20. There is little doubt that more tchotchkes will soon appear.
Ufological discourse has always been haunted by the specter of consumerism. The town of Roswell, the location of an alleged flying saucer crash in 1947, holds a yearly festival to hallmark the event where the town enjoys a population boom of roughly 20,000 people over a summer weekend. That equates to the sale of a lot of floating UFO lamps, neon alien socks, and green slime slush drinks. AlienCon, the massive and well-attended comic-con style conference, cashes in on alien-themed TV content, such as Ancient Aliens, Project Blue Book, and the soon to be released Secrets of Skinwalker Ranch.
While the UFO community is usually engaged in dissention and a paradigm of counter-culture, it cannot escape the need to ‘buy’ and ‘own’ the UFO and the alien. Anthropologist Debbora Battaglia, in her book E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces , explains that the desire to master the other is an integral part of the cultural and social UFO movement. In my book, The UFO People: A Curious Culture, I argue that people who engage in the UFO experience, be it through alleged contact, investigation or study, find a sort of comfort in the Ufological cottage industry. UFO discourse is a fundamental challenge to the nature of mainstream reality: Having something to hold on to, like a Storm Area 51 T-shirt or an alien smartphone case, although misguided, provides a sense of stability. If I can buy it, I can control it.
Brush aside the goofy internet memes and silly video game antics, the Storm Area 51 gimmick is pretty clever marketing. It’s enjoyed an entire news cycle worth of press from mainstream news sources, spawned a popular Twitter hashtag and a collection of merchandise. UFOs have entered into a cultural renaissance as of late, and anyone with a pulse may just be able to capitalize on it. While Lazar and the UFO community may think this is misguided, the people behind this little phenomenon are either brilliant, lucky or a little bit of both. Regardless, the UFO people have seen this before and they will definitely see it again, and if anyone actually tries to storm Area 51, they won’t see them aliens.