Area 51: America’s Secret Base

As I remember Las Vegas in the 1990s, alien conspiracies were about as hot as the summer sun. My parents frequently tuned in to TV shows like “Roswell” and “The X-Files”, one of the state highways outside of the city was renamed “The Extraterrestrial Highway”, and the minor league baseball team in town became the “51s.” However, Nevada wasn’t always at the center of an alien conspiracy. The attention began in earnest after a short interview on a local TV station in 1989. Investigative reporter George Knapp presented viewers to an anonymous man,  revealed in later interviews to be Bob Lazar, who shared an extraordinary story.

As Lazar told it, he was hired through a contractor in 1988 to work at a secret military base known as Area 51 (Corbell, 2018). This area, a secluded and well-guarded military zone located at a dry lake bed named Groom Lake 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, had been long been a site of frequent U.F.O. sightings and suspicion (Prothero, 2017). On his first day, Lazar was taken to a mysterious complex of hangers south of Groom Lake called S-4. After going through intense security, signing documents allowing his home phone to be monitored, and waving his constitutional rights, he was shown a flying saucer and told his task was to reverse engineer the alien anti-gravity technology. There were nine saucers overall, and several of them were functional. He was then given documents with explanations of the extraterrestrial origin of the craft and drawings of alien pilots. He claimed to make a total of ten trips to the site during which he learned about the existence of stable “element 115,” the source of gravity for the propulsion system, and saw a glimpse of a small, gray alien with a large head standing between two men dressed in white coats. Convinced that concealing advanced technology and proof of alien life was a crime against science and humanity, Lazar shared his experiences with close friends and family and took them to see the flight tests. After a series of events leading to his dismissal from the facility, Lazar began to fear for his life and came forward to Knapp to tell his story (Jacobson, 2011).

In the months that followed the initial interview (the first of several), the secrets at Area 51 became a global phenomenon. Area 51 and Bob Lazar’s story have become part of a wide-ranging conspiracy: that the government, either the United States or a globalist “New World Order,” has alien technology and pilots hidden in a secret testing facility. Others take this belief further and claim that aliens live in the surrounding towns and instruct government pilots in exchange for humans as test subjects in scientific experiments (Knight, 2003). If these extraordinary claims were substantiated, they would shatter much of what is generally believed to be true about the U.S. Government, alien life, and technological capability. Nonetheless, an incredible number of people currently believe in these conspiracies and related ideas. For example, a poll in 2013 showed that about 91 million Americans (29%) believe that alien life exists and 66 million (21%) believe that the government covered up a U.F.O. crash at Roswell in 1947 (Public Policy Polling, 2013). Further, a recent documentary about Area 51 and Bob Lazar’s story indicates sustained interest in the truth at Groom Lake (Corbell, 2018).

As exciting as the possibility of anti-gravity spacecraft in Nevada might be, no physical evidence has ever been produced to validate Lazar’s and others’ claims about Area 51. In fact, Lazar’s story has drawn intense skepticism from the beginning. Many of the claims about his education and work experience, including his time at MIT, Caltech, and Los Alamos National Laboratory, cannot be verified (Jacobsen, 2011). He has also been criminally involved several times, including a 1990 conviction for aiding a prostitution ring (Bates, 1990) and a guilty plea in 2007 for shipping restricted chemicals across state lines (US Consumer Product Safety Commission, 2007), raising questions about his character. Possibly just as concerning, Lazar admits to using hypnosis to recall memories of his experiences at Area 51 in the new documentary (Corbell, 2018). Conversely, the U.S. Government has released troves of documents about the military base at Area 51 in the last decade which acknowledge the existence of the base (Kramer, 2013) and describe the purpose of the facility as a testing site for nuclear weapons and stealth American aircraft. In her book, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, Annie Jacobsen interviewed 19 men who served on the based secretly for decades as well as 55 other military and intelligence personnel with knowledge of the operations of the base who all corroborate the declassified information (Jacobsen, 2011).

Millions of people, including Bob Lazar and the producer of the recent documentary about him, continue to believe that the U.S. Government is involved in an alien conspiracy. It should be noted that the military has been highly secretive about any operations at the facility and only confirmed its existence five years ago. In addition, there is some evidence that the military may have fueled suspicion (or at least permitted the stories to be propagated) about alien aircraft in order to distract from their real operations (Jacobsen, 2011). However, with so much contradictory evidence available now, several cognitive errors seem to be at play in their commitment to this belief. First, scientific inquiry has established that our systems of perception and memory make consistent errors. Lazar (assuming he’s not completely fabricating his whole story) and those who claim to have seen alien spacecraft in Nevada likely saw something, but the human visual system predictably sees patterns with incomplete information. Further, confirmation bias makes it more likely to see and understand things in a way that confirms a previously held belief, such as the conviction about a government conspiracy already. Lazar could have worked at an Area 51 facility, but what he perceived is dependent on what he wanted to see. Second, memory is malleable, and the fact that Lazar and many other believers in alien encounters undergo hypnosis to remember their experiences raises concern about the origin of their claims. Third, Lazar and other firm alien believers have spent much of their time, money, and reputations to uncover the truth about this base. With any belief that involves high expense, cognitive dissonance makes it incredibly difficult to leave that belief behind when confronted with other information.

