25 years ago crowds gathered to see the world premiere of the ‘alien autopsy‘ film at an international UFO congress held at Sheffield Hallam University.
At the time I was journalist at the Sheffield Star and according to expert Philip Mantle, author of the definitive history of the legend, it was my exclusive story that tipped off the international media to what became a huge ‘silly season‘ story.
The weekend of 18-19 August 1995 saw the first public showing of the film in Hallam’s Pennine Lecture Theatre during the British UFO Research Association’s 8th international congress. Tickets sold out and TV news crews from around the world were camped outside in Hallam Square eager to interview the key players in the breaking story.
As anticipation grew one week later a segment from the footage was broadcast in the UK as part of the Channel 4 Secret History documentary series. From that moment onward it became part of one of UFOlogy’s cause celebres, the ‘Roswell incident’. Today, images from the autopsy film are now a part of the pop culture UFO mythology.
Many continue to believe the US government has successfully covered up the crash of an alien spacecraft near the New Mexico town in 1947. In The X-Files era, the search was on for hard evidence to confirm this belief – and what better confirmation could there be than actual footage of the autopsy carried out on the alien pilots?
The Alien Autopsy legend became the source of a British-made movie starring celebrity comedians and TV presenters Ant & Dec, currently hosting Britain’s Got Talent and Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. For more on this film, read my accompanying blogpost Won’t Get Fooled Again? a summary written with Andy Roberts to coincide with its release, first published by Fortean Times in 2006.
Some continue to believe the footage really was shot in Roswell in 1947 and for years the film continued to attract a small but noisy group of proponents. My exclusive story, published on page 1 of the Sheffield Star 18 August, 1995, did not reveal the author of the hoax but it was prescient in identifying the source: someone within the movie special effects industry:
ALIEN FILM A FAKE, SAYS MOVIE WIZARD
SPECIAL effects wizards today dismissed a film claiming to show a dead space alien as a fake.
Hundreds of enthusiasts and dozens of TV crews from around the world are heading to Sheffield Hallam University for the sell-out congress organised by the British UFO Research Association this weekend.
But today experts at Pinewood Studios who create effects for big-budget Hollywood films said they found the ‘alien’ was really ‘a very good fake body’ when they examined the footage.
Believers said the grainy black and white film showed a top secret US army autopsy on an alien pilot killed when his flying saucer crashed in the desert at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947.
Channel 4 are planning to use the film as part of a worldwide TV probe into claims that the US government secretly recovered a crashed spaceship and have covered up the truth for 50 years.
Cliff Wallace, of Creature Effects at Pinewood said experts could see evidence of a seam down one arm of the creature which suggested it was a life-like model.
They also picked out the words ‘VIDEO TV’ written on parts of the wreckage claimed to be from the crashed saucer.
‘This film is a fake – there’s no doubt about it,’ Mr Wallace told The Star.
‘It’s been done very cleverly by someone probably within our profession and there is no possibility that it could have been filmed in 1947.’
Mr Wallace, whose company made a lifesize model of Sean Connery for the film First Knight, said he believed the film had been made as a publicity stunt for a forthcoming movie on the UFO mystery.
Today, London businessman Ray Santilli, who has been trying to sell the film to TV companies across the world, was not available for comment.
He has claimed he bought it from a retired US army photographer, now aged 82.
In his definitive account of the story, Roswell Alien Autopsy: the truth behind the film that shocked the world, Philip Mantle writes (p39):
‘The first the public was to learn about the film was on January 14th, 1995, when [Reg Presley, the late lead singer of The Troggs] was interviewed on a BBC Breakfast TV show. He surprised everyone by announcing what he had seen – a film of “real, live aliens”. There was no great reaction to this announcement as the show in those days did not have a big audience. In the meantime, I having now seen the AA films, asked Santilli if he would show it at a British UFO Research Association conference I was organising in Sheffield for August that year . Surprisingly, Santilli agreed. Shortly after this I received a phone call from local journalist and long-time UFOlogist David Clarke, of the Sheffield Star – one of Britain’s biggest newspapers. Clarke was writing a small article for the paper about another local UFO researcher and asked for a few quotes on the proposed August conference. I gave him a few lines and and, as an off-the-cuff remark, noted that an ‘alien autopsy’ film was to be shown as an exclusive.
‘Clarke published his article and I was subsequently contacted by White’s Press Agency in Sheffield. They wanted to know more about the AA film and I answered their questions – never expecting anything to come of it. Within hours of White Press Agency sending their story out around the world [my] phone began to ring off the hook.
‘The story was out. The conference sold out in no time and Santilli was besieged by journalists, UFO researchers and TV companies…’
Mantle’s book documents the origins of the legend and examines the trail of evidence that exposed the hoax in forensic detail. Roswell Alien Autopsy: The Truth Behind the Film That Shook The World (Flying Disk Press 2020) is available from Amazon.
You can also watch a four-part documentary Alien Autopsy: The Search For Answers that follows Mantle’s investigation of the film, available from Amazon Prime and I-tunes.
Coincidentally this summer also marks the centenary of another set of faked images – in this case black and white stills – that became a legend and part of Yorkshire’s folklore.
In August 1920 two cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, took three of the famous ‘Cottingley Fairy photographs‘ in and around the beck behind Elsie’s family home at Cottingley, near Bradford in West Yorkshire. These three images complemented two others, produced in 1919, that convinced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, that fairy folk really did exist.
In 1975 Elsie, then aged 74, in a TV interview, said: ‘I have told you they are figments of our imagination and that’s what I’m sticking to’.
It was not until 1982, sixty years after the story broke,that the two women confessed the photographs were drawings of ‘fairies’ that had been cut out of popular magazines and held in place by hatpins. Even then, Frances continued to maintain they had seen fairies and the girls took the photographs as proof that would confound their skeptical parents.
Much like the alien autopsy film, the story of the Cottingley fairies continues to capture the popular imagination today. There have been dozens of books about it, two Hollywood movies and numerous TV programmes and documentaries. The story is often described as one of the greatest photographic hoaxes of all time.
But is hoax the most appropriate word to use when you are dealing with matters of belief? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a hoax as ‘a humorous or mischievous deception with which the credulity of the victim is imposed upon’.
What I have learned over 40+ years investigating extraordinary beliefs and experiences is that when people believe in something so strongly – whether that’s belief in fairies or aliens – individuals will interpret what emerges from the camera as confirmation of their beliefs.
Seeing isn’t believing – believing is seeing!