Why is the Stereotypical Image of Aliens Green/Grey Bald Humanoids?

Joyme asks: Who first came up with the “little green men” stereotype for aliens?

Flying saucers, little green men, and anal probes have been a staple of our perception of aliens for as long as most of us have been alive. The reasoning behind the latter is a obvious- human scientists also can and do learn a lot about an animal by their feces- but where did the idea of short grey or green aliens actually come from in the first place?

As to little green men, the concept of green beings has been around for centuries, from Goblins to perhaps one of the most famous cases- the green children of Woolpit. For those not familiar, these were two children that seemed to have lived during the 12th century in England. When they were discovered in the fields, the little boy and the girl had green-tinged skin, wore strange clothes, spoke an unfamiliar language, and both refused to eat regular food for some time, apparently unfamiliar with it. If you’re interested in who they were, why their skin was green, and where they came from, check out our article here.

Fast-forwarding to the late 19th century, we have the first known instance of the term “little green men” being used to describe aliens, found in the Green Boy From Hurrah published in the Atlanta Constitution in 1899. In it, the story describes a short green skinned alien from- you guessed it- the planet Hurrah.

Much more famously Edgar Rice Burroughs’ early 20th century Barsoom series featured green aliens from Mars, though in this case they weren’t little at all, being about twice the height of humans.

Yet another mention from the early 20th century comes from the 1908 edition of the Daily Kennebec Journal where the term “little green man” is used referring to a Martian.

By the time of Orson Welles’ famed War of the Worlds broadcast in October of 1938, it would appear this idea was firmly established in pop-culture. After the supposed mass-panic that happened during that broadcast (which, in truth, didn’t actually happen at all contrary to popular belief), this nevertheless saw many columnists reporting on it the next day using the term “little green men” synonymously with “alien”. As is often the case today, these accounts seemed to mostly use the term more in jest to poke fun at the whole thing rather than literally describing aliens.

The trope has pretty much survived ever since in pop-culture, with short, green aliens appearing in countless fictional productions, including Doctor Who, Star Trek, Toy Story, and, perhaps the most famous of all little green aliens- Jedi Master Yoda.

Interestingly, despite widespread reference to “little green men” in many a news account describing potential abductions, among the alien abductions posited by ufologists as being somewhat credible, there has not yet been any where someone has claimed to have been abducted by “little green men” type aliens. (Though Lizard People are a thing, which we’ll be getting to in an upcoming article, assuming the Lizard People don’t silence us first.)

In contrast to the lack of little green men abductions, “little grey humanoids” is a popular description given by those who claim to have been abducted, accounting for a whopping 43% of all alien abduction reports in the United States,  50% in Australia, and 90% in the United States’ hat. As to why grey aliens prefer Canadians, we’re pretty sure it’s just because they’re super nice up there, if horrible drivers. Just as interesting is that only 12% of abduction reports in the UK and 20% in the rest of Europe describe some variant of grey skinned aliens doing the abducting.

So where did the common idea of hairless, large headed, black-eyed, grey skinned aliens actually come from in the first place?

The first documented instances of a description of such beings, though in this case with them being our own evolved selves, comes from H.G. Wells’ 1893 “Man of the Year Million”. In it, he describes humanity having evolved into large headed, black, oval-eyed, short grey-skinned beings, similar to what is commonly depicted when most people today think of grey aliens. Wells later repeated similar descriptions in other works, including sometimes representing aliens. (Clearly Wells must have been in the Lizard People’s inner circle to know about the grey aliens long before anyone would be abducted by them.)

From there, among others, Gustav Sandgren doubled down on this description of aliens in his 1933 book titled The Unknown Danger, where he states,

the creatures did not resemble any race of humans. They were short, shorter than the average Japanese, and their heads were big and bald, with strong, square foreheads, and very small noses and mouths, and weak chins. What was most extraordinary about them were the eyes—large, dark, gleaming, with a sharp gaze. They wore clothes made of soft grey fabric, and their limbs seemed to be similar to those of humans.

Fast-forwarding to 1947, the Roswell UFO incident purports to have featured little grey aliens, which has since further kept the trope alive.

That said, perhaps no other event solidified the idea of grey aliens in pop-culture more than one of the first ever instances of a supposed real life alien abduction. The people abducted were a husband and wife couple called Barney and Betty Hill in 1961.

