Pencil-Neck Aliens

by Martin S. Kottmeyer

Aliens with long, thin necks are currently "in." Reports and drawings of these pencil-neck Greys seem to be everywhere. They've turned up on T-shirts, made for TV films -- Intruders (1992) -- and in dozens of magazines and books. The proliferation of this trait among contemporary aliens may be a telling indication that our taste in aliens is as subject to fadism as our taste in clothing styles.

One has to grant that pencil necks have more aesthetic logic than biologic sense. The slenderness of these necks undeniably lend elegance to present-day aliens and enhance their overall anorexic appearance. Propping oversized craniums on top of such skinny supports however raises concerns this species is whiplash bait. What business have such aliens in vehicles which legend has it have a benchant for bone-bending right angle turns and ultra-air-brake stops?

The pencil-neck is a strikingly recent innovation. Early studies of ufonauts -- Coral and Jim Lorenzens's Flying Saucer Occupants (1967), Charles Bowen's The Humanoids (1969), and James McCampbell's Ufology (1973) -- say nothing about aliens with long thin necks. They certainly weren't common. I'm doubtful there was a single unambiguous instance of a pencil-neck alien prior to the Eighties. I've rummaged through the drawings of all the major cases -- the Flatwoods monster, Kelly-Hopkinsville, Barny and Betty Hill, Herb Schirmer, Pascagoula, Charles Moody, Travis Walton -- and they are nowhere to be seen. They aren't visible in the first two books of the Betty Andreasson series either, but they do put in a cameo appearance in The Watchers (1990). They seem to arrive en masse in 1987 with no less than five drawings of pencil- necks in Budd Hopkins' Intruders and the very prominent example staring out from the cover the Whitley Strieber's Communion. These works were popular and influential to the degree that it is now part of the stereotype of the Grey as noted by David Jacobs in his abductee study, Secret Life.

The source of these pencil-necks is not hard to guess at. The alien which communicates by hand gestures at the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) possesses a long, slender neck. Like Hopkins' drawings, there is also a notable lack of sense organs, hair, and no white to the eyes. The similarities are too obvious to dismiss as coincidence. CE3K's aliens were the first in the long history of film aliens to possess long, thin necks. A few readers at this point will object. It is widely known that J. Allen Hynek was a consultant on the film. Hynek was one of the most knowledgeable students of the UFO phenomenon in this country. He may have avoided the popular cases mentioned earlier because of their controversial status and gave Spielberg some little known, but high-quality cases from his investigation files. Surely Hynek's presence means the aliens were based on "real" cases. Hopkins' drawings merely corroborate the existence of those little-known aliens.

While this scenario sounds highly plausible, it happens to be wrong. Interviews with Spielberg and the designers of the film's aliens in various forums document the creative process behind the construction of the Mothership aliens. No "real" UFO reports or alien drawings were used. The Fall 1978 issue of Cinefantastique provided a fully detailed history of how the aliens that appeared in the film evolved from initial desires to the final product. It's as amusing as it is eye-opening.

Frank Griffin, a make-up artist on Westworld, Star Trek, and Time Tunnel, was involved in the earliest stages of the project. He states that Spielberg, from the beginning, wanted aliens with large heads and long limbs, but beyond that everything was very abstract. There were at least eight sketches from which Spielberg selected bits and pieces. From an alien with an ant-like or cricket-like head it gradually got transformed into something resembling Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Tom Burman got the job of building the masks and molds which took about three months. Spielberg balked when he saw the actual product in three dimensions. Julia Philips, his assistant, freaked and threatened Burman with a twenty million dollar lawsuit. Three new designs were quickly sculpted and sent to Spielberg for approval. In ten days the new selection was fashioned over the original framework. Spielberg, on seeing them, just sighed and headed for the film site in Mobile, Alabama, hopeful he could re-think things. Spielberg ended up using Burman's masks, but he carefully avoided any close-ups and tended to keep them backlit so they wouldn't be easily scrutinized. Burman didn't get screen credit because of Spielberg's dissatisfaction.

While in Mobile, Spielberg got the idea of an alien with a long neck and lithe arms which could wrap around a person three or four times. Bob Baker, a puppet maker, was called in to develop the concept. Initial drawings had a neck which came forward making it a lazy "S." The eyes had light beams coming out of it. The brain could be seen moving in it. Skin trailed off of it. It wa a bit too much.

Carlo Rimbaldi, who had just done some technical work for the disastrous King Kong remake by Dino De Laurentiis, next got the assignment. Spielberg gave him no designs, but gave various suggestions about what he wanted such as a smile which would look like the ancient lama from Lost Horizon and a general faint resemblance to the child that played Barry. Rimbaldi incorporated his own notions of what a being might look like that was ten or twenty thousand years more advanced than us. With increased reliance on pure intellect, the head would be larger, but the sense organs of the nose and ear would atrophy. Increased reliance on technology would reduce the amount of musculature. All this is basically a variant of an argument once common in science fiction that H.G. Wells first put forward in his 1893 essay "The Man of the Year Million" (reprinted in Peter Baining's H.G. Wells Scrapbook). Wells' argument tends to be viewed as flawed nowadays because it ignores processes like sexual selection, brainpower being shunted into computers, and genetic manipulation of the human form for aesthetic purposes. No matter though. Spielberg loved it.

It should be incontestable from these facts that Close Encounters' aliens were shaped by creative imagination and not prior UFO reports. But for the happenstance that Rimbaldi was available when Spielberg called, we might today be confronted with a fad for snake-necked, laser-eyed aliens rather than the Wellsian pencil-neckers currently fashionable.

This history also presents clear problems for those who plan to entertain the notion that Spielberg was an unconscious abductee. Some abductees draw aliens more reminiscent of Burman's aliens than Rimbaldi's, but Spielberg clearly felt the final form was wrong. Spielberg's unconscious apparently wanted wildly-long wraparound arms, but that notion got down-sized in the final product. Where are the abductee accounts that match Spielberg's initial impression? It is also puzzling that Rimbaldi's designs should have been closer to the mark than Baker when you consider that Europeans (which Rimbaldi is) don't seem to have abduction experiences involving pencil-neck Greys.

A final question: Why didn't ufologists throw away the reports of pencil-neck aliens? People abducted by Spock, E.T., or Alien would certainly never be written up in the UFO literature assuming they didn't themselves recognize the cultural influence. The answer of course is that Hynek's association with the film misled ufologists into thinking there was a valid basis to the film's creation in the "real" UFO phenomenon. Only people who subscribe to magazines on science fiction film would know the whole story. Ufologists, Hopkins most especially, care little about science fiction. (See my article "Entirely Unpredisposed" in Magonia, January 1990, which is also available on Usenet and Bitnet "Skeptic".) [This is also available locally on David Bloomberg's BBS, The Temples of Syrinx. -- Ed.] The pencil-neck fad must ultimately be regarded as a cultural phenomenon since it was, in orgin, a human creation. Knowing the full story makes acceptance of them as a real extraterrestrial presence, you should pardon the expression, hard to swallow.

[Martin Kottmeyer lives in Carlyle, IL. He has written articles for several British publications, including Magonia, UFO Brigantia, and The Wild Places.]

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