Like any conspiracy theory, the social context is an integral part of the belief formation. Fears about alien visitations and government conspiracies to hide them came about in the 1940s and 50s when lives were being uprooted and vanished by violent governments and new technology. The Cold War that followed was a time when governments operated in the dark and concealed military programs. In the face of misinformation and death, a person can feel powerless and alone. However, belief in conspiracies can provide a tempting escape, social support from other believers, and superiority over those who “can’t see.” It is often difficult and painful to gather substantiated evidence and reevaluate your own convictions, yet the decision to believe requires nothing but the conviction to do it.

Barring an actual alien invasion, Area 51 will likely remain a source of secrecy and conspiracy. With modern fears about new technology, corrupt governments, and continued clandestine operations of our military, it is no wonder to me why people hold fast to the allure of alien secrets. Those who do accept that premise may accuse me of simply believing the government’s narrative so I can maintain the illusion of comfort in my life. In fact, this isn’t true at all. I do believe that a government conspiracy is happening: a conspiracy by malicious governments around the globe to stir up misinformation about aliens, vaccines, fluoride, and reptilians to distract us from the very real ways they are killing and taking advantage of vulnerable people in pursuit of power.

Works Cited

Bates, W. “Judge Gives UFO “Witness” Lazar Probation on pandering charge”. (1990, August 21). Las Vegas Review Journal. p. 2c.

Corbell, Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer (Director). (2018). Bob Lazar: Area 51 and Flying Saucers [Motion Picture]. United States. Available on Amazon Video.

Globalcities. (2017). Majority of humanity say we are not alone in the universe. Retrieved March 27, 2019, from

Jacobsen, A. M. (2011). Area 51: An uncensored history of America’s top-secret military base. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Kramer, M. (2013, August 17). Newly Declassified Map Reveals Area 51 Exists. Retrieved March 27, 2019, from

Knight, P. (2003). Conspiracy theories in American history: An encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.

Prothero, D. R. (2017). Area 51: what is really going on there? UFOs and U-2s, aliens and A-12s. Skeptic (Altadena, CA), (2), 42.

Public Policy Polling. (2013, April 2). Democrats and Republicans differ on conspiracy theory beliefs. Retrieved March 27, 2019, from

US Consumer Product Safety Commission. New Mexico Company Fined, Ordered To Stop Selling Illegal Fireworks Components. (2016, August 22). Retrieved March 27, 2019, from U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission website:

A Fatal Gate: Reflections on the Beliefs of a UFO Cult

When 39 bodies identically dressed and positioned were found in a San Diego suburban house on March 26th, 1997, people were understandably shocked. The incredulity grew when it was revealed that every person intentionally ended their life as part of a religious group claiming aliens had come to take their spirits onto a spaceship. Soon after, videos surfaced of interviews with many of the group’s members cheerfully discussing their planned exit to their new immortal life––the “Next Level” (Krajicek, 2017). The group was named Heaven’s Gate, and the 39 people were the remaining followers of a religious movement that spanned three decades. Their last act cemented their legacy among the deadliest mass suicides in modern history. Remarkably, the website they used to proselyte can be accessed as it existed in 1997 due to the work of two believing members who manage the page and continue to fulfill requests for their religious materials (Feinberg, 2014).

The group has its origins in a chance meeting in 1972 between Marshall Herff Applewhite, an unemployed college music teacher who had been receiving treatment at a psychiatric hospital, and Bonnie Nettles. Nettles was a nurse at the hospital with a growing interest in biblical prophesy and extraterrestrials, and she met Applewhite at a time when her relationship with her husband was tenuous. According to Robert Balch and David Taylor, two sociologists who studied Heaven’s Gate extensively, Applewhite and Nettles “felt an immediate connection” and came to believe that they had been together in a previous life (2002). Applewhite had recently lost his job after having an affair with a male student, and he struggled deeply with his sexuality. He subsequently began hearing voices and had vivid dreams of men dressed in white proclaiming he was meant to fulfill a messianic mission. Nettles saw this dream as a prophecy and claimed she had received revelation from an extraterrestrial about meeting a person like Applewhite. Convinced of their importance, Nettles and Applewhite embarked on a six-month quest of studying the Bible, meditating, and praying.

