We Are Not Alone: Phillip Maciak on His Summer Obsessing Over UFO Videos
Or, When Screens Helpfully Absorb Our (Misplaced) Anxieties
In June 2021, I became obsessed with a video of an unidentified flying object, or what’s now called an “unidentified aerial phenomenon.” The video, which circulated first from a Twitter account called @Today_China and was later picked up and elaborately dissected on the r/UFO subreddit, was taken from a rooftop in downtown Shanghai.
The phone camera points up at the night sky, brownish clouds quickly passing overhead, and, as a variety of voices pitched at various states of alarm or awe rise around it, we begin to see the shape of an enormous black isosceles triangle, hovering over the city, negative space amid the clouds. It’s an extraordinarily unsettling image—the found footage laundered through the horror genre, emerging again on my feed—as the apparent object floats seemingly close to this bustling urban scene.
Maybe as unsettling as the size of the object itself is its blankness. Unlike other amateur UFO videos that have circulated in the past, there are no lights, no erratic movements or tremendous speeds, no dynamism at all. It doesn’t dart at unfathomable speeds like the lights in the videos leaked from US Navy pilots earlier that spring. It doesn’t dissolve or dance or change colors like the infamous Marfa lights in Texas. Nor does it produce an iconic silhouette like the flying saucers of old. The object is calm, feature-less, which makes it somehow more threatening. You watch the video over and over in its loop, and the object gives you nothing. It is insensible to you, unbothered by you, over you, in ways literal and figurative.
And that’s, somehow, what makes the anxiety—my anxiety—about images like these so sharp and nagging. It isn’t purely a fear of alien invasion or a vast government conspiracy. It’s about the way these objects appear to not care about us, or perhaps only care about us in the most condescending of ways. They don’t want to be seen, but they’re also able to not be seen. They can evade our eyes, our consciousness, our concerns. Screen time has always been, for me, about the relationship between the viewer and the image, the potentially nefarious intent of the television set transformed into something else in its communion with me. But this image doesn’t care about that relationship. This object is alone, unidentified. And so, then, am I.Since I was very young, when I have been worried about something, I have tended to choose an external, spectacular fear to project all my local worries upon.
This is not my ordinary screen time, it’s not my regularly scheduled programming, but it’s also not totally extraordinary. The classic argument against media saturation is about kids’ brains turning to goo as they stare slack-jawed at advertisements disguised as entertainment. But a particular corrosive vision of screen time—the one I most fear myself—is this addictive, obsessive kind that pops up in moments of acute stress or anxiety.
The kind that keeps me up at night, the kind that distracts me from the people I love, the kind that casts shadows of my worst fears in the shape of alien craft. What if all of that attention and all of that analytical spirit and all of that intellect were sucked down into the void of this dark screen time? What if I’d turned the internet into the absolute worst version of myself, and I could peruse all the nooks and crannies of it for as long as I can keep my eyes open?
We just talked about some of the screen time forms that feel good. Appointment TV, FaceTime, Vine—these are types of media, types of viewing, that work with and against these cultural anxieties to seem uniquely pleasurable, even mildly virtuous.
But those cultural anxieties have also helped produce screen time forms that feel uniquely bad.
Mel and I are mostly unbothered about Maeve and Phoebe’s current screen consumption. They watch, mostly, in moderation, and we at least nominally approve of everything they watch. But we can only really feel this way because we’re still largely in control of their screens and what’s on them. At a certain point, that will change. Maeve and Phoebe have a couple of play cell phones, both of which were produced by child education companies and both of which come with lessons in the alphabet and phone etiquette. They’re “good” toys. But they both also look and function like regular cell phones. It’s eerie to watch one of them occasionally slumped onto the couch looking at that fake screen—they don’t even have anything on them—and to know that one day they may slump that way for real.
One day, the phones they hold might teach them more nefarious lessons than the ones they are currently learning about the alphabet. Their screens will try to teach them how to feel about their bodies, what kinds of violence are and aren’t acceptable, what counts as cool, what counts as ugly, what counts as a person. One day, in other words, we won’t control their screens for them; some days, I wonder if I’m in control of my own.
Part of what’s appealing to me about the genre of the UFO video is that it is made to be analyzed, it rewards the attention of these obsessives.
I was primed for that UFO video, in both the long and the short term. Since I was very young, when I have been worried about something, I have tended to choose an external, spectacular fear to project all my local worries upon. I have very little natural ability to modulate my concerns about something—either I am not worried at all about it, or my worry grows immediately to a scale of fantasy that it effectively leaves the original worry behind, dwarfing it and rendering it manageable in comparison. In one way, this anxiety is almost strategic. It’s hard to be worried about, say, the SAT, when you’re also worried about a meteor striking the earth.
In other words, I’m a bit of a catastrophist. Don DeLillo, in Underworld, his novel about the Cold War hangover of the 1990s, wrote that “it’s the special skill of the adolescent to imagine the end of the world as an adjunct to his own discontent.” When DeLillo wrote that in 1997, the year I turned 14, a few years into the screen time era, he might as well have been writing about me, specifically. As an ordinary (white) teenager of the end of the millennium, I routed all of my mundane social, educational, familial, and cultural fears through the literal end of the world. I’m aware that this reads as a particularly privileged, bourgeois American sickness, a contemporary neurasthenia. American Nervousness, 2022.
