The aliens are a nice change from the flat, neverending drive from the North. As I pull into the town’s dusty, stretching main street, I notice a spacecraft on the sign for a credit union, and even the street lamps downtown have wide, bulging black eyes. Little green humanoid critters glitter toward me from both sides of the road.
The town itself sits atop many riches: a flourishing dairy industry, the gargantuan Leprino cheese factory, mining operations in Artesia, a small but pulsing arts scene, and perhaps most importantly, an ample supply of good water in a region where surrounding towns have quite literally dried up.
But the most important fact to know about it—the fact your older relatives maybe fretted over, the fact at the center of the eponymous, early-aughts TV show on the WB—is that it was at the center of perhaps the most famous UFO sighting of the 20th century, and has since constructed its identity as a destination point for the unknown. Sixty-eight years after the crash, that identity is in transition, as alien scholars, true believers, devout Christians, capitalist politicians, and exasperated agnostics all vie for a place in their hometown’s history.
Welcome to Roswell, New Mexico.
I had these stereotypical alien abduction experiences when I was a kid,” Guy Malone tells me. “Little creatures with big black eyes were raping me and trying to eat me and trying to operate on me.”
We’re standing in the Roswell mall’s CosmiCon, a space-themed collection of comics, costumes and other oddities. It’s presented in collaboration with Roswell’s 20th annual UFO festival, a kind of alien enthusiasts’ TED conference and county fair. Malone, an effusive storyteller with an easy laugh and a slight Tennessee twang, is here to hawk his memoir and pick up a few new believers while he’s at it.
“There were multiple dreams and memories spread across years,” he says. “I didn’t want to believe it, but once I read books on the subject I thought, ‘yep, that’s me.’”
Malone’s a Christian now, and he no longer believes aliens abducted him. He thinks demons are responsible for the terrifying recurring visions of his childhood and adolescence. After finding Christianity, Malone says he received a calling from God in 1999 to move to Roswell, where he would spread the word of Jesus as a means of stopping alien abductions.
But Malone found his memoir to be a tough sell in this conservative Christian community. Neither Roswell’s UFO museum nor the Christian bookstore would take his book: The UFO museum refused to house religious work, and Christian-based booksellers wouldn’t have anything to do with texts that concerned themselves with extraterrestrials.
Malone isn’t the typical Roswellian; he calls himself the city’s redheaded stepchild because both conservative Christians and UFO researchers find him abrasive. But he’s a good arbiter for the identity crisis besieging Roswell almost seven decades after its famous UFO sighting. It’s a microcosmic culture war in which competing believers—of extraterrestrial identity, of Christian theology, of the holy church of the American dollar—proselytize their own mutually exclusive notions of reality.
Guy Malone at CosmiCon. Photo credit: Jordan G. Teicher
As Roswell seeks to modernize by bringing in new sources of tourist revenue, more residents are questioning the UFO festival’s place. Religious Christians think it’s blasphemous; UFO researchers are disgusted with the event’s streetfair-esque, money-driven ethos. These groups inflame and incite each other in a battle for the city’s identity. The outcome of such a culture war will determine whether the UFO Capital of the World keeps its title—or whether it leaves the aliens behind, fossilized in the desert dust, in order to grow.
In early July 1947, Roswell-area rancher W.W. Brazel discovered remnants of what he described as a flying disc—including rubber, sticks, foil, and tape adorned with indecipherable symbols—outside of the city. Unnerved by what he had seen, he called Sheriff George Wilcox, who called in Major Jesse Marcel, a Roswell air base intelligence officer.
Marcel examined the rubble and became convinced it was the remains of an alien spacecraft. Walter Haut, the air force public information officer, released a statement detailing a UFO recovery, and the Roswell Daily Record ran a front-page story about the UFO recovery. “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region,” the July 8 headline blared.
Shortly after, the military announced that the craft was in fact a weather balloon, the paper redacted the story, and the case lay dormant for more than 30 years. But in 1978, physicist and UFO researcher Stanton Friedman tracked down Marcel, who never wavered in his belief that he had seen a UFO. Friedman’s research and the work of others triggered renewed interest in the case, some of which continues to this day.
Nowadays, the case attracts UFOlogists and their loyal followers. And the weekend I visit, in early July, the loyalty is in full force at Roswell’s UFO festival, the national Mecca for believers.
