Shoving aside the toxic headlines about sex crimes and racist tweets was the refreshingly weird news that nearly two million people had pledged to raid Area 51 in Roswell, New Mexico in order to “see them aliens.”
And oddly, it's a phenomenon that has become a big driver for sports and tourism.
As background, CNET notes, “a Facebook event named Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop All of Us has become an Internet sensation. Even though the US Air Force is strongly advising against it, more than 1.9 million people have signed up to attend the Sept. 20 event in the Nevada desert, and another 1.4 million are "interested" in attending (read: cowards).”
Yes, it’s a joke – or at least most people are taking it that way. The actual event is scheduled for 3 a.m. Pacific time on Sept. 20 in Amargosa Valley, Nevada, not far from Roswell (which for those living in a fallout shelter for several decades, is the site of a military base around which UFO conspiracy theories have abounded for what seems like the entire space age).
A pinned post on the event page describes the joke invasion strategy in detail, and adds: “Hello US government, this is a joke, and I do not actually intend to go ahead with this plan. I just thought it would be funny and get me some thumbsy-uppies on the Internet.”
As previously mentioned, the Air Force is not amused; in fact, personnel are warning people to stay away. “Any attempt to illegally access the area is highly discouraged,” an Air Force spokesperson told NPR in a Monday statement, along with several other media outlets including USA Today and The New York Times.
Just in case you needed a reason: The Nellis Air Force Complex, as it is known to the U.S. government, is well-staffed by the military, and a spokesperson has sternly noted, "The US Air Force always stands ready to protect America and its assets."
Oddly, the event has become a bona fide travel phenomenon because, according to the New York Times, someone is taking it seriously enough to spend money (and someone else is canny enough to harness it to make money).
The Little A’Le’Inn in Rachel, Nevada, which is close to Area 51, has gotten an unusually high number of reservations for the date of the 'storming.'
“Oh, it’s insane,” Connie West, a co-owner of the inn, said in a recent interview. “My poor bartender today walked past me and said, ‘I hate to tell you, but every phone call I’ve had is about Sept. 20.’”
And the Facebook event has given rise to, or promoted some pre-existing, sports tie-ins. Elmwood, Wisconsin hosts its UFO Days Fun Run this weekend. And some events just play into the country’s long-standing fascination with extraterrestrial life, such as Dawson, Georgia’s Area 51 Trail Races, which took place in May (as did the Alien Abduction Dash in McMinnville, Oregon, and the Aliens vs. Astronauts 1K/5K in Houston – that one was produced by the Johnson Space Center-NASA Exchange).
It's not just running, though. Baseball has gotten into the act; in fact, Las Vegas' MiLB team was originally known as the Las Vegas 51s (they are now known as the Aviators). In its heyday, the team totally embraced the local hysteria around UFOs and government alien coverups, featuring a grey alien as a mascot. (The alien face was even on the front of the cap.) And hey, you gotta admire MiLB's creativity; the Charleston River Dogs hosted "A Looney Night in Space," in honor of the 1996 sports movie, "Space Jam." Evil aliens abounded.
Of course, the biggie, tourism-wise, is the annual Alien Chase, which takes place in Roswell as part of the area’s yearly UFO Festival. A similarly themed event, the Roswell Galacticon and Sci-Fi Film Fest, was held over those same dates. (Both events wrapped up on July 7 – too early for the Facebook event’s impact to be felt.)
What drives the fascination with alien life? Hard to say. It's a recurring theme in science fiction and in blockbuster movies -- and let's not forget that this summer is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
A copycat event, "Storm the Bermuda Triangle; it can't swallow all of us," is also making news. This event, to be held in Florida on October 1, requires all participants to dress as SpongeBob SquarePants or as a pirate.
UFO travel (or, more accuratey, UFO-inspired travel) has long been a phenomenon. In addition to film fests and conventions, Holland America is offering a seven-day UFO cruise this fall. Passengers can discover the history of UFO sightings and artifacts in Mexico while in port there. According to the cruise line, while on board, passengers will be able to attend seminars and panel discussions featuring “researchers, investigators, authors, teachers, speakers, intuitive counselors, healers, contactees, abductees and spiritual teachers.”
Included in the lineup is the executive director of the Mutual UFO Network (which proclaims itself as the world’s largest and oldest UFO research organization) and documentarians from The History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens” series. And every night, after hearing from the experts, passengers can partake in a “UFO watch” with night-vision binoculars provided by the ship.
Meanwhile, in Baker, California, a man has plans to build a three-story, 31-room UFO-shaped hotel – the UFO Hotel – next to his market where he sells UFO-themed beef jerky. It will feature an alien-themed gift shop, museum and swimming pool. San Bernardino County’s Board of Supervisors signed off on the project in 2014 and gave the green light to proceed with building. Five years later, however, the website still says the hotel is “under construction.”
Those who miss their chance to storm Area 51 (or who choose not to storm it, as the case may be), or decide not to take the cruise – or who can’t wait for the hotel – are welcome to travel to Knoxville for the August 17-18 Alien XPO at the Knoxville Convention Center (yes, the same place NASC held its events). Only instead of discussing stay-to-play and economic impact, this event will have panel presentations and seminars on topics like "UFO sightings, abductions and experiments, alien technology and other intriguing phenomena," according to the event's website.
And even if you can't make it to Knoxville, you can occupy Area 51 vicariously through memes like these that have provided plenty of fun diversions at a time when national news can be pretty doggone depressing.