All the same, I worried about apocalypses religious and secular—ecumenical, I was, in my fears. I was drawn to their mythologies and their internal logics and weirded out by the presumption that powerful people knew about these things and chose to keep them secret—that presidents and popes were aware of the facts about the fundamental strangeness of our world, and the workaday ordinariness they produced and policed was merely a convincing cover story.
The catchphrase about extraterrestrials is that “we are not alone,” but, because everything I ever read about their existence implied a network of powerful people(?) withholding the truth about the universe from me, the idea of alien life made me feel lonelier than ever.
In retrospect, it’s fairly transparent to me that my fascination with UFO videos that summer of 2021 was less about what floated above us and more about what floated among us. This was the second summer of the pandemic, and the first during which we felt that it was possible to take our road trip home to Pennsylvania. Mel and I had been vaccinated that April, but the girls had not been yet.
We were planning on being ultra-cautious, only seeing close, vaccinated family members, avoiding eating in restaurant dining rooms or doing any of the many fun indoor kid activities at any of our stops—a cabin in Kentucky, a shore house in New Jersey, Airbnbs in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, a deeply off-the-grid farm house in rural Virginia—and the numbers looked to be in our favor anyway. But after over a year of virtual school and work, grocery delivery, hygiene theater, and isolation, leaving our house in St. Louis was a lot. I was doing fine, though. Or, rather, my maniac focus on UFO videos was helpfully absorbing all my anxiety about the trip.
And I had plenty of material. For years, scholars and advocates of these sorts of things had been working to normalize the idea that Earth was regularly visited by unknown aerial craft, that these en- counters are and have been regularly reported, not just by wackadoodles, but by professional military operatives, and that investigations into these events ought to be known by the public and discussed openly. These activists—who came up with the acronym UAP in part to rebrand away from the aforementioned wackadoodles—have worked tirelessly to convince the public and government officials that just because this stuff is invisible doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it.
In June 2021, a few days after I saw that triangle video, the activists got a big win. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report summarizing its internal investigation into eyewitness claims of UAPs, mostly from the Navy, from 2004 to 2021. The report acknowledges 144 accounts, 143 of which lack firm explanation, many of which have visual confirmation in the form of videos or photographs. Still, the report was disappointing to many in the UAP activism community. They were thrilled with its existence, and Congress’s willingness to take it seriously, but there wasn’t a lot of meat on the bone.In retrospect, it’s fairly transparent to me that my fascination with UFO videos that summer of 2021 was less about what floated above us and more about what floated among us.
Many of the videos described had been available for years, and the structure of the report heavily implied that, while all of these objects were “unidentified,” they were unidentified because of the limits of our vision and technology, not because their identity was a world-shaking revelation. Yeah, these things are weird, the report implies, but not, like, weird weird.
So we return to the videos. I’ve taught in and out of film studies programs for the better part of a decade, and I’ve never encountered more committed, detail-oriented, imaginative analysts of film and video than I have on the UFO subreddit. The readers on those pages are alert and deeply knowledgeable about digital effects, lens flares, video distortion, image resolution, camera movement, and the limits of photographic technology.
They are obsessed with a conspiracy, but their writing about these images is not all that conspiratorial. In fact, perhaps because they’ve come up in a generation that deeply wants the possibility of extraterrestrial life to be taken seriously, they are incredibly rigorous. This board is not a place full of credulous rubes—or, at least, not as it relates to film analysis. Their standard of evidence is tremendously high. This is an old story. Defenders of spiritualism and mediumship in the 19th century were similarly scientific in their defenses, but they were also eager to debunk frauds and false mediums in their midst as a gesture of their own seriousness.
And the UFO community, as you might imagine, is replete with high-profile debunkers. Perhaps the most prominent of these debunkers, a British science writer named Mick West, nearly always begins by dissecting new videos as videos. His elaborate, fine-grained debunkings of most of these videos reveal, more often than not, the limits of video cameras to see what’s right in front of them. Fighter pilots and Navy seamen are trained military professionals, but they are not professional photographers or camera operators or even film critics. What they see, often, is a phenomenon produced by the camera, rather than recorded by it. Working for the Navy is pretty stressful, I’d imagine. I can certainly relate to the experience of looking out at the vastness of the sea and seeing my own fears reflected back at me.
My occasional obsession with these videos is dilettantism compared to the investment of these activists and debunkers. Part of what’s appealing to me about the genre of the UFO video is that it is made to be analyzed, it rewards the attention of these obsessives, it exists, like the prime time serial without the prestige, because of their attention.
And so, when I saw that triangle, I turned to them to tell me it was fake. And it was. It turns out that, in a city with as many skyscrapers and spotlights as Shanghai, it is possible for buildings themselves to create shadows in the sky. What those onlookers had seen was the shadow of the very building they were standing on. The movement of the clouds, gently grazing over the shadow of the skyscraper created an illusion of a hovering object—its blankness made sense because it truly was nothing, a shadow puppet of an alien craft that we’d all convinced ourselves was real.
Excerpted from Avidly Reads Screen Time. Copyright © 2023 by Phillip Maciak. Used with permission of the publisher, NYU Press. All rights reserved.