In a nutshell, the couple were driving home from a trip late at night on September 19, 1961 in New Hampshire, when at approximately 10:30p, Betty claims to have seen a mysterious light off in the distances. Eventually the coupled stopped the car to get out and investigate, as well as to allow their dog to water some trees. In the meantime, Barney used a pair of binoculars to get a closer look at the mysterious light and observed a flying saucer of some sort off in the distance.

From here there is a gap in their memories until they were about 35 miles down the road. Perplexed with about two hours of missing time, the missing memories of a part of their road trip, minor scrapes and some damage to their clothing and back of their car, they otherwise shrugged it off and went to bed when they got home.

Shortly thereafter, Betty read a book about UFOs and then began to have some strange dreams, with her speculating to Barney that maybe they had been abducted by aliens as she vividly experienced in her dreams. Her husband, however, was having none of it at first. That is, until two years later when he and Betty underwent hypnosis to try to draw out repressed memories and he started remembering the event himself.

In short, Betty gave two accounts, one from her dreams and one from her supposedly recovered repressed memories, which differed considerably on several points. What she ended up supposedly remembering was some reasonably friendly grey, hairless aliens (initially claiming with huge bulbous noses, though she changed her story on that one later). The aliens took the couple aboard their ship and then gave them a thorough and a bit violating examination. At one point, while chatting with Betty in English, but seemingly telepathically, one of the examiners showed her a star chart map of where they came from.

Her husband also had similar memories, though less detailed as apparently he kept his eyes closed much of the time because of the alien eyes feeling like they were boring into his brain. He did report being probed anally as well as having some of his sperm extracted, among other things more or less similar to Betty’s experience.

However, among various discrepancies between their stories, he described the aliens as having hair and wearing Nazi-like uniforms.

Of course, as we previously noted in our article on whether repressed memories are actually a thing, the methods used in hypnosis and to try to recover supposed memories are quite literally textbook ways to get people to create false memories, sometimes even quite fantastical ones. Thus, purported memories recovered in this way tend to be treated with quite a bit of skepticism in modern times.

And, in fact, even then, the psychiatrist who hypnotized them, Dr. Benjamin Simon, concluded this very thing- that while he fully believed Betty (and then Barney himself finally believing after hypnosis) were completely sincere that they had been abducted, the good doctor believed their “memories” were not real and simply inspired by Betty’s dreams and research of various alien related content. Dr. Simon was apparently well ahead of his time.

On that note, a lot of the elements the couple described about the aliens resembled those already depicted in various works of fiction. Further, the technologies the aliens used were amazingly antiquated, mirroring the types of things you’d expect of someone living in 1961. On top of that, a beacon light on Cannon Mountain existed that was fully visible on the road approximately where Betty and Barney claim to have seen the mysterious light.

Betty’s later accounts of additional experiences with aliens would further erode her credibility in the eyes of most ufologists. As noted by paranormal investigator Robert Sheaffer,

I was present at the National UFO Conference in New York City in 1980, at which Betty presented some of the UFO photos she had taken. She showed what must have been well over two hundred slides, mostly of blips, blurs, and blobs against a dark background. These were supposed to be UFOs coming in close, chasing her car, landing, etc… After her talk had exceeded about twice its allotted time, Betty was literally jeered off the stage by what had been at first a very sympathetic audience. This incident, witnessed by many of UFOlogy’s leaders and top activists, removed any lingering doubts about Betty’s credibility—she had none. In 1995, Betty Hill wrote a self-published book, A Common Sense Approach to UFOs. It is filled with obviously delusional stories, such as seeing entire squadrons of UFOs in flight and a truck levitating above the freeway.

Nevertheless, the original incident made the news rounds and even inspired some productions based on the event, helping to popularize and reinforce the notion of grey aliens, even if not exactly as is otherwise commonly depicted. In fact, because of Betty and Barney, grey aliens are sometimes called Zeta Reticulans. This comes from the fact that Betty’s drawing of the star map she supposedly saw while on the ship was determined to line up with a binary system about 39.2 light years from Earth called Zeta Reticuli. That said, the idea that her description matched Zeta Reticuli was later debunked for various reasons. Nevertheless, the name has stuck.

