The Will Smith Effect

Despite all the claims about ‘the death of UFOlogy’, the never-ending stream of movies and satellite TV shows, such as Chasing UFOs and UFOs: The Untold Stories prove the idea of UFOs and alien visitations is more alive than ever.

And the public fascination with UFOs simply feeds the ongoing myth of extraterrestrial visitations, as the recent OnePoll survey for ITV’s This Morning in the UK demonstrated.

The impact of what The Guardian called ‘The Will Smith effect’ is neatly summed up by journalist – and former Sheffield Hallam University student – Mark Lankester in a feature published by Yahoo News (29 March 2013).

The Will Smith Effect - a scene from Men In Black (1997) - credit:

The Will Smith Effect – a scene from Men In Black (1997) – credit:

Mark quizzed me on the link between UFO sightings, Hollywood movies and popular culture in the run-up to the release of a new sci-fi thriller produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, After Earth, starring Will Smith, in June.

In the interview I said:

“Popular culture informs what we see in the sky and then how we interpret [what we see]…you can’t help but absorb it.

“We have grown up with science fiction movies like Independence Day [released in 1996] and no one can divorce themselves from it. Not that people were seeing that one movie, and then going out to look for UFOs. It simply raised their awareness, and they became more likely to report things.

“It’s the power of popular culture.  It’s not mass hysteria, and it’s not just movies – TV, books and comics contribute also – it’s just a zeitgeist. When UFOs are popular, people see them.

“And people’s descriptions alter with time. In the 50s it was all flying saucers, and right now it’s big black triangles. There are two explanations for this. Either the aliens are very fashion conscious and move with the times, or people interpret their experience through what’s going on around them.

“Quite often we see what we believe, and not believe what we see.”

[Read the full interview here]


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2 Responses to The Will Smith Effect

  1. Paul Gutches says:

    Hi David.

    Thanks for taking up such an interesting subject!

    Of course, you’re not alone in your assessment, But not surprising to me, your conclusion similarly leaves aside vast swathes of scientific and cultural history. It’s always a little troubling to me that so many smart and interesting people are so quick to advance ideas that while quite plausible, are inconsistent with the facts.

    Firstly, the ufo phenomena long predates popular culture and mass media. I’m not just referring to nebulous biblical accounts that are often couched in the language of religious experience. I’d recommend you take a look at Dr. Jacques Vallee’s “Wonders in the Sky”, particularly the observations made by early Chinese astronomers. Perhaps owing to the more sober cultural atmosphere engendered by the influence of Buddhism, the accounts are quite modern and objective in their language, and they describe a phenomena that is strikingly similar to the best observed cases today. Angle in the sky, light intensity, size relative to the moon, approximate speed, approximate elevation, physical behavior, color, etc. It may surprise you that these men of science, uninhibited by the stigma that the subject is mired in today, described some of these objects in clearly physical terms: metallic, reflective, spinning, machine-like, etc.

    As for the theory of cultural influence presented here, you may be surprised that the vast majority of the details and specific cases represented in Spielberg’s 1977 film “Close Encounters” were informed by actual, and in many cases, relatively recent historical events involving multiple civilian, pilot, police, and military personnel. Electromagnetic effects, stalling vehicle engines, heat radiation effects, missing time, colorful air ionization, flying in formations, and playfulness, had all been compellingly consistent elements of the phenomena long before they were introduced to mainstream culture.

    Now of course, Spielberg embellished things for the screen. After all, it is a movie. But the dispatch tapes chronicling the multi-state ufo police chase that was depicted in Close Encounters are now well within reach on the internet.

    What I will give you is that popular science fiction films probably do have some influence on the number of sightings reported, and probably do shape public belief systems about some aspects of the phenomenon.

    But the core phenomenon, and the mythology that has grown out of it, are clearly two different things, living separate lives.

    I’m a visual designer and web programmer of 15+ years; skills that depend a great deal on careful observation and logical thinking.

    Paul Gutches

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