Now in its 20th year, the festival isn’t as epic as it used to be. It’s shrinking. The feeling is that something’s gone stagnant, a bit stale. And the divisions in the festival’s leadership run deep, a wedge that has brought generational and theological clashes to the surface. The UFO Museum is in charge of the speakers, while the arts and culture museum runs the costume and pet contests. CosmiCon, meanwhile, takes place on the other side of town, in the Roswell mall. There’s a film festival and Steampunk ball this year, too—neither of which seem intrinsically connected to or organized in conjunction with the work of the hardcore alien folks at the museum.
Roswell is full of skeptics, residents who remember the original incident only through the whispers of their parents or grandparents. Could something have happened in 1947? Maybe, they reason, but it probably wasn’t aliens.
Julio Ly, 34, who I meet downtown with his four-year-old son perched on his shoulders, says he thinks something crashed in 1947, but he’s not sure what. He won’t even use the terms “supernatural” or “extraterrestrial,” but he does believe that the government has failed to accurately disclose the facts. He loved his six years in the military, but, he says, “they don’t always say the truth.” He’s roving the festival tonight only because his kids begged him to come downtown.
Alien toys on display in Roswell. Photo credit: Jordan G. Teicher
It’s easy to see why they did; lately, the festival’s effect is more carnival than conservatory. A bearded, bandana-clad musician rocks out to his own power riffs on the corner of Main and 2nd Street, as a boy wearing a homemade tinfoil hat giggles and looks on. Couples eat corn on the cob, perusing the interminable line of vendors selling alien keychains and plush dolls.
Unlike most modern Roswellians, Dennis Balthasar is a true believer. He says he hasn’t seen anything in the night sky himself, but he knows aliens landed near Roswell in 1947.
“I’ve never seen one, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there,” he says. “I’ve never been to Australia, but they tell me it’s there.”
Seventy-three-year-old Balthaser has dedicated the better part of the last 20 years collecting information about the Roswell incident. He thinks the levity of the UFO festival detracts from the credibility of serious scholars.
Although he has worked with other researchers, Balthaser strikes me as a bit of a lone wolf. He’s not giving a lecture at the museum this weekend, and he won’t be participating in the town carnival. He does, however, give tours of Roswell UFO and non-UFO history, driving revelers around to the city’s heritage sites—including the house where Jesse Marcel, Roswell’s most credible witness, lived. He’s also collaborating on a documentary about Jesse Marcel, Jr., Marcel’s son and another witness to the rubble.
The problem is, serious researchers and original witnesses are a dying breed—literally. The city’s UFO royalty has lost some of its prime leaders in the past few years. This spring, Glenn Dennis—a mortician, co-founder of the UFO museum, and witness to parts of the Roswell incident—passed away at 90. And last year saw the passing of Jesse Marcel, Jr. and Julie Schuster, longtime director of the UFO museum.
Dennis Balthasar. Photo credit: Jordan G. Teicher
There don’t seem to be many in Roswell to take their place (although the UFO museum is now directed by Mark Briscoe, and famed contributors to the UFO field, like Stanton Friedman and Travis Walton, are giving talks this weekend). Like Malone’s, Balthaser’s research involves a bit of faith in the absence of witnesses. And like Malone, Balthaser is staunch in his convictions: He is absolutely positive that a UFO landed near Roswell in 1947, and the U.S. government has covered it up for 68 years.
Malone and Balthaser are two sides of the same coin—Balthaser believes UFOs are a material phenomenon, and Malone believes they are demonic. But they are both sure that out-of-this-world experiences exist, a conviction that nowadays, even in Roswell, requires a staunch, unwavering faith.
Meanwhile, most Roswellians have faith in something else entirely: Jesus Christ. For all its extraterrestrial stylings, Roswell is also home to around 50 churches (or about one church per every 960 residents). Over the weekend, I hear secularists in town snigger about intelligent design being taught in schools here. Roswell is a place where a city council member says grace even to open the annual UFO festival.
At its core, the idea of aliens threatens basic conceptions of monotheism. Extraterrestrials are often described in omnipotent terms, so they present alternate and competing deities. And if other planets exist, why is Earth so special? Did Jesus also visit other planets and bless their life forms?
