Aug. 16, 2013 at 3:55 PM ET
Call it Area 51, call it Groom Lake, call it Paradise Ranch or Dreamland. Ever since the mysterious Nevada desert test facility was established in the 1950s, Hollywood has called it a gift.
Need a spooky spot where your film protagonists can be captured or murdered? Area 51 welcomes you. "Paranormal Activity" director Oren Peli's much-delayed "Area 51" film, now supposedly due out in November, is just the latest movie to see the potential of the creepy desert setting. (Three friends decide to sneak into the mysterious location in 2001. Since the film claims to contain the last known footage of them, you can guess that it doesn't end well.)
Need a throwaway joke about a carefully guarded place in the middle of nowhere? Little Lisa Simpson took the wrong bus once on "The Simpsons," ending up at what she thought was Area 51, but turned out to be Area 51-A (motto: "YOU ARE HERE. WE ARE NOT.")
Want to explain where your movie's aliens have been hanging out for the past 60 years? Of course, they've been living at Area 51 ever since crash-landing in Roswell, N.M., in 1947, just like "Paul," the title character in Simon Pegg's 2011 big-screen comedy.
In the 1996 film "Independence Day," which won an Oscar for its White House-exploding special effects, the president and military who survive the initial alien attack head to Area 51 with an injured alien. And in a memorable two-part episode of TV's "The X-Files," agents Mulder and Scully travel to Area 51, where I-want-to-believe Mulder finds his personality swapped with that of a government agent.
"Everybody kind of knows this legend, that there's this secret facility where (the government's) been keeping (aliens)," film critic and author Daniel M. Kimmel told NBC News. "Area 51 has become a kind of shorthand for the things the government knows about that we don't."
Kimmel, the author of "Jar Jar Binks Must Die... and other Observations about Science Fiction Movies," notes that the facts about the Nevada location matter less today than its infamous pop-culture reputation. So even though a newly declassified CIA history says the location was a spot to study spy planes, not little green men, don't count on that affecting our Hollywood-nurtured beliefs.
"Nothing that's said is going to explain anything if you want to believe these crazy stories," Kimmel said. "Don't confuse me with the facts!"
The declassified document itself doesn't really come right out and prove our disprove our favorite beliefs. Sure, it explicitly uses the name "Area 51," which was usually blacked out or replaced with terms such as "Groom Lake" in previous government documents. But unsurprisingly, there's no mention of Roswell aliens, or bizarre government experiments, or dissections such as that shown in the hoax depicted in the 1995 Fox program, "Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction."
The Area 51 disclosure generated only a moderate amount of buzz on the Above Top Secret discussion board, which delves into UFOs and other related topics. Bill Irwin, CEO of The Above Network, summarized the discussion: “The general feeling is pretty much in line with how our members felt about (Edward) Snowden and the whistleblowing at the NSA: ‘See? We told you so.’"
Irwin says there’s a group of hard-core Area 51 aficionados who regularly check in on Google Earth and other satellite imagery sites. “They literally take screenshots and compare them, even the location of bushes, and there hasn’t been any significant changes for the past couple of years.”
The general feeling is that if the federal government is openly discussing Area 51, that means “nothing secret is going on there anymore,” Irwin said.
Kimmel, whose novel "Shh! It's A Secret" imagines what would happen if Hollywood made a movie starring a real alien, thinks Area 51 and its supposed aliens play a valuable role in America's understanding of itself.
"Inevitably, stories where humans encounter beings from other worlds are really about us, not them," he wrote in an essay for Clarkesworld magazine. "Often it's about the ways we deal with people we view as 'other.' If, at times, viewers become caught up in the lives of the alien characters, it's because they, too, are being used to tell us something about the human condition."
-- Science editor Alan Boyle contributed to this article.