Ufologists are always keen to play down the amount of hoaxing that goes on within their field and, to be fair, hoaxes only account for a small proportion of UFO reports (as Jenny Randles pointed out recently in FT206’s UFO Files). But many of the central planks of the subject such as ‘good’ photographs, contactees and ‘leaked’ Government documents are rooted in hoaxes of varying complexity. It is only now, after more than a decade, that one of the most complex and influential UFO hoaxes has finally begun to unravel.
On 5 May 1995, FT’s Bob Rickard joined a large group of people, mainly ufologists but also representatives of various religions, journalists, MoD minions and others, gathered in the hushed darkness of the Museum of London’s film theatre (see FT81:41–43). They were there at the invitation of video entrepreneur Ray Santilli (above, seen at right) to view a film that would change the face of ufology for more than a decade: a film showing an autopsy on a non-human creature – possibly, it was hinted, from the infamous 1947 Roswell Incident.
Santilli later related how he had been offered the film while on a visit to the USA to buy up film of Elvis Presley and other early rock ’n’ roll stars. When a retired military cameraman showed him the special footage he’d harboured for over 40 years, Santilli was indeed all shook up. It was too good an offer to turn down, so he raised the cash and brought the film, all 22 reels of it, back to the UK, where it was edited down into usable material, and the rest is history. Until now.
Santilli’s story, and the subject matter of the film, came at just the right time for ufology. The hit TV show The X-Files was making cultural waves and clueing the general public in on the possibility that alien craft really had crashed and were in the possession of the military. Conspiracies were everywhere, and the Western world was primed and ready for some actual evidence. Santilli’s film appeared to deliver just that. Despite warnings issued by wiser and more experienced ufologists, the mass media saw the film as easy, punter-grabbing copy: the ‘Alien Autopsy’ (AA) film, as it became known, was seen by an estimated 1.2 billion people across the globe, splashed across a thousand newspapers and turned into a mega-selling video.
Since 1995, ufologists have been arguing over the film’s authenticity, with some diehards desperately trying to shoehorn the footage into one of many ‘crashed saucer’ scenarios. Along the way, a number of experts from the fields of model-making, forensic pathology and other disciplines came out in vocal support of the film being genuine. But none of their questions could be answered, because Santilli consistently refused to allow the film stock to be properly analysed and changed portions of his story over the years.
Time passed, and during 2005 rumour had it that Santilli was involved in making a movie about the AA film. Not a ‘serious’ movie but a comedy, directed by Jonny Campbell and starring the modern equivalent of Pinky and Perky, former child actors Ant and Dec (Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly – top right). But why was the man who discovered ‘The Greatest Story Ever Sold’ selling out by making a comedy, even one billed as being “based on true events”? The reason soon became clear: Santilli was finally going to reveal the real ‘truth’ about the AA film, and it could be no coincidence that this ‘truth’ was to be revealed just two days before the film hit the cinemas on 7 April.
Santilli had conspired with the incestuous TV industry to appear on a programme called Eamonn Investigates… The Alien Autopsy film. The Eamonn in question, former breakfast TV anchor man Eamonn Holmes (opposite, bottom), revealed the ‘truth’ at 8.00pm on 4 April on Sky One, playing the part of a hard-nosed investigator, keen to learn the truth about the AA film. This was post-modern docu-comedy at its best (or worst), with all parties clearly in the know and hamming it up to create yet another ‘truth’ about the AA film.
So, what lay behind the alien on the autopsy film itself? Well, it’s not so much what lay behind as what lay within: sheep’s brains in jelly. No prizes for guessing that the alien, the autopsy and the hype surrounding them were all a hoax. However, Santilli didn’t like the word ‘hoax’. He much preferred the term ‘restoration’, for the simple reason that, while his film had been a mock-up, there really had been a real AA film! What? Santilli was patient with Holmes (no Sherlock, this one) and carefully explained that there had been an original AA film and there had been a genuine military cameraman behind it, but by the time Santilli and co. had raised the cash to buy it, the film stock had deteriorated. So the only way to show the world the truth (and recoup their investment of course) was to make a ‘restoration’ – the kicker being that tiny parts of the Santilli AA film were from the original AA film. “How much?” asked Holmes. “I don’t think any of us knows anymore,” smirked Santilli’s sidekick Gary Shoefield (opposite left, seen at left). “Less than five per cent,” Santilli smirked back. In fact, Santilli and Shoefield did more smirking than was strictly necessary as they related how they made shed-loads of cash from human gullibility.