Eventually, they came to believe that they were the Two Witnesses written about in Revelation Chapter 11. In the Bible, these two prophets are martyred, resurrected, and then taken up into heaven on a cloud. They interpreted the cloud as a spaceship and renamed the event “the Demonstration,” since in it they would reveal to the world the secret of overcoming death. Further, they believed the Earth was “a garden” that extraterrestrials, or members of the Kingdom of Heaven, had seeded with consciousness with the intention of harvesting those who were ready. Jesus had attempted this harvest, in which followers would become immortal, androgynous beings, but it had been delayed. All other religions of the world had been deceived by carnal beings who rejected the Next Level. Thus, Nettles and Applewhite began having public spiritual meetings to find people willing to train with them from 1972 to 1975. They attracted both interested people and the curious media, who quickly dismissed them as a misguided UFO cult. They proclaimed their role as the only two people on Earth in communication with the Kingdom of Heaven, and followers would need to rid themselves of their human mortality in order to “leave their vehicle,” or body, behind (Balch and Taylor, 2002).

The 1970s was a popular time period for new spiritual experiences outside of organized religion, and Nettles and Applewhite communicated a message that resonated with people seeking for a greater purpose. During the next twenty years, the group waxed and waned until only the most devoted these “seekers” remained. Some left as they faced evidence against the teachings of Nettles and Applewhite, known then as The Two or Ti and Do. While many of their claims about the nature of existence are unfalsifiable, they did make a specific prophesy about their death at the hands of their enemies. This event was supposed to occur early on, but eventually, they modified their interpretation to claim that they had suffered a murder of reputation by the media. Another challenge came in 1985 when Nettles died of liver cancer. As he had done throughout the group’s evolution, Applewhite adjusted the belief system to accommodate Nettles’ death and began to talk about the possibility of suicide (Balch and Taylor, 2002).

Overall, a mixture of cognitive biases, intentional behavior control, and isolation facilitated stronger and stronger belief in Nettles and Applewhite’s teachings. In his book about cults, Steven Hassan organizes these strategies in the BITE model, which stands for behavior, information, thought, and emotional control (Hassan, 2015). Perhaps the most vivid example of this control is the absolute restriction of sexual activity which led eight members, including Applewhite, to seek castration in order to conquer their sexual desires (Davis, 2000). In addition, Heaven’s Gate is a tragic example of cognitive dissonance as explained by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter in When Prophecy Fails (1956). Like other doomsday or UFO cults, followers of Heaven’s gate were asked to voluntarily give away all their possessions and cut ties with anyone in their formal life as part of their belief. As the years passed and the arrival of the extraterrestrials failed to occur, both the leaders and followers faced real-world evidence that refuted their belief system. However, they had isolated themselves from the rest of society and relied completely on each other for social support. Thus, those who remained became even more entrenched in the belief. Even after the majority of the members died and no spaceship arrived, two surviving followers maintain the group’s website while two others enacted their own suicides.

In a recent podcast about this ill-fated movement, parents of one of the women who died in 1997 try to reconcile the sweet, smart girl they raised with the woman found lifeless in San Diego wearing a “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” patch on a black shirt (Heppermann, 2017). It’s unimaginable to think that those we love could come to believe in something as extraordinary as Heaven’s Gate and die for it happily. But isn’t it human to want social connection and a higher sense of purpose? The truth is that we are all susceptible to cognitive biases and deception, even if we’re the ones who create the belief.

Curious to learn more? Use the links below to explore the Heaven’s Gate website or binge-listen the Heaven’s Gate podcast.

Works Cited

Balch, R. W., & Taylor D. (2002). Making Sense of the Heaven’s Gate Suicides. In Bromley, D. G., & Melton, J. G. (Ed.) Cults, religion, and violence. (pp. 209-228). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Davis, W. (2000). Heaven’s Gate: A Study of Religious Obedience. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 3(2), 241–267.

Feinberg, A. (September 17, 2014). The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from online-legacy-of-a-suicide-cult-and-the-webmasters-1617403237

Festinger, L., Riecken, H., & Schachter, S. (1956). When Prophecy Fails. Mansfield Center, CT: Martino Fine Books.

Hassan, S. (2015). Combating Cult Mind Control: The #1 Best-selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults. Freedom of Mind Press.

Heaven’s Gate – How and When It May Be Entered. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from

Heppermann, A. (Senior Producer). (2017). Heaven’s Gate [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

Krajicek, D. J. (March 25, 2017). A look at the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide on its 20th anniversary – NY Daily News. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from article-1.3008847