the star people
While cleaning out my childhood home in the wake of my mother’s death, among the art, fanfiction, action figures, and Barbie dolls we'd treasured, I rediscovered the relics of my teenage obsession with The X-Files.
Like Agent Fox Mulder, between the ages of 12 and 16, I was convinced that a syndicate of global leaders was conspiring to cover up million-year-old evidence that humans were not alone in the universe. And somehow, I was determined to do what Agent Mulder seemingly could not: expose the truth about the existence of extraterrestrials.
America Online, dial-up internet, and anonymous chat rooms had made it possible to find people with niche interests like mine. Clunky Angelfire websites provided location tips from ‘expert’ UFO hunters. I was convinced my neighborhood park was a potential UFO hotspot and, at dusk, would set up a small camp on top of the hot metal slide with my disposable film camera, toy binoculars, and notebook.
I never saw a UFO, but I learned how to spot constellations and hear the difference between crickets and cicadas. I learned that mosquitoes feed feverishly at night and that I wasn't afraid of the dark, even if it meant walking home alone on streets barely illuminated by orange lamps. In high school, I spent most of my time in the back of class secretly writing X-Files fanfiction, excited to share my work and receive feedback from other fans on the internet when I got home.
Over time my obsession faded, and I moved on to goals that did not include aliens. However, several 2021 New York Times articles about UFOs, alien abductions, and sightings during the pandemic took me back to my stargazing years.
“They Are Not Alone: U.F.O. Reports Surged in the Pandemic,” an April 2021 Times article reports, “...sightings of unidentified objects in 2020 nearly doubled from the previous year.”
The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a surge of reported UFO sightings across the United States and globally, and the most reported sightings ever in the five boroughs of New York City. Of these sightings, most were recorded from March through May, when lockdown mandates were strictest.
Skywatchers reported a record 138 UFO sightings in New Jersey, near my hometown and the park where I so desperately wanted to bear witness nearly 20 years ago. Many of the sightings were widely recorded and circulated on social media, as on April 21st, 2021, when multiple residents of Woodbridge reported the same sighting in a community Facebook group. They claimed that when the object flew over their homes, their lights flickered, and cellphone service temporarily went down.
From the National UFO Reporting Center on Long Beach Island on August 27, 2020:
“Hi, I am not one to report unless I am sure. But what we saw at Long Beach Island at 2 a.m. was not something we doubted as something not in our comprehension. My friend and I decided to take a walk on the beach at around 1:30 a.m. after a long night of talking and catching up. After about 20 minutes we noticed three bright lights on the sand. We then noticed two of the light sources started to create a line between each other. It looked like a beam interchanged between two sources. We then noticed a light that looked into the ocean. It was white. Shining very bright. We noticed a smaller green light flying over it, moving very fast all over the place. I mean like: very disoriented. Nothing we have ever seen before. At one point it seemed to dive into the ocean and back out. It would shine bright, move and then disappear and appear again. It would make sudden movements and we would both look at each other. It would then stop and align with the bigger “light source” and then move about again. We watched it for about 40 minutes. I shined my light at it (blinked twice) and it disappeared, then shined back twice and disappeared, and we got too scared and walked away.”
Ryan Sprague, a self-described “real-life Fox Mulder,” is a Ufologist (“yoof-ologist”). His bestselling book Somewhere in the Skies was inspired by his experience seeing a UFO on a camping trip with his father when he was 12 years old. Sprague hosts an award-winning podcast by the same name and appears regularly on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens and CW’s Mysteries Decoded. Sprague’s platforms bring witnesses, scientists, and enthusiasts together to validate evidence of UFO sightings and experiences. He regularly hosts guests with high-level government and military credits.
I met Ryan in midtown Manhattan on an unseasonably warm early spring day. He told me about the most famous alien abduction case in New York City.
In the early morning of November 30th, 1989, Linda Cortile Napolitano reported a craft hovering outside her Manhattan apartment window. She recalls being transported from her window to the ship where “greys” were waiting. Initially disregarded, several witnesses have since come forward to validate her experience, including two police officers on patrol under the FDR Drive on the night of her abduction. The officers also claimed to have seen a bright object with green lights take a woman out of the window and quickly fly away. An additional witness, alias “Janet Kimball,” was driving across the Brooklyn Bridge that morning and claimed to have witnessed the lights but initially thought it was from a science fiction movie set.
Grey aliens are not only the most common trope in sci-fi and pop culture but also the beings most often reported in abduction cases. The September 1961 Barney and Betty Hill abduction case in rural New Hampshire introduced Greys (described as small, svelte, with grey skin and black bulbous eyes) to the popular imagination. The Hills reported being followed by a light in the sky while driving home from their honeymoon in Montreal. They claimed to have been brought up into a ship for experiments and found evidence on their torn clothes and car in the following days.
Through hypnosis, both Napolitano and the Hills could recall what happened to them while aboard their respective space crafts. All were brought to an examination room where their nails, hair, and skin were scraped and plucked. The Greys were apparently captivated by Barney Hill’s removable dentures, which were not common in other human abductees.
In 2020, several months after releasing declassified records of UAP (“Unidentified Aerial Phenomena”) recorded by Navy pilots during training, the Pentagon announced plans to establish the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force to address potential UFO threats to national security, expressing concerns about unidentified aircrafts flying over US military bases and close to jets with a previously unforeseen level of technological advancement. Luis Elizondo, head of a similar Pentagon-funded program, told CNN in 2017 that he believes “there is very compelling evidence we may not be alone.”
Hearing all these stories made my inner 12-year-old happy. I may not have uncovered the extraterrestrial syndicate at my local park all those years ago, but it’s nice to know that I was not alone in my search and that there are still people looking. It makes sense that a global pandemic would produce a desire for the escapism of conspiracy theories (UFO or otherwise). Maybe it’s a desire to be part of something larger. Maybe it’s hope that something better is possible. Maybe the truth is (still) out there.
ASH MARINACCIO is a multidisciplinary documentarian, theatre artist, and Ph.D. Candidate in Theatre and Performance at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research investigates documentary theatre and theatre in war/conflict zones. Ash has received a Lucille Lortel Visionary Award from the League of Professional Theatre Women, been listed as one of Culture Trip's “50 Women in Theatre You Should Know”, a recipient of a Drama League Residency, a NY Public Humanities Fellow, and is a TED Speaker. Ash recently founded Docbloc (docbloc.org), dedicated to bringing documentary artists from across genres together to create live performance projects. She is the founding artistic director of the United Nations recognized NGO Girl Be Heard and creator of the digital documentary series Stage Left, which is currently available on Roku. WEBSITE INSTAGRAM Connect: ashmarinaccio.com/@introublewiththeking (Instagram)
(Image credits: Ash Marinaccio).