Judy Crockett works at Roswell’s Inspirations Unlimited Christian Bookstore, and she says the bookstore doesn’t sell any alien books because UFOlogy is at odds with Christian theology. “We don’t really believe the UFO people, because it’s just not in the Bible,” Crockett tells me.
And while America’s leading UFOlogy speakers have driven or flown in from all over the country for this, Roswell’s conservative Christians have skipped town, saving up their vacation days to avoid the crowds and the blasphemous alien rhetoric.
Roswell’s night sky. Photo credit: Jordan G. Teicher
Malone is particularly troubling to UFO researchers and Christians alike because he slips between both of their worlds, expertly navigating the realm of Christian theology while talking the talk of alien researchers.
Malone likens his alien abduction experiences to visions in the Book of Revelations. “John, Ezekiel, they had these amazing experiences,” he says. “They traveled, they went places, they saw things, they tasted things.”
The Bible nails it, Malone says. Angels and demons have the power to initiate something as compelling as Roswell—and the only thing that can stop an alien abduction is the word of Jesus.
Unfortunately for Christ, there’s a very big reason why UFO lore endures despite all this tension: money. Roswell’s UFO museum brings in 175,000 viewers each year, more than any other single museum venue in New Mexico. The city takes in half a million dollars in revenue from the festival weekend alone (a lot for a small Southwestern city), and the museum rakes in 24 million dollars per year.
Still, Roswell isn’t exactly a thriving metropolis: Its depressed downtown is a dusty collection of alien gift shops and UFO-themed murals. Aliens put Roswell on the map, but now the city is looking for a way to make its tiny dot in the fabric of the American West a bit bigger.
Roswell mayor Dennis Kintigh doesn’t stay up nights worrying about aliens. He wants to increase his city’s population, add infrastructure, and fix the crime rate. He also wants to usher in new business—Kintigh thinks a vibrating downtown area with more eclectic dining, entertainment and music will attract young professionals.
Court Nichols, 49, is one of Mayor Kintigh’s star businessmen, the type he hopes will transform Roswell’s alien-infused downtown. He moved to Roswell eight years ago from Mumbai (although he’s originally from Savannah, Georgia) and set up a taxi company here. In the beginning, Nichols used to delight in spooking tourists on the ride back from the airport. When his clients, often Europeans who had traveled to Roswell to see the cradle of American alien weirdness, would ask him if he had ever seen anything, Nichols would turn it on for them.
“I’d make sure my demeanor changed completely,” he says. “I’d be like, ‘Oh man, you know—I’m very uncomfortable talking about this.’”
Tourists snap photos on the streets of Roswell. Photo credit: Jordan G. Teicher
Now he has bigger plans than indulging curious tourists. We’re talking in Third Street Station, Nichols’ 16-month-old restaurant and music venture. Notably, there is no alien paraphernalia here, just a decent selection of beers and fried food, and a young musician strumming to an almost empty outdoor deck.
Nichols owns this whole block, and he has plans to expand with a dance hall, farmer’s market and a parking lot.
As far as aliens are concerned, Nichols doesn’t think Roswell will ever completely leave its UFO heritage behind. He doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel, and it’s clear that tourists come for extraterrestrial action. He just hopes to keep them in town a little bit longer after they’ve toured the UFO museum.
Roswell is evidence that polytheism is thriving on American soil. The aliens aren’t going anywhere, and conservative Christians aren’t moving, either. Meanwhile, the city will develop around them, perhaps swallowing some of the dusty alien trinkets as it goes.
“Every community has struggled with its identity,” Nichols says. “We kind of had one pushed on us in 1947. You’re not going to get rid of it, so you have to figure out how to work through it.”
On Friday night, Mayor Kintigh beams out at the crowd as he commands the center of the alien light parade. A group of glowing green teenagers choreographs a frenetic, elbow-whipping dance, and the parade is turning into a whirling, costume-fueled party.
Gaggles of bug-eyed children beg their young parents for one more turn on the carnival’s tiny roller coaster. A man in a lucha libre mask with a jeweled cross smiles over at me, flashing teeth, as green, humanoid figures with bulging eyes line the stands.
We are 200 miles from anywhere, and Roswell’s sky looms large overhead, the moon just beginning to wane. I haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary, but like most who have made their way here, I won’t rule it out.
Lead photo: Bill Lile on Flickr
Arielle Milkman is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. Follow her @amilkman.