Aliens Among Us: Why we want to believe

Mark Kingwell, professor, University of Toronto, Department of Philosophy, and author of more than a dozen books, most recently, with Joshua Glenn and cartoonist Seth, The Wage Slave’s Glossary (Biblioasis, 2011)

Why we want to believe

Illustration: Bob Hambly

Memory being the mind's dark mansion, I can't be certain this actually happened, but I think it did. In 1973 Rod Serling, then at the height of his Twilight Zone fame and a favourite subject of voice imitators everywhere, narrated a film called In Search of Ancient Astronauts. Based on the German documentary Chariots of the Gods (1970), Serling's film was widely screened in schools on 16 mm prints.

I'm pretty sure I saw it, circa 1975, in the auditorium of my Winnipeg middle school. I know for certain that the book that inspired the film, Erich von Däniken's 1968 bestseller, Chariots of the Gods? (note the token question mark, presumably too subtle for film) circulated in the schoolyards of my youth. It was a work to fire the imagination of adolescent boys already schooled in the intricacies of The Lord of the Rings and The Martian Chronicles, nascent nerds who would go on to design elaborate graph-paper dungeons and pay to see the first Star Wars film a dozen times, reciting the dialogue the way some people do with The Rocky Horror Picture Show or, nowadays, The Room.

Von Däniken's theory is vast in sweep and awesome in implication. Various planetary artifacts—Stonehenge, the moai of Easter Island, the Great Pyramid at Giza, the temple complex at Pumapunku—are, he claims, too sophisticated in their construction to be the products of primitive civilizations. Ergo, they must be the product of advanced civilizations, visiting from another planet. At the same time, common themes of space travel and super-beings emerge from close examination of early human cultures. The sarcophagus of the Maya king of Palenque, Pakal the Great, shows the ruler seated with the World Tree of Maya mythology; in fact, according to von Däniken it is a portrait of an alien astronaut.

The explanatory power of this thesis is almost without limit. In particular, it recasts all human religions as accounts of encounters between gobsmacked humans and their space brothers, whose advanced technology would have made them appear supernatural, even divine. Ezekiel's mystical vision of God in the Old Testament, for example, is a breathless account of a space invasion, or possibly a stargate: "The wheels glittered as if made of chrysolite. All four looked alike and seemed to be made one inside the other. They went forward four ways and kept their course unswervingly." It's obvious!

Decorative objects and art, meanwhile, are actually blueprints for launch vehicles and landing craft. In 2010, German physicists with too much time on their hands reverse-engineered five spacecraft based on the designs of ancient Maya gold figurines. They all flew successfully. They did! You can watch it on YouTube, our own oracle of the ultra-mundane, if not the supernatural.

It's always easy to mock. But really, all the astro-imagery and advanced physics are kind of weird. Who are we to say, after all, that ancient people may not have had livelier encounters with other worlds than we do ourselves? As Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel has wisely said, "In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, an ancient race of people . . . the Druids. No one knows who they were or what they were doing." Exactly. In the face of such caution, we fall back on speculation. Sure, maybe there was a lot of cheap labour, a few clever leaders, and some smart early mathematicians to build those remarkable temples, henges, and statues. Maybe delta wings just look good on gold figurines and have nothing to do with flight. Maybe Ezekiel was stoned out of his head on tabs of homemade acid. But maybe, just maybe, von Däniken is right. The poster in Fox Mulder's X-Files office captures the frisson: I want to believe.

Of course, the real aliens have always been those we harbour within ourselves, the uncanny other who edges the conscious self. The lure of mysterious strangers, the need for myths of origin shrouded in mist, the fear of death that prompts belief in afterlifes, underworlds, and distant superior civilizations—in the end, the visiting space-god is human, all too human.

Welcome to our world.