For three nights in the late summer and fall of 1995, tens of millions of Americans gathered around their televisions to catch a glimpse of some pixelated alien genitals.
The organs were part of what just might be Fox’s most infamous reality television special, Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Jonathan Frakes hosted the hourlong investigative spot, which purported to examine the legitimacy of fuzzy footage of an extraterrestrial cadaver, complete with a stomach-churning intestinal removal. The show speculated the alien could have been part of the alleged 1947 UFO crash near Roswell, New Mexico.
In many ways, Alien Autopsy anticipated the wave of disingenuous YouTube claims and conspiracy videos that would come to dominate the next century: Viewers wondered whether it was actually an E.T. or merely B.S. They’d get their answer—though perhaps not as quickly as they would have liked.
Aliens had been very good to Fox. One of the network’s biggest hits of the 1990s was The X-Files, with FBI agents Scully and Mulder (Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny) chasing little green men through middle America and a byzantine shadow government.
The network’s other pillar: reality specials. Under the direction of special programming executive Mike Darnell—who would go on to oversee American Idol—the channel drew ratings for inexpensive programming like When Animals Attack and World’s Scariest Police Chases. At one point, Fox aired upwards of 60 “specials” annually.
Combining the documentary-style programming with aliens seemed like a natural fit. And there was ideal subject matter: Grainy footage of an alleged alien autopsy obtained by a London video producer named Ray Santilli, who claimed he purchased it from a military photographer while searching for other documentary footage in 1992. The film was said to be shot by the United States Army shortly after recovering a body from the 1947 crash in Roswell that has since become an indelible part of UFO lore.
In 1995, Santilli told The Daily News it took two years of “haggling” before the photographer sold him the footage. “It sounded ridiculous, but the guy seemed genuine,” Santilli said.
To test the veracity of the film, Santilli claimed he had sent some of it to Kodak in an effort to try and date it; Kodak, he said, responded that the actual film could have been manufactured in 1927, 1947, or 1967. Skeptics pointed out that the Kodak representative only saw a portion of the negative, not anything depicting the alien autopsy.
The controversy did little to abate interest in the footage. Fox paid Santilli a rumored $150,000 to $250,000, as did numerous other production companies around the world. To insulate themselves against accusations of fooling the public, Darnell and Fox opted for an important subtitle, Fact or Fiction?, that cast doubt on whether the footage was authentic.
Unlike blurry footage of other controversial entities like Bigfoot, the autopsy film was eerie and superficially convincing. Splayed out on a table was a bloated alien corpse, six-fingered and with a distended belly. Officials hovered over the creature as it was sliced open and examined for its otherworldly anatomy. With entrails and brains spewing, it was gorier than some horror movies.
When it initially aired on August 28, 1995, Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? was presented with a requisite dose of skepticism. In addition to Frakes, the network enlisted a series of experts, including pathologists and special effects masters like Stan Winston, to opine on the credibility of the footage. Ultimately, the viewer was left to decide whether they were watching long-buried evidence of alien life or falling prey to Fox’s low bar for programming.
Puzzling it out was good for ratings. Alien Autopsy received an 8.1 share, meaning 8.1 percent of the 94.5 million homes with televisions were watching it. (Though it was still bested by The Nanny.) The special was so successful that Fox aired it twice more in the fall, including one “uncensored” version promising more alien gore.
Fact or Friction
Alien Autopsy was catnip for The Skeptical Inquirer, a periodical that used up a good deal of its page space debunking suspicious or scurrilous claims. While the publication ultimately declared that Fox had cheated viewers out of examining the footage objectively—only three or four minutes of the purported 17-minute film was actually shown—they did give the channel credit [PDF] for allowing some guests to at least discuss the possibility it could be a hoax.
“The snippets the producers chose to air looked convincing in many ways,” wrote science writer C. Eugene Emery, Jr. “Scalpels seemed to cut flesh. A skin flap from the skull seemed to be pulled over the face. Dark innards were removed from the brain area and body cavity, and placed into pans. The tools and equipment seemed to be from the right era.”
But Emery also pointed out a number of glaring inconsistencies. Why, for example, was the alien brain so easily plucked from the skull without having to sever connective tissue? And why ask Winston and others about the difficulty of the film being faked in 1947, not 1995?
Another early hint the film may not have been legitimate came in 1997, when Santilli posted photos of the film canisters he said contained the autopsy video. The film reels had “Department of Defense” written on them, but the government agency didn’t exist under that name in 1947, when the Roswell crash was said to have taken place. (It was originally known as the National Military Establishment, and wasn’t renamed until August 10, 1949.)
Fox was the first to blow the whistle, cannibalizing the 3-year-old special to feed a 1998 program titled World’s Greatest Hoaxes: Secrets Finally Revealed. Among the revelations was that “NASA-type video enhancements” had been used to identify a man named Elliott Willis in some previously-unseen and seemingly unrelated alien autopsy footage. Willis said he had been instructed to help fabricate an alien autopsy video. Though it was not the same one ultimately shown on Fox, Willis said that the same “British businessman” who commissioned the first film was behind the second—he had opted to shoot another, Willis said, to make it more elaborate.
At the time, the identity of the second filmmaker was still a mystery. Then, in 2017, filmmaker Spyros Melaris elaborated on the second project. Melaris said he had been contacted by Santilli to work on an alien autopsy video. The alien in the footage was no once-living creature but a model cooked up for him by onetime Doctor Who special effects artist John Humphreys. The “military officials” were Melaris’s brother and his girlfriend, who toiled over the fake cadaver in a London apartment; the internal organs came from local butcher shops. To fool employees at Kodak, who had been asked to examine the film to authenticate its age, Melaris spliced it on top of an old newsreel. It was, he said, a hoax he had grown to regret.
The admission didn’t cause much of a ripple, though UFO devotees had long asserted sensationalistic programming of this sort hurt legitimate inquiries into alien visitation. Santilli, for his part, never offered any kind of confession, though he did state in 2006 that the film distributed by Fox and other networks was his reconstruction of an actual alien autopsy film from 1947 that had degraded. (The admission came as Santilli was promoting Alien Autopsy, a mockumentary about the footage, lending the entire story an additional layer of meta confusion.)
“What we did was restore the original footage frame-by-frame over a very long period of time,” Santilli said. “We set about a program that was just simply restoring what was very damaged film. The footage that we had at the end of it was something that we thought was compelling so we decided to market it worldwide. We weren’t selling it to the broadcasters as fact. We simply said, ‘Look, it’s your decision. You can broadcast it whether you think it’s real or not. We’ll take the video rights. You can have the broadcast rights.’ … They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars investigating the footage that we supplied, and they couldn’t come up with an answer. What we did was a restoration. It wasn’t a hoax. It was a carefully constructed restoration of the original work.”
Whatever the true origin of the footage was, it certainly didn’t escape the attention of Dr. Dana Scully. In an episode that aired late in 1995, Anderson’s The X-Files character was shown an alien autopsy video, which she declared to Mulder was “even hokier than the one they aired on the Fox network.”