Pop Quiz: Why Do We Think Aliens Look Like That?

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Pop Quiz: Why Do We Think Aliens Look Like That?
Pop Quiz on "In The Loop" asks where humans got the conception most have of aliens, from Hollywood to the world of astrobiology.

A pretty standard image comes to mind when thinking of aliens: a little green or gray being with a big head and black bug eyes. But where did the world get this ubiquitous idea?

In the early 20th century, aliens tended to look pretty different from the little gray men, especially in film and television. Since productions were limited in practical effects, aliens, naturally, looked a lot like people – just in costumes or thick make-up. This is especially true for the earliest days of TV.

To code the aliens as "others" or foreign-seeming, sometimes alien characters borrowed heavily from harmful stereotypes. One of the most formative sci-fi franchises, "Flash Gordon," has an infamous example with its supervillain Ming the Conqueror, who is technically supposed to be an alien.

"We have Flash Gordon: our blond, handsome, all-American hero," said Lisa Yaszek, professor of science fiction studies at Georgia Tech. "He plays football, he's very athletic, he's very military, very commanding. Ming is literally bug-eyed. If you combine that sort of bug-eyedness with the clearly racist references, you can see the directors pulling on anxieties about the yellow peril, and inside is increasingly about Japan as a potential enemy in these depictions of Ming and his core."

That's a big theme throughout movie history about aliens and cultural anxieties. For example, this was echoed later during the Cold War. Concerns over communist spies and the "alien within" can be interpreted in the Red Scare-era film "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," or the mid-80s' "The Thing." In both films, the alien invaders look like us!  

"What if what we view as the Metropole is the center of history — the United States, the United Kingdom, the West — and some in some kind of obscure way, what if they were the colonial sphere for some other group that was way more powerful?" said Gerry Canavan, associate professor of English at Marquette University. "So, sometimes that's War of the Worlds where they just obliterate human civilization. In the Cold War, it seems like grays are the CIA. They're sneaky. They want to infiltrate our society. They want to manipulate it."

There are a few theories about the exact origins of the little gray man image, but one compelling one comes from an infamous encounter in Kentucky back in 1955. One fateful night, the Sutton family all rushed into a police station to report the same detailed story about a flying saucer and an hours-long attack from little gray creatures back at their farmhouse. The aliens supposedly had big heads, big eyes and long skinny arms. This wild story caught lots of media attention, and after a few other reports in the area had similar descriptions, the image of aliens got conflated into the image we have now.

Right after that, the little green creatures started to show up on screen, like "Invasion of the Saucer Men" in 1957. This Kentucky incident was part of the postwar period that saw a boom in reports of UFO and alien sightings, which some experts blame on anxieties around nuclear threats and the Cold War.

Steven Spielberg would later say he was directly inspired by these stories when he wrote the script for the iconic "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

As for how Hollywood artists create aliens from scratch, Newsy spoke to artist Carlos Huante about his process behind designing aliens for the big screen. He designed aliens in tons of sci-fi hits like "Prometheus," "Men In Black" and Arrival." He said he studied animals, plants and architecture for his ideas.

"Nature is just — it's just everything is designed so beautifully," Huante said. "You can't do anything better than that, so we're trying to mimic that, the organization of shapes. When I met with Ridley on, say, 'Covenant' and 'Prometheus,' I told him — I showed him a video of a beluga whale in the dark sea. I go, 'Look at this thing. Looks like a ghost when it's coming out of the dark. We got to do that. It's beautiful, it's simple and I want to do that.'"

That whale became the inspirational seeds behind the iconic aliens in the movie "Arrival" as well, directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Artists like Huante aren't the only ones looking to nature to imagine what aliens look like. There is an entire scientific field called astrobiology dedicated to theorizing how alien life might form and appear on other planets by looking at how life evolved on Earth and how life forms within extreme environments. One paper from 2017 used evolutionary theory to illustrate possible alien anatomies, from simple microbes to complex creatures.

"Aliens have become a kind of virtual laboratory," Yaszek said. "Our stories about aliens are a virtual laboratory in which we can test out the different ways that we confront our anxieties about the enemy without and the enemy within."

"Aliens become a way of thinking about how humans interact with one another," Canavan said. "Is there a way for us to be decent to one another? Aliens become just another way of thinking about what we're already doing."

Aliens are sure to keep changing and adapting in film, TV and more. How aliens are pictured and meeting aliens will continue to reflect much of humankind, from cultural or political anxieties to hopes and fantasies of the future.