UFOs and horror have always gone hand-in-hand in Hollywood. Ever since 1951 when The Thing from Another World terrified cinemagoers with its giant humanoid vegetable monster, audiences have revelled in the repulsion of silver screen aliens. But while the majority of Hollywood’s ETs are invasive, not all are explicitly horrific or soul-chillingly scary.
The popularization of abduction mythology in the late-1980s and early-1990s gave Hollywood a rich new vein to tap – one that lent itself naturally to the horror genre. Helpless victims being snatched from their familiar surroundings in the dead of night by stealthy non-human entities is horror that writes itself.
The Hollywood adaptations of Whitley Strieber’s Communion and Budd Hopkins’ Intruders (1989 and 1992 respectively) represented the industry’s first attempts to engage seriously with the abduction phenomenon in its full spectrum of weirdness as reported by experiencers. As real life does not conform to genre, so Communion and Intruders came in a mixture of shades: sci-fi, horror, family drama, but above all else they were existential stories. Unfortunately, such genre-defying products didn’t sit well with studio bosses, who wanted easy-to-package narratives for increasingly dumbed-down audiences.
Hollywood simplified its approach to abductions in 1993 with Fire in the Sky, the big screen adaptation of Travis Walton’s famous true-life account of alien abduction in Arizona in 1975. Tracy Tormé’s screenplay was a reasonably faithful accounting of the Walton experience – that is until its final act, which notoriously distorted Walton’s encounter out of all recognition. The ‘Nordic’ beings described by Travis and their walkabout with him in a spaceport were nowhere to be seen in the movie. Walton’s skittish Grays were replaced with frightful goblin-like beings who literally drag the logger like a sack of spuds through their pestilent, rotting spaceship – all dank tunnels and dripping embryonic sacks – before gluing him to a table with a suffocating membrane and subjecting him to graphic torture with a thick needle to the eyeball. It remains a horrific sequence, so powerful as to erase almost all memory of the events that precede it.
In fairness to the screenwriter, Tormé's hand was forced away from the word of Walton’s account by jittery studio executives at Paramount, who had threatened to pull the plug on the movie if radical changes weren’t made. Walton himself agreed to these changes, albeit reluctantly. This marked the point in time when alien abduction truly entered the horror genre. Hollywood has never looked back.
Here are four distinctly UFOlogical films from more recent years which have exploited the abduction phenomenon to horrific effect…
The Fourth Kind (2009)
The Fourth Kind was purported by Universal studios to be a true story “based on actual case studies” from the files of Dr. Abigail Tyler, a psychologist who had collected disturbing testimonies from the town of Nome, Alaska, where numerous residents allegedly had vanished since the 1960s. Universal presented archive news clippings online from various Alaskan newspapers, painting a picture of a town historically plagued by UFO sightings and apparent alien abductions.
The movie draws extensively from UFOlogy, featuring a psychologist (à la John Mack) interviewing numerous people whose lives have been turned upside down by mysterious nocturnal disturbances. In a knowing reference to the owl in abduction lore, each of the experiencers report seeing the bird immediately prior to and during their traumas. The owl is later revealed to be a screen memory enforced by the aliens, who here are almost demonic in nature as they physically possess and speak through the bodies of their victims in a dark and twisted tongue, which we are told is Sumerian – a clear reference to the Annunaki of Ancient Astronaut lore. Invasive experimentation is depicted, including procedures on the female reproductive system, but the aliens’ ultimate agenda is left a mystery.
The Fourth Kind was presented as a docudrama featuring “real” footage capturing the events in Nome alongside dramatic reconstructions with Hollywood actors. At various points throughout the film, the ‘dramatic reconstructions’ and ‘real events’ are presented simultaneously in split-screen in order that the viewer can clearly distinguish between the two. But, of course, none of it is real. The “real” footage was fabricated in its entirety, so too were all of the Alaskan news clippings used by Universal in its marketing campaign. Dr. Abigail Tyler never existed, neither did anyone else portrayed in the film. When this elaborate Hollywood sham was revealed, Universal was served with a lawsuit from the Alaska Press Club, to whom the studio agreed to pay $20,000 for undermining the credibility of the various papers whose names had been exploited by the studio. The film went on to make a respectable $49 million from its $10 million investment.
Dark Skies (2013)
Not to be confused with Bryce Zabel’s unrelated Dark Skies TV show from the 1990s, from which this movie brazenly took its title, Dark Skies follows the plight of the Barretts, a suburban family who have been ‘marked’ by evil Grays for nocturnal terrorization and abduction. Husband and wife Daniel and Lacey (Josh Hamilton and Keri Russell) slowly come to accept that the insidious events plaguing their lives have no earthly explanation and, in desperation, turn to local UFOlogist and abductee Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons) for answers. Dark Skies is formulaic and predictable, but upon close viewing it demonstrates some understanding of the abduction phenomenon as reported, or at least of its key characteristics. As is standard, some of these characteristics are distorted for horrific effect.
The behaviour of the Grays in Dark Skies is not too far wide of the mark UFOlogically. At times they behave like poltergeists, invisibly raiding the family’s fridge, stealing family photos from their frames, and, in a scene seemingly paying homage to the Poltergeist movie (1982), elaborately stacking household items in the kitchen. The effect is to bemuse and to frighten. Although exaggerated, these scenes are significant in that numerous abductees have reported paranormal occurrences in conjunction with their experiences – specifically poltergeist phenomena and so-called ‘shadow people.’ These latter phenomena are depicted in Dark Skies in scenes where CCTV captures blurry images of shadow-like figures silently infiltrating the family’s home at night, looming at the children’s bedsides. In this respect the movie is faithful to abduction literature, which describes Grays and other entities effortlessly gaining access to abductees in any given environment – windows, doors, even brick walls are no obstacle for intelligences who consistently demonstrate almost supernatural abilities.
Dark Skies features UFOlogical flourishes from start to finish, suggesting a reasonable level of research on the part of writer/director Scott Stewart. Paintings of owls hang prominently in a child’s bedroom, family members experience missing time, disorientation, nose bleeds; they discover implants in their bodies and unexplainable marks on their skin, including bruises and even geometric shapes, as has so often been reported in real life cases.
Dark Skies received poor to middling reviews from critics, but went on to gross a very respectable $27 million against its very modest $3.5 million budget.
Alien Abduction (2014)
This found-footage flick received limited theatrical distribution following a Video on Demand release. The events of the movie are documented by an autistic eleven-year-old-boy (played by Riley Polanski), who, along with his family, is attacked and abducted by Grays while on a camping trip in the Brown Mountains of North Carolina – a region known in real life for its folklore relating to mysterious lights in the sky.
Seeking to blur UFO fact and fantasy, the movie opens with text informing us that what follows is “actual leaked footage from the US Air Force.” We then see shaky-cam shots filmed inside the alien spacecraft of people being tortured. Screams fill the thick, putrid air. As in Fire in the Sky, and in sharp contrast to experiencer testimonies, the alien environment here is dungeon-like.
The narrative then begins proper, as Riley’s camera footage reveals to us the events that befell him and his family, which play out almost like a stalk-and-slash story. A substantial chunk of the action takes place in a tunnel on a lonely road, wherein the family stumble across dozens of abandoned cars, their drivers and passengers apparently having been abducted en masse. The method of abduction is a violent and messy one, requiring the abductee to be directly within the clawing grasp of a Gray, or clearly within a tractor beam. The aliens here seem far away from thinking, reasoning beings. They are brutal monsters whose methods are crude and dirty.
When all family members have been killed or abducted, including Riley (whose camera continues to film aboard the spaceship before being jettisoned back down to earth by a snarling Gray), the footage is retrieved by Project Blue Book personnel. A card reads: “All footage property of the U.S. Air Force: Project Blue Book Case #4499.”
In a well-worn horror setup, a group of young friends gather for a good time at a secluded cabin in the woods. It’s not zombies or demons who spoil their fun, though, but tall Grays, who have crashed their flying saucer nearby. Extraterrestrial plays out as ‘teens vs. aliens’ with a heavy debt to UFOlogy. Fire in the Sky, in particular, served as a strong influence. The opening scene is a clear homage to the phone box scene in Fire where a traumatized, animal-like Travis Walton desperately calls for help following his abduction. Extraterrestrial even features a scene which mirrors almost shot-for-shot the famous scene in the Walton movie where Travis steps out of the car and gazes awestruck at the craft above, only to be ‘zapped’ by a beam of light before being taken. The interior of the spaceship in Extraterrestrial is very much like that in the Walton movie – organic, dank, and gooey. If these allusions weren’t subtle enough, the name of one the characters in Extraterrestrial, Michael Ironside’s gruff woodsman, is Travis.
Beyond its homages to Fire in the Sky, Extraterrestrial references other UFOlogical facets and events. The plot features animal mutilations and a crashed UFO with wreckage “like tinfoil,” a description used by Roswell witnesses. There is even a Project Moon Dust-style crash/retrieval team, whose government bosses have maintained a treaty with the aliens since 1947. The treaty, we are told, is “a basic simple agreement with one cardinal rule: do not engage.” Essentially, then, the government has been turning a blind-eye to the aliens’ human experimentations for almost seven decades. The experiments in Extraterrestrial are restricted mainly to lethal anal probings with large metal drills. The aliens here are monsters, nothing more. How such violent creatures survived long enough as a species to develop interstellar or transdimensional travel is, unsurprisingly, never considered.
Tens-of-thousands of individuals the world over continue to report physical and/or mental interactions with otherworldly intelligences. Regardless of one’s personal perspective on such accounts, it seems fair to say that Hollywood’s treatment of the abduction phenomenon has been generally crude and simplistic. Today, Hollywood shows little sign of engaging with abduction lore beyond its most obvious horror tropes; little interest in exploring the oft-reported psychologically and spiritually transformative aspects of these experiences at individual and collective levels. Yes, abduction movies of the future can (and perhaps should) still be deeply scary, but scares needn't always come at the expense of narrative nuance and psychological complexity. I, for one, hope more filmmakers begin to recognize this subject for the rich tapestry of human emotion it truly represents. Theirs would be the movies I'd pay to see.
Robbie Graham is the author of Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood's UFO Movies (White Crow Books, 2015).