While flying near Mount Rainier on the afternoon of June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold spotted nine shiny, bright objects in loose formation in the distant sky. They were shaped like boomerangs or flying wedges and moving at tremendous speed.
After landing in Pendleton, Ore., Arnold, a veteran pilot and successful businessman, described his sighting to Nolan Skiff, a columnist for The East Oregonian, the local newspaper, saying the objects “flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.”
Skiff’s account was soon picked up and carried across the country by The Associated Press. In the process, Arnold’s description of the objects “flying like saucers” was transformed into “saucerlike” objects and ultimately “flying saucers.”
It has been half a century since Arnold’s sighting, and the flying saucer still zips across the skies of popular culture with dependable regularity. Films ranging from last year’s “Independence Day” and “Mars Attacks!” to “Men in Black,” which opens July 2, offer fresh views of the flying disks.
They crop up in television shows like “The X-Files” and “Dark Skies.” They hover in malls, emblazoned on T-shirts and CD covers. They also inspire painters, architects and designers.
The image of the flying saucer is at the center of a modern mythology, a figure of folklore, focusing fears and hopes like the lens whose shape it shares, reflecting the wider culture in its mirrored surface.
Nothing says more about the origins of the flying saucer myth than the birth of the name in the press. The flying saucer became a new kind of mythological figure - akin to a Hermes or a Puck, a unicorn or a leprechaun - that flourished primarily not in oral or literary tradition but in the mass media.
The first folk figure to emerge from the realm of technology, it is the most flexible of cultural icons, with overtones ranging from the cosmic (dark visions of space invaders) to the comic (cartoons inhabited by stubby flying saucers piloted by little green men).
Arnold’s sighting was at first treated as a novelty, but within days reports of dozens of others flowed in from around the world. In July, the Air Force issued a press release claiming that a flying disk had been “captured” in Roswell, N.M. It later decided that the object had been a weather balloon. (The Roswell incident was quickly forgotten, only to be re-examined in the 1980s in books and televisions shows.)
America in 1947 was in the midst of vast technological change: the transistor was introduced, the sound barrier broken, and the first earth satellites were proposed. Politically, the battle lines for the Cold War were being drawn, and with the advent of the atom bomb, the threat of worldwide Armageddon seemed palpable.
By the end of the 1940s the Air Force had introduced the less judgmental term “unidentified flying object,” but flying saucer as a term and an image was already well established in the popular consciousness.
One of the first to present the flying-saucer phenomenon as mythology or folklore was the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. He had paid attention to even the earliest reports about them, and in 1957 he published “Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies.”
In it, Jung made no attempt to answer the question of whether they existed. For him, the flying saucer was an archetype in the making, an icon, a modern mandala, embedded deep in the collective unconscious.
“Such an object,” he wrote, “provokes, like nothing else, conscious and unconscious fantasies.”
“Our time is characterized by fragmentation, confusion and perplexity,” he added. “At such times men’s eyes turn to heaven for help, and marvelous signs appear from on high.”
Almost from the beginning, flying saucers were associated with a familiar set of narratives that were folkloric in nature. Some were hopeful (the warning messages from distant planets), and others sinister (a government cover-up of captured saucers).
Those who claimed space travelers had contacted them, like George Adamski and George Van Tassel, inspired near-religious followings. By 1954, conventions at Giant Rock in the Mojave Desert were drawing up to 5,000 people.
At roughly the same time, Maj. Donald Keyhoe, author of the best-seller “The Flying Saucers Are Real,” was accusing the government of hiding the truth.
Many of the fantasies Jung described were made manifest in movies. In “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 1951, the occupants of the flying saucers brought stern but beneficent warnings about the dangers of atomic bombs. In 1956, “Earth Versus the Flying Saucers” warned that the launching of satellites might provoke an alien attack. In the 1953 movie “Invaders From Mars,” spacemen were surrogates for communism; Mars, after all, is the Red Planet.
In the half-century since Arnold’s sighting, flying-saucer lore has grown and changed. In the 1950s, the shape of the flying saucer seemed to reflect the optimistic curve of rising prosperity and unfolding technology. It also evoked the orbits of electrons around the nucleus of an atom or those of satellites around the earth.
Artists and design artists were inspired by the shape. It cropped up in the design of fast-food outlets and airport terminals as well as the Space Needle in Seattle.
The flying saucer has shown an amazing capacity for reinvention, yielding new messages for new generations. So “Independence Day” can shamelessly reprise “The War of the Worlds,” substituting a computer virus for the bacteria of the original H.G. Wells story.
The makers of “Men in Black” give their own twist to an old story. Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith play agents of a kind of intergalactic immigration agency, as the movie ads proclaim, “protecting Earth from the scum of the universe.” The film is based on a comic book by Lowell Cunningham, who says he heard the story from a friend.
Like the flying saucer myth, the man-in-black story began with a specific incident. A few days after Arnold’s sighting, Fred Lee Crisman and Harold A. Dahl reported gathering wreckage from a saucer that crashed on Maury Island, Wash. They said a mysterious man in a black suit had then appeared, warning them to keep quiet.
Their story proved to be a hoax, but retold in a book, “They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers” by Gray Barker, the man-in-black myth became a part of the saucer myth.
The transformation of the story from a first press report to a folkloric tale to a comic book and now to a film illustrates how the myth is transformed.