On top of helping to popularize the Greys, the Betty and Barney abduction ended up kicking off a slew of others claiming they were likewise abducted with relatively similar stories.

The stereotypical view of grey aliens that had been around for over a half century up to that point was subsequently continually reinforced in cinema and TV since, such as in the 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as well as the 1989 Communion, starring Christopher Walken, based off the New York Times Bestselling book of the same name released two years before. After that came X-files, Stargate SG-1, South Park, and many more productions featuring variants of the Greys, ensuring the stereotype lives on long past H.G. Wells, who seemingly originally came up with it… or so the Lizard people would have us believe.

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Bonus Facts:

  • While today pretty much everyone pronounces UFO as U-F-O, it turns out that’s not the way the person who suggested the phrase “Unidentified Flying Object”, one Edward J. Ruppelt, pronounced it. You see, when Ruppelt suggested the name to describe these types of sightings, rather than “Flying Saucer” as was previously popular among the general public, he helpfully included a description of how to pronounce the acronymised “UFO”. So how did he say it? “Yoo-fo”… While his use of “Unidentified Flying Object” did catch on, obviously “Yoo-fo” did not.
  • Ever wonder why people think Area 51 houses aliens? Well, wonder no more- it turns out it is all because of one random man. In 1989 (yes, that recently) a guy by the name of Robert Lazar appeared on a Las Vegas TV Station saying he was a government scientist and stated that Area 51 was just chock-full of alien technology. After that, interest in Area 51 and aliens really started to gain momentum. Now, we should probably mention that almost as soon as Lazar appeared on TV, every single one of his credentials was pulled to pieces- no school he claimed to attend had ever heard of him and the science behind his presented hypotheses were soundly debunked. Yes, just to really drive the point home here- Roswell, UFOs, Aliens, little green men and Area 51 were in no way linked, as far as popular public opinion was concerned, until exactly one random dude went on TV and claimed that that was the case. Science!On that note, it’s important to realize what Area 51 actually is. For all intents and purposes and according to every government document ever released, Area 51 is a “secret” (but not so secret) military base where they test experimental pieces of military hardware. For example, experimental jets such as the SR-71 Blackbird and the Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady were tested at the Area 51 base. The latter of which was actually the first piece of hardware publicly known to have been constructed and tested there.The site Area 51 was built on was first chosen due to the incredibly smooth land found on nearby lake beds, coupled with the area’s natural inaccessibility. Both of these features made it perfect for testing aircraft like the Lockheed U-2 which required a large area of flat land from which it could take off and land, while at the same time required being in an area enemies of the US couldn’t, at the time, easily lay their peepers on.As for what it’s like to work at Area 51, unlike pop-culture would have you believe, the people who work there aren’t forbidden from ever speaking to their family or held in giant underground bunkers. Just ask James Noce, who worked in the secret facility for decades; though James has been sworn to secrecy about certain things, as is to be expected when you work on highly experimental classified government projects, he’s free to talk about many of his experiences there. For example, James noted that he was always paid in cash, whereas others were paid in cheques from companies they didn’t work for. Even more interesting, when a plane from Area 51 crashed once, James was tasked with confiscating the cameras of a nearby family, who were quickly rewarded with a fat stack of cash for their silence on what they saw.So what about Roswell and Area 51? Surely there must have been some popular connection before the late 1980s, right? Well, not so much. Though today some conspiracy theorists believe that the craft that crashed at Roswell was of alien origin and that it was or is now being stored in Area 51, when the incident in question first took place, Area 51 wasn’t mentioned in any documentation from that time.This should come as zero surprise to anyone who knows their geography as Area 51 is almost 1,000 miles from Roswell, so why they’d have transported it and the aliens all that way instead of other “secret” installations is a bit of a mystery, and certainly not something anyone in the public at the time would connect even if it were true.
