75 years of the Roswell incident — pop culture’s favorite alien conspiracy theory

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: A group of protestors march in front of the General Accounting Office (GAO) 29 March to raise awarness about an examination being conducted by the GAO for documents about a weather balloon crash at Roswell, N.M. in 1947. Th

It all started with balloon debris. Or at least that’s what they want you to think. The 1947 "Roswell incident" marks its 75th anniversary this week, and few government conspiracies have sparked such a lasting legacy in pop culture.

From the TV show "Roswell" to subplots in "Independence Day" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" to the new Tubi original documentary "Aliens, Abductions, and UFOs: Roswell at 75," the Roswell incident is the out-of-this-world inspiration for a huge array of sci-fi storytelling. We probably wouldn’t have "The X-Files" without it, and Jordan Peele’s upcoming horror movie "Nope" looks like it’s going to take a lot of inspiration from those classic flying saucers as well, just in time for the anniversary. 

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The initial incident took place in July of 1947, amidst a "flying saucer craze" across the United States of America. Upon hearing about the then-new idea of flying saucers, a New Mexico rancher named W.W. "Mac" Brazel thought differently about some tinfoil, rubber and wooden debris he’d found scattered across a square mile of his ranch a few weeks earlier. He reported the debris to the sheriff, who called Roswell Army Air Field, who eventually passed it along to Fort Worth Army Air Field. And conspiracy theory fate was sealed on July 8, 1947, when the RAAF issued a press release referring to the debris as a "flying disc."

WATCH FREE ON TUBI: The 1990s teen sci-fi TV show "Roswell" 

Interestingly enough, once a second press release clarified that the debris was actually from a crashed weather balloon, the whole story quickly faded from public attention. But it was revived in a major way in the late 1970s, when the "Roswell incident" grew to encompass a bunch of conspiracy theories we know and love today — including those stories about alien autopsies being conducted in Area 51.

It was UFO researcher Stanton Friedman who renewed interest in Roswell after speaking with retired lieutenant colonel Jesse Marcel, who had accompanied the debris to Fort Worth and claimed the government ordered him to cover up its true nature. The next year, an interview with Marcel was featured in the 1979 documentary "UFO's Are Real," co-written by Friedman. That kicked off a massive wave of bigger and bigger conspiracy theories. And though most have been debunked (the 1947 debris was likely from Project Mogul, a top secret military surveillance program tracking Soviet atomic bomb tests), that hasn't slowed down the alien theorizing over the years. 

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Tubi’s "Aliens, Abductions, and UFOs: Roswell at 75" is the latest documentary to lean into the mysterious fun — tying the classic Roswell story to both ancient and contemporary claims of alien aircraft sightings. The documentary also features interviews with eyewitnesses, UFO researchers and even those who claim they’ve been abducted by aliens. 

Oh, and if you’re ever looking for an unusual vacation destination, the town of Roswell has really leaned into its UFO conspiracy theory fame with museums, events and attractions. The city's official seal even features a little green man.

You can watch "Aliens, Abductions, and UFOs: Roswell at 75" streaming free on Tubiget the app

Make it a UFO double feature with "The Endless," streaming free on Tubi

The Endless (2017): Directing duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead specialize in lo-fi, high-concept indie sci-fi. And "The Endless," about two brothers who return to the UFO cult compound where they grew up after receiving a mysterious VHS tape in the mail, may be their finest film to date. It’s a well conceived and ingeniously shot mindbender of a movie, incorporating mystery spots, time loops and unseen energies that defy the laws of physics into a story where you actually care about the characters as well as the uncanny forces shaping their fates. Rated TV-MA. 111 minutes. Dir: Justin Bensonand Aaron Moorhead. Featuring: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Tate Ellington, Callie Hernandez, James Jordan

"The Endless" is streaming free on Tubi get the app

About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she spent four years lovingly analyzing the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her column When Romance Met Comedy for The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).

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