Exploring The History Of How We Imagine Aliens

Assuming the universe has expanded at a constant rate, we can say with a fair amount of accuracy that the diameter of the observable universe is approximately 92 billion light-years in size. That’s enough space for at least 100 billion billion planets, conservatively. So, mathematically speaking, it’s a safe bet that at least one of those billions upon billions of planets is home to intelligent life.

That means that aliens exist — even if only on a distant planet, in a galaxy far, far away.

This isn’t new information. Before science had ever developed the means to measure the enormity of the universe, we humans looked to the stars with great wonder. “What’s out there?” is truly an age old question. No one knows the answer. So it goes in the realm of the mysterious. But without any confirmed — ahem, at least publicly — contact with legitimate extraterrestrials, we’re left to wonder: Where does our vision of aliens in pop culture come from?

“Entertainment and literature,” explains Josh Gates, host of Expedition Unknown: Hunt for Extraterrestrials (premieres Wednesday at 9/8c on Travel Channel). “We take our cues from brilliant minds like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury…Scientists tell us that if extraterrestrial life is out there, it’s most likely in the form of microscopic bacteria. There may even be fossilized evidence of that in meteorites and long extinguished Martian geysers. But what do we picture? Facehuggers, Rastafarian Predators, and Jar Jar Binks.”

Don’t worry, there’s very little scientific evidence that suggests a creature like Jar Jar Binks actually exists (thank Q). While Gates is right about alien life most likely existing at a microscopic scale, popular culture has a long-standing tradition of envisioning aliens as something else entirely. That’s why he’s set out on a quest to search for the answer to the question: “Are we alone in the universe?”

“When we think of a stereotypical alien, we tend to picture a small, green or gray humanoid with big eyes and an oversized noggin,” Gates says of our long-held notions about intergalactic life. “Green has been associated with aliens since at least the 1940s. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction credits the first usage to a story called “Mayaya’s Little Green Men” which appeared in Weird Tales in 1946.”

Host Josh Gates on the set of Expedition Unknown: Hunt for Extraterrestrials (Wednesdays at 9/8c on Travel Channel)

Of course, “little green men” aren’t the only alien archetypes in culture. Their gray cousins are popular guest stars in a myriad of TV shows — ranging from The X-Files to South Park.

“Blame H.G. Wells for that,” Gates continues. “In 1893 he wrote an article titled Man of the Year Million, where he postulated that the human race might end up as gray-skinned creatures with black eyes and large heads. Many of the Roswell reports also mentioned gray-skinned creatures, which helped fuel the depiction in popular culture.”

This classic depiction has endured for decades. The design isn’t random, it should be noted. While we’re all used to this depiction, the physicality of these aliens actually speaks volumes on how we, as a culture, perceive interplanetary explorers.

“Personally, I think aliens are often pictured with oversized heads and small bodies as a nod to their advanced intelligence,” Gates says. “They live above the neck, flying around the universe with little use for their physical bodies.”

While the green (or gray) aliens with big, bulbous heads are arguably the most enduring vision of mysterious visitors in pop culture, they surely aren’t the most frightening.

“Alien stories were fertile ground for sci-fi writers to offer social commentary,” says Gates. “In the 1980’s the culture of greed and excess was in the crosshairs of John Carpenter’s cult classic They Live. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is as much about one man’s obsession with an alien encounter as it is about the madness of life in 1970’s suburban America. It’s also not a coincidence that some of the greatest science fiction ever written was penned during the Cold War. In films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or in television shows like The Twilight Zone, aliens often look just like us because they are us. In that era, humans were the scariest existential threat out there. “

To put it more simply: Aliens have been used as a narrative device within pop culture to act as a catharsis for our own fears and insecurities. Part of the reason why we love scary space adventures is that we all harbor an internal fear of the unknown. That’s why the truly horrifying depictions of aliens that have terrorized theaters for decades are among the most popular. But it raises the question: What is the scariest alien of all time?

“If I have to choose just one, it has to be the Xenomorph from Alien,” Gates says. “It’s based on the designs of Swiss artist H. R. Giger, the creature is the perfect combination of horrifying, graceful, strangely sexual, and utterly…other. Nearly 40 years after the release of the film, the chest-bursting Xenomorph is just as scary as ever and still commands the throne of alien villains.”

Perhaps the most interesting thing about how we imagine our various ETs is that we can easily draw a line between pop culture’s depiction of aliens and the cultural zeitgeist that was present when those depictions first materialized. As Gates so eloquently put it, alien stories were — and are — the perfect space for writers and creators to make a statement on current events without actually saying anything directly. So, if that was true then, is it true now? Will current events shape the way we depict aliens in the future?

“That’s a terrifying concept,” says Gates. “But, actually, I think technology and social media will be more influential to future alien designs than otherworldly politicians. Like many people, I’m nervous that our obsession with screens and followers is isolating us and dumbing us down.”

Though, it’s fair to argue that we’ve already seen modern influence affect alien stories. “The Matrix really started a new wave of aliens that tapped into this,” he continued. “It’s why shows like Black Mirror are so delightfully creepy. I think the convergence of machines, AI, and humanity is ripe for alien stories.”

But the question still lingers: How will our view of aliens evolve? What’s coming next? The answer — as cheesy as it may sound — is in the stars.

Expedition Unknown: Hunt for Extraterrestrials premieres Wednesday at 9/8c on Travel Channel. See below for a sneak peek from the show!