Area 51: Why does a military compound in the desert attract millions from all over the world? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 20.09.2019
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Area 51: Why does a military compound in the desert attract millions from all over the world?

It may have started as a joke, but just how many of the two million people "attending" an Area 51 alien hunting event on Facebook are laughing or taking it seriously, no one knows. The US military has issued a warning.

It's a secret military compound in the middle of the Nevada desert. From time to time, strange looking objects can be spotted flying above the high barbed wire fence. This area ticks all the boxes needed for a popular conspiracy theory.

For decades, rumors about the US military compound Area 51 have inspired the wildest theories about what's inside the secretive zone. Some are convinced that the US government is hiding aliens behind the fence. Now, around two million people are determined to meet them face-to-face. Or so they say.

An event to "storm" Area 51 on September 20, 2019 has been created onFacebook. "They can't stop us all," and "Lets [sic] see them aliens," it says on the event page.

Read more: As millions flock to Area 51, scientists say extraterrestrial life isn't impossible

"Kind of a joke"

The event's popularity has bemused pranksters worldwide, and likely conspiracy theorists alike. Not all of the 1.9 million people who have clicked "attending" are serious about it. 20-year-old Matty Roberts, who created the event with two other Facebook users, told a local TV station in Las Vegas, KLAS-TV, the event "was kind of a joke."

It got a little "spooky," he said, when the event really took off. After 500,000 people sent R.S.V.P.s, he was afraid the FBI would come to his house. He is now considering organizing a festival in the area instead. But Roberts has long lost control of the matter.

"Nessie" (read: the Loch Ness monster) will be hunted, too

Roberts' idea has found imitators all over the world. There are several Facebook groups, some of which have more than 10,000 members, that say their purpose is to invade Area 51.

Other conspiracy-theory hotspots around the world are being targeted, too. Similar events have been created about the Loch Ness monster and the Bermuda Triangle. More than 28,000 people have R.S.V.P'd to a Facebook event in September to storm Loch Ness — a freshwater lake in the Scottish Highlands, where the legend of the Loch Ness monster is premised. The British Sea Rescue Organization RNLI is already worried as Loch Ness is known for its deep and unpredictable waters.

Why Area 51?

Like Loch Ness, Area 51 has become immortalized in pop culture thanks to conspiracy theories. It's appeared in several films, including blockbusters like Independence Day, and was even the sole subject of a 2015 science-fiction film called Area 51.

It wasn't until 2013 that the US military officially confirmed that the area existed, even though they had been using it to develop military and spy planes since World War II.

The rumors about aliens on the site were fed by American Bob Lazar, who claimed to have worked on UFOs near the military site back in 1989. A documentary about Lazar was released in 2018, and his story again gained attention in June 2019 when he was interviewed by American comedian Joe Rogan — it was this interview that Matty Roberts, the "storm" event creator, told KLAS-TV inspired him to make the "joke" invitation on Facebook.

USA Nevada | Mugs with Area 51, the military compound that sparked conspiracy theories about aliens (Getty Images/AFP/D. Becker)

Profit is made from the hype around Area 51

A gold mine for local businesses

Residents and business owners in Nevada have been capitalizing on the alien conspiracy theories for years, long before the Facebook event was created. Restaurants and hotels in the area are decorated in alien style, selling "E.T. burgers" and "alien tequila." Many are already fully booked for September 20, 2019. The only so-called "Extraterrestrial Highway" in the US leads visitors into the area.

The Area 51 spectacle also provides great fodder for the internet's meme tinkerers. (For those unfamiliar with the term "meme" — see below). The number of memes about Area 51 has exploded since the Facebook event was published.

Media around the world are preparing to report on September 20. But it's not actually clear whether the event will take place. The US military has issued an official warning for those planning to enter the highly secured area.

Why Area 51 is called Area 51 is not even known by the much-quoted Encyclopedia Britannica. What's going on inside the military premises is just as much of a mystery.

After all, if we did know what was hidden behind the walls of Area 51, it would likely lose its extraordinary sense of attraction.

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