  • Ever wonder what aliens might look like if we did encounter them? While you might think this is unknowable, and to some extent that is correct, there is a notion called convergent evolution that at least gives us some indications. The general idea here comes from the fact that various life forms have independently evolved a lot of the same basic features on Earth completely separate from one another. And, given many other planets would have relatively similar conditions as Earth in terms of some level of light, gravitational force, living creatures having need to intake sustenance for energy, etc., it is likely that an intelligent and advanced species would have certain broad features we can reasonably assume.As Professor Harry E Keller of Northeastern University notes, “Eyes? Of course. You have to see to build a civilization. The squid has better eyes than we do, and the eye seems to have evolved separately a few times at least. Our alien will have eyes that may only resemble ours superficially. A lens and iris are almost an absolute requirement. The whites do not have to be white. Neither does the iris have to be colored in anything like the way ours are. How many eyes? One just will not do. Inability to perceive distance will lead to rapid extinction. Unless you can find a good reason for it, extra eyes create evolutionary baggage and will not persist, spiders not withstanding. Eyes being important, they will be recessed and capable of being covered, as necessary. Our aliens are not likely to be bug-eyed, although we cannot totally rule that out…. Mouth? Must have means for ingestion of food. All large animals have some means to capture and swallow food. Some masticate it; others do not. Teeth are rather common on Earth but other systems of eating are possible. The problem is that plants and animals have been in an evolutionary war for millennia. We inherit the outcome of that war. Teeth were necessary to eat plants that became more fibrous, an evolutionary reaction to being eaten. There are other ways to sheer off plant food, such as what birds do. They ‘chew’ in their gizzards.”A similar line of thinking is that a technologically advanced species is likely to have a good way to manipulate objects in complex ways as this is a huge boon to an advancement of a species in the first place. Thus, something like hands and opposable thumbs would also seem to be more likely to be present in space-faring life forms we might encounter. Some sort of hard protective structure to store the central processing unit or units (i.e. the brain or brain centers) are also speculated to be likely for similar reasons to so many creatures on Earth evolving this feature. Evolutionary Biologist Dr. Simon Conway Morris adds, “Certainly it’s not the case that every Earth-like planet will have life let alone humanoids. But if you want a sophisticated plant it will look awfully like a flower. If you want a fly there’s only a few ways you can do that. If you want to swim, like a shark, there’s only a few ways you can do that. If you want to invent warm-bloodedness, like birds and mammals, there’s only a few ways to do that…. There is a growing interest in convergent evolution but I’m always willing to push it as far as I can. I’ll always say ‘show me anything which has only evolved once’ and I’ll try and jump up and say ‘no I can give you another example’. Convergence is ubiquitous and if you think complex things are difficult to make, well, with great respect, think again.”The sum of all of this is to point out that while Hollywood often depicts humanoid like intelligent beings for convenience in casting actors and reducing special effects budgets, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that aliens really would be at least slightly humanoid, with some form of eyes, ears, hands, limbs for moving about and grabbing things, etc. Of course, having all these features doesn’t necessarily mean looking that closely like a human- after all, an octopus is not that far from the basic recipe for a species with the potential to be technologically advanced if they evolved the right means for communication and things of this nature. But it at least, according to this hypothesis, makes it not unlikely that we might encounter aliens at some point that look not too dissimilar to ourselves or something we’re familiar with.That said, Seth Shostak and Susan Schneider of the SETI institute posit that it is far more likely that any other beings we encounter would be of the machine variety. Their reasoning is that, to begin with, as any species advances to the point of space travel or sending communications across vast distances in space (thus, ones we are more likely to encounter), they will likely have come up with something like computers we have today to offload various brain power tasks to machinery. Ultimately they will then advance those systems to the point where they are superior to the biological brain’s potential. At some point beyond that, they will likely figure out how to transfer their own sentience and memories to the machines or create machines that are themselves independently sentient. Because such machine beings would be superior to biological beings in countless ways, including ability to rapidly self improve and replicate in much more advanced ways, they would ultimately come to dominate.Even in societies that took active steps to avoid this, these groups would have much more trouble with interstellar space travel than their machine alternates, and thus it would further be unlikely for us to encounter those biologicals, compared to our chances of encountering the machines.On that note, grey-skinned aliens are often described by supposed abductees as having seemingly artificially smooth skin, like it’s made of some form of polymer, rather than biological in nature. This, combined with the fact that many abductees state that even when the greys were staring them straight in the eyes inches away from their faces they could not detect any breathing or the like, has lent some to speculate the greys are not actually biological beings, but rather robots. Clearly created by the Lizard People to do their bidding…
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