It emerged that the AA film was shot in a flat in Camden’s Rochester Square, using a mannikin built by model maker and sculptor John Humphreys, who explained how he made the model and packed it with bits of dead animals bought from Smithfield market. Holmes duly questioned the butcher who had sold Humphreys the meat. Humphreys also played the surgeon in the AA film, so he could be sure that his model was treated like the cosmic cadaver it was supposed to be. But the blood on the knife as he sliced the critter – how did he do that? Glad you asked. Quite simply, he smeared animal blood on the unseen side of his surgeon’s knife, which trickled off as he made the ‘cut’, giving the illusion that the blood came from the newly opened body.
By all accounts, they had a real laugh making the AA film, even when the first ‘alien’ didn’t work and they had to create a new one. A “fun atmosphere” was how Humphreys described the experience, which also involved some of Santilli’s work colleagues playing other roles. The recreation of this sequence in Campbell’s Alien Autopsy really is the highpoint of the movie, with its farcical depiction of dotty relatives, actors slipping on gore and extras fainting on the set.
A model, some genuine instruments, shaky film and lots of raw meat: all rather obvious now you think about it. But at the time, when seen in the context of the prevalent Roswell myth, well, it all seemed to make sense to a great many people. Ufological sleuths were quickly on the case, trying to track down the original cameraman, as only he could back up Santilli’s claims and give the story the authenticity it needed. And lo, Santilli came up with the goods, organising a TV interview with the cameraman (played effectively in the movie by Harry Dean Stanton), who, of course, supported Santilli’s story of the film’s provenance and subject matter. In Eamonn Investigates, the elusive snapper was revealed to be yet another twist in the Santilli-created hall of smoke and mirrors – just a bum picked up off the street and given lines to speak to camera. Another hoax, but one that put ufological sleuths off the scent of the real cameraman. Confused? Well, you should be keeping up then!
In the early days of their attempts at marketing the film, the hoaxers approached a number of tabloid newspapers, all of which offered them largish sums of money to tell the film’s story. The News of the World offered the most, a rather tempting £50,000, and Santilli was all set to go with it until the editor revealed that he would want the film verified first and that payment wouldn’t be forthcoming until after publication. Oddly – or perhaps not – Santilli severed further communication and decided to market the film himself, largely through dupes in the UFO field.
Ufologists, for all their self-styled investigative rigour, had been waiting for years for something like the AA film, which at last give them the credibility they craved. The British UFO Research Association’s (BUFORA) Sheffield conference in 1995 was largely given over to promoting the film to ufology and to the media. Unfortunately, the media, while happy to sell papers on the back of the AA hype, decided the AA film was risible. The film’s corrosive influence set serious ufology back many years and was effectively the beginning of the end for BUFORA. The media once again associated ufologists with cranks, crackpots and people desperately seeking something.
So, was any of this contrived television exposé true? Who can tell? The AA film is now surrounded by so many layers of falsehood and deceit that it would be unwise to take Eamonn Holmes’s ‘investigation’ as the final word. That the AA film was a hoax is about all we can deduce for certain. And whatever you may think about hoaxing and hoaxers, credit must go to Santilli and chums for being shrewd, highly manipulative masters of popular culture who had the Big Idea, the cash and, most importantly, the cojones to carry it off, fooling millions – and making millions – along the way. The Never Ending Story, with its tantalizing promise that genuine alien footage still exists, will allow them to milk the easily gulled for years to come, while adding yet more layers to the mishmash of disparate elements that is ufology.
All in all, there was a lot of talk and little analysis in Eamonn Investigates. Forteans, when they see the programme, will be mulling over what it tells them about the power of the media and human credulity, which is seemingly limitless. The exposé also speaks volumes about the degree to which we put our faith in so called ‘experts’ when they tell us that a rubber mannikin, sheep’s brains and buckets of animal blood make an alien and that ham-fisted Londoners are trained military autopsy personnel.
Perhaps we should leave the last word to the UK’s Philip Mantle, ufological maven and one of the unwitting pawns in Santilli’s game, who did much to help publicise the AA film: “After watching this tonight I can honestly say that I do not believe one word of either Santilli or Shoefield and I have no doubt that the film is nothing more than a complete fake. There never was any original film and there never was any US military cameraman. Santilli & Shoefield had little credibility as it was, but now they have none.”
For the strange saga of FT’s own involvement in the tale – black-and-white prints and then an actual model head of a similar ‘alien’ were delivered to Fortean Towers back in 1995 and 1996, their provenance never properly explained – see FT83:6; 84:33 and 89:17.