How Hollywood and news media shaped Alabama’s remarkable extraterrestial history
The interrelation between staged news photography, Cold War paranoia and Hollywood science-fiction
On November 30, 1954 a meteorite hit a house in the small town of Sylacauga, Alabama. Ann Elizabeth Fowles Hodges was feeling a bit ill and was taking a nap on her couch. She was sleeping, wrapped in quilts, when a grapefruit-sized 8,5 pound meteorite broke through the ceiling, bounced off a radio set, and hit her. Ann Hodges was rushed to the hospital, but aside from an enormous black bruise on her thigh and a slight aberration on her hand, no lasting physical harm was caused. There was a rather invasive photo taken in the hospital, on which a doctor shows Ann’s enormous bruise to an media photographer. Striking is the bruise, which looks dark and speckled, somewhat reminiscent of NASA’s pictures of milky ways, which almost everyone is now familiar with. Ann Hodges looks somewhat apathic dazed. The story of a small town woman getting hit by a meteorite was documented by several news photographers in different forms, and is most likely remembered because of its prevalence in media. “Think of how many people have lived throughout human history,” Michael Reynolds said, author of the book “Falling Stars: A Guide to Meteors and Meteorites,” “You have a better chance of getting hit by a tornado and a bolt of lightning and a hurricane all at the same time.” It’s a unique and remarkable story, which captivated readers all around the globe.
One of the most bizarre images that was taken soon after the event, shows Ann is lying in her bed laughing, still recovering from her injuries (see figure 2). Next to her is husband Eugene, cradling the meteorite like a new-born baby. What’s notable is that in most of the images that were taken during or after the Sylacauga meteorite event, men take central stage. One photograph that was published months after the event, three men — one a geologist, the other a police chief and a military general — hover over an enormous map of Alabama. One of them holds up the meteorite and points to the place where it hit the ground. Decades later, the picture was featured in a series curated by Regine Petersen, which was called ‘Men With Meteorites’; a collection of images with a self-explanatory title that display the commodity of this phenomenon but leaves it up to the viewer to make (moral) judgements. The image of these men is particularly telling of the time period. 1950s United States was a man’s world, and therefore it is not surprising that the men in charge of several authorities — in the case of the Sylacauga meteorite those were science, law enforcement and the military — were eagerly claiming authorship over the space rock that caused a small town disaster (or miracle, depending on who you’d ask). Ann endured the suffering, then men took the stage . The important men gather and pose in front of the camera, while Ann Hodges is willfully excluded from the picture. ‘To photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude,’ wrote Susan Sontag in an essay. With that phrase in mind, one could argue that the image itself is a striking symbol of 1950s patriarchal American society, but there is even more to it.
The fact that the image is obviously staged, recalls a time when ‘fake news’ was not such a widespread and emotionally-laden term as it is in the post-Trump era. It was not until the violent, non-staged war photography of Vietnam became mainstream that American news photographers would casually stage photos to illustrate their written stories, as happened with Ann Hodges’ extraterrestrial ordeal. Newspaper photographers made a living out of carefully orchestrating images, whether they were shooting wars far overseas, or taking pictures of small town happenings.
It is not hard to see a correlation between this staged type of news photography and the works of Hollywood, which both serve the general public of information as well as entertainment. The movie business, which mastered the art of staging, had become one of America’s largest industries over the course of the 20th century. In the 1950s, The United States were considered champions of fabrication; globally known for their epic works of fiction in numerous forms . Comics, art, literature, but above all, movies became — and still are — the country’s biggest cultural cornerstones. But even as early as 1938, legendary filmmaker Orson Welles directed a radio play called The War Of The Worlds, which was based on the H. G. Wells 1898 novel of the same name. The play quickly became famous for supposedly tricking some of its listeners into believing that a Martian invasion was actually taking place due to the “breaking news” style of storytelling employed in the first half of the show. ‘Radio Listeners in panic, take war drama for fact,’ The New York Times posted after its broadcast. Despite frequent re-telling, this narrative is disputable; many researchers now claim that the play was an early example of how sensationalism and selective media attention is retroactively capable of fashioning just about anything into a spectacle. Maybe the reason for modern America’s obsession for science fiction and fabrication is rooted in their lack of a history. For when one can’t look for stories in the past, it makes sense to fabricate them about the future.
Welles’ influential radio play was turned into a sci-fi blockbuster about a Martian invasion one year before Ann Hodges was hit by an object from outer space. Only two years after the event, a drive-in cinema called ‘The Comet’ opened close to Ann’s home, its name likely a reference to the meteorite event (see figure 3). As almost all cinema’s at that time, this drive-in must’ve regularly showed sci-fi movies about aliens invasions and space explorations.
Sci-fi movies were quite popular at the time, likely because of the onset of the ‘space race’ (a Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to develop aerospace capabilities) and Cold War paranoia running high. Both of these developments manifested themselves into the sci-fi and horror genre. As the popularity of film noir slowly died down, sci-fi films like It Came From Outer Space (1953), Forbidden Planet (1956) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) capitalized on a general interest for space exploration and the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. According to many film theorists and academics, these low budget sci-fi movies represented America’s societal fears of the time. ‘Hundreds of science fiction films presented indirect expressions of anxiety about the possibility of a nuclear holocaust or a Communist invasion of America,’ wrote Victoria O’ Donnell. The films […] vary markedly in story, symbolism, and attitude toward the threat, but they are certainly aimed at specific political and scientific problems.’
These conditions may explain why the immediate response to the Sylacauga meteorite event was one of suspicion. Although the object was quickly claimed as a meteorite by a local geologist, not everyone in town agreed with him. According to a publication by the Alabama Museum of Natural History ‘Many thought a plane had crashed — others suspected the Soviets.’
Stars Fell On Alabama
Aside from the tense societal climate of 1950s America, it is also important to recognize that Alabama, the state Ann Hodges was living in at the time of the meteorite event, was a place with a long and vivid history of extra-terrestrial occurrences and supposed UFO sightings. In 1833, a meteor storm caused more than 30.000 meteorites to blaze over Alabama. “The sky was literally filled with fireworks, and people thought it was the end of the world. That was the night stars fell on Alabama and most of North America,” said Bill Cooke, an astronomer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The event was later immortalized in the song Stars fell on Alabama, which was a major hit in 1934. Furthermore, Alabama has an incredibly high rate of supposed UFO sightings. Wayne Ruple wrote a book about the many sightings and links them with cow mutilations and other supernatural occurrences that were reported in the state over the course of the past century. The Northeast Alabama town Fyffe — dubbed Alabama’s UFO capital, even celebrates an annual UFO festival, ever since February 11, 1989. During that night ‘more than 50 people, including the chief of police, reported seeing odd objects flying over the small community.’
One could speculate endlessly on the reasons for Alabama’s relatively high number of supposed UFO sightings and reports on other extraterrestrial incidents. Most likely, the large number of these reports are fueled by the state’s history as well as its rural and religious character. Researchers suggest that ‘UFO sightings spiked after the release of popular sci-fi flicks, such as the ever-popular X-Files, Independence Day and Steven Spielberg’s remake of War Of The Worlds.’ Alabama, having much affiliation with extra-terrestrial events, might be even more susceptible to the influence of these films — their exciting aesthetics, narratives and premises always in the back of their mind.
With the rise of social media, conspiracy theorists have esthablished lively online communities in which theories are discussed, shared and spread.
The power of these communities and acollective fascination for extraterrestial secrets were showcased in 2019, when a viral Facebook gag implored thousands of people to storm military base Area 51, to find proof of aliens supposedly being held there by the American government. In 2021, the Pentagon cheered enthusiasts and conspiracists in the search for extraterrestrial life when the Pentagon de-classified and publicly released three Navy videos that contain “unidentified aerial phenomena.”
However fascinating the United States’ (and especially Alabama’s) history of UFO sightings are, maybe Ann Hodges’ account remains such a memorable story because it is not some mysterious, unproveable scenario reminiscent of a science fiction film. Despite her story being staged through news hotographs, Ann Hodges was not a cardboard character from a movie, but an ordinary middle-class American. Reviewed outside of its context of Cold War paranoia, the event was a rare but scientifically explainable natural event. Nonetheless, the surroundings are significant, for they captured and shaped this simple yet layered tragedy about (bad) luck, sensationalism and greed. Still, the center of the story will always remain Ann Hodges, who, at the time, was portrayed as the lucky star of a small town miracle. In modern interpretations, however, the space rock became an antagonist. Only after Ann Hodges suffered a mental breakdown and died a premature death, journalists turned Ann’s encounter with the meteorite into a narrative of suffering and tragedy.
Aside from the mental strain that the crash must’ve caused for Ann, she and her husband were caught up in an exhausting legal squabble with their landlady, who claimed ownership of the rock. After public outrage, Ann got the rock back, but failed to find a suitable buyer after all the time that had passed. When she got the meteorite back, she said: ‘I think God intended it for me. After all, it hit me!’ As with many spectacles, media interest for the story had quickly died down, after which the couple failed to find a buyer. She therefore donated the meteorite to the Alabama Museum of Natural History in 1956, where the rock is still on display. At the time, nothing was written on the traumatic impact such a rare occurrence must’ve had on a human being. Nor did anybody care for the psychological strain that the sudden burst of media attention must’ve caused for Ann. Museum director Randy Mecredy later claimed that Ann wasn’t a person who sought out the limelight. ‘The Hodgesses were just simple country people, and I really think that all the attention was her downfall’, he stated.
In August 2020, at the height of the corona virus pandemic, a Indonesian man named Josua Hutagalung, a coffin maker in a village in Sumatra, was at home when heard a odd noise from above and — seconds later — a loud crash outside. Just like Ann decades earlier, he found that a meteorite had crashed through the roof of his home. But what differed mostly was that in times of internet and social media, word got around quickly after the man posted blurry pictures of the meteorite to his Facebook profile. Not soon after, an American collector flew out to Indonesia to buy the meteorite and global media ate the story up. The BBC later reported that ‘it was suggested that the find was worth $1.8m, making the man an overnight millionaire — and if he wasn’t, they debated whether he’d been short-changed selling it to US buyers. Neither of these things seemed to be true.’ It turned out he sold the rock to the collector for only 200 million Rupee, which is around 14,000 US dollars. Nonetheless, the story starkly contrasts with Ann Hodges’ tale of tragedy, for even if Hutagalung’s earnings were greatly exaggerated, is it still a story with a happy end.
Newspapers seemed to liked Hutagalung’s story so much they got carried away with it, not even bothering to confirm facts. Maybe that’s because they are similar to the popular stories of lottery winners: narratives that taps into fantasies of ordinary people suddenly becoming rich and famous - effortless and overnight. And of course there is the compelling idea of an unremarkable person being touched by something from the heavens; inciting philosophical examination on the mysteries of space, or the possible religious meanings behind such an extraordinary event. Just as Hollywood’s science fiction movies, Ann Hodges’ and Josua Hutagalungs stories force us to reflect on the incredible forces of nature and the vastness of outer space, concepts which exceed the limits or